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Biblical And Qur’anic Divine Names: Past And Future – OpEd

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In the days of Abraham, the religions of the Near East and India had hundreds of different gods, with hundreds of names for their different gods, but for those religions that trace their prophets back to Prophet Abraham, and his two sons Ishmael and Isaac, the many names of God simply describe different appellations, aspects and attributes of the one God’s multifaceted personality.

But just one of these One God’s ‘names’, is a very special, unique, personal name for each of the three Abrahamic religions; all the other ‘names’ are appellations or titles that refer to one of One God’s many attributes (creator, ruler, redeemer etc.) or God’s character traits (merciful, just, forgiving etc).

Thus to say that God is a King, a Judge, or a Savior describes one of many ways God acts and relates. To say that God is a Creator, a Lover or the Compassionate One is to describe one of many character or personality traits of the one and only God.

Ibn Al-Qayyim writes: The attribute of generosity is an attribute of God who feeds and is not fed. The most beloved creatures to Allah are those who take on his characteristics. Indeed, Allah is noble and loves nobility from his servants, he is knowledgeable and loves the scholars, he is powerful and loves courage, and he is beautiful and loves beauty. (al-Wābil al-Ṣayyib 1/34)

Thus only one of the many appellations of the One universal creator of space and time are special to Christianity, Islam and Judaism as its Divine personal name that is always in the believer’s heart and soul.

In English, the word God is not the name of the one and only God. It is the generic term for any and every deity, similar to the West Semitic root word EL as it is found in Sumerian and Akkadian, Ellil-Enlil, in Hittite and Hurrian as Ellel, in Hebrew El-Elohim in Arabic as Al-Ilahi, the God or Allat, a pre Islamic Goddess, one of three daughters of Al-Ilah worshiped in Palmyra as Allat and referred to by Herodotus as Alilat, and worshiped as Allatu by North African Carthaginians.

This name Jesus for Christians, Allah for Muslims and YHVH for Jews, differs from all the other names that are just philosophical terms for various universal aspects or roles of God. This Divine name has a very intimate special meaning for each of the three religious communities of believers that is lacking in all the other names.

For Jews this personal name is connected to the covenant the One God YHVH made with the Jewish People and Prophet Moses (Exodus 3:13-15) with Prophet Jesus (Matthew 3:16-17) this personal name is the expression of very close family relationships, and with Prophet Muhammad (Qur’an 33:7) this name is both personal and universal united.

Yet, because all the many names of God, call upon the same One God, it is not surprising that some of the 99 beautiful names of God in Muslim tradition, also appear in Jewish tradition, which sometimes refers to the 70 names of God (Midrash Shir HaShirim and Midrash Otiot Rabbi Akiba).

Since Arabic and Hebrew are brother languages; in some cases the names even sound alike:
Arabic Hebrew English
Ar-Rahman, Ha Rakhaman, The Compassionate One;
Ar-Rahim. El Rakhum, The Merciful One;
Al-Quddus, Ha Kadosh, The Holy One;
Al-Bari, Ha Boray, The Creator;
Al-Aliyy, El Elyon, The Most High;
As-Salam, Oseh Shalom, The Peacemaker,
Malik ul Mulk, Melek Malkay Melakim, The king/ruler over all the kingdom/kings;
Al-Muhyi, Ha Michayah, The Giver of Life;
and Al-Mumit, Ha Maymeet, The Taker of Life.

Although in every generation there could have been many individuals who worshipped the One God, who was indeed the God of all humans; yet for more than 40 generations only one group of people maintained an ongoing monotheistic community.

This is why all the Biblical prophets connect the generic name of God Elohim to the only religious community in Biblical days who worshipped the One God: Elohei Yisrael- the God of Israel, or Elohei-God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So Ezra, the most narrowly focused of prophets, uses both Elah Yisrael-God of Israel (Ezra 5:1) and Elah Sh’maya V’Arah- God of Heaven and Earth (Ezra 5:11).

Julian Bond points out that “Divine names feature strongly in narratives within the Hebrew Scriptures, where characters are engaging directly with God and giving, or calling God, by a variety of names, often new ones which relate to revelation or redemption. New Testament names are, mainly, more propositional, making statements about God, often in the format, ‘God is …’ Thus: “‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ (John 1:1). This description as the ‘Word’ (‘logos’) is particularly striking as, in the Hebrew Scriptures, it is the prophet that speaks God’s Word.

For Christians in almost all of the New Testament, the ‘word’ refers to the divine message/revelation, the words of Jesus or of God. Only once, in Revelation, does ‘John’ again refer to Jesus as the Word- ‘He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God (Revelation 19:13).’

This unusual and unique usage is, however, resonated and reflected in the Qur’an’s description of Jesus as the Word of God (Qur’an 3.39, 45, 4.171).”

