God is described in the Bible as Y-h-v-h, which is called “the Tetragrammaton,” meaning a four-letter word.
Many think the Tetragrammaton is God’s name, but this is not true. It is a description of how God functions in the universe, an abbreviated version of Exodus 3:14.
When God first appeared to Moses and told him to speak to the enslaved Israelite, Moses asks God in 3:13, the people “will say to me, ‘What is His name?’ what should I say to them?” God replies in verse 14, “‘I am that I am’; and He said: ‘Say this to the Israelites, “I am” sent me to you.”
Various interpretations have been given to God’s reply. Rashi, for example, states that God is saying, I will be with them in this and future troubles. Virtually all the interpretations understand that God is not giving Moses a name, like Joe or Sam, but is describing how God functions.
From ancient times, we do not know how ancient, the Israelites felt that it is disrespectful to mention this word.
The earliest way that we know Jews avoided using the Tetragrammaton occurred around 250 BCE when the Jews in Egypt translated the Bible into Greek. They did not place the Tetragrammaton on the Greek translation, but substituted the Greek word Kurios, which means “Lord.” Either before or after 250, Jews used a Hebrew version of Kurios, Adonai, which also means “Lord.”
Although Adonai was used to avoid saying the Tetragrammaton, and while Jews have no problem using its English translation “Lord,” Jews soon began to treat the word as they treated the Tetragrammaton, avoid saying it whenever possible. They invented a new circumlocution Hashem, The Name. They show respect for God by not saying Adonai, by substituting Hashem in their speech and writings. They even take another step, when they need to use God in their writings, they also write it as G-d.
The Tetragrammaton still appears in Torah scrolls, but the practice is to read it as Adonai when the Torah is read.
The word “Elohim” is also not a name of God. When a Midrash states that when the Torah uses the Tetragrammaton, it indicates that God is merciful but when it uses Elohim it is saying that God is acting toward people with justice, not mercy, this is a good midrash, a nice parable, bit it is not true. These are not the meanings of the words. The midrash is simply telling us that we should not expect God to always treat us kindly. If our behavior justifies punishment, God will act with justice, we will be punished. This, the midrash is stating, is part of the laws of nature. This is how the world works. We need to be careful; acts have consequences.
What then is the true meaning of Elohim? Elohim is the Hebrew for the English word God, but it is also used in other ways.
The basic meaning of el, the singular form of Elohim, is “powerful.” God and idols are called el because they are thought to be powerful. The plural Elohim is applied to God to indicate the most powerful. It is used for people in Genesis 6:2 where benei elohim is powerful people, and in Exodus 21:6 and 22:8 where litigants must be bought to elohim, the word means judges.
It is even possible that Elohim in Genesis 1:2 does not mean God. The verse states, “Now the earth was tohu vavohu and darkness was upon the face of the tehom and the ruach Elohim hovered over the face of the waters.” The phrase ruach Elohim is usually translated “the spirit of God,” but is God’s spirit different from God? Furthermore why does the Bible tell us this? What does it have to do with the other items that were present? Actually the basic definition of ruach is “wind” and elohim is someone or something special or powerful, and God, as we said, is called Elohim in the plural because God is more special and more powerful than anything else. Therefore, it is possible that the proper translation is “a strong wind.”