David J from Faith-Promoting Rumor has provided this Mormon Dummies’ Guide to the names of God in the Old Testament. Every Kool Kat has to know his El Shaddai’s from his El Elyon’s.
In the cultural milieu in which the OT was written, knowing the name of a person or thing opened up channels of communication between the two. The one who knows the name of a person or deity can appeal to that person or god.
Since the Achaemenid (Persian) period, the personal name of the God of Israel, Yahweh, has not been pronounced out loud both in liturgy and in every day life. Conservative Jews still respect the divine name (or tetragrammaton) and defer, instead, to the Hebrew word Adonai (Eng. “Lord”), or by spelling the tetragram (“yod-heh-waw-heh”) when reading the Hebrew Bible. This avoiding of speaking God’s name carried over into the LDS KJV (and many other modern English translations), wherein the word “LORD” in small caps is used where Yahweh is present in the underlying Hebrew text. The first occurrence of “Yahweh” in the OT is Genesis 2:4b, and was a major criterion in the Graf-Wellhausen documentary hypothesis. The English pronunciation “Jehovah” is a verbal aberration caused by the conglomeration of the vowel pointing from the Hebrew word “Adonai” and the (Latin) consonants for the tetragram: J-H-V-H. (The initial “a” vowel of “adonai” is reduced to a short “e” vowel due to the presence of the letter yod). Various manuscripts from these periods attest the authors’ respect for the tetragram through the use of hypocoristic forms of the name (Yahu, Yah, Yh).
The meaning of the name is unclear, but scholars have indicated that the meaning is not as pertinent as the characteristics attributed to the deity by worshipers. Despite the lack of clarity, the name probably derives from an imperfect finite verbal form from the Hebrew verb hyh (Eng., “to exist”) as evidenced from Ex. 3:14.
This is one of the oldest forms for the Semitic word for “God.” It is not a name per se, as it is generally accompanied with some form of additional identification, such as “El-Elohe-Israel” (Gen. 33:20), “El-Bethel” (Gen. 35:7), etc.
In Gen. 14:22, this name is identified with Yahweh, although this identification is probably after a long process of reform and literary activity. Deut. 32:8-9 has been problematic for many, and could indicate that El-Elyon was once the highest deity in the pantheon, and Yahweh was the chief deity assigned to the Israelites (Smith, 32-33). The two were later amalgamated into one, probably during times of reform under various Judean kings.
In short, the name means “God Almighty,” and shows up in Gen. 49:25 and other places. The problem of this divine name stems from Ex. 6:3, which again individuals like Graf and Wellhausen used as evidence for later editorial activity or differing sources in the text of the Hebrew Bible. They supposed that the name Yahweh, which is used in the Abraham narrative, would be anachronistic based on the Ex. 6:3, and so a later scribe must have added the name Yahweh to the earlier narratives, or added and then later weaved the sources together (much like the teeth on a zipper–the teeth are the documents, the zipping mechanism is the redactor). Conservatives generally explain the issue by stating that a later biographer might use the title “The President” when writing about Abraham Lincoln’s childhood, even though he was not the president yet. At times the name appears in conjunction with other divine names, as if to suggest the two are different (cf. Num. 24:16), however it may just be the use of two different names to discuss the same individual (polynomy).
In the Bible, it is generally not used as a name, but rather the Semitic word for “God” (with few exceptions). Indeed, Joseph Smith noted the curious form of the word–a masculine plural noun. It is important to note, however, that when this term is employed as the subject in the text of the Bible in reference to the God of the Hebrews, it always occurs with a singular verb. The noun sometimes refers to the “gods” (miniscule “g”) of other nations or people groups (Ex. 12:12), and is sometimes preceded by a definite article (Ex. 18:11), which one would not expect on a personal name. Various attempts have been made to explain why Israel would employ a plural noun to identify its singular God. That the term represents a plurality of majesty or power is probably a good speculation, but it is most likely used as an abbreviated form of a superlative: “the God of gods,” which fits very nicely into the way Israel viewed its God in comparison to the deities of the surrounding cultures (ie, theirs was the highest/best). The blending of Yahweh and Elohim in the material is ascribed (Gen. 2:4b-3:24), once again, to later editorial activity.
Mormon theology, on the other hand, is quite different from biblical theology in its uses of divine names. With respect to what occurs in sacred places, I will only mention that the divorce between Jehovah and Elohim is quite unique in Christianity, and therefore could be studied as something wholly apart from the Biblical model of divine nomenclature. For additional issues within Mormonism, Dave over at DMI has done the grunt work, and I recommend viewing the links he posted (cf. last paragraph).
- Hermann, W. “El.” Pages 274-280 in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. 2nd Ed. Edited by Karel Van der Toorn & W. Van der Horst. Grand Rapids: Brill, 1999.
- Rose, Martin. “Names of God in the OT.” Pages 1001-1011 in vol. 4 of The Anchor Bible Dictionary. 6 vols. Edited by David N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
- Smith, Mark S. The Early History of God: Yahweh and Other Deities in Ancient Israel. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1990, 2002.
- Van der Toorn, Karel. “Yahweh.” Pages 910-919 in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. 2nd Ed. Edited by Karel Van der Toorn & W. Van der Horst. Grand Rapids: Brill, 1999.
- Wurthwein, Ernst. The Text of the Old Testament. 2nd Ed. Trans. By Erroll F. Rhodes. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988, 1995.