Ludwig Monti, an Italian Monk, points out that for Christians, the term “Father” used by Jesus seems to be the most appropriate way to define God and to address him. “The Gospels testify that Jesus himself calls God frequently in his own native Aramaic language: “Abba” (Mark 14:36), beloved Dad. The well known Lord’s Prayer (cf. Matthew 6.9-13; Luke 11.2-4) opens with the “Father” (Luke 11.2) or “Our Father” (Matthew 6.9). Paul, when writing to Christians coming from paganism, states: “You did not receive a spirit of slaves to fall back into fear, but you received a Spirit of children, through which we cry: ‘Abba, Father!'” (Romans 8:15); “That you are children is proved by the fact that God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, who cries out: ‘Abba, Father!'” (Galatians 4: 6).

“According to John 1:18 God is a Father who knows his children and is attentive to their needs, ready to answer their questions for good things (cf. Matthew 7: 9-11): if God thinks of the birds in the sky, even more so Abba will think of his human children, who thus need not worry (cf. Matthew 6: 25-34). Abba is a Father who loves his son even in his sin, without demanding any reciprocity from him (cf. Luke 15: 11-32). Abba is a Father who makes no distinction between good and evil children, but makes his sun shine and makes it rain on everyone (cf. Matthew 5:45).

Prayer addressed to the Father “should be in secret” (Matthew 6:6), and without wasting too many words;” when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.” (Matthew 6:7). Unfortunately Orthodox rabbis did not follow Prophet Jesus’ guidance to keep prayers short and non repetitive.

The use of the intimate family term Father to address God does occur in the Bible: “You are our Father…” (Isaiah 63:16), or “O Lord, You are our Father. We are your clay, and you are our potter” (Isaiah 64:8), and the prayer of David in I Chronicles 29:10, “Blessed be you O Lord, God of Israel, our Father for ever and ever.” and after Prophet Jesus it was resonated more frequently by the rabbis in the Talmud using the plural ‘we’ as is preferred in almost all Jewish liturgy as: “Our Father who art in heaven” (Berachot v. 1; Yoma viii. 9; Soṭah ix, 15; and Avot v. 20).

Christians personalized the name of God by connecting it with the name of a very special person, whose message and passion inspired them to transform their lives. The Qur’an, true to its universalizing perspective uses the generic name Allah; but with the intense resonance that Allah became personalized in the Muslim community’s experience.

The words El, Elah, Elohei and Elohim are all pre Abrahamic west Semitic generic terms for a God or for many Gods. In these various forms they appear almost 3,000 times in the Hebrew Bible.

But the most important name of the one God, the name that God himself reveals to Moses at the burning bush, is YHVH: which appears more than 6,800 times in the Hebrew Bible.

In Exodus 3:13-15, Moses said to God, “If I go to the Israelites and tell them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’—what should I say to them?” And God said to Moses, “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh”.

Ehyeh is the verb “to be” future tense singular and means I will/could/might/may be/become Who I may/could/will/might be/become i.e. Ehyeh is The God of Potentialities, The God of Possibilities, The Living God of Becoming and Transforming, the One who can liberate Israel from bondage in Egypt.

Unfortunately, the Greek and Latin translations of this verse were influenced by the Greek philosophical idea that God was similar to a permanent ideal form (like an equilateral triangle) or an unmoved mover, and is not like a living personality.

Since they thought God must be a static unchanging being. they mistranslated “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh’ as ‘I am who I am’ rather than its plain meaning of ‘I can be whatever I should be to redeem you” i.e. God Almighty

The Torah continues, “And God said, “You must say this to the Israelites, “I am” (the usual false translation for God’s self revealed name) has sent me to you.'” God also said to Moses, “You must say this to the Israelites, Ehyeh, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you. This is my name forever, and this is my memorial from generation to generation.’ (Exodus 3:13-15)

When Jews speak of God in the third person, God’s name is YHVH– “the One who causes being and becoming, the One who brings potentials into existence.”

This name (YHVH) was spoken publicly from the time of Moses and throughout the 3½ centuries of the 1st Temple of Solomon. But during the period of the 2nd Temple it was pronounced as Adonai (Lord) because of the feeling that God’s actual Holy name was too holy to utter audibly.

In later centuries even the substitution was considered too holy to utter; and the custom among pious Jews till this day is not to use any name for God at all (except in prayer); but to say HaShem–the name (of God) when speaking about God. Thus, while Christians and Muslims love to voice their special personal name for God, Jews avoid voicing God’s name (YHVH) even in prayer.

YHVH replaced a much older name of God: El Shaddai. Exodus (6:2-3) relates: God also said to Moses, “I am YHVH. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but by my name YHVH I did not make myself fully known to them.”

