The Jewish God is not merely a philosophical concept, a final cause which explains the existence of the universe. He is a personal God, the true hero of the biblical stories, and the guide and mentor of His Chosen People. As such He has a proper name. In the Hebrew scriptures that name is written as JHWH, since Hebrew script originally contained no vowels. God’s name was almost certainly pronounced in early times, but by the third century BCE the consonants were regarded as so sacred that they were never articulated. Instead, the convention was to read the letters as Adonai, which means “Lord.” Thus in English translations of the Hebrew text, JHWH is never written as a proper name, but as “the Lord.”
JHWH is explained in the book of Exodus as “I am Who I am” and it is clearly derived from the old Hebrew verb HWH which means “to be.” The term “Jehovah” was introduced by Christian scholars. It is merely JHWH pronounced with the vowel of Adonai, thus making JeHoWaH. It is a hybrid and is not usually used by Jews. Over the course of time, even the title Adonai was regarded as too awesome to represent the four letters of God’s name and today most Orthodox Jews use [the term] HaShem, which simply means “the Name.”
Terms for God are treated with the greatest reverence. Among the strictly traditional, even English translations are perceived as too holy to write and today the custom is to inscribe G‑d, the L‑rd and even the Alm‑ghty. This carefulness is explained and justified by the prohibition in the Ten Commandments: “You shall not take the name of JHWH your God in vain; for JHWH will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain” (Exodus 20:7).
In ancient times the term Adonai was not just used for God. It was a common mode of address to kings, slave‑masters, and even by wives to husbands. The “i” at the end signifies “my” and, in fact, Adonai is a plural form so it literally means “my lords.” In many verses of scripture and in the liturgy, God is spoken of as JHWH (pronounced Adonai) Eloheynu, which means “the Lord our God.”
In the Bible, God has many other names. He is often described as Elohim, which simply means God. It is in fact, like Adonai, a plural form and is also, on occasions, used to refer to the pagan gods. When referring to the One Jewish God, the form Ha‑Elohim (the God) is often employed. Various conjectures have been made as to why a plural noun should be used to designate the unity of the One God. It has been suggested that it is a final remnant of archaic polytheistic beliefs, or even that it indicates the importance of the deity, as in the “royal we.” Most scholars, however, think that it was taken from the Canaanite language. The Canaanites were the indigenous people of the land of Israel and they seem frequently to have addressed their individual gods as “my gods.”
The Canaanite word for god was El. This is not used often in the Bible except when it is coupled with another title. God is sometimes called El Elyon, literally God Most High. So the Psalmist declares, “I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart…I will sing praises to Thy name O Most High” (Psalm 9:1‑2) and “Let them know that Thou alone whose name is JHWH art the Most High over all the world” (Psalm 83:18). Like the term Elohim, this title was taken over from the Canaanites who traditionally described El Elyon as the lord of all the gods. When the Jews took possession of the Promised Land, it was natural enough for them also to adopt this title for their One God.
Similar borrowings occurred with El Olam (the Everlasting God) and El Shaddai (the Almighty God). The book of Genesis describes the patriarch Abraham calling God El Olam at the shrine of Beersheba: “Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba and called there on the name of JHWH, the Everlasting God” (21:3). Similarly, when Abraham attained the age of ninety‑nine, JHWH appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty, walk with me and be blameless” (17:1). In both instances there are clear Canaanite connections. Beersheba was almost certainly an old pagan shrine and, when God revealed Himself as El Shaddai, He was promising the patriarch that the land of Canaan (the Promised Land) was to be given to his descendants forever.
It is notable that even today many Hebrew personal names incorporate the names of God. Daniel, Michael, Elisha, Israel, and Ezekiel are all built round El. Elijah uses both El and JHWH while Adonijah grows from JHWH and Adonai. The same is true of many modern Israeli surnames, as in that of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, which is clearly derived from the proper name of God.
Reprinted with permission from A Short Introduction to Judaism , published by Oneworld Publications.