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In Genesis 4:25; 6:3,6-8, 9-22; 7:1, 9, 16a/b; 8:1-19, 20-22, we see the author using two designations for God, “Yahweh”, and “Elohim”. What is the significance, if any, of the author bouncing back and forth to different names for God? Why didn’t the author stay consistent and use one term?

Some suggest that the accounts were compiled by different people in different periods of time, therefore the different terminology.

"H. B. Witter, in 1711, was the first to suggest that different names for God (Elohim Yahweh Elohim) could point to different documents. A Catholic, J. Astruc, in 1753, was the first to divide Genesis into various documents, partly on the basis of the difference in divine names. Karl Ilgen, in 1798, asserted that the Elohist source was really two sources: E1 and E2. Today these are usually called E and P" http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/most/getchap.cfm?WorkNum=216&ChapNum=17

I want to know: do the texts expose a purpose in the expression of the two names in the different contexts?

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There is some help in an earlier Q&A on "divine names", not restricted to Genesis. –  Davïd Feb 13 at 18:56
Be sure to also check out the documentary hypothesis if you haven't already –  Daи Feb 13 at 23:21
Good Q! I wouldn't touch your last citation ("H.B. Witter . . .") with a ten-foot pole, but leave it, rather, to the hermeneutical scholars. I will say that in general, from Job to Chronicles the Bible's authors use so many names and titles for God, including the hyphenated names, such as YHWH-Tsidkenu (Jer 23:6), YHWH-Rohi (Ps 23:1), and YHWH-Jireh (Gen 22:14), to underscore a particular attribute of, or truth about, God's infinitely perfect and multifaceted personhood. That the names vary, stems in part from a given author's purpose of using--in context of course--a particular name of God. –  rhetorician Feb 14 at 1:32
Is "For Priestly Code" the name of the document from which you quote? I formatted the quote as though it is. I used the web address you provided as a link for the quote. If that is not correct just type the name of the source between the brackets and restore the info in parentheses to its proper position in the quote. –  Sarah Feb 14 at 18:16
I am not sure what (priestly codes) is referring to, it was pert of the article I quoted from (see below for link to article). catholicculture.org/culture/library/most/… –  JLB Feb 14 at 22:14
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2 Answers 2

The Tetragrammaton, or "YHWH" which is often pronounced "Yahweh" or "Jehovah", is the proper name of the God of the Bible. The word "Elohim" or any variation thereof ("El", "Eloh", "Elah".. etc) is a title which means simply "God" or more precisely, "Mighty Ones" (in the case of "Elohim", or in the singular for all the others) and not a proper name. Just as in "King Edward", "Edward" is his name and "King" is his title, but both can be used on their own to refer to the same person.

In the Bible, the use of one or the other in a given passage does not imply a different author according to which is used. Even today, for example, a christian might, in the same prayer, refer to Jesus as "Lord" or "Jesus" or "Lord Jesus". You wouldn't conclude that there are 3 people praying because of this.

An argument cannot be made for different authors simply from the usage of different terms to refer to God.

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The significance of the various uses of the names Yahweh and Elohim can be better understood when we realise that often when the author uses the name Yahweh, the focus is on Judah, and whenever he uses the name Elohim, the focus tends to be on the northern kingdom of Israel. When the author uses the name Yahweh, he is speaking of an anthropomorphic God with human characteristics, made very clear in Genesis 3:8, where they heard the voice of God walking in the cool of the day. In these passages, Yahweh often made promises and covenants with his chosen people. When the author uses the name Elohim, people could never look at God, so he typically came in dreams or visions, but sometimes in the form of a cloud or a flame. This was a more transcendent God who required obedience and was feared by his people. The style differs, depending on which designation is being used.

All this points to at least two writers of Genesis, not one. In 1876/77 Julius Wellhausen, in Die Composition des Hexateuch und der historischen Bücher des Alten Testaments proposed what became known as the Documentary Hypothesis - that the Pentateuch was written by four different sources, three of which are found in the Book of Genesis. The Yahwist wrote down the traditions held in early Judah, while the Elohist wrote down the traditions held in early Israel. These were combined after the destruction of Israel in 722 BCE. The Priestly Source came much later than the Yahwist and the Elohist, sometimes using their designations, but quite often using El Shaddai as the designation for God. Subsequent scholars have challenged Wellhausen's hypothesis, but Mark S. Smith says in The Early History of God (page xxiii) that it has not been supplanted by a more persuasive model. Lester L. Grabbe, in Ancient Israel (page 44) says that many would still agree that Genesis was compiled mainly from three sources – the Yahwist (J), the Elohist (E) and the priestly writer (P), but opinion is now much more divided. Like Smith, he says that while the old consensus that had developed around the Documentary Hypothesis has gone, there is nothing to take its place.

Israel Finkelstein, in Archaeologies of the Middle East: Critical Perspectives, Archaeology, Bible, and the History of the Levant in the lron Age (p208ff), accepts the old Documentary Hypothesis as valid, and says that J (the Yahwist) deals first and foremost with the centrality and superiority of Judah over its neighbours - Israelites and non-Israelites alike. For reasons which stem from the study of archaeology, Finkelstein dates J to the seventh century BCE, later than the ninth-eighth centuries BCE date usually attributed to this source.

Scholars are working towards a more final explanation, but almost all agree that Genesis had more than one author.

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