“What’s in a name?”
Actually, quite a bit. Usually a person’s name is the first thing you learn about them. When we meet someone with whom we’ve had prior connections, we often speak of putting a “name to a face,” or something like that. And one of the most awkward social settings occurs when you forget someone’s name.
Names are important, because names convey a sense of connectedness. So what about God? How did God become “Father?” To understand this we have to dig through the Hebrew Scriptures a bit, but ultimately we’ll see how the character of God spans both the Old and New Testaments.
NAMES OF GOD
If we only had the Old Testament to work with, we wouldn’t have the easiest time finding examples of God referred to as “Father.” This is at least partially due to God’s holiness. Israel was surrounded by nations whose religions included emphasis on fertility cults and pagan ceremonies. To overuse the word “Father” might have prompted some Israelites to see God on equal footing with these other gods.
Instead, we find a constellation of other words used for God. The top three are:
- Elohim (“God”)
- Yahweh (meaning something like “I Am” or maybe “He is”)
- Adonai (meaning “my Lord”)
What’s interesting is that the names Elohim and Adonai contain plural components to the words—emphasizing, to one degree or another, God’s three-in-oneness.
The name “Yahweh”—usually abbreviated as YHWH—appears frequently throughout the Old Testament. Have you ever noticed that some English Bibles spell the word “LORD” with all capital letters? It’s the publishers’ way of cluing us in as to when the name YHWH appears in the Hebrew.
But wait, you might be thinking. What about the name “Jehovah?” That’s actually an interesting story.
See, the name Yahweh is so deeply personal that the Jews preferred not to say it—fearing that doing so would be to utter God’s name in vain and violate the third commandment. So what they would do is they would deliberately substitute the name “Adonai” instead.
How did they know when to do this? The Hebrew language doesn’t usually use written vowels—only consonants. But in the ancient world they found it helpful to write vowels underneath the words to help in religious ceremonies. So what they did was they went through the Old Testament, and every time they saw the name “Yahweh,” they would write the vowels for the word “Adonai.” This was to remind them that when they came across the name “Yahweh,” they were to say the word “Adonai.” Does this sound complicated? Sure; but it was what they did when they desired to retain the Holiness of God.
Now imagine you don’t know about this practice. You learn some Hebrew, and you decide to read along—and then you encounter “Yahweh” with the vowels for “Adonai” underneath. When you mash them together, you get the word “Jehovah.” That’s literally where it comes from—the ancient equivalent of a typo. So the word “Jehovah” never appears in the Bible; it’s just not one of God’s names.
THE EMERGENCE OF “FATHER”
So what about “Father?” Naturally, the role of “Father” became most prominent with the arrival of Jesus, the Son, but this is not to say that the Old Testament lacks reference to God as Father. In the Psalms we read:
Father of the fatherless and protector of widows
is God in his holy habitation. (Psalm 68:5)
Elsewhere God’s Fatherhood is emphasized in relationship to the nation of Israel. That is, God didn’t just create the natural world; He also formed the nation as His people:
Do you thus repay the Lord,
you foolish and senseless people?
Is not he your father, who created you,
who made you and established you? (Deuteronomy 32:6)
But now, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand. (Isaiah 64:8)
WHY THIS MATTERS
Why is this so important? Because while the New Testament clarifies God’s role as Father, there’s no actual change in His character from the world of the Old Testament to the New.
But because God the Father has a definite name and a definite identity, it defies our attempts to alter God to suit our needs—or, more accurately, our wants. After their escape from Egypt, the people of Israel grew restless and impatient, with God as well as with Moses. So Aaron helped the people melt down their jewelry and make a golden calf. “These are your gods,” they said, “who brought you up out of the Land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4). Aaron even declared that the next day would be a “feast to the LORD” (32:5)—and yes, the word YHWH appears there.
It’s tempting, of course, when moments seem desperate, to re-fashion God into something that serves our immediate wants and felt needs. But if God has a name, if God reveals Himself as Father, then we have to put His name to His face. That is, we have to take God as He is, not merely who we’d like Him to be. Because in both the quieter moments of loneliness and amidst the noise of human desperation, I need to know that I can trust a God who transcends—nay, defies the limits of human imagination. That’s a God I can depend on. That’s a God worth believing in. And the most spectacular news of all is not only do we know Him by name, but He knows each of ours as well.