Theology and Christian Faith
I am searching for the Almighty God's name. I'm wondering about verses that make statements like "My people will be called by My Name" or "Those who call on My Name will be saved." There are several other verses along this line which seems to be telling us that it is critically important that we know His name. Insignificant titles like LORD or God seem insulting added to the fact that these words are titles and NOT names.
An answer to a question like this first must assume some context, some reference of source and authority. Your question appears to be coming from within the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the Old Testament the name of God is Yahweh, or a similar form. It is spelled with the consonants only in Hebrew, the common way of writing Semitic languages: YHWH.
God's Praise Name
This is sometimes considered the revealed name or relationship name, and commonly called the Covenant Name of God. It is also called the Praise Name, in the context of African and Asian cultures that sing praise songs to ancient heroes and leaders. The name Yahweh occurs in Praise Phrases in the Psalms, but also in some Prophetic passages. One stream of Genesis uses this personal name mostly, while other passages use just the common words El (God) or Elohim ("gods," or majectic for "God").
Not a Linguistic Question
But the concept of "Name" in Hebrew thought is deeper than a specific name, even the covenant relationship name of God in his covenant with Israel. In the Semitic wordview the term "name" means identity or power. Thus in the phrases you mention, the relationship concept is in focus. The point is not what word to use, but what attitude to have. This is not a linguistic question, it is a moral, relational question.
The most common reference to God in the Bible is the common word equivalent to our Germanic term "god," but it is actually a name, as well as a general word. "El" and forms of it are the name for the "High God" in all the Semitic languages. This god is considered the Creator in many, but not all, of these language and cultures. In the Hebrew usage in the Bible, El is equivalent to the creator God, also called by other names and titles besides the Praise Name of Covenant Name Yahweh.
The Phoenicians (Canaanites of various tribes) used the name El for the creator god who was overthrown by his son Baal. The Hebrews kept the word El for the High God also, but they believed he never lost his throne, and in fact was the only God. They used this common name El as equivalent to Yahweh.
By the way, the Hebrews also used the word baal for "lord," "master" or "commander." It was, among other things, a military term. This meaning occurs in the Old Testament plural term that is so puzzling in English: "the baals."* This transliteration does not tell us anything except that this is a Hebrew word. This is simply a usage of the basic simple Hebrew word for various "lords" or false gods.
One local name for God that the Hebrews used for the One God Yahweh was El Elyon, "God of the Mountain," in the story of tithe Abraham paid to Melchizedek (Genesis 14), the priest of Salem, probably a Jebusite. (Salem was the same town as Jerusalem, a Jebusite city until David took it after being proclaimed king of Judah.)
The point of the story of Abraham and Melchizedek is NOT to tell us we must pay tithes of the booty we take from the enemy in a battle. The purpose is not to tell us that Melchizedek is a shadowy, mystical, metaphysical figure. What we do see here is that the priest of El Elyon serves Abraham in his offering to Yahweh. Note that Melchizedek refers to God as El Elyon ("God Most High" verses 19, 20) and El ("God" verse 19: "God made heaven and earth").
The Primary Identity Name
The point of this story, however, is found in the statement of Abraham to the King of Sodom after the offering. He restates the terms of Melchizedek's praise-prayer: "I make a promise [lift up my hand] to Yahweh, El Elyon, the Creator of heaven and earth." El Elyon is identified as Yahweh. The honor given locally to El Elyon is being declared here as belonging to the One True God, called Yahweh by the Hebrews.
This story declares the unity of One High God, Yahweh or El Elyon. Abraham agrees with Melchizedek that it is El, identified here with the names Yahweh and El Elyon, who is the Creator, not a rebellious son (Baal) or a jealous divine adversary. There is only one Creator God. Melchizedek declares him under the name El Elyon. Abraham declares him under the name Yahweh, and specifically declares that he is El Elyon. They both use the general word or name El.
The name and characteristics of "El Elyon" are identified with Yahweh. The point of this story is to align this local name and identity with the identity of the One God Yahweh. The effect of this is also reflected in other stories to make similar declaration of other names as the names of Yahweh.
Different ethnic groups served God under the name Yahweh, not just Abraham and his descendants. Consider Jethro (Or Reuel), Moses' Midianite father-in-law, a priest of El, apparently associated with Yahweh. Jethro was an advisor to Moses as the Israelites got organized in the desert.
Yahweh is served by others, like Melchizedek. Yahweh is the God called on by various names in different localities or by different ethnicities who otherwise believe in that High Creator God. Abraham bears witness to his covenant God under the name of Yahweh.
Another was El Shaddai, which means something like the High God or the Mighty God. Many such names were all applied to the One God Yahweh by the Hebrew people. You find these names used in the Old Testament. Many of our current praise songs use these various names for God. Whole meditations have been written on the various names of God from these cultural backgrounds mentioned in the Bible.
Hiding the Name
In the English Bibles, there is a lot of confusion, I think, in the procedure they decided on, and that many modern translations followed, until the last two decades or so. Other European language translations also followed this procedure. The purpose and effect of this procedure was to hide the name of God, and to use a substitute word.
This supposedly was suggested by the late Jewish practice (but not the earlier Hebrew practice) that avoided pronouncing the Holy Name (YHWH). In English translations this is indicated by the capitalized word LORD. Thus when reading the Old Testament in English, where you see LORD, you can know the original word was YHWH, commonly written out in Christian writings as Yahweh.
