Names of God in Genesis and Exodus


Is Yahweh the God who revealed himself as El Shaddai to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Or is he just “a god” invented among many others, in order to justify Israel’s history by associating it with the power of the one true God? The answer to that can be clearly found in the Holy Scripture: the God who revealed himself to Moses as YHWH (Exodus 3.15) is the God who was known to the patriarchs as El Elyon (Genesis 14.18–22), El Elohe Israel (Genesis 33.20) or El Shaddai (Gen 49.25). The question that remains, however, is why did He choose to reveal His name at that precise moment?

I do not dare to affirm that I know the plan of God; however, when reading these stories from the perspective of the Exodus book, we can perceive the names attributed to God in Genesis as prerequisites for understanding God’s revelation in Exodus 3.13–15, and especially for the passage of Exodus 6.1–8. We can see this process of gradual revelation as vital, because the chosen people could not comprehend this revelation without proper preparation. For example, it would have been easier for the patriarchs and their people to understand that El was the God who had made a covenant with them, than to be abruptly introduced to a God whose name they had not heard before.

First of all, I will talk about one of the most important biblical theories which derives from this problematic, Wellhausen’s Documentary Hypothesis, where the Yahwist source is in conflict with the Priestly and Elohist sources. The second argument will consist of the analysis of three very important passages from Genesis: 1.26–27, 14.18–22, and 49.25. Each of them reveal some kind of sense that will become more evident later on. Afterwards, three other passages from Exodus will be analyzed, namely 3.13–15, 6.2–8, and 34.5–7. Finally, I will argue that all three passages represent proof that it was only from that precise moment in time onwards – meaning, from the Exodus – did it become possible for the Jewish people to understand who God really is.

I. The Documentary Hypothesis dilemma

It is difficult in contemporary biblical exegesis to cling to the notion of the traditional view when talking about the authorship of Pentateuch. As such, any serious research has to take into account the Documentary Hypothesis, developed by Julius Wellhausen. It is important to discuss this hypothesis since it originated from the problem of the different names of God in the Scripture[1].

The main conflict here lies in the attribution of God’s true name either before his revelation to Moses, as the Yahwist source affirms, in contrast to the Priestly and Elohist ones, which state that it is was through Moses that the name of God, YHWH, became known.[2] If we are to read the Scripture onlyhistorically, then we will simply come to assert that it is just a book of myths.

Of course, its text cannot simply be dismissed as being historically irrelevant, because historical sources continue to have value even when they talk about events which happened a long time before. Though written in narrative form, the Bible has the same historical value as other types of archaeological discoveries.[3] However, the authors also wrote in order to show us how they feel about certain events by putting their perspective in writing. Mainly religious, it is through those views that we see the Old Testament as a mainly sacred, and not historical book.[4]

The Documentary Hypothesis must be recognized as valid and useful in deciphering how Scripture came to be in the way that we behold it today. Regarding the names of God, it helps us understand each tradition as having a part to play, in spite of the contradictions that may exist in the text.[5] The fact that they have been preserved as they have means that each one has meaning.

II. Names of God in Genesis

a) Elohim – God as sculptor of mankind (Genesis 1.2627)

Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth’. So God created humankind in His image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.[6]

In this passage, God (Elohim) is presented by the priestly writer as a creator who molds humankind in His image and likeness as His final act of creation. But why is God called Elohim in this passage? Because Genesis 1–2.4a is part of the Priestly account, we cannot expect to find the name Yahweh mentioned yet.[7]

God said, “Let there be Light” and there was light. Michael Kapeluck

But why exactly was the word “elohim” used? In Hebrew text it is often used as the name of God, being plural in form, but translated as God in other languages.[8] God created the human being through personal involvement.[9] As a result, He is not as remote as some would think. He creates humans “in His image”, just as a sculptor would model a replica of himself out of clay.[10]

As we can infer from this passage, the title Elohim alludes to a God who is directly involved in the lives of people, being portrayed here in an anthropomorphic way.[11] God as Yahweh will also be present amongst His people, hearing their cry from Egypt (Ex 3.7) and rescuing them from slavery, then leading them to the Promised Land through His prophet, Moses.

b) El Elyon – The name of God in a messianic prophecy (Genesis 14.1820)

And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of El Elyon. He blessed him and said: ‘Blessed be Abram by El Elyon, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be El Elyon, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!’ And Abram gave him one tenth of everything.

