Back in the days of Genesis, people believed in many gods. The Israelites distinguished God from the gods of other nations by adding an attribute like God Most High, God Almighty, or God of Abraham.
One of the main gods of the Canaanites was simply called “god”—Hebrew El (אל). In fact, calling one’s deity “god” was common in that area of the world. Around 60 percent of the references to God in Genesis use some form of that same generic Hebrew word for god—El (אל) or Elohim (אלהים). Roughly 40 percent use God’s proper name, Yahweh (יהוה). This is the name that was revealed to Moses in Exod 3, where God told Moses “I am that I am.” It is also a common part of later Israelite names. For example, Elijah means “My god is Yahweh”: Eli (אלי), “My god” and Yah (יה), which is the abbreviated form of Yahweh (יהוה).
In the Old Testament, the names of God and people are connected with events. This is especially true in Genesis. But the full significance of a name is often lost in translation. For example, Jacob’s name is connected to the word for “heel” (עקב, ‘qb). This is because he was born holding his twin brother, Esau’s heel: “He follows at the heel” (יעקב, Ya’aqov; Gen 25:26). Sometimes Bible translations footnote these meanings, but how do you find the meaning of a name that isn’t noted?
3 Word-Study Steps for Biblical Names
- Use the ESV English-Hebrew Reverse Interlinear to find the name in Hebrew below the English.
Use the Strong’s number assigned to the name to find the entry in a Hebrew dictionary, like Brown-Driver-Briggs (Logos.com/BDB). The dictionary will tell you the name’s meaning and also the verb and noun that make up the word. The meaning of some names is closely connected to a Hebrew verb. Isaac’s name comes from the verb meaning “to laugh.” He was named “He laughs” (יצחק, Yitshaq) because Sarah laughed when the angel of the Lord said she would have a child at her old age (Gen 18:9–15; 21:3–6).
Use a concordance, Biblia.com or Bible software to search for the name. The results will help you track how the significance of the name has developed over time.
Jacob’s name illustrates this. Initially, it is quite literal (Gen 25:26). Later, though, his behavior leads Esau to stress the idiomatic meaning: he’s the one who grabs the heel, the one who overreaches—a deceiver (Gen 27:36).
The names of God are a special case.
English translations represent God’s names in different ways—and they’re not always consistent. Sometimes the same English word is used for different Hebrew names. For example, “Lord God” can point to either Yahweh Elohim or Adonay Yahweh. Most English translations subtly represent the difference by putting the divine name Yahweh in small capitals—Lord God or Lord God. Using the reverse interlinear, we can find the underlying Hebrew and trace God’s name like any other.
When we do so in Genesis, we learn that God is known by His interactions with people—the God who sees (Gen 16:13), Yahweh who provides (Gen 22:14). God is often identified in Genesis by His association with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (e.g., Gen 24:12). With each generation, He renewed His covenant and identified Himself as the same God of Israel’s ancestors. This association is how the nation of Israel related to God.
The references to Elohim and Yahweh intertwine. This emphasizes to Israel that they are the same deity—the one who made a covenant with Abraham. In Gen 12, it is Yahweh who calls Abram. Then, in Gen 17, Yahweh identifies Himself as God Almighty (אל שדי, El Shadday). He is called Elohim when He makes a covenant with Abraham. In a similar way, the flood story in Gen 6–9 alternates between referring to God as Elohim and Yahweh. The best example of this theological move, though, is the creation account. Genesis 1 uses Elohim exclusively (31 times). Genesis 2–3, on the other hand, is the only section of Genesis that uses Yahweh Elohim (יהוה אלהים)—a claim that Elohim the creator is Yahweh.
Some names for God emphasize attributes like “Everlasting God” (אל עולם, El Olam). Others focus on His lordship, like El Elyon meaning “God Most High” or Adonay Yahweh, which is often rendered in translations as “Lord God” but means “Lord Yahweh.”
The names of God in Genesis emphasize God’s relationship with His people. They show us the connection between the sovereign creator in Gen 1, and the redeemer who would keep His promises and deliver a nation in Exodus. They tell us who our God is.
Elohim is actually the Hebrew plural of El “god”—so a few times it simply refers to “gods” (e.g., Gen 31:30; 35:2, 4) and by extension can be used for divine beings or angels (e.g., Gen 6:2, 4; 23:6; 30:8).
The “angel of the Lord” is usually understood to be a manifestation of God Himself on earth.
Yahweh Elohim is used 20 times in Gen 2–3. Otherwise, it only occurs 17 other times in the Old Testament, usually in poetry or prayers.
El Elyon only occurs in Gen 14, which is a reference to the God served by Melchizedek (compare Heb 5:6).
The “fear of Isaac” is an allusion to when God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (Gen 22).