The whole Bible is a single, unified text with theological coherence. In it the one supreme and true God, the God who has forever known himself as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, reveals himself to his people in personal self-disclosure. The initial five books of the Bible, called the Torah, are the foundational texts for understanding God’s self-revelation throughout the Scriptures. In the Pentateuch, God’s nature and character are revealed through the names by which he gives himself to be known. The God of the Bible is the God who names himself! In the act of naming himself, the God of Israel, whom Jesus taught his disciples to call Abba, is distinguished both from the deity of philosophical speculation and from the gods of polytheistic religion.
The Old Testament is filled with anthropomorphic images and analogies for God, each of which imparts some aspect of God’s majesty and power as well as how he relates to his people. For example, God is referred to as a shepherd (Ps 23:1), a physician (Exod 15:26), a bridegroom (Isa 61:10), a father (Deut 32:6), and even a mother (Isa 66:13)—though God is never directly addressed as “Mother”—a friend (Exod 33:11), a husband (Isa 54:5; Jer 3:14), a prosecuting attorney (Jer 2:9), and so on. The Bible also describes God’s activities in terms of human body parts: a face (Exod 33:20), eyes (Ps 11:4), ears (Ps 55:1), nose (Deut 33:10), mouth (Deut 8:3), hands (Num 11:23), and a heart (Gen 6:6). He is said to be capable of smelling, tasting, hearing, laughing, sitting down, walking. God is also compared to various animals including the lion (Isa 31:4), the eagle (Deut 32:11), and the lamb (Isa 53:7), as well as inanimate objects such as a rock (Deut 32:4), a tower (Prov 18:10), a shield (Ps 84:11), and a shadow (Ps 91:1).
It would be a mistake, however, to assume that God is to be equated with any of these creaturely realities. To do so would be to lapse into idolatry. God is like a rock in some ways—sturdy, steadfast, no lightweight pebble that can be blown about in a windy storm—but it would be ludicrous to ask whether God is a sedimentary rock or an igneous rock! Herman Bavinck reminds us that “God is not named on the basis of that which is present in creatures, but creatures are named on the basis of that which exists in God.” Throughout the Bible, God accommodates himself to our limited capacity as finite and fallen creatures by revealing himself to us in human words—what other kind do we have? Carl F. H. Henry used the word stoops to describe this self-condescension of God.
The fact that God has a name means that he is intrinsically personal and can never be equated with the utterly transcendent god of deism and neoplatonism, nor with the utterly immanent god of pantheism and Buddhism. Nor is he the impotent, ever-shifting, completely contingent god of process theology, the god Heraclitus long ago described as “day-night, winter-summer, war-peace, satiety-hunger—he changes his fire mixed with spices named for the scent of each.” All of these views present ultimate reality as a that, but in the Bible God is not “that thou art” but rather “he who is.”
The God of the Bible has left “a trail of language behind a stormy path of historical activities” (Thomas Oden). Here we are confronted not with “the awful Unnamable of this universe,” as Thomas Carlyle described an ultimately anonymous deity, but rather with the living God who allows himself to be known and named. Loyalty to the name of God is at the heart of biblical faith, as can be seen from hundreds of references to “the name of God” and “the name of the Lord” throughout the Bible, including: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Exod 20:7 NKJV; emphasis added); “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Ps 8:1); “Glorify the Lord with me; let us exalt his name together” (Ps 34:3); “And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Joel 2:32; Rom. 10:13); “The Lord will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one Lord, and his name the only name” (Zech 14:9); “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” (Matt 6:9). What theologians call the attributes of God are best understood as an extrapolation of the names of God.
Among the names of God revealed in the Torah are Elohim, the first name of God we encounter in the Bible (Gen 1:1; also Gen 1:26, “Let us make man in our image”); El, the generic semitic name for God, which can be translated “the strong and mighty one,” corresponding to theos in Greek, deus in Latin, and allah in Arabic; El Shaddai, “God Almighty” or better “God the All-Sufficient,” pantokratōr in the New Testament (2 Cor 6:18; Rev 1:8; 4:8); El Roy, “The One who sees me,” from the lips of Hagar, (Gen 16:13); El Olam, “the everlasting God” (Gen 21:33); Yahweh, God’s personal proper name which occurs some 6,000 times; Yah, a shortened form of Yahweh (Exod 15:2; 17:16), often used in various combinations: “Yahweh is salvation” (Josh 1:1), “Yahweh is glory” (Num 26:59), “Yahweh will provide” (Gen 22:14), “Yahweh my banner” (Exod 17:15–16), “Yahweh our righteousness” (Jer 23:6; 33:16).
As God’s personal proper name, Yahweh is different from all of the other names for God in the Bible in one important respect: Elohim and all of its cognates can be used generically to refer to pagan deities and false gods, as we have seen, but this is never the case with Yahweh. So special was this name to the Jews that following the Babylonian captivity they would not pronounce it orally but simply wrote the four Hebrew consonants YHWH, called the Tetragrammaton, literally, the “four-hyphen letter” word. Whenever the rabbis came across this sacred name in the text, they substituted another word, Adonai, which was translated in the Septuagint and the New Testament as kurios. The translators of the KJV rendered this as “the Lord,” using all capitals.
What does the name Yahweh mean? We first learn the answer to this question by paying attention to God’s encounter with Moses at the burning bush. There, on the backside of the desert, Moses first saw something—something highly unusual, indeed unique: a bush ablaze with a perpetual flame, a bush that did not burn up. Next Moses heard something—a voice calling out from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!” The voice commanded Moses to remove his shoes and then identified himself as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At God’s command, Moses removed his shoes and also hid his face, for he was afraid. Moses had entered a realm of high voltage, and this tells us something important about the nature of the God who is about to reveal his personal name. He is neither a God to be trifled with nor approached in a casual, flippant manner, nor sidled up to as one might fraternize with a chum at a football game. For this God is holy, and holiness demands a response of reverence, awe, and wonder.
In response to God’s announcement that he was sending Moses to deliver the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt, Moses asked two questions. First, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh?” God never answered this question directly, for it was ultimately irrelevant to the mission Moses had been given. Instead, God made a promise: “I will be with you.” In response to the second question, “Who shall I say sent me, what is his name?”
God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation.” (Exod 3:14–15; cf. 34:6-8)
Yahweh is a form of the Hebrew word “to be”: hayah. It may also be translated, “I will be who I will be,” or, as Brevard Childs renders it, “I am there, wherever it may be—I am really there.” The God who spoke to Moses from the burning bush is none other than the God of creation, the God of the patriarchs, the God of the promises, the one who was, who is, and who will forever be. Shortly after his conversion, Augustine reflected on the reality of the God whom Moses met on the far side of the desert—He Who Is—in the form of an extended prayer to the Lord:
Oh God, from whom to be turned is to fall;
To whom to be turned is to rise;
From whom to depart is to die;
To whom to return is to revive;
In whom to dwell is to live.
Whom no man loses unless he be deceived,
Whom no man seeks unless he has been admonished,
Whom no man finds unless he has been cleansed.
Whom to abandon is to perish,
To reach out to whom is to love,
To see whom is true possession.
Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. A version of this article originally appeared in chapter four, “The Nature of God: Being, Attributes, and Acts” in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: Broadman, 2014, rev. ed.).