“Elohim” for “YHWH”: Is This Significant?

I started Sara Japhet’s The Ideology of the Book of Chronicles and Its Place in Biblical Thought last night.  On Sunday, I’ll probably start some other books as well: one book on Gnosticism, another on a Mishnah tractate on agriculture, and an introduction to a commentary on the Book of Numbers.

Here, I want to summarize Sara Japhet’s discussion on “The Interchange of ‘YHWH’ and ‘Elohim'”, which appears on pages 30-37.  The author of Chronicles was using the Deuteronomistic History—particularly I Samuel-II Kings—as his source.  And there are “some thirty passages” in which the Chronicler uses “Elohim” where his source has “YHWH”.  Why did the Chronicler substitute “Elohim” for “YHWH”?

One explanation is that later scribes tended to “refrain from using the tetragrammaton” (YHWH), out of respect for the sacred name and a desire that it not become cheapened with use.  Japhet acknowledges that “There is no doubt that the deliberate avoidance of the tetragrammaton is a proven phenomenon in some parts of the Bible, notably Ecclesiastes and the Elohistic Psalms (42-83)” (36).  But she does not see that sort of thing going on in the Books of Chronicles, which use the name of YHWH “approximately five hundred times, more than all the other names put together” (36).  So the Chronicler wasn’t afraid to use the name YHWH!

Other scholars seek a theological explanation for the times that the Chronicler substitutes “Elohim” for “YHWH”.  Japhet states on page 33: [Gerhard] Von Rad follows in the footsteps of Hanel-Rothstein and writes: “The use of God’s name, the frequent substitution of “Elohim” for “Yahweh”, betokens…a clear transcendentalization of Yahweh.  Yahweh is cut off from the world of religious phenomena and, to an increasing extent, becomes removed from the human experience.”  And so, according to Von Rad and Hanel-Rothstein, the Chronicler uses “Elohim” for the times when God intervenes in human affairs, whereas “YHWH” refers to God in his transcendence.  As Japhet summarizes the view of Hanel-Rothstein (pages 32-33):

According to Hanel and Rothstein, the name “YHWH” most fully expresses the divine essence, God in all His glory.  In the Chronicler’s time, God was perceived as distant from the human realm, impossible to reach and even approach; if He wished to reveal Himself or approach man, He did so as “Elohim”, without expressing the complete essence of “YHWH”.

This is slightly counter-intuitive for me because my mind has been trained to see Elohim as the name for God in God’s transcendence, whereas “YHWH” is God’s personal name, which expresses his desire to relate to human beings.  I read this in conservative Christian writings, in which scholars argued that Genesis 1 (which uses “Elohim”) describes God in his detached majesty, whereas Genesis 2 (which has “YHWH” or “YHWH Elohim”) presents God as relating to humans, walking and talking with them with a degree of intimacy.  Rabbinic Judaism views “Elohim” as the name that expresses God’s authority as judge, whereas “YHWH” refers to God in his mercy.  And modern scholars who view YHWH and El as two separate deities regard El to be the high God who is somewhat removed from the cosmos, while YHWH is a sub-deity who intervenes in human affairs. 

But Von Rad and Hanel-Rothstein think that the Chronicler has it the other way around: YHWH is the transcendent aspect of God, while Elohim is God as he relates to humanity.  That somewhat coincides with the first century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, who (unlike the rabbis) thought that “YHWH” expressed God as judge, whereas “Elohim” described God in his mercy.

On pages 34-35, Japhet offers a window into Von Rad’s reasoning.  For example, II Chronicles 18:31 says, “Jehoshaphat cried out, and the LORD helped him.  God drew them away from him” (whatever translation Japhet is using).  Von Rad states: The Chronicler relates how it is Yahweh who hears and is ready to help.  However, the concrete, immanent undertaking—drawing the enemies away—comes from Elohim.  Here are other examples of Von Rad’s argument that Japhet discusses:

In I Chr 17:2, MT reads “Elohim”: the parallel in 2 Sam 7:3 reads “YHWH”.  According to Von Rad: “Revelations, particularly visions in dreams, can no longer be innocently identified with Yahweh.”  Similarly, MT for 1 Chr 16:1 has “Elohim”, whereas the parallel passage in 2 Sam 6:17 has “YHWH”, and Von Rad writes: “In 1 Chr 16:1…the sacrifices are no longer offered to Yahweh, but rather to Elohim.”  So, according to Von Rad, the Chronicler uses “Elohim” for the times that God relates to humans—by drawing their enemies away from the Israelites in battle, or appearing to them in dreams, or receiving their sacrifices.  The name of YHWH, by contrast, is God as he is removed from humanity—God in his transcendence.

Japhet is not convinced by the theological explanation of Von Rad and Hanel-Rothstein for three reasons.  First, she notes examples in Chronicles in which YHWH is said to intervene in human events:

II Chronicles 10:15: “So the king did not hearken to the people; for it was a turn of affairs brought about by God that YHWH might fulfil his word, which he spoke…”

II Chronicles 20:29: “And the fear of God came on all the kingdoms of the countries when they heard that YHWH had fought against the enemies of Israel…”

And II Chronicles 13:20 says that YHWH struck Jeroboam so that he died.  That sounds like YHWH’s direct intervention to me!

Second, Japhet thinks that “YHWH” and “Elohim” are basically interchangeable in the Books of Chronicles.  She refers to II Chronicles 26:5: “He set himself to seek God in the days of Zechariah, who instructed him in the fear of God; as as long as he sought YHWH, God made him prosper.”  According to Japhet, seeking God in this passage is the same as seeking YHWH, so the two names must be interchangeable.

Third, Japhet points out that the Septuagint for I-II Chronicles sometimes uses “Lord” (Greek, kurios)—the LXX’s translation of YHWH—where the Masoretic for Chronicles has “Elohim” or substitutes “Elohim” for “YHWH”.  For her, the Greek translator was working with a Hebrew text that was different from the MT, so we cannot definitively say that the Chronicler substituted “Elohim” for “YHWH.”  Rather, the substitution probably came in “the process of manuscript transmission” which “occured over an extended period of time” (37).

Personally, I think that Sara Japhet’s explanation is less sexy and less interesting than that of Von Rad.  But, unfortunately, that’s what I often encounter in biblical studies: the boring explanation is probably the correct one!  I hope that’s not always the case, though. 

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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