Monotheists Loving One Name Of God Above All Others – OpEd


Polytheists have many names for God because they have many Gods; just as every human has many names for his or her many relatives and friends. 

But how can monotheistic religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam have many names for the One and only God in whom they deeply believe? 

The explanation is that only one of the One God’s ‘names’ is an unique personal name; all the other ‘names’ are appellations or titles that refer to one of One God’s many attributes (creator, ruler or redeemer) or God’s character traits (merciful, just or forgiving).  

Polytheists have many personal names because they have many Gods, although different names sometimes simply reflect different cultures like the Greek Zeus and the Roman Jupiter. However, the overwhelming majority of the names recorded in the Encyclopedia of Gods by Michael Jordan, (which contains over 2.500 entries about individual named deities from ancient and modern societies) reflect real differences the eyes of their worshippers  

Even the 2,500+ named God’s in the book do not include the thousands of unnamed Chinese Taoist and Japanese Shinto deities or the “ten thousand plus” Hittite Gods who are not referred to as individuals. These multiple names are not different names for the One God. They reflect belief in multiple Gods.

The oldest known deity in written human history is Anu, a Sumerian god worshiped in ancient Mesopotamia. Anu was called the father of the gods and was responsible for the creation of the whole universe. Anu was worshiped as early as the 3rd millennium BCE. 

Over time, Anu’s significance diminished as the Babylonians adopted and transformed the pantheon of Mesopotamian gods. No one has worshiped Anu for the last 3,000 years but the monotheistic name of God remains alive. 

For those religions that trace their prophets back to Prophet Abraham; the many names or appellations (titles and descriptions) of God simply describe different aspects or attributes of the one God’s multifaceted personality. 
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. 

While each name is only one of the many appellations of the One universal creator of space and time;  Christianity, Islam and Judaism each have one 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. 

This personal name is connected to the covenant the One God YHVH made with Moses (Exodus 3:13-15) with Jesus (Matthew 3:16-17), and with Muhammad (Qur’an 33:7) 

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:

Names of God in Arabic Hebrew and English

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).

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 intense presence 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 2ed 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 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. 

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.

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. 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.

As Prophet Isaiah states: “And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast to my covenant, these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (Isaiah 56:6-7)

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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