There are a number of different names used when referring to ‘God’ in the Old Testament. Every name has it's own subtle meaning and use, and it's interesting to know why each name was used and when.
Different nations in the ancient world worshipped their own gods. While the word ‘El’ was used by the Jewish patriarchs to refer to God, it often meant ‘god’ in a generic sense, rather than being the name of their own god.
The word was frequently qualified, however, to indicate the god of a specific person, or to indicate a sacred place associated with their god. Jacob, for example, resting overnight at Luz, had a remarkable dream about a staircase leading to heaven; so he called the place Beth-el, meaning the ‘house of God’ (see Genesis 28:17). Later, on his return from Haran, he “wrestled with God” all night at the ford of the River Jabbok near Mahanaim. Jacob called the place Peni-el (meaning ‘face of God’) as he had met God face to face. God gave Jacob the name Isra-el, meaning ‘he struggles with God’ – the name adopted by the Jewish nation established after the conquest of Canaan in 1406BC, and still used by the Jewish state of Israel today. Many personal names such as Elisha (‘God is [my] salvation’) and Eleazar (‘God is [my] helper’) reflect a similar use of the word ‘El’.
Peni-el, where Jacob 'wrestled' with El / God (Dr. Meierhofer)
Yahweh (or Jehovah) and Adonai
Before Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt in c.1447BC, their God was referred to as the God of a specific person or place. He is ‘the God of Bethel’ (Hebrew, ‘el Bethel’) (see Genesis 31:13), or ‘the God of your fathers’, ‘the God of Abraham’, ‘the God of Isaac’ and ‘the God of Jacob’ (see Exodus 3:15).
But when God appeared in a burning bush on Mt Sinai, he revealed to Moses his own personal name. God told Moses, "after you lead the people out of Egypt, all of you will worship me on this mountain.” (Exodus 3:12) Moses asked God what he should tell the people if they ask on whose authority he has been sent. "God said to Moses, 'I AM WHO I AM (Hebrew, ‘Ehyeh aser Ehyeh’). When you go to the people of Israel, tell them, 'I AM (Hebrew, ‘YHWH’, which sounds like ‘Ehyeh’) sent me to you… This will always be my name, by which people from now on will know me'.” (Exodus 3:14-15)
Hebrew has no vowels when written, only consonants, so the Hebrew word ‘YHWH’ is unpronounceable unless vowels are added. In any case, the personal name of God was regarded as so holy that it was never spoken by Jews. Instead, they substituted the word Adonai (Hebrew, ‘Adonay’, meaning ‘my Lord’) in place of 'YHWH'. By adding the spoken vowels from the Hebrew word ‘adonay’ (a short ‘a’ sound and a long ‘ay’ sound) the name 'YHWH' can be transliterated into English as ‘YaHWeH’ (pronounced ‘Ya-way’). This is sometimes translated in English versions of the Bible as ‘Jehovah’.
As Jews always substituted ‘Adonai’ for ‘YHWH’, some English translations use the word ‘LORD’ (written in capitals) wherever 'YHWH' occurs in the Hebrew text. At the opening of the 23rd Psalm, for example, David declares, “The LORD (written ‘YHWH’, but spoken as ‘Adonai’) is my shepherd” (Psalm 23:1). Similarly, Aaron blessed the people with the benediction beginning, “May the LORD (‘YHWH' / 'Adonai’) bless you and keep you” (Numbers 6:24).
Both the shortened form ‘Yah’ and the longer version ‘Jehovah’ were often linked to other words to indicate a reference to God. In this way, the Jews sang ‘Hallelu-jah’ (‘Praise Yahweh’ or ‘Praise the LORD’) when they went up to the Temple (see Psalms 104:35, 105:45, 106:1 & 48). An alternative phrase was ‘Hallelu Adonai’ (see Psalm 117:1). The place where the LORD prevented Abraham from sacrificing his son Isaac became known as Jehovah-jireh (‘The LORD (YHWH) provides’) (see Genesis 22:14). The prefix ‘Jo’ or ‘Je’ in English often represents a translation of ‘Yah’ in Hebrew, as in Joshua (Hebrew, ‘Yehoshua’ meaning ‘Yahweh saves’), Jehoiakim (‘Yahweh has established’) and Joash or Jehoash (‘Yahweh has given’). The names of the prophets Joel and Elijah (‘Yahweh is God’) both combine ‘El’ and ‘Yah’ in one word.
Mt Sinai, where God revealed his name YHWH to Moses (Mohammed Moussa)
The Hebrew word ‘elohim’ is the plural of ‘el’, meaning ‘gods’. It may refer to pagan gods, false gods, or even images treated as gods (see Deuteronomy 4:28).
It was also used as a singular noun, however, to denote the one supreme deity or God. The opening words of the Jewish scriptures declare, “In the beginning God (Hebrew, ‘Elohim’, the ‘one supreme God’) created the sky and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). When Jacob erected an altar at Shechem, he called it ‘El Elohe Yisrael’ (Hebrew, meaning ‘God (El), the one supreme God (Elohim) of Jacob (Israel)’) (see Genesis 33:20). ‘Elohim’ is sometimes used in conjunction with God’s personal name, ‘Yahweh’. In the third of the Ten Commandments, as recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy, for example, God says, “because I, the LORD your God, (Hebrew, ‘Yahweh Elohim’) am a jealous God” (Deuteronomy 5:8).
Shechem, where Jacob erected an altar to El Elohe Yisrael ( עדירלעדירל )
The use of Yahweh and Elohim in the Bible
The first five books of the Old Testament (the Jewish Torah or 'Law') were compiled in their present form from at least four different sources. The different sources used different words when referring to God.
The first source is often referred to as ‘J’ because, in the Hebrew text, the author used God’s personal name Yahweh (translated as ‘Jehovah’). These sections of the Bible were probably written down from earlier oral traditions in the south of Israel shortly after the establishment of the United Monarchy in 1004 BC.
The second source is known as ‘E’ because the author referred to God by the Hebrew word Elohim. These sections of the Bible were compiled from oral traditions in the north of Israel. They were probably written down and combined with the ‘J’ source to form a single text during the 10th century BC.
Adonai Tzvaot or Yahweh Sebaot
The name, ‘Adonai Tzvaot’ or ‘Yahweh Sebaot’ (Hebrew, meaning ‘The LORD of hosts’) was a divine title first used when God (‘Yahweh / Adonai’) was worshipped in the sanctuary at Shiloh. As the title refers to the ruler over all the heavenly powers, it is sometimes translated as ‘the LORD Almighty’ or 'the LORD All-powerful' (see 1 Samuel 1:3).
When David was taunted by the Philistine champion Goliath, he responded with the words, “I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty” (Hebrew, ‘Yahweh sebaot’, spoken as ‘Adonai tzvaot’) (1 Samuel 17:45). The title occurs many times in the psalms and the prophets. Jeremiah, alone, used it over eighty times (see, for example, Jeremiah 2:19 and Psalm 24:10).
Tel Azeka, where David defeated Goliath (Ricardo Tulio Gandelman)
The title, 'Kadosh Yisrael’ (Hebrew, meaning, ‘The Holy One of Israel’) was used many times by the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, as well as by other writers in the psalms. Isaiah, for example, complains that the people have forsaken God and have turned away from "the Holy One of Israel” (see Isaiah 1:4).