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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?

  • There is some help in an earlier Q&A on "divine names", not restricted to Genesis. – Dɑvïd Feb 13 '14 at 18:56
  • Be sure to also check out the documentary hypothesis if you haven't already – Dan Feb 13 '14 at 23:21
  • 1
    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 '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. – user2027 Feb 14 '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 '14 at 22:14
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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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Background

As noted in the question, there is a belief that the different names are a result of different sources writing at different times. At Genesis 2:4 the notes of the NET Bible state:

Advocates of the so-called documentary hypothesis of pentateuchal authorship argue that the introduction of the name Yahweh (LORD) here indicates that a new source (designated J), a parallel account of creation, begins here. In this scheme Gen 1:1-2:3 is understood as the priestly source (designated P) of creation. 1

It also states there is criticism of the Documentary Hypothesis:

Critics of this approach often respond that the names, rather than indicating separate sources, were chosen to reflect the subject matter (see U. Cassuto, The Documentary Hypothesis). Gen 1:1–2:3 is the grand prologue of the book, showing the sovereign God creating by decree. The narrative beginning in 2:4 is the account of what this God invested in his creation. Since it deals with the close, personal involvement of the covenant God, the narrative uses the covenantal name Yahweh (Lord) in combination with the name God. For a recent discussion of the documentary hypothesis from a theologically conservative perspective, see D. A. Garrett, Rethinking Genesis. For an attempt by source critics to demonstrate the legitimacy of the source critical method on the basis of ancient Near Eastern parallels, see J. H. Tigay, ed., Empirical Models for Biblical Criticism. For reaction to the source critical method by literary critics, see I. M. Kikawada and A. Quinn, Before Abraham Was; R. Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, 131-54; and Adele Berlin, Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative, 111-34. 1

Similar to subject, a rabbinic explanation for the different uses is the character of God:

The Talmud many times mentions God’s two character traits – the trait of mercy and the trait of justice. Mercy is represented by the name YHVH while justice is represented by Elohim (see Midrash Braishis Rabbah 73:3). 2

Given these potential exceptions to the Documentary Hypothesis, and the OP’s citation of the texts of the account of Noah, the question considered here is:

“Do the texts [specifically the account of Noah] expose a purpose, in the expression of the two names in the different contexts, [namely either in subject matter or the character of God]?

Analysis

First, some texts describe unity of identity of Elohim and YHVH:

Unity of Identity
And those that entered, male and female of all flesh, went in as God had commanded him. And the LORD shut him in. (7:16) 3

LORD: But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD. (6:8)
God: …Noah walked with God. (6:9)

LORD: So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens… (6:7)
God: For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die. (6:17)

This unity is also demonstrated in their work:

Unity of Work
LORD: So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens… (6:7)
God: For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die. (6:17)

LORD: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat... (2:17)
God: But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. (9:4)

LORD: ...for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (2:17)
God: And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning… (9:5)

Both the LORD and God state they will bring about the destruction of mankind: they act as one. Also in the creation account it was the LORD who gave a restriction on what can be eaten; in the flood account the restriction is given by God. Likewise in creation it is the LORD who assigns a consequence to violating the restriction; in the flood account it is God. The work of the God in the account with Noah is patterned after the work of the LORD in the account with Adam.

Second, by repeating actions from creation, the texts demonstrate the unchanging nature of God:

Unchanging Nature
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth… (1:28) And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth… (9:1)
And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. (1:29)
And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. (9:3)

In this case, God who blessed after creating blesses after the flood.

Third, the events of the first man and Noah both show it is the LORD who is personally involved in His works of creation. Genesis 2 details how the LORD creates the first man, brings him to the Garden and creates the first woman. The account of Noah displays the same personal involvement while describing personal attributes of the character of the LORD:

Personal Involvement and Accountability
And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” (6:6-7)

Personal Savior
But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD. (6:8)
Then the LORD said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you are righteous before me in this generation. (7:1)
… And the LORD shut him in. (7:16)

The LORD is described as personally involved, describing personal reasons, and ultimately it is the LORD who personally ensures Noah’s safety by securing the door of the ark.

Conclusion

The different uses of the names demonstrate use based on subject matter and character. The different uses complement one another suggesting a single source. In particular, the personal involvement associated with YHVH is consistent with the rabbinic connection of YHVH with mercy.


