What’s in a name?
The terms for God in Genesis 1 and 2: no contradiction!
In Biblical times a person’s name had deep significance and was often an expression of his or her origin, character or destiny.1 There are many terms for God in the Bible, all having special meaning or significance. Even the first book, Genesis, uses different terms, for very good reasons, as we shall see.
In Genesis chapter 1, Moses2 uses Elohim for God. This is the plural of El, which corresponds to God in English, theos in Greek and deus in Latin. Elohim means ‘the strong one’, and stresses the awesome omnipotence and power of the God who is Creator and Ruler over all of nature and the universe.
This Hebrew plural, Elohim, actually means ‘two or more’; however it does not mean ‘In the beginning gods created … ’, because it is used here (and over 2,000 times in the rest of the Old Testament) in the singular, i.e. with a singular verb (or adjective). Nor is it simply a plural of majesty, like the ‘royal we’, even though the meaning includes that God is the Supreme Ruler over all.3 Rather the use of Elohim tells us that there is something plural about God Himself. ( See Does the Trinity feature in Genesis 1?)
Elohim is a lofty title and is thus the appropriate term for Moses to have used for the account of God’s creation of the whole universe and of all living things including people. God’s power is seen much more clearly in His having created the vast contents of space, as well as the astounding complexities of life on Earth, in the short timespan of six days, than it would have been if He had used some long-drawn-out (billions-of year) process. Similarly for His goodness, which would be undermined if God had sanctioned death before sin, or even created via death. Death is the ‘last enemy’ (1 Corinthians 15:26; Revelation 20:14) and the essence of evolution’s long ages.
We bow in reverence and holy awe at what Elohim has done.
Yahweh = Jehovah
In Genesis 2, from verse 4 on, Moses adds the Hebrew term Yahweh. Yahweh is often transliterated as ‘Jehovah’ and is usually spelled Lord in large and small capitals.4
Yahweh is the truly personal name of the living God.5 It was revealed to Moses in the incident of the burning bush (Exodus 3:13–15). It means ‘I am who I am’ and thus ‘the self-existent One’. It tells us that Elohim has permanent existence, and announces the faithfulness and unchangeableness of the One who is always true to His Word, and is the same yesterday, today and forever.6
It is the name that the God of compassion, grace and mercy uses in His covenantal relationship with His chosen people as their protector and the object of their worship, as well as in His personal relationship with people, particularly believers; but also with opponents, such as Pharaoh, as their judge (Exodus 7:16 ff.).
Why did Moses use this different term for God in Genesis 2? Does it mean there are two different (and contradictory) accounts of Creation in Genesis 1 and 2?
Answer: In Genesis 2, Moses describes God’s very intimate and personal relationship with the first human pair, Adam and Eve. This requires the use of God’s name, Yahweh. Yahweh is joined with Elohim every time it is used in Genesis 2, as Yahweh Elohim, and is translated ‘the Lord God’. It tells us that Elohim, the Supreme Creator, is Yahweh, the One ‘who is intimately concerned to maintain a personal relationship with those who will walk and talk with him’.7
The privilege of names
Names were an important subject in ancient times. The Egyptians considered a name to hold special spiritual significance. Out of respect for their gods they often incorporated a god’s name within their own, such as Tutankhamen (living image of Amen).
Specifically masculine or feminine endings were often customary in personalizing the name of a child, but royal names had no denotion of male or female. Sometimes a nickname like ‘Red’ might be applied to someone with auburn hair, just as today. Also the name Amenhotep was commonly abbreviated to Ameny.
Hebrew names carried great importance also, for example Jesus (Joshua in the Old Testament) means ‘God saves’. The act of naming was an exercise in authority. 2 Kings 23:34 reads that the Egyptian Pharoah Neco appointed Eliakim (‘El raises’) puppet King of Judah, and renamed him Jehoiakim (‘Yahweh raises’), presumably to assert his authority over him.
Adam was given the task of naming all the animals. Jacob had his name changed to Israel by the angel with whom he struggled, and Abram was the former name of Abraham. God’s names denote his characteristics in a way we can understand. The whole significance of names has become largely lost in modern western cultures. Naming children often depends simply upon a liking for a particular celebrity rather than on any spiritual significance.
Having given us the fact of the creation of man, on Day 6, as the last of a series of events in chapter 1, Moses now gives us some details in chapter 2.
In Genesis 2:4–14 the focus is on the man and the Garden of Eden, where he was to live. Verse 7 describes how God made Adam from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. Verses 8–14 tell us what Eden was like, with its various kinds of trees sustained by the river that flowed there. Then verses 15–17 record Yahweh’s personal interaction and conversation with Adam, giving him the responsibility of caring for the garden, and telling him that he was free to eat from any tree there except the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Next, Genesis 2:18–20 tells us there was no suitable mate for Adam among the animals that God had created and Adam had named. Genesis 2:21–24 records Yahweh’s further personal care for Adam, providing him with a wife, fashioned from a part of him nearest to his heart, and instituting marriage.