The Holy Name
When reading the Hebrew scriptures aloud, the reader would pronounce a different word. Usually the word was Adonai, the Hebrew/Aramaic word for Master or "lord." Thus when the hearers heard the word "adonai" ("lord"). They understood that this was the holy name of God, Yahweh. This is said to be the source of the European practice of using some variation of the common word for "lord" or "master" in that language as a substitute for the holy name Yahweh. Translations will explain this in their introduction.
(Jewish translations and current writings will acknowledge this practice by spelling the common English word/name as G-d.)
In this sense, the use of the term "Lord" is not insignificant. The fact that it might be thought insignificant is a helpful insight, though. People now do not have the same concept in mind that originally led to this usage. What you are seeing here is that this usage and meaning is non-existent in the European cultures. But the usage in history arises from the biblical usage that reflects the Semitic cultures, which have a very dynamic and interactive concept of life and God.
Thus for a Hebrew/Jew, saying "LORD" (Adonai, for the Holy Name Yahweh) carries a second-level meaning, from their cultural and faith background. The word carries the concept of the One True God in a covenant relationship with them (as a nation, originally, and now we have a more individualistic idea than the Bible idea carried). So they are in their minds saying YHWH, the covenant God, and thinking of the faithfulness of God in naming a promise to Abraham and his descendants. Christians claim that through the Gospel concepts the Lord continues this special covenant relationships with people of all nations through faith.
Jesus as Lord
This appears to be why it was so important to early followers of Jesus (called "Christians" by their distracters) called Jesus "Lord." It is also why they refused to call Caesar "lord." The Jews who believed in Jesus as the Messiah used the same Greek word that the Greek translation of the Old Testament used to represent that name Yahweh. They used the Greek word "kyriakos," which can mean a "master" (teacher, master of a house or employer) or lord (in the sense of a noble or superior officer, etc.). So this same concept eventually led to the same usage in the equivalent words and phrases in the European languages as the Gospel spread to the pagan peoples of Europe and Asia.
This original "content" meaning for this usage has been lost now in our European cultures. I prefer to name Yahweh when I refer to him, though I feel comfortable using the general word/name "God," just as the Hebrew writers did in the Old Testament (called the Tanakh by the the Jews). I pronounce the holy name, not out of any disrespect, but on the contrary, out of a desire to honor and be specific about what I intend.
Back to the cultural or poetic meaning of calling on "the Name." I have said the concept is identity or power of the one whose "name" is in focus. So "calling on the name of Yahweh" means acknowledging Yahweh, the Living God, as the focus of your identity, committing yourself to him, acknowledging him, calling on Yahweh to save, deliver, enable, or whatever. "The Name" is basically equal to "The Power." This is a cultural worldview concept that does not exist exactly in the European worldviews.
On the last part of your question, I was initially puzzled about why you say titles like "Lord" or "God" are insulting to Yahweh. I addressed that to an extent above. Let me make some additonal observations. The most common term referring to the Creator God in the Hebrew scriptures is "God," in Hebrew, El, the common general name or term for the Creator God among the Semitic peoples – El the Semitic peoples.
There is some equivalent name for the Creator in virtually all human cultures and languages. I don't see how this necessary reference could be insulting. It is simply an identifying term.
Likewise, the term "Lord" is the English equivalent, and in fact is the closest proper translation, of the common term most used by the Jewish people for centuries to refer to Yahweh. The word adonai in Hebrew or Aramaic is the common word used for master or superior, just as our word "lord" was used in the feudal era of European history. The word is somewhat outdated in the modern democratic cultures, but we get an idea of its connotation from the title as still used by some European nobility.
The Scriptural "Lord"
One reason they used this word adonai, "lord," is that, again, it is a common term of address in the Hebrew Scriptures themselves for God, Yahweh. It is in no way a belittling or less honorable title. Otherwise, the biblical writers and Jewish worship leaders would not have continued to use it as the common term to address God.
The reference to "Name" has nothing to do with the appropriateness of other common terms of honor or deference that we might apply to God. As discussed above, the idea is identification, the meaning of the Name is relational. It is not a law that nothing else can be used. To reduce it to a simple legal command or prohibition would negate most of the Old Testament!
The Semitic cultural idea of "Name" is the expression of personal identity, personhood, character. As in our recent western cultural memory, we speak of someone's "Good Name," so the "name" carries the connotation of the character of the person, the trustworthiness, the honor or prestige of that person. Just so, these terms from Hebrew culture, in which the interactions with Yahweh are recorded, convey to us the high, just, trustworthy character of Yahweh.
In a follower or worshipper, it entails a commitment to a basic relationship of identity with Yahweh, entering into a personal relation, accepting his graceful sovereignty as an organizing principle of life, agreeing to become like the character of Yahweh that his Name represents.
A Moral Question
This is ultimately a relational and moral question, not a linguistic one. The relationship may be expressed in numerous ways, acknowledging the the One True God, the Creator, but the "praise name" or "relational name" of Yahweh. This recognizes and declares the belief in a personal, living God being acknowledged as master, king ruler, just and trustworthy.
* On "the baals": The use of this non-translation term "the baals" is a translator cop-out, leaving the word as it was without translation, because they were uncertain how to interpret its meaning. This transliteration "the baals" does not tell us anything, because this is not an English word and carries no meaning in the English worldview universe.
The Linguistic Names of God
Names of God and Words for God: Thoughts on Beliefs and Usages
The "True Name" of the Father: Phonetics and Covenants
Related on the Internet:
Adonai -- Hebrew Names of God
First written in email 11 May 2007
Finalized as an article and posted on OJTR 15 May 2007
Rewritten 21 September 2007
Last edited 28 January 2015
Copyright © 2007 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Please give credit and link back. Other rights reserved.