Names of God found in the Old Testament
By: Tristany Corgan
A person’s name can tell us a lot about who they are. If you see the name Dr. Brown, you know that that person has pursued higher education and graduated with a doctoral degree. If that person also goes by Professor Brown, you learn that this person works for a university, spending their days teaching students and grading papers. If you find that this professor is a Mrs. Brown, you discover not only that she is a woman, but also that she is married. And if you hear her called “Mom,” you realize that Dr. Brown is also a mother. These names—Dr. Brown, Professor Brown, Mrs. Brown, and Mom—all refer to the same person, yet each name tells you a little something different about her.
It’s the same with God. As we read and study our Bibles, we come across many different names used to talk about God. While these names are quite different from each other, they all refer to the same God, the God of the Universe, the only true and faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with His people (Deuteronomy 7:9). But each of these names tells us a little something different about Him, and together they give us a better, fuller picture of who our God is. Three of the most common names used in the Old Testament are God (Elohim), Lord (Adonai), and LORD (Yahweh).
Elohim is one of most common names of God in the Old Testament. The word is translated as “God,” and it is used over 2,500 times in the Hebrew Bible, including in the very first verse – “In the beginning, [Elohim] created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1, ESV) This name of God emphasizes His greatness and power and also shows Him to be our creator, sustainer, and judge. (1) David surely understood this when he wrote, “O, let the evil of the wicked come to an end, and may you establish the righteous—you who test the minds and hearts, O righteous [Elohim]!” (Psalm 7:9)
Something interesting about this name for God is that Elohim is actually a plural term. What is so significant about this detail? The name Elohim points us to God’s trinitarian nature. Our trinitarian God is three persons—God the Father, God the Son (Jesus Christ), and God the Holy Spirit. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct persons, but they are all the one true God. So, when we read about Elohim, it’s a reminder that all three persons of the Trinity are at work.
While “God” is probably the most common name we use to refer to the One whom we worship and serve, this is not His personal name. In fact, the term elohim is also used in Scripture to refer to human rulers and false gods. (2) When speaking about humans, Asaph wrote in Psalm 82, “I said, ‘You are [elohim], sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince.” (vv. 6-7). Moses, speaking to the Israelites, declared, “And the LORD will scatter you among the peoples, and you will be left few in number among the nations where the LORD will drive you. And there you will serve [elohim] of wood and stone, the work of human hands, that neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell.” (Deuteronomy 4:27-28).
Now, this does not mean that we can no longer call Him “God” or “Elohim.” This name is still a great reminder of His greatness. However, it also serves as a reminder to always pay attention to biblical context.
Adonai is another common name for God in the Old Testament. The term translates as “Lord,” and it highlights the authority, power, and influence our God has. He is our master and our ruler, and this name is like a title of respect. (3) As Israel crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land, Joshua proclaimed, “Behold, the ark of the covenant of the [Adonai] of all the earth is passing over before you into the Jordan.” (Joshua 3:11) Like Elohim, Adonai is also a plural word, which again points us to God’s trinitarian nature. (4)
This name for God is also like Elohim in that it is also used to refer to humans in the Bible. (5) In 1 Samuel, David called King Saul adonai: “Afterward David also arose and went out of the cave, and called after Saul, ‘My [adonai] the king!’ And when Saul looked behind him, David bowed with his face to the earth and paid homage.” (1 Samuel 24:8) Again, this does not mean that we cannot call God “Lord” or “Adonai,” for they still remind us that He is our sovereign King, the King of kings. Yet, we also see that Adonai is not our Lord’s personal name either. If Elohim and Adonai are not God’s personal name, then what is?
God’s personal name is Yahweh, and He introduces Himself as this in the Burning Bush: “God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ And He said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel: ‘[Yahweh] has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:14) As Yahweh, God is the great I Am—the One who was, the One who is, and the One who always will be (Revelation 1:8). This name highlights God’s self-existence, self-sufficiency, and eternality.
In Hebrew, God’s name was actually spelled YHWH, which is called the tetragrammaton (which means “four letters”). This is because the Hebrew alphabet does not contain any vowels. Also, this name was considered unsayable, for anyone who took this name in vain would have received the death penalty, according to Jewish Law: “Whoever blasphemes the name of [Yahweh] shall surely be put to death.” (Leviticus 24:16a) When the Jews would read the scriptures, they would substitute YHWH for Adonai to ensure they never misused the personal name of God. Therefore, scholars even to this day do not really know how to pronounce YHWH. The name is typically pronounced Yahweh (whose vowels came from Adonai or Elohim), and some have even translated the name as Jehovah. (6)
Many people in the Old Testament actually combined Yahweh with another word to reflect their personal experience with God and further describe His character and nature. To Abraham, He was Yahweh Jireh, the LORD who provides (Genesis 22:14). To Moses, He was Yahweh Rapha, the LORD who heals (Exodus 15:26). To Gideon, He was Yahweh Shalom, the LORD who brings peace (Judges 6:24). To David, He was Yahweh Raah, the LORD who shepherds us (Psalm 23:1). And to many people throughout the Old Testament, He was Yahweh Sabaoth, the LORD of hosts (Isaiah 47:4).
What’s in a Name?
A name tells us a lot, and God’s names tell us a lot about Him, who He is, and what He does. He is Elohim—the triune creator, the powerful sustainer, and the great judge. He is Adonai, our sovereign King, our master who is worthy of our respect and fear. He is Yahweh, the One who has always existed and will always exist for all eternity. He is our provider, our healer, our peace, our shepherd, and the commander of angel armies. He is God, and He loves and cares for His people. Next time you’re reading through the Old Testament, pay attention to what names of God are used and the significance of those names in the narrative and remember to praise and glorify God for who He is.
1. “What is the meaning of the word Elohim?”, Got Questions, accessed June 15, 2021, https://www.gotquestions.org/meaning-of-Elohim.html.
3. “What is the meaning of the word Adonai?”, Got Questions, accessed June 16, 2021, https://www.gotquestions.org/meaning-of-Adonai.html.
4. Don Stewart, “What Does the Hebrew Term Adonai Stand For?”, Blue Letter Bible, accessed June 16, 2021, https://www.blueletterbible.org/faq/don_stewart/don_stewart_1304.cfm.
5. “What is the meaning of the word Adonai?”, Got Questions, accessed June 16, 2021, https://www.gotquestions.org/meaning-of-Adonai.html.
6. “What is YHWH?”, Got Questions, accessed June 18, 2021, https://www.gotquestions.org/YHWH-tetragrammaton.html.
Tristany lives in sunny central Florida. She graduated in May 2021 with her master’s degree in Biblical Exposition from Liberty University, and she works at a local Christian non-profit. She is an avid reader, amateur photographer, and self-proclaimed theology nerd, and she loves flowers, oldies music, and going to Disney World. Tristany has a passion for encouraging women to know and love the Word of God, and she writes about the Bible and theology regularly at tristanycorgan.com.