The question of who God is may be one of the most difficult to answer. The reason for its complexity is not difficult to understand: No one has seen God.
The Creator of the Universe
It is difficult enough sometimes to describe certain things in our physical environment. As impossible as it may seem to understand who God is, it is a subject humans throughout time have sought to comprehend and many people have tried to describe who God is. One understanding that runs through most of the descriptions is that God is the creator of the universe, the one who existed before everything else came to be.
The name “God” is used as a proper noun. “God” with a capital ‘g’ is separated from ‘god’ or ‘gods’ with lowercase g’s, which are used as common nouns to refer to other deities. When people refer to “God”, there is usually the understanding that they are talking about the supreme being who made the heavens and the earth, the one who created human beings. He is the one whom the Jews and Christians worship.
The Name “God” and its Significance
The basic word for “God” in Hebrew is ‘El, familiar from the ending of several proper names such as Israel. Interestingly, the same word is used as the name of the high god of the Canaanite pantheon, while the Bible also roundly condemns the worship of another Canaanite god, Ba’al.
This word occurs in some compound names for God such as:
- ‘El ‘Elyon, “God most high” (Genesis 14:18, 19, 20, 22; cf. Psalm 57:3); and
- ‘El Shadday (alternatively spelled El Shaddai), “God almighty” (Genesis 17:1; 28:3; 35:11; 43:14; 48:3; Exodus 6:3; Ezekiel 10:5; cf. Job 8:5 and 35:13).
More commonly in the Hebrew Bible, the word for God is the plural form ‘Elohim. Does the plural form hint at an earlier polytheism? Possibly. Earlier scholars confidently identified this as a “plural of majesty.” However, more recent scholarship indicates this grammatical idea is known in some European traditions but is hard to find in the biblical world. A few Christian scholars have even suggested that the plural indicates the Trinity, but there is no evidence for that in the Hebrew text.
The Names of God in the Hebrew Bible
Although “God” is the name that this supreme creator is generally known by, He was and is still known by other names. These other names are based on how God reveals Himself to His people, or how they relate with Him. The names of God are very important to understanding the character of God. In ancient times, the Jews who worshiped Him used names to capture the very character of a person. When one heard someone’s name, it revealed clues about who they were.
El Shaddai: God Almighty
In the Old Testament, a common compound with ‘El was El Shaddai, which means “God Almighty”. The combination was used 48 times. This is the name by which God revealed Himself to Abram. In Genesis 17, He introduces Himself as El Shaddai and promises Abram descendants if he is faithful to God. As promised, God Almighty gives Abraham a son through his barren wife Sarai.
Yhwh: The Sacred Name
In the Hebrew Bible, the God of Israel and Judah has a proper name, written Yhwh in the oldest texts which do not have vowels (such as the Dead Sea Scrolls). According to Exodus 3:13-15 and 6:3, this name was revealed to Moses at the burning bush, but other parts of the Bible use the name earlier. This name was likely pronounced Yahweh, but this is uncertain. We are certain, however, that by the time of Jesus, this name was considered too sacred to pronounce. It was only uttered once a year by the High Priest on the Day of Atonement – see Mishnah: Yoma 6:2; Sotah 7:6; Sanhedrin 7:5 & 10:1; Tamid 3:8 & 7:2).
In reading the Bible, the tradition was to say “the Lord” instead of pronouncing the sacred name. This is indicated by the pattern of vowels added by Jewish scribes in the early Middle Ages and is the regular pattern in the old Greek translation called the Septuagint, from about 200 B.C.E, which uses the Greek word Kurios (Lord) to translate the sacred name. This ancient tradition is followed by many modern Bible translations, which indicate that the Hebrew text used the sacred name in a particular location by using capital letters (the LORD). It was apparently a Christian scholar in the middle ages who misunderstood the pattern of the Jewish scribes and came up with the erroneous pronunciation of “Jehovah”.
Yhwh Tseva’oth: Yhwh of Armies
The sacred name is also used in compound expressions, especially Yhwh Tseva’oth, “Yhwh of armies” (more than 200 times). (The second word is sometimes transliterated as Sabaoth, not to be confused with Sabbath.) Theologians generally interpret this as angel armies, but there are hints that there may have been an earlier time when Yhwh was thought of as a war god (for example Exodus 15:3; 1 Samuel 4:1-11; 17:45, 47). This is connected to a major challenge in biblical interpretation. In a number of passages, God tells the Israelites to exterminate enemy peoples, sometimes including women and children. Critics often make sweeping statements, claiming that the god of the Old Testament is violent and bloodthirsty.
Exploring Different Perspectives on God in the Hebrew Bible
A full discussion of the name Lord of Armies would be lengthy, but we can note here that this is certainly not the only view of God in the Hebrew Bible.