God Most High (El Elyon) is the God who is worshipped by Melchizedek,[12] the priest who is often acknowledge as the foreshadowing of Jesus Christ, the High Priest.[13] It is interesting to note that, according to biblical scholars, chapter 14 of Genesis can be regarded as anomalous, seeing as it cannot be identified with any of the three sources: Yahwist, Elohist or Priestly one.[14]

“Abraham and Melchizedek,” The Sinai Icon Collection

From what we can see, the name “El Elyon” appears in three verses. The first verse realizes a direct connection between Melchizedek and Jesus, the first being the typos, the second, the prototypos. In the second verse, Melchizedek praises the Lord as the Creator of all by admitting that He created heaven and earth.[15] Finally, by interceding to God on behalf of Abraham, he once again embodies the Son of God, who blesses us through his requests to the Father in our name.[16]

The meaning of El Elyon is related to Yahweh, seeing as both names refer to the impossibility of comprehending God in all of his splendor. This may seem paradoxical when compared to my conclusion regarding the title Elohim, but we have to acknowledge that in God there is no paradox. He is directly involved in our lives, whether we sense it or not. It is for that reason that Melchizedek, as a typos of Jesus, plays a similar role to Moses.

c) El Shaddai – The God of the mountain, guardian of Joseph (Genesis 49.25)

By the God of your father, who will help you, by the Almighty who will bless you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that lies beneath, blessings of the breasts and of the womb.

The name of God Almighty (Shaddai) appears in the Scripture several times in Genesis (Gen 17.1; 28.3; 35.11; 43.14; 48.3); thus, we notice that it appears in this book of Scripture for the last time in the passage what was quoted above. Even though its meaning has been debated for some time, it is now commonly accepted that it should be translated as “God of the Mountain”.

The entire chapter 49 is full of prophecies in regard to the sons of Jacob. How should, then, one regard 49.25? Shaddai, translated as “God of the Mountain,” foreshadows God’s revelation on Mount Sinai (Ex 6.2–8). From this, it can be surmised that the name El Shaddai represented the fulfillment of the promises made to the patriarchs, a sign of certainty for His people.

When compared to the name of Yahweh, El Shaddai represents one of the final pieces of the puzzle that leads to the discovery of the true name of God. And this God, as Paul Nadim Tarazi affirms, is not the God of a place, but the God of an event, the Exodus.[17]

III. Names of God in Exodus

a) The Burning Bush – YHWH reveals himself (Exodus 3.1315)

But Moses said to God, If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you’, and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?. God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am’. He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, I am has sent me to you.’ God also said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, The Lord, the God of your ancestors, 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 title for all generations. ’

Having passed on to the book of Exodus, we are near to become witnesses of the revelation of God’s name.[18] The episode at Exodus 3.13-15 represents the beginning of a new covenant with the chosen people through Moses. It is only now that God starts to make his true name known.

Moses and the Burning Bush, Byzantine mosaic

Why exactly does God uses the verb “I am” to describe himself? Is it because God was perhaps afraid to reveal his name[19]? Quite the opposite: it proves that Yahweh will liberate his people through his power. As such, God’s revelation of His Name indicates his self-existence.[20]

Here is the first time one can get a glimpse at who God really was, thanks to Moses’ insistence. The book of Exodus now becomes the “interpretive matrix of Genesis”, having an important role in preparing the Jews for acknowledging that the God who revealed himself to Moses is the same one as the God who was called different names by the patriarchs.[21]

b) God’s true name (Exodus 6.28)

God also spoke to Moses and said to him: ‘I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name ‘The Lord’ I did not make myself known to them. I also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they resided as aliens. I have also heard the groaning of the Israelites whom the Egyptians are holding as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant. Say therefore to the Israelites, I am the Lord, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgement. I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord. ’

In regards to the discussions surrounding the name of God, this can be regarded as the key passage, the lens that brings every name of God used before in focus. The God of Exodus appeared to Abraham and the other patriarchs under the name El Shaddai, as well as under others ones which have been discussed above. The role these names played therefore starts to become clear.

Apart from the emphasis placed by the biblical writers of E and P on the fact that Yahweh was all along the God worshipped by the Jews, what other things does it mean? The answer is simple: God has remembered his covenant made with them, a covenant that He has not forgotten and which He is intent on keeping.[22]

As such, even though God made himself known to the ancestors under different names, in Exodus 2.6–8 He identifies Himself as the deity who saved his people from pharaoh. Thus, we can affirm alongside Paul Tarazi that “the subject of the divine actions in the Old Testament is not identified until the event of exodus”.[23] The name YHWH encompasses all of His previous names.

c) Yahweh’s Proclamation (Exodus 34.5–7)

The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name, ‘The Lord’. The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation. ’

After the episode of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32), when the Jews betray God and Moses destroys the tablets in anger, the prophet returns to the top of Mount Sinai in order to receive a replacement for them.[24] This sets the context for the above passage, in which one of the most important revelations in the entire Scripture takes place.

In this passage, YHWH reveals himself to Moses whilst proclaiming His name, announcing certain traits as the meaning of his appellation. God is “merciful and gracious”, indicating that He is thoroughly and permanently present in our lives, intervening on our behalf. “Slow to anger,” YHWH shows that He is the true God, unlike the pagan idols which were often depicted as being quick to anger. The “steadfast love” which is kept “for the thousandth generation” demonstrates His limitless nature.[25] Finally, He announces that those who will not redeem themselves shall pass on the consequences of their sins to the next generations. Only those who repent will be forgiven.[26]

God is not constrained by nature. He determines himself, and that is what Moses experienced. It is immediately afterwards that the covenant which was broken by the Jews is renewed. By proclaiming his name, God also restores his covenant, linking those two events in an inextricable way.


