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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

What's In a Name?

Sorry about the long hiatus! I'll try to finish up a couple of points from last week and then we'll move on to this week.

In the verses we quoted in the last posting, we saw three names of God:

1)    יקוק The four letter name of God
2)    א-להים E-lohim
3)    א-ל ש-די Eil Shaddai

Note: Because of the holiness of God's four letter name in particular, it is not written out properly (which would find the letter ה where I have substituted the letter ק)  except when written in a Torah scroll,  or printed in a book of learning or a siddur where it is unlikely that it will be defaced. The sages learned from the Torah that God's name, once written, must never be erased, even partially. For essentially the same reason, I have modified the writing of the other names of God mentioned in our passage by placing a hyphen between letters.

In classic biblical criticism, at least the little I know, the first two names on this list are used by two different authors of the Torah. Very nifty but that doesn't explain much about the meanings of the names as used in the context of our verses.

In Chapter 6:1 God addresses Moshe as יקוק. Immediately after in the next verse, God addresses Moshe as א-להים but explains to Moshe that He is יקוק.  This is a bit odd for two reasons I can see right off:

1)    If He is indeed יקוק then why doesn't He speak to Moshe as יקוק? The verse says that א-להים spoke to Moshe, not יקוק.
2)    God already told Moshe that He is יקוק back in Exodus 3:15. In fact, He tells Moshe that “this is My name forever and this is My rememberance from generation to generation.”

God then goes on to tell Moshe that He appeared to the Patriarchs with “Eil Shaddai” whereas the name יקוק he did not 'make manifest' to them. This is also a bit odd as God spoke to each of the Patriarchs using the name יקוק.

The midrash and the commentaries all deal with these issues as well as the issues I brought up in the last posting.

For today, I just want to point out that the Torah here (and elsewhere!) makes a big deal about God's names. The notion that any name is significant is seen pretty early on in the Torah when God has Adam (Genesis 2:19,20) give names to the various animals He created. Later passages also attest to the significance of names. So it is understandable that God's names would be important, too.

We might ask, though, if God is singular and completely unique, why should He have more than one name?

More soon!


  1. I'm not sure God should be singular and unique in the way we percieve singularity. Even a coin, a man-made artefact, has two different sides, yet it's still a singular thing. So why should a singular and unique God not have many names, faces, moods and ways of operation?

  2. Yes! I agree. In fact, whereas other things and people in the Torah generally have one name, God has a multiplicity of names. The various names seem to reflect, then, the various aspects of God.

    Interestingly, if you look at people who had more than one name so far in the Torah, you will see Avram who became Avraham, Sarai who became Sarah. In those instances, the new name supplanted the old name. The implication, then, might be that people as such have one name at a time and that name reflects something about their intrinsic identity.

    The great exception is Yaakov who is also Yisrael. When he receives the latter name he doesn't lose the former. I would argue that at least one possible reason for this is that the name Yisrael comes to represent not just the Yisrael the individual, but the whole of the nation of Israel. In that sense, the names Yaakov and Yisrael give us pause to examine those two aspects of the man/nation as they exist simultaneously.

    Similarly, the various names of God exist simultaneously. However, what this passage at the beginning of Va'era seems to tell us is that we mere mortals cannot necessarily perceive all these names/aspects at once or maybe not even at all unless God reveals Himself in that/those way(s).