Except for "YHWH", the two most-common names/titles for God in the Biblia Hebraica (Hebrew Bible) are "Adonai", which expresses authority or the exalted position of God, and "Elohim", which expresses concepts of creative divinity. Apart from the name "YHWH", it may be argued that the titles "Adonai" and "Elohim" say more about the God of Israel than any other name. Certainly, all that the names embody deserve considerable deliberation.
Because the two words are so similar to each other and "Elohim" is sometimes used as a substitute for "Adonai", I thought it logical to study these two nouns together.
Both "Adonai" and "Elohim" Are Plural Hebrew Nouns
"Adonai" is the plural form of "Adon", meaning "my lord"; and the name "Elohim" is the masculine plural form of "Eloah".
Since "Adonai" and "Elohim" are plural nouns, many Christians have used this as a foundation on which to build the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. However, while these names are written in the plural form, they regularly employ singular verbs in Hebrew grammar and are singular in usage. Therefore, acting in usage as singular nouns with singular verbs, many Bible scholars believe instead that these names represent a plural of majesty, perhaps pointing out that this one God embodies all the attributes of the many pagan gods worshipped by other peoples. [More discussion on the plurality of these words below...]
"Adonai" (Hebrew: Adonay) Read as a Substitute for the Name and "Elohim" Sometimes Read for "Adonay"
As we learned in the previous study, the Tetragrammaton "YHWH" appears approximately 6000 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. To avoid violating the commandment "You shall not take the name of Yahweh your God [Elohim] in vain" (Exodus 20:7), the vowels of "Adonay" — "a", "o", "a" — were inserted between the letters "YHWH" to remind the reader to not pronounce the name "YHWH", but to say "Adonay" instead. In fact, the most-current English versions of the Hebrew Scriptures now use "Adonai" almost exclusively in the place of "YHWH".
Since they substituted the name "Adonay" in place of "YHWH" when reading the Scriptures, then whenever the Hebrew compound name "YHWH Adonay" appeared in the scrolls, they read it as "Adonay Elohim" ("") to avoid the duplication of "Adonay".
And now..... several thousand years later and working only with English transliterations, we are left to sort out when "Lord" or "God" means "Adonai" and when they mean "Elohim". It would be easy to skim over this, rendering only a superficial examination of all that these two names tell us about YHWH and when/where the names have been used — as I did in the original studies I published in 2006 — but YHWH is not permitting that liberty now. He has impressed upon me His desire for me to dig deeper into these names through several Bible translations and versions I've studied, and for me to separate when "Adonai" and "Elohim" are used as originally specified and not as interpretations of other names/titles.
The Origin of the Nouns "Adonai" and "Elohim"
Adonai: The singular "adon" was used by the Phoenicians for their pagan god Tammuz and is the origin of the Greek pagan god Adonis.
"Adonai" (often transliterated "Lord" in English Bibles) means "master", "owner", or "sovereign ruler" and generally denotes the authority and exalted position of God. Primarily, the name Adonai, as it pertains to God, stresses man's relationship to God as his Master, Authority, and Provider (not to be confused with YHWH-Jireh, which means "God Sees" / "God Will Provide"). Elohim: Unfortunately, the precise development of the word "elohim" is unknown. There are many theories, but most Bible scholars believe it is derived from the shorter word "el" — meaning "mighty", "strong" or "prominent" — or the Hebrew form of "eloah". The ordinary singular "Eloah" primarily refers to the pagan polytheistic religions, as well as to powerful men or judges as in Exodus 21:6 — "...then his master [eloah] shall bring him to God, and shall bring him to the door or to the door-post, and his master [eloah] shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall serve him for ever.". The use of "eloah" in the Bible is rare, occurring primarily in poetry and late prose, mainly in Job. The word "El", however, is itself translated "God" ±250 times and frequently in circumstances which especially indicate the great power of God. For example....
- El Shaddai (God Almighty or Almighty God) as in Genesis 17:1 — "And it came to be when Abram was ninety-nine years old, that appeared to Abram and said to him, 'I am El Shaddai – walk before Me and be perfect.'" (TS98)
- El Elyon (God Most High) as in Genesis 14:18 — "Malki-Tzedek (Melchizedek) king of Shalem (Salem) brought out bread and wine. He was cohen (Priest) of El 'Elyon [God Most High]." (CJB)
- El Gibhor (Strong & Mighty God) as in Isaiah 10:21 — "A remnant shall return, even the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty God [El Gibhor]."
