Learning from the Names of God

September 6, 2013

In a recent reading of Genesis, one of the things that struck me is how we come to know God from the narrative. Names for God are introduced in the context of a story. God’s actions and speeches are a part of a narrative. This is a striking contrast to how we might learn about God in other contexts. The systematic theology will discuss God in abstract definitions. Historically, the catechism will teach about God with the repetition of certain questions and answers. The way that God has chosen to introduce himself is strikingly more personal and more interesting. The sharing of life stories is typically the way we get to know one another. Who doesn’t delight in a story?

Elmer Towns in his book, My Father’s Names, gives an appendix listing 85 names of God in the Old Testament. Primary names are God, Jehovah, and Lord. God (Elohim, El, and Eloah) suggests the mighty creator (Gen. 1:1). Jehovah (or Yahweh) is explained by “I am”—the self-existing one who is faithful to His covenants (see Exodus 3:14-15). Lord or Master (Adonai) reminds us who is in control and to whom do we belong. The remaining names in Town’s list are compound names containing either “God” or “Jehovah” with a further description.

Studying the names of God is one way of getting to know God. Elmer Towns suggests several benefits from such a study. The names of God reveal different attributes of God. We gain insights into God’s character from the names and descriptive titles found in scripture. Secondly, the names suggest the kind of relationships we can have with God. When we hear God called Shepherd and Rock (Genesis 49:24), we are finding out about another’s relationship with God, and it suggests the kind of relationship we too may find. Third, the names of God often reveal that God is the source to meet our needs and solve our problems. As we grasp the meaning of God’s names, we may learn to be dependent upon Him.

Eighty-fives names are beyond what I want to list here, but consider the following list from Genesis.

  • Jehovah, God Most High (Genesis 14:22)
  • My Lord Jehovah (Genesis 15:2)
  • The God who sees (Genesis 16:13)
  • God Almighty (Genesis 17:1, 2) also Mighty One of Jacob (Genesis 49:24)
  • Jehovah-jireh that is Jehovah will provide (Genesis 22:14)
  • The Shepherd, the Rock of Israel (Genesis 49:24)

May our knowledge of God (both intellectual and experiential) grow as we learn from the names of God.

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