By Israel Drazin                    

 

Most people do not try to understand the definition of words, have wrong ideas of their intent, and are kept from knowing what they should know. “God” is a good example. People don’t try to know what the word means, and since they don’t know what it means, it conjures up an anthropomorphic and anthropopathic being.[1] They use “he” to describe the deity and picture “him” acting as humans act with human emotions. Actually “God” and all other terms used to describe the deity do not imply an anthropomorphic and anthropopathic being.[2]

The modern English word God[3] is derived from a root meaning to call. It focuses on human activity and indicates their object of worship, what people call upon for help.[4] It doesn’t describe the essence of the deity. However, the ancient term for the deity used in many ancient cultures around Israel, before the birth of Abraham, does focus on the essence of the deity and is the basis for the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim understanding.[5]

The ancients used El, which means “powerful”; the deity is a powerful force that can perform all kinds of good acts. Abraham met with Melchizedek king of Salem in Genesis 14, who called his deity “el elyon,” the “highest power.” The Torah uses a similar term “Elohim,” a plural form of “El” indicating “the most powerful.”[6]

Christianity and Islam retained this understanding of God.[7] Islam’s Allah is a form of El.

People think that the biblical y-h-v-h is God’s name,[8] as someone might call his son Joey. This is untrue. Y-h-v-h is a word that describes God’s essence. In Exodus 3:13-15, Moses asks God what is God’s name.[9] God replies e’ye asher e’ye. Rashi explains that God is revealing something about the divine essence, “I will be with them (the Israelites) in this trouble (their slavery) and with them in future troubles.” The deity continues by saying that God was with the Israelite ancestors, “This is my name forever and this is my memorial for all generations.” E’ye and y-h-v-h have the same root which means “being,” God is what was and what will be.

When Jews translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek[10] they felt that it was inappropriate to place y-h-v-h in the Greek document[11] so they used curios, Lord.[12] This practice was continued afterwards and explains why Jews say Adonai, Hebrew for Lord, instead of y-h-v-h.[13] When vowels were added to the Hebrew Bible,[14] Jews felt that while they would retain the letters y-h-v-h in the Bibles, all of which are consonants, they should not reveal how the consonants are pronounced, so they placed the consonants of Adonai under y-h-v-h. As a result, we do not know today how to pronounce y-h-v-h, but we do know that it is not Jehovah.[15]

In summary, an examination of the “names” of the deity reveals that God has no “name,” and the so-called names are expressions that indicate that the deity, at least in the minds of those who developed the terms El and y-h-h-v-h, is a powerful force.[16]



[1] Anthropomorphism is the application of human attributes to something that is not human: an anthropomorphic God is a deity with a human form who acts like humans. An example is “the right hand of God.” Anthropopathic is ascribing human emotions to God, such as anger. Maimonides taught that God is not anthropomorphic or anthropopathic; God has no human form and emotion. The Torah describes God anthropomorphically and anthropathically because, as the second century Rabbi Ishmael taught “The Torah speaks in human language,” so that humans can understand. It is useful, for example, to teach that God becomes angry when people act improperly, to frighten them so that they cease doing wrong.

[2] One of Moses Maimonides’ goals in the twelfth century was to persuade Jews that God is neither anthropomorphic nor anthropopathic. He was only partially successful. A prominent rabbi of his time, Ravad, harshly criticized him and said that far smarter men than he knew that God has a body. Today, many Jews recognize that God has no body but still think God has emotions.

[3] Other modern languages are similar: German “got,” Iceland “Godh.”

[4] John D. Davis, A Dictionary of the Bible.

[5] Contrary to what people think, all of the so-called Jewish “names” of God describe the essence of God and are not names.

[6] Elohim is also used for powerful humans. Genesis 6:2’s benei elohim is not “sons of God” but “sons of mighty (people).” Exodus 21:6 “bring the person to elohim” does not suggests bringing him to God, but to judges.

[7] While retaining this understanding for “God the father,” Christianity later developed the concept of the Son and Holy Ghost, which have a totally different role in their theology.

[8] This word is usually written Jehovah. It begins with a J rather than a Y or I because there was an old practice of transliterating the Hebrew letter yud as a J, such as Yerushalayim became Jerusalem, Yehudi Jew, and Yeshu Jesus. Not all yuds were rendered with a J, such as Israel and Isaiah.

[9] “Name” is frequently used in the Torah to indicate “essence” or “power,” as in modern English when one says, I will make a name for myself, meaning, I will improve.

[10] In a book called Septuagint, based on the legend that it was composed in Egypt around 250 BCE by 72 scribes, six from each of the Jewish twelve tribes.

[11] It is also possible that they simply couldn’t figure out how to render y-h-v-h in Greek.

[12] The ancient Phoenicians called their deity Baal, which means lord, master, and possessor. Scholars believe that the name spread to other cultures. The term is found frequently for idols in the Torah. It is used in modern Hebrew, to indicate a husband (a custom frowned upon by many since it means master) and possession as in baal hachanut, store owner.

[13] The Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 50a, mandates that y-h-v-h should not be read as written but should be read as Adonai. Many Jews have gone beyond this and even refuse to write God, substituting G-d, using Elokim for Elohim, keil for el, and Hashem, the Name, for Adonai.

[14] By the Masorites during the second half of the first millennia CE.

[15] Many Israelites inserted an abbreviation of y-h-v-h into their names to show their loyalty and love of God. Apparently the first to do so was Moses’ Mother Yocheved, spelled with a J in English, Jochebed, Exodus 6:20. Moses added the Y to Joshua’s name, changing it from Hosea to Yehoshua, with the yud becoming a J in the transliteration, Numbers 13:16. A midrash in the Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 34, suggests that foreseeing that the spies would have difficulty in their exploration of Canaan, Moses added God to his name to give him strength.

[16] This discussion raises the question: Is this deism, theism, pantheism? One could argue that it does. Some say that Baruch Spinoza came to the conclusion that God is the totality of nature, a pantheistic notion. Others do not read Spinoza in this way. Judaism is not theism or deism. It identifies God with the Torah and teaches that God wants Jews to obey the Torah.