In the whole Hebrew Bible the full appellation ‘El Shaddai’ is used only in connection with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Shaddai by itself also appears 31 times in the ancient book of Prophet Job, who was not Jewish, and in a few other poetic passages.

In the Greek translation of the Torah, El Shaddai was erroneously translated Pantokrator, all powerful or omnipotent, instead of ‘The God who is sufficient”. The Greek philosophical idea of omnipotence leads to the false contradiction between God’s power and human free will.

But God is indeed, more than sufficient. God is and will always be YHVH, the God who enables human hopes of future possibilities of improvement to become realized.

El Shaddai can also be translated as the Nourishing or Nursing God because in Hebrew Shaddaim means female breasts. This feminine image may help many women today replace the ancient image of God as an old man with a long beard; with something more representative of God’s classical attribute of loving concern for His children.

Because of the danger of the pagan world’s Goddesses, no Abrahamic Prophet ever used the God ‘mother’ metaphor except Prophet Isaiah: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem” (Isaiah 66:13) and since Prophet Isaiah often spoke about the events of the pre-Messianic Age it is possible that the God ‘mother’ metaphor is reserved for Messianic times.

The use of the intimate family term Father to address God which occurs infrequently in the Hebrew Bible: “You are our Father…” (Isaiah 63:16), or “O Lord, You are our Father. We are your clay, and you are our potter” (Isaiah 64:8), and the prayer of David in I Chronicles 29:10, “Blessed be you O Lord, God of Israel, our Father for ever and ever.” was after Prophet Jesus resonated more frequently by the rabbis in the Talmud using the plural ‘we’ as is preferred in almost all Jewish liturgy as: “Our Father who art in heaven” (Berachot v. 1; Yoma viii. 9; Soṭah ix, 15; and Avot v. 20).

One name of God that few Christians and Jews know or use today, is a name that I believe will become more important in the future as Christians, Jews and Muslims learn more about each other’s religions. This name, El Ro’ee, only appears twice in the Hebrew Bible and, as far as I know, is not used at all in the Talmud or any other Jewish literature.

Abraham’s wife Hagar’s name for God is El-Ro’ee. El Ro’ee means A Self-reflecting God or A God Who Sees (literally mirrors) Me. “Then she (Hagar) called the name of YHVH, who spoke to her, ‘El Ro’ee’, ‘You are a God who sees me’; for she said, ‘Have I even remained alive here after seeing Him?’ Therefore the well was called Beer-laHai-roee; the well of the Living One (Al-Hayy) who sees me.”
(Genesis 16:13-14)

Neither Sarah nor Hagar/Ha-jar are mentioned by name in the Qur’an, but the story of Ha-jar’s exile from Abraham’s home is traditionally understood to be referred to in a line from Ibrāhīm’s prayer in the Qur’an (14:37): “I have settled some of my family in a barren valley near your Sacred House.”

Muslim tradition relates that when Hā-jar ran out of water, and Ismā’īl, an infant at that time, began to die; Hā-jar panicked and ran between two nearby hills, Al-Safa and Al-Marwah repeatedly searching for water.

After her seventh run, Ismā’īl hit the ground with his heel and caused a miraculous well to spring out of the ground called Zamzum Well. It is located a few meters from the Kaaba in Mecca.

Perhaps this previously unique Torah name of God, El Ro’ee or Hai Ro’ee; which are Hagar’s names for God, meaning A Self-reflecting God or A God Who Sees Me, and the name for the well ‘Beer-laHai-ro’ee’ the well of the Self-reflecting God; can help bring Christians, Jews and Muslims to see themselves in the eyes of each other better, and thus come closer together in the future.

As al-Nawawi narrated Islamic scholars are agreed that the names of Allah are not limited to this number (99). Thus, Shaykh Ibn ‘Uthaymeen said: “The names of Allah are not limited to a certain number…With regard to the words of the Prophet “Allah has ninety-nine names, one hundred less one. Whoever learns them will enter Paradise,” this does not mean that He does not have any names apart from these, rather it means that whoever learns these (particular) ninety-nine of His names will enter Paradise.”

So this female formulated, introspective very old from the time of Prophet Abraham/very new from the present name, El-Ro’ee, which means A Self-reflecting God or A God Who Sees (literally mirrors) Me. can be an excellent example of the power of just one of the many names of the One God to make all of us better lovers of the One God, and the many nations and religions that the One God has fashioned.

That would be an excellent example of the power of just one of the many names of the One God to make us better lovers of the One God and the many nations and religions God has fashioned. As the Qur’an tells us (17:110) “Say, “Call upon Allah or call upon Ar-Rahman-Arabic or Ha Rakhaman-Hebrew, the Most Merciful. Whichever [name] you call – to Him belong the best names. And do not recite your prayer [too] loudly or [too] quietly, but seek a way in between.”

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Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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