“Tough Theological Questions: What is the Name of God?”

January 25, 2015


Robin McGonigle

University Congregational Church

Jan. 25, 2014


“Tough Theological Questions: What is the Name of God?”

I Cor. 8:5-6


Names are important.  When Eric and I considered names for our children, we gave much thought to the meaning and symbolism of each name.  For example, our daughter, Erin, is a mix of our names: “er” from Eric; “in” from Robin.  Names have stories and names have meaning.


Paul interrupts.  We talk about the meaning of our names.


We all have names that distinguish us from others.  Even if our name is a common name and we share it with others, the name still has personal significance.


When someone calls your name or uses it when speaking to you, it is an affirmation that they know you.  And if someone calls you the wrong name or goes out of the way to avoid using your name, it is de-personalizing.  That is because the spoken word creates reality for us.


That’s why the name of God has so much power!  It isn’t that the Divine needs a name.  It’s that we need to give God a name in order to talk about God.  Each name and pronoun we use to describe God paints a picture of our idea of God, because names have power.  In fact, says Lisa Davison, from Phillips Theological Seminary, “All ‘isms in our world have a root in how we imagine God.”  That’s powerful!


The major religious traditions all give a name (or multiple names) to God.  Each name has a story and a meaning.  Yet, we too often fall into the trap of the old story of the blind people and the elephant (see bulletin).


First, let’s acknowledge that the word God is only the English name for God – and it actually came from the German word, Gott).


Muslims say that God’s name is Allah, which is an Arabic word.  They say that in addition to the name Allah, God has 99 other names.  What that means is that God is always more than we can know and more than we can say.


Judaism is like Islam in that it has many names for God.  Jews believe that we can’t ever pronounce the real name of God because God is too big to fit into just one name; that we can’t ever really know all about God; and also that God’s name is sacred and holy. To this day, if there is a place printed with a name for God, that piece of paper is to be treated with respect.


The 1st line in the 1st chapter of the Tao Te Ching says, “The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.  The name that can be named is not the eternal name.”  Taoists refuse to be pigeonholed into putting an absolute name on the Divine Mystery.


While Hindus have many deities, they are all ultimately manifestations of one supreme God: Brahman.  Some of the incarnations of Brahman include: Rama, Krishna, Buddha, and Durga.  Some Hindus believe that the spirit of God lives in everyone.


The Baha’i scriptures refer to God by various titles and attributes such as Gracious, All-Wise, and Incomparable.  Apart from these attribute-names, God is addressed by Baha’is in their local language.  Dieu in French; Dios in Spanish, Ishwar in Hindi, etc.


In our Bible, there are many names for God and attributes given to God.  Here are a few:


  • The Hebrew letters YHVH. Remember that Hebrew was written with no vowels, and the people did not pronounce the name of God.  So, the correct pronunciation of this name is unknown.  It is commonly referred to as Yahweh, which means the ineffable name.  It is associated with loving-kindness and mercy.
  • The first name used for God in scripture is Elohim. The same word is used to refer to princes, judges, other gods, and other powerful beings.  This name is used in the Bible when the story emphasizes God’s might, or attributes of justice and power.
  • God is also known as El Shaddai. This is typically translated “God Almighty”.
  • Some call God As in “Our Father, who art in heaven, Howard is your name.”  (Just checking to see if you were still awake!)
  • Ehyeh is also a sacred name for God. It is commonly translated “I am”.  This is a 1st person name, while Yahweh is in 3rd


There are different attributes given to God in the Bible.  Proverbs, among others, names God Sophia, the Goddess of Wisdom.  (Prov. 3, 4, 7)  Hosea (13:8) compares God to a mother bear while Deut. (32:11-12) and Exo. (19:4) compares God to a mother eagle.  God is also identified as a midwife, cook, seamstress, father, mother, shepherd, and many others.  Yet, these attributes are rolled up into traits of a single deity.


Some of these traits are used as adjectives before the name of God.  One example I want to explore with you is the Hebrew phrase ruach elohim.  We already talked about Elohim being a name associated with power and justice.  Ruach is the Hebrew word for breath.  The Bible tells us that at creation, God’s breath – the Ruach Elohim – hovered over the waters.  In order to create, God used breath.  Breath is the power of life.  One cannot have life without breath.  And breath is one of the adjectives of God.  When that poetic beginning of the gospel of John says “In the beginning was the Word.  And the Word was God….” It means that the way Jesus embodied God was through the word – the spoken breath of God – the Ruach Elohim.


Lisa Davison, a Hebrew scholar, in a seminar that I attended 2 weeks ago, taught that this means “when we breathe, we become life and breath for others.”

In the words we say and in the deeds we do, we use breath.  Through our breath, we have the opportunity to embody God as Jesus did.  As the writer of Acts said, “There is but one God in whom we live, and move and have our being.”

There you have it.  We have looked the some of the world’s major religions and their names for God.  Our text for today reminds us:

“There may be so-called gods both in heaven and on earth, and some people actually worship many gods and many lords. But for us,

There is one God, the Creator,
by whom all things were created,
and for whom we live.”    I Cor. 8:5-6


One God, understood in a variety of ways by each of us.  A God who is named with multiple names and many attributes in our tradition alone (and even more names in Hebrew and Arabic for Jews and Muslims).  Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong stated: “God is not a Christian, God is not a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist.  All of those are human systems which human beings have created to try to help us walk into the mystery of God.  I honor my tradition, I walk through my tradition, but I don’t think my tradition defines God.  I think it only points me to God.”


Simply stated, I believe that the best way to see the name of God is to look into the eyes of someone you love.  All the names of God are written in their eyes.








Resources Used:


“How Do You Spell God?” by Rabbi Marc Gellman and Monsignor Thomas Hartman.  New York:  Marrow Junior Books, 1995.


www.Jesse Dooley.Wordpress.com


www.jewfaq.org.  “Judaism 101: The Name of G-d”


Lisa Davison, Ph.D.  “Re-Mind & Re-New” class, January, 2015.  Phillips Theological Seminary.