Although the text of the Hebrew Bible reveals that Israel’s God is referred to by a number of epithets, names and titles, OT scholars are quick to assert that this is an indication of the development in Israelite religion. So just as there was a move to use the divine name (YHWH) at one time in Israel’s history to distinguish YHWH from the other gods, there also came a time when this move was reversed. Rose notes that ‘the loss of this obviousness of a living relationship with God is compensated by an explicit confession of faith’, of which he cites as an example Deuteronomy 6–16. There seems to be two reasons for this: (i) the name as a distinguishing mark was no longer necessary; and (ii) the later Jewish custom of not pronouncing the name at all for fear of violating the Third Commandment. This is evident especially in the postexilic texts (for example, Esther, Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes do not use the name ‘YHWH’ at all.) Although YHWH was still considered the only God, the use of ‘Elohim’ became synonymous with, and often replaced, ‘YHWH’.
Furthermore, Baumgarten notes that ‘Among the Essenes the awe surrounding the divine name was apparently extreme. It appears also to have carried over to other sacrosanct names, such as those of the angels and that of the lawgiver, “any blasphemer of whom is punished with death” (Josephus, War 2.142 and 145). This tendency was not, however, confined to the Essenes, as is evidenced by the complaint of a “Galilean heretic” against the Pharisees for permitting the names of pagan rulers to be written in the same document with the name of Moses (mYad 4.8).’
Coffin notes that in the post-exilic prophets and in the later historical books the holiness of the divine nature continues to be emphasised and the sin of profanity to be condemned. Any word or deed that seems to detract from the glory due to God or to manifest a disposition to deprive him of the honor rightly belonging to him, is deprecated. Since Israel is his people, any act that tends to minimise his exalted character as their God is profanity. This was made evident in the growing sanctity of the divine name and the increasing tendency to drop the use of it altogether and replace it with Elohim.
This raises the question, as we shall see, of how Jesus understood the divine name, and whether or not he reinvented it, as did Qumran, to serve Israel’s use and his divine mission. The answer to this question awaits a future post …
The Painting: William Blake’s ‘Elohim Creating Adam’ (1795/circa 1805). For Blake the OT God was a false god. He believed the Fall took place not in the Garden of Eden, but at the time of creation shown here, when Adam was dragged from the spiritual realm and made material.