In America, when we want to speak of the population in general, we say something like “John Q. Public” or perhaps simply “The People.” In China, it’s a bit different. They have a rather small number of surnames, most of which are only one syllable long. So when they want to talk about their citizenry, they just say “lao bai xing.” Literally, it means “Old Hundred Names.” That anonymous mass of Wangs and Zhangs and Lis.
[The problem for China’s rulers has always been how to produce enough food for lao bai xing. In America, when we talk about people, we talk about counting heads. In China, they count “ren kou.” That translates as “people mouths.” That has nothing to do with anything in particular, but I think it’s interesting.]
The thing about names is that they are, or were anyway, supposed to convey something of the essential nature of the named. In English, a Cooper made barrels, a Spinster spun, and a Glover made gloves. But if we go further back, the name was a mystical thing. According to the King James version of Genesis, “Every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air…[He] brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.”
Adam saw into the nature of each thing, and so named it. But there is one creature that Adam did not get to name. One whose nature he could not perceive and therefore coin just the right term for: God himself. And it is about the name(s) and nature of God I want to talk.
In the old, polytheistic days, the line between the human and divine was not a nice, clean binary division. All of the old gods had human traits, many had known births, and quite a few died or were killed. Heroes crossed the line into the divine, as did kings and ancestors. The old gods, in short, were supernatural in the most literal sense. They were like humans, but more powerful, longer lived, perhaps wiser, but still just above the natural world, not separate from it.
The Akkadian word for “god,” “ilu,” probably derives from a root meaning “strong” or “powerful.” That’s important because that word “ilu” will mutate its way through our whole understanding of the idea of God. And what it does not mean is “immortal” or “perfect.” All of the old gods were like us, but just more. The inversion of the old cynic, “God is made in the image and likeness of Man,” may be irritating philosophy, but it’s pretty good history.
Point is that a god, any god, was not inhuman, but rather Human Plus.
Now for the language part: Let’s look at the first mutation of “ilu.” In Hebrew, the old word for a god was “el.” But the Hebrew “el” graduated to being a personal name of God, “El.” Turns out that there once was an Ugaritic god of thunder and lightning called El. That “El” and our “El” (whose heritage one can still see in the story of Mt. Sinai) and the generic “el” are all derived from that Akkadian “ilu.”
[The roots of Semitic words are a set of consonants. You change the tense and parts of speech by swapping out the vowel sounds. The same vowel sound swapping happens as you move from language to language. Hence “ilu”and “el” are derivative and both mean “god.”
Incidentally, this column was going to be all about the names that have “el” in them, like Gabriel (strength of God), Daniel (God’s judgement), Raphael (God’s medicine), etc., but I got distracted.]
There is no question that the early text of the Hebrew Bible and hence the Old Testament were written in a polytheistic world. The pagan gods were real gods, but El was better. But how do you separate our personal god El from those other gods? Remember, the generic word for any god was el.
Pretty soon the Bible is referring to our God, the really big one, as “Elohim.” One could argue that this is even more confusing, as this is simply a plural form of “El.” Apparently there was a tradition in the Semitic languages to form an intensifier or honorific by using a plural form of the word as a singular noun.
Got all that?
Point here is that now we have a new personal name for God. Our God. The Big One: Elohim.
But calling somebody “God,” or even “God(s)” doesn’t tell you very much about him…or her. To follow how God got exalted above all the other gods and acquired a different nature we have to look at what was originally another god, YHWH.
Insofar as it can be traced, YHWH was another of those local gods that got adopted into Israel. [Remember that Semitic languages use consonantal roots of the word, with the vowels varying. We don’t know what the original vowels of YHWH were, so we don’t know how it was pronounced. In fact even its transliteration varies, with JHVH being perfectly OK.] What’s interesting here is that the meaning of the name became a theological departure point in Israel. Eventually, El and YHWH merged and became a much more sophisticated unity.
Although some linguists disagree on this, YHWH is generally taken to be based on a word meaning “to be.” That means that when God says his name is YHWH, he might be saying something like “My name is ‘I am’.” Or perhaps he is saying, “I am who am” or maybe “I am what I am.”
What does that tell us about God? Maybe he means I’m the one who is and always was (i.e. no beginning, no end). Maybe he means something about his immanent creative and sustaining reality. Or perhaps (my favorite) he simply means the theological equivalent of “What you see is what you get.” The ineffable can be experienced, but not explained.
To my mind, that merging of Elohim and YHWH began a process that continues to this day: the attempt to define God. Elohim came to mean that this god is God, unique and beyond all others. YHWH came to mean that this same God is eternal, creative, and inexpressible.
Inexpressible, but that has not stopped people from trying to delineate the nature of God, anyway. All three of the major Mid-Eastern-born religions, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, have pursued similar paths and ended up with what I consider odd destinations.
We’ve seen some of the ideas that germinated in Judaism. As a sort of half-way house, let’s look at Islam.
In Arabic, the word for a god is “illuh/illah,” once again derived from that ancient root word “ilu.” The personal name for God in Arabic, Allah, is a contraction of “al illah,” literally, “The God.”
According to Islamic tradition, Allah has one hundred names, of which ninety-nine are known. The ninety-nine names are in the Quran. Many are familiar from Hollywood movie cliches, e.g., The Compassionate, The Merciful, The All Seeing, etc. Some, however, are quite startling, and belong more to Satan in Christian thought. E.g., The Afflicter, The Avenger, The Delayer, etc.
The reason I describe this as a theological half-way house is that while Islam makes lists of the attributes of Allah and the roles he takes, it also very clearly states that his true nature cannot be known by humans.
Christianity and, to a lesser extent, some branches of Judaism, have taken the whole effort of defining the nature of God a step further. [Although, to be fair, even though some parts of Judaism have adopted many of the ideas and adjectives of Christianity, in the final analysis Judaism places theological definitions on a much lower rung than Christianity. The final cry of Judaism is still the first: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Echad “Hear, Israel, the Lord our God is One.”]
Christianity, on the other hand, has engaged in a long, tumultuous love affair with theology. Far more than the others, it has tried to actually define the nature of God. One could argue that Islam is based on a willing submission to God’s will as expressed in the Quran. Equally, one could say that the essence of Judaism is acting as a true human being based upon one’s understanding of the Law of God. But for Christianity, the goal is to act according to right and wrong as we understand God’s own concepts of right and wrong.
In Islam, one usually hears quotes of the Prophet directly from the Quran and the Hadith cited as reasons to act one way or another. In Judaism, one hears the opinions of Akiba or Hillel on how to be a good Jew. In Christianity, one might hear someone talking about what “God wants.”
But all three have traveled a very long way from all those gods who were just super-human. In fact, I would argue that somewhere along the line we performed an interesting upending. One sees it most strongly in Christianity, but the theology of the others have succumbed to the same inversion of logic.
We started out defining godhood as being like humanity, but more powerful, long lived, and perhaps wiser, etc. We looked at the world and said the gods must be like this, but more: Human Plus.
Nowadays we say God is All-Powerful, Eternal, All-Wise, etc. We have looked at the world and said that God had to be absolutely nothing like this: Human Not.
And then we try to act that way.