Critics who try to make Genesis 2 a second and contradictory version of chapter 1 fail to take into account what Moses plainly wished to convey.8 The omission of any mention of the sun, moon, stars, ocean or seas in chapter 2 plainly shows that Moses did not mean to write a second Creation account.
Some have found fault with Genesis 2:19 because it mentions the field animals before the birds and this is a different order from their creation in Genesis 1. However, again this is not meant to be an account of their creation. The ‘beasts of the earth’ are not mentioned, and the use of the pluperfect tense ‘had formed’ in Genesis 2:8 and 19 in some Bible translations (which the Hebrew allows) effectively answers the criticism that the order of events in Genesis 2 is different from that in Genesis 1. The most probable explanation is that v. 19 gives the order in which God brought the animals to Adam for naming.
What about different authors?
Other critics say that the words Elohim and Yahweh indicate two different authors, (E) and (J), who lived well after Moses’ time. This is part of the documentary or JEDP hypothesis which postulates that the Pentateuch was written by several different anonymous authors who lived up to 900 years after Moses. A prominent exponent was Julius Wellhausen (1844–1918), who said that the concept of ‘one God’ was not revealed to Moses but evolved from polytheism, animism, ancestor worship, etc. Hence the need to find or fabricate later authors than Moses.9
However, this view is completely false. History, both Hebrew and secular, knows nothing of these alleged authors—neither their names nor any other works by them. The ‘scholarship’ used to promote the idea would be laughed out of court if applied to any other ancient book.10
We can trust the Word of Yahweh, the Creator God who always was, now is, and ever shall be. The biblical worldview in Genesis gives us the true history of the beginning—of the universe, of the Earth, and of mankind.
The use of Elohim (the plural of El = God) in Genesis 1 suggests that there is something plural about the person of God. And the use of singular verbs with Elohim (bara = ‘created’, amar = ‘said’, raah = ‘saw’, etc.) throughout Genesis 1 intimates the uniplurality of God; i.e. God is one, yet in another sense is more than one.
Genesis 1:2 says that ‘the Spirit of God moved on the face of the waters’.1
Creation is described as being the result of God speaking, i.e. by His word.2 In the New Testament we are told that one of the names of the Lord Jesus Christ is ‘the Word’ (John 1:1–14), and that God created everything through Him.3 Thus, in the very first chapter of the Bible we have a first suggestion of the Trinity, which is spelled out for us in much greater detail in the rest of the Bible.
We should be wary of using passages of Scripture as ‘proof texts’ which were not written with this purpose in mind. However, the rest of the Bible, particularly the New Testament, reveals the doctrine of the Trinity to us (e.g. Matthew 3:16–17). We can look back into Genesis and see that the terms and words Moses used by divine inspiration are not inconsistent with later revelation, but in fact foreshadowed later teaching on the Trinity. Return to text.
References and notes
Re-posted on homepage: 16 November 2016
References and notes
- E.g. Adam sounds like, and may be related to, the Hebrew for ground, adamah; Jesus is the Greek form of Joshua which means the Lord saves (Matthew 1:22). A change in a person’s character or status could warrant a change of name, e.g. Abram = exalted father became Abraham = father of many (Genesis 17:5). Return to text.
- Moses, under divine inspiration, was the author/editor of Genesis. See Grigg, R., Did Moses really write Genesis?, Creation 20(4):43–46, 1998. Return to text.
- Linguist Dr Charles Taylor says, “Nobody is in a position to show that in Moses’ day or earlier, people were in the habit of addressing kings and princes in the plural. In fact, there is no evidence at all from the Bible itself, and the Bible is one of the oldest books.” Taylor, C., The First Hundred Words, The Good Book Co., Gosford, Australia, p. 3, 1996. Return to text.
- The name had four Hebrew letters, which are the equivalent of YHWH. The Hebrew alphabet has no vowels. ‘Points’ are used to indicate the pronunciation. While the likely pronunciation was Yahweh or Yahveh, Jews eventually regarded this name as being too sacred to pronounce. They inserted the vowel points for Adonai to tell readers to substitute this word. The English word ‘Jehovah’ is the result of a misunderstanding of this history. Return to text.
- The many other terms, e.g. God the Father, Rock, King, Holy One, El Elyon (= the Most High God), Adonai (= Lord and Master), etc., are titles or descriptive expressions rather than names. Return to text.
- Cf. Hebrews 13:8, where this description of divinity is also given to the Lord Jesus Christ. Return to text.
- Kaiser, W.C., Davids, P.H., Bruce, F. and Brauch, M.T., Hard Sayings of the Bible, InterVarsity Press, Illinois, p. 88, 1996. Return to text.
- The key to understanding the correct meaning of any passage in the Bible is to ask, ‘What was the intention of the author?’ Return to text..
- Sadly, many Bible colleges and seminaries today approvingly teach this spurious doctrine, which postulates that the whole of the Old Testament is a gigantic literary fraud, and calls into question both the integrity of Moses and the divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ, who frequently spoke of Moses’ writings or ‘the Law of Moses’, e.g. Luke 24:27, 44; John 5:45–47; 7:19. Return to text.
- For further refutation, see ref. 2. Return to text.