1. NET Bible Notes [Note #11]
2. [Torah Philosophy]
3. All Scripture from the English Standard Version

  • It's not necessary for a good answer to this question, but based on your answer I'd be interested in understanding more about what is meant by the given explanation "Mercy is represented by the name YHWH" - is this to be taken in terms of the English concept of mercy, or is this meant to be understood in the frame of another concept such as the Hebrew חֶסֶד / chesed? – Steve Taylor Jan 3 '17 at 15:41
  • @SteveTaylor That is a quote taken from the blog. Your question really points out a deficiency in Wellhausen's premise. As the blog writer observes, there are good reasons why the names are used differently and the differences should be studied from that point. – Revelation Lad Jan 3 '17 at 15:59
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"El" is essentially the word/name "god." "Elohim" was the plural ("gods" or "the gods"). "Yahweh" is the name of a particular god.

This makes more sense when you know that the religion of the Old Testament evolved from polytheistic religion (somewhat like the Greek and Roman gods, for example), with El as the lead god (like Zeus/Jupiter) and Yahweh as the warrior god (like Ares/Mars), with different civilizations/tribes sometimes favouring certain gods. Over time Yahweh became the main/only god ("you shall have no other gods before me") and the other gods (Baal, Asherah..) were eliminated.

The wikipedia page for Yahweh is good starting point for this.


As for why the book of Genesis uses two different terms? I think the idea that Genesis has one author is not commonly believed, and you've seen some of this in your research it appears. There are multiple hypotheses about its composition.

A hypothesis that was popular last century (not as popular now, but not disproven) was the Documentary Hypothesis, which

"proposes that the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) was derived from originally independent, parallel, and complete narratives, which were subsequently combined into the current form by a series of redactors." It's believed that there were likely 4 authors. The oldest two referred to as the Yahwist and the Elohist authors, written around 900 BC, then two more recent authors from around 600BC who combined the other two sources and added new content.

A similar, but controversial hypothesis is the "Persian imperial authorisation", which

"proposes that the Persians, after their conquest of Babylon in 539 BCE, agreed to grant Jerusalem a large measure of local autonomy within the empire, but required the local authorities to produce a single law code accepted by the entire community. The two powerful groups making up the community—the priestly families who controlled the Temple and who traced their origin to Moses and the wilderness wanderings, and the major landowning families who made up the "elders" and who traced their own origins to Abraham, who had "given" them the land—were in conflict over many issues, and each had its own "history of origins", but the Persian promise of greatly increased local autonomy for all provided a powerful incentive to cooperate in producing a single text."

There are other hypotheses, such as the stories slowly accumulating over time, etc.

In combining separate texts, some think people would avoid renaming the god, as old stories were valuable and changing them reduced their worth and weight, according to "antiquarian history."

I think the first two chapters of Genesis clearly show that (at least) two different authors/traditions were combined. The same story is told twice, differently. There would be no need for a single author to do that, or for a later editor to keep both while attempting to create a single seamless narrative. There was some respect for keeping existing text even though it might not fit together perfectly.


Another simple way to look at it is that "Elohim" is the word for "god," whereas Yahweh is the name of the god.

At least in the first two chapters, the Yahweh parts seem to portray the god as more physical (walking in the garden, for example), whereas the Elohim parts see the god as more separate from the physical world (floating above the waters...). So you may keep that in mind depending on which term is being used. (Similar to what Dick Harfield mentions in his well-written answer)

  • But you haven't explained what the significance of Genesis using both is, especially when it seems like the author uses one term for a while and switches to the other. – curiousdannii Jun 14 '16 at 0:14
  • Tried to address @curiousdannii 's comment, although I think I ended up just repeating what others have already written. – pergendum Aug 6 '16 at 1:57
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The author of Genesis may be attempting to differentiate between two separate gods. Sometimes it seems as if Elohim (God) and Yahweh (the LORD) are separate deities.

One example is found in Genesis 6:19. Elohim commands Noah to take two of all flesh on the ark. But then in Genesis 7:1,2 Yahweh gives Noah different instructions. He commands Noah to take the clean beasts by sevens, and the unclean by two.

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