The Many Names of God

I have had God on the brain. Considering that we Catholics are amidst our high holy days, the Triduum (meaning “three days"), I guess it makes sense that I would have God on the brain.

And so, with God on the brain, I was thinking of all the different names there are for God. Sometimes I find it easier to pray, and to find peace in the idea of God, if I use a different name (i.e., not “God”). Contemplating the many different names for God that have been used throughout the ages helps me to remember that, really, God cannot be described by our words nor contained in our thoughts. Whatever God is or is not, one thing I feel sure of is that God is beyond what we can conceive or express.

Here are some of the many names for God that have been used since antiquity. I have tended to draw from the Judeo-Christian tradition, since that is the tradition I claim. Some of the oldest names for God are:

El - supreme God; used by ancient Hebrews (before they were really the Hebrews, I guess) to describe the God above all gods. Remember, this was back when our ancestors were transitioning from polytheism to monotheism.

El-Roi - God Who sees me; from the story of Hagar and Ishmael in Genesis 16. Hagar calls God El-Roi after having seen God and survived (the ancient Hebrews had a strong belief that a person could not see God and live).

El-Shaddai - God of the mountain; an expression of God’s might

YWHW - In English, vowels were added to make it “Yaweh.” In the Jewish tradition, the name of God is never spoken aloud (even when written, it is typically “G-d”); so we aren’t really sure how this was pronounced by the ancient Hebrews, who used this name for their God once they accepted monotheism around 1000 BCE. Etymologically, YWHW is related to the ancient Hebrew word to describe existence. This is the name for God that we get from Moses when he asks God who should he say God is, and gets the famous answer “I AM WHO AM” (Exodus 3).

Shekinah - meaning “dwelling” or “settling”; expresses the concept of the spirit of God with us in a particular place (such as in the Ark of the Covenant during the wandering, or in the Temple in Jerusalem).

And other names for God in the Bible include:

Alpha (and Omega)
Ancient of Days
Desired of All Nations
Gentle Whisper

Immanuel (“God with us”)

And some of my own personal names for God (is this sacrilege?) are:

Source of All Holiness
Great Mystery

And now, just a little God-humor: Last week, I took Sister to Mass with me. During the period of quiet prayer after the homily, she asked in a rather loud voice, “What is God doin’ up there?” I very confidently replied, “I have absolutely no idea!”

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