What’s in a name? In Genesis, everything
Theologians have long debated even the significance of the name for God
In Genesis, names are everything. Sometimes they are just plain interesting linguistically, sometimes they describe the characters, and sometimes they tell parts of the story.
An example of the first type is that of the name of God in the very first verse (“ In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”). God’s name in Hebrew here is elohim. Elohim is unusual here in that while Genesis speaks of only one God as creator, elohim is plural in form, and in other contexts it might be translated as “gods.” We know elohim is singular in usage, because it is used in nearly all of Genesis with a singular verb.
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Some Christians have seen the use of elohim as suggestive of the Trinity — there is a plurality of three persons in one God. But there’s no evidence that the original readers thought of it that way. Instead, the word might have been understood originally as suggestive of God’s majesty. Historically, use of plural form may have come about as the polytheistic culture of Canaan transformed into one believing in one true God that ruled over all.
There is a singular form of elohim, eloah, but it isn’t found in Genesis. It can be found dozens of times in the Old Testament, however, often to refer to the gods of people other than the Israelites. Eloah is also used frequently to refer to God in the book of Job, which has a setting outside of Israel.
But here’s where elohim becomes particularly interesting: Elohim is used with a plural verb rather than a singular one in Genesis 1:26, leading to translations such as: “God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness.”
Why elohim is used as a plural here has been subject of discussion and debate among theologians for centuries. Again, some have seen echoes of the Trinity in this passage, while others have seen something like the “royal we” of English. One of the more intriguing explanations is that the verse refers to God speaking to his heavenly court or assembly. (The assembly is referred to in passages such as 1 Kings 22:19-22, Job 1:6-12 and Isaiah 6:1-8.)
The Hebrew word for “humankind” in Genesis 1:26 is adam, which leads us to the use of names as defining the characters. Adam can mean not only “humankind,” but also to “men” as a group and to a singlular adult male. The context tells us what meaning is applied; verse 27 makes clear that the creation here was of both men and women, not just males or a single man.
But once adam clearly refers to a single male in the creation account, the lack of capital letters in Hebrew makes it unclear whether the word refers to a generic male or to one named Adam. Thus in Genesis 2:19, some Bible translations have God telling an unnamed man to name the animals, and others have God talking to Adam. Practically, there’s not much difference between the two, as the theological point of both translations is that God was delegating responsibility for caring for the animals to this particular man. Adam’s name tells us that he was the man.
Eve’s name also tells us her significance. In Genesis 3:20 Adam gives her the Hebrew name of Chavvah, meaning “giver of life.”
Dozens of other names in Genesis similarly tell us something about personal characteristics. Among the examples are names of Ishmael (“God hears,” because his mother pleaded to have a baby), Isaac (“laughed,” because his father laughed at the prospect of having a child when his wife, Sarah, was 90 and he was 100) and Esau (whose name sounded similar to the word for “hairy”).
‘Israel’ as a name
Finally, a few of the names in Genesis tell a story, especially when they are changed.
Abraham was originally known as Abram, meaning something like “exalted father.” But the new name God gave him was one that sounded similar to a phrase meaning “father of a multitude” or “father of nations.”
Even more important was the name change for Jacob, whose name originally referred to the heel he was holding onto upon being born along with his twin bother, Esau. The story of Jacob’s name change begins in Genesis 32:24, where Jacob wrestles with a man, often depicted in art as an angel, whom he later realizes is God. They wrestle all night, continuing until dawn even after God dislocates Jacob’s hip socket. God wants to leave, but Jacob insists on receiving a blessing first, so God gives him this blessing: “Your name will no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have fought with God and with men, and have prevailed.”
Translations that have been given for “Israel” include “God prevails,” “God fights,” “one who prevails with God” and “one who strives with God.”
This name arguably became the most important of Genesis, for it became the name of a nation that both struggled and prevailed for hundreds of years.
This commentary on Genesis is part of our Bible for Modern-day Saints series. Biblical quotations are adapted from the World English Bible, which is in the public domain.