We can thus see that the problem of the names of God in Genesis and Exodus can be approached in a variety of ways. However, it is clear that the names which were used for God in Genesis played an important role in understanding God’s name, Yahweh, in Exodus. In this sense, the Documentary Hypothesis can be regarded as an important tool in helping us decipher the meaning of each passage where God’s name is present, but only if we look and analyze those passages retrospectively, in light of God’s revelation at Mount Sinai.

The examples that have been provided from Genesis and Exodus are representative in this sense. The name Elohim alludes to his closeness to us, and that is what YHWH has done in the midst of Israelites, starting with the commissioning of Moses. El Elyon reminds us that God is not to be regarded lightly, because He is above all. That is the reason for which Yahweh spoke to the Israelites through an exceptional man as Moses, revealing that He is the one and same God of the Patriarchs. Finally, as El Shaddai, the God by whom Joseph is blessed through the intercession of Jacob, foreshadows the event at Mount Sinai where Moses has the privilege to witness His presence directly as God proclaims His name, thus leading to the renewal of the covenant in the light of understanding God’s names in Exodus through His genuine name. At the end, we can affirm that the names of God in Genesis have to be regarded as essential precursory stages, required for the proper understanding of Yahweh’s revelation in Exodus, but only if we read the Scripture theologically. Otherwise, by reading Scripture in a historical way, we will come to the conclusion that we are dealing with a collection of myths, and not with the Holy Scripture. In light of this, it is not outlandish to state that only if we read Scripture retrospectively can we realize that Elohim, El Elyon and El Shaddai are all gradual revelations of Yahweh, the God who has revealed himself to Moses, and through Him, to us.

+ In Christ,
Tiberiu – Georgian Opris

Tiberiu-Georgian Opriș is a seminarian of the Romanian Orthodox Church, currently pursuing a Master of Theology degree at Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary (Yonkers, USA), having just graduated from the same institution with a Master of Arts degree.


[1] Michael D. Coogan, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 21–23.

[2] Coogan, The Old Testament, 23–24.

[3] Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, Tremper Longman III, Preface to A Biblical History of Israel, 2nd ed., by Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, Tremper Longman III (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), xi.

[4] Paul Nadim Tarazi, The Old Testament: An Introduction, vol. 1: Historical Traditions (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1991), 6–7.

[5] A well-known example in the Scripture would be the description of Jesus’ Resurrection by the Gospels, were each differs from the other in a more or less significant way.

[6] Unless otherwise stated, all scriptural texts will be from The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

[7] Tarazi, The Old Testament: An Introduction, 136.

[8] Coogan, The Old Testament, 13.

[9] Unlike animals, which were created through the power of his word (Gen 1.20–25).

[10] A fact which needs to be observed: it is stated that God initially planned to make humankind “in our image, according to our likeness” (Gen 1.26), but afterwards it is affirmed that “in the image of God He created them”, not mentioning “likeness”.

[11] Erhard S. Gerstenberger, Yahweh the Patriarch: Ancient Images of God and Feminist Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 134.

[12] An historian by the name of Victor P. Hamilton affirms that, based on his discoveries, the name El Elyon does not match the name of any known deity in the Pantheon of the Canaanites. For more information on this, see Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel, 2nd ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 170.

[13] It is worth mentioning that this is the only place in the Holy Scripture where no genealogy is given for a certain character.

[14] Coogan, The Old Testament, 80.

[15] St John Chrysostom, Omilii la Facere, vol. 2, Părinți și Scriitori Bisericești 22 (Bucharest: Editura Institutului Biblic și de Misiune al Bisericii Ortodoxe Române, 1989), 24.

[16] St Cyril of Alexandria, Glafire, vol. 2, Părinți și Scriitori Bisericești 39 (Bucharest: Editura Institutului Biblic și de Misiune al Bisericii Ortodoxe Române, 1992), 69.

[17] Tarazi, The Old Testament: An Introduction, 43–44.

[18] All the passages that will be analysed onwards are part of either the E or P sources, so no reference will be made referring to the code they might belong.

[19] Coogan, The Old Testament, 87–88.

[20] Gayle D. Erwin, YHWH Style: A Fresh Look at the Nature of God the Father (Cathedral City, CA: Yahshua Publishing, 1991), 7.

[21] Thomas L. Thompson, “The Intellectual Matrix of Early Biblical Narrative: Inclusive Monotheism in Persian Period Palestine,” in The Triumph of Elohim: From Yahwisms to Judaisms (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 118.

[22] Tarazi, The Old Testament: An Introduction, 42.

[23] Tarazi, The Old Testament: An Introduction, 42.

[24] This episode shows us that the Jews needed to be constantly reminded that they were freed by YHWH, and not just another divinity, and that YHWH is their one and true Lord, The Lord God.

[25] Erwin, YHWH Style, 28–39.

[26] Erwin, YHWH Style, 46.

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