What is God’s Name?

In the Garden of Eden, Adam is given the task of naming the animals over which he will rule. Parents name their children because we do not as infants have the ability to name anything and because it is given to parents to distinguish and recognise the child as theirs in the first instance.

But who names God? Surely only God himself can declare his own name.

And that’s how it is in the extraordinary story of Moses’ encounter with the burning bush – or rather, the bush which is aflame but does not burn (Exodus 3). It is not accidental that this bush is not consumed by the fire that is on it. It is a symbol of God’s self-sustaining life – that he derives from no source other than himself: which is also shown in his name, the name, the new name which he now discloses to Moses and thus to slave-nation who will become his people.

Moses, at this stage an exiled shepherd, approaches the bush with curiosity at first. Then a voice speaks to him from within this vision, identifying himself as the God of Moses’ ancestors:  “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6). This is an identity, but not much of a name. But there’s deep continuity with the past – this is the voice of God who made covenants with patriarchs.

But there is a development: the new name. Moses asks:

‘Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” Then what shall I tell them?’

God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: “I AM has sent me to you.”’ (Exodus 3:13-14, NIV)

What are we to make of this name – the name that God gives to himself? The Hebrew tenses operate in such a way as it can mean also ‘I will be who I will be’. It’s a Name linked to this particular moment in history when God declares himself to be yoked to Israel so that he might bring them out of Egypt and make them into a nation belonging to him. The Name – which takes the form YHWH (often transliterated ‘Yahweh’) in the Hebrew of the Bible, is a saving name.[1] It is the making of a promise to the people who he will lead out of slavery. [2]

In a way, the name rebuffs Moses’ question ‘what is his name?’ In the ancient world, people wanted to know the name of particular gods so that they could bind the gods to them. You could, by means of spells and incantations, control spiritual forces to some degree (so it was thought). It is not so with this one, who is known by the Name, YHWH. This Name tells us that the one bearing it will not be mastered or directed. He determines to be the God of Israel – they do not choose him or summons him. He is not at their beck and call. And yet, he promises that he will be present to them.

When finally, after the dreadful contest with Pharoah is finished, the people gather around Mt Sinai, and prepare to receive the YHWH’s Law, he appears again to Moses and again says his Name:

And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.’ (Exodus 34:6-7, NIV)

This exposition of the divine name is given at the point at which Israel’s relationship with YHWH is about to be sealed by a covenant. YHWH’s name is a name that signals his determination to be a God of grace and compassion, love and faithfulness. This committed and determined love is not at odds with his justice. The Law that Israel is about to receive written on tablets of stone is a mark of the presence in their midst of this one, YHWH.

But this interaction with YHWH reveals another dimension of the Name. The Name was given to Israel alone amongst all the peoples. And they were about to enter a land that was to be given to them and not to others. Likewise, they were not have any other gods, but only YHWH. He says, “Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exodus 3:14). The Name signifies an exclusive relationship between God and Israel that was not to be compromised. This is intensified by the commandments which speak of preserving and hallowing the Name – not misusing the Name (Deuteronomy 5:11). The Name was to be hallowed and not desecrated. Worship of other gods was a profanation of the Name of YHWH. And Israel’s worship will not be focussed around the location of an image of YHWH (for these were forbidden) but in the place where “the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name” (Deuteronomy 12:11).

YHWH is a precious name to be revered and kept holy, but it is not a secret. In practice, Jews did not (and do not) say the Name aloud but refer to it obliquely. However, it is not hidden from the Gentiles, as if it were a secret code that they could misuse. His Name will be made known (Isaiah 12:4) to all nations. Every knee will bow to his Name alone (Isaiah 45:23). In this way, the promise inherent in the Name extends to the whole world. This Name, God’s own Name, will be the focal point for the worship of all the nations. His name is declared to be ‘majestic in all the earth’ (Psalm 8:1). Jesus prays: ‘Father, glorify your name!’ (John 12:28)

God’s Name represents his promise to be redemptively present with his people in the creation. In the New Testament, this theology of the Name is consummated in the gospel declaration that ‘Jesus is Lord’ (Phil 2:11, Rom 10:9-12, 1 Cor 12:3; see also Rom 1:1-5). Jesus, the risen and crucified Messiah, is declared ‘Lord’. This title is not simply a statement of his status and authority. It is a direct identification with the Name, YHWH. The one who is known as YHWH is present in Jesus to save his people and glorify his name in all the earth – whose name means ‘YHWH saves’. The New Testament authors, as readers of the Greek version of the New Testament, used the same word to describe Jesus that had been used to translate ‘YHWH’.

The identification of Jesus with YHWH is even more explicit in John’s gospel. Jesus says to the Jewish leaders, who are clearly appalled at the claim: Before Abraham was, I am! (John 8:58). YHWH is to be known in Jesus, on whom the flame of God’s Holy Spirit rests, like the burning bush of old. But it is not simply the case that “Jesus is YHWH”. Paul says that Jesus has been given ‘the name which is above every name’ (in Philippians 2:9). Paul does not say the Name, but by not saying the Name he makes it clear what Name it is! This is a very Jewish way to reverence the Name. The Father bestows his Name upon the Son. Although he doesn’t reference the Spirit here, the Spirit is the one by whom Jesus is confessed as ‘Lord’ (1 Corinthians 12:3).[3] Jesus bears the divine Name, a Name that speaks of three divine persons. YHWH is known in Jesus Christ.

That is to say: the New Testament speaks of YHWH by teaching us about the Trinity – the three divine persons who are one in being. YHWH is revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. At the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus commissions his disciples to baptise the nations ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 28:16-20). Christians know YHWH – the speak to him and of him – according to this threefold name.


[1] Many English translations use the formula ‘The LORD’ when translating YHWH. This follows the pattern set by the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint. In the Septuagint, YHWH was translated as the Greek word ‘Kurios’, which means ‘Lord’. This possibly is because the Jews became accustomed to say their word for ‘Lord’, ‘Adonai’, whenever the word YHWH was written, out of respect for the Name. This was reflected in the scribal practice of writing the Name in a special way, too – either by using a different font or by using a different coloured ink or by replacing it with four dots. The scribes who copied the New Testament preserved that habit by abbreviating the Greek names for God, Lord, Jesus, and Christ – so that these names stood out on the page. It was clear that the scribes saw Christian faith as faith in the same divinity that was encountered in the Old Testament. R. Kendall Soulen, The Divine Names and the Holy Trinity: Distinguishing the Voices, (Westminster John Knox, 2011) pp. 36-37

[2] For much of what follows see Gerhard Von Rad, Old Testament Theology.

[3] R Kendall Soulen, p. 11

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