Polytheistic Influences and the First Commandment
Likewise, there are hints of an earlier time when Yhwh was considered simply the God of Israel, just as other nations had a patron deity: Chemosh was the god of Moab (Numbers 21:29; Judges 11:24; 1 Kings 11:33); Astarte of Sidon and Milcom of Amon (1 Kings 11:33). In this context, the first commandment (no other gods) does not deny that other gods exist; it simply forbids worshipping them. Similarly, Yhwh is considered the best (Exodus 15:11 and especially Psalm 82), but not necessarily the only God. Other passages, possibly later, say there is no other god (Deuteronomy 4:35, 39; 1 Kings 8:60; Isaiah 43:10; 44:6; 45:5, 14, 21, 22).
The Nature of God: Mercy, Love, and Justice
Exodus 34:5-8 contains an important story that tries to express the meaning of the name Yhwh. In most ancient cultures a name was not just a convenient label but told something about a person’s nature. About the sacred name, it says:
“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.”
The last part sounds ominous to modern ears but may refer to learned behavior or intergenerational trauma. But the emphasis is on how much greater Yhwh’s steadfast love is. Further, this passage is quoted, in part, in Numbers 14:18-19; Jeremiah 32:18; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; Psalm 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; and Nehemiah 9:17b. This is who God really is, at least according to one major current of thought in the Hebrew Bible.
Essential Characteristics of God
God has certain characteristics that are essential to who He is.
Self-Sufficiency and Holiness
To begin, God is self-sufficient. He, unlike all living beings, does not need anything to survive. God’s existence does not depend on anything. He has everything in Himself to exist. God does not require air, water, food, or shelter to exist. He is self-existent.
God is holy. He is separated from all else and transcends all. There is no one like Him on earth, or in the heavens, or in the seas. He is all pure, all light. There is no shadow of darkness in Him
Love and Patience
God is love. Not only does he exhibit love, the Bible actually calls him love in 1 John 4:16
God is patient with all of us, desiring that we should all come to His saving knowledge. According to the Bible, in Romans 3:23, we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. God sent His son, Jesus, to die for sinful humanity so that we may be reconciled to Him. God sending his son Jesus as a restorative act is the most glaring proof of his love
Eternity and Triune Nature
God is eternal. He existed before time, he exists now, and He will always exist. This creator is the very source of life. Unlike created things, He will never die and will live forever
He is triune. Three persons in one God. This is known as the Trinity. These three persons are the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Father is the one who sent His son to die for humanity. The Father also sent the Holy Spirit to live in His followers so that they will be sanctified and live holy lives. Although all three persons are God, people usually refer to “God, the Father” when they say “God”. While the term Trinity does not appear in scripture it is the implication of many scriptural passages and has been orthodox theology since the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E.
Justice and Omnipotence
God is just. He will not let any evil deed go unopposed. He fights for the oppressed and the downtrodden. This virtue of God gives hope. He intervenes when people are being treated unfairly. This is especially clear in the prophets, especially Amos, Micah, and Isaiah, as well as in several Psalms. Even if His intervention is not discernable through corporeal eyes He stands for justice in the eternal scheme.
Finally, God is omnipotent. This means He is all-powerful. There is nothing He cannot do. This characteristic is seen in His name “El-Shaddai” The one who created the heavens and the earth surely is able to do everything. This means those who believe in Him can go to him with whatever problem is too big for them. They can go to Him trusting that He is able to help them in whatever has become a burden to them. This can get confusing if you think in philosophical terms. Some ask, “Can God make a rock bigger than God can lift?” But the Bible is not about philosophically abstract ideas. “Almighty” simply means that ultimately God is in control.
Invitation to All People
Although God is worshiped by Christians, He welcomes everyone who will come to Him. Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, says that he will not turn away whoever comes to Him (John 6:37). No matter who we are and what we have done, we can go to Him confident that he will accept us and reveal Himself to us. God, even though He is so holy and so transcendent, desires to have His creation draw close to Him. He is our Heavenly Father. He assures us that whoever seeks Him will find Him. Therefore, though we know so much about God from his word, the sure way we can really know Him is if we seek Him with all our hearts. (Jeremiah 29:13)
What do you think? Please share your thoughts below.
Too often, people answer faith questions with dogmatic certitude and neglect the historic diversity and complexity of Christian ideas. The Questions Project is a resource that responds to questions about faith, history, and scripture in a way that honors the historic diversity and complexity of Christian thought. But, this is a work in process and we need your help. Please provide feedback. We are particularly interested in knowing what we have missed and how we can improve our responses. Please keep all comments kind or risk deletion.