- El Tzur (God our Rock) as in 2 Samuel 22:47 — " lives! And blessed is my Rock [El Tzur]! And exalted is my Elohim, The Rock [El Tzur] of my deliverance." (TS98)
- It is also one of the names given to the promised Messiah in Isaiah 9:6 — "For a child is born to us, a son is given to us; dominion will rest on his shoulders, and he will be given the name Pele-Yo'etz El Gibbor Avi-'Ad Sar-Shalom [Wonder of a Counselor, Mighty God, Father of Eternity, Prince of Peace]" (CJB)
- See also Genesis 7:1, 28:3, 35:11; Numbers 23:22; Joshua 3:10; 2 Samuel 22:31-32; Nehemiah 1:5, 9:32; Isaiah 9:6; Ezekiel 10.
"Elohim" is used in Scripture when emphasizing God's might, His creative power, and His attributes of justice and rulership. It denotes the power and pre-eminence (conspicuous glory) of God and is especially used in relation to God's sovereignty, creative work, and mighty works for Israel. Variations of this name include "El", "Eloha", "Elohai" (my God) and "Elohaynu" (our God). In the Pentateuch the name "Elohim" portrays God as the transcendent Being, the Creator of the universe.
Although "Adonai" and "Elohim" are similar, the distinguishing attributes that differentiate between them is that the name "Adonai" affirms the elevated position of authority and rulership of God, whereas the name "Elohim" refers to Him as the Creator who interacts with and reveals Himself to His creation.
"Elohim" Is a Proper Name and a Designation
"Elohim" is an appellative or designation of all that the name embodies. For example, in the frequent expression, "LORD (LORD) thy God" in most English Bibles, "LORD" (or "YHWH") functions as the proper name, while "thy God"/"your God" (or "your Elohim") or "the God of" ("the Elohim of") functions as an adjective or designation defining the deity. Throughout the first two chapters of the Bible, Elohim is used most often as a proper noun/name for the Creator. After Exodus 3, however, the name begins to occur with increasing frequency as a designation. As the Sovereign Authority and Creator over all creation, the name "Elohim" denotes God as the supreme deity of a person or people.
How the Names "Adonai" and "Elohim" Are Translated in English
As "Adonai" was and continues to be substituted for the actual Name of God () in the Hebrew Scriptures, there is some confusion/disagreement among the different Bible translations as to when "LORD" (or "LORD", "GOD", or "GOD") means "" and when it means "Adonai". And.... since the name "Elohim" was substituted for "Adonai" when the compound name "YHWH Adonai" appeared in Scripture, there is added confusion as to when "Lord" or "God" means "Adonai" and when it means "Elohim". For example, we have the following transliterations, the middle column probably representing "YHWH Adonai" and the third column most likely representing "YHWH Elohim":
|Bible Translation/Version||" Adonai"||" Elohim"|
|American Standard Version (ASV)
|Darby's Translation (Darby)
|Complete Jewish Bible (CJB)
|Contemporary English Version (CEV)
||LORD God or LORD All-Powerful
|English Standard Version (ESV)
|Good News Bible (GNB)
|King James Version (KJV)
|Modern King James Version (MKJV)
|New Century Version
|New International Version (NIV)
|New Living Translation (NLT)
|The Message (Message)
|The Scriptures (TS98)
|World English Bible (WEB)
|Young's Literal Translation (YLT)
Here are what I consider to be the most logical steps to determining which English transliterations are for "Adonai" and which ones are for "Elohim":
- The one consistency I found among the English translations/versions referenced above is that the ones that do not use the name "Yahweh", "Jehovah", or "Adonai" (in the CJB) for "" all employ the same standard of capitalizing the word they've apparently substituted for "" (i.e., "LORD", "LORD", "GOD", or "GOD"). Thus, I presume that the words in all lower-case letters represent either "Adonai" or "Elohim" as they were originally written in the Hebrew Scriptures.
- In reviewing hundreds of Scripture verses in the Old Testament, different themes started unraveling and coming together to aid in identifying when "Lord" or "God" are used for "Adonai" and when they're used for "Elohim". For example...
- We have learned that "Elohim", as a designation or adjective, represents God's might, creative power, and sovereign authority over creation. We also learned that it's the name used in Genesis for the Creator and it's the name used when God interacts with, or reveals Himself to, His creation (not just humankind, but all creation). For example, Genesis 3:1 — "And the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which Elohim had made, and he said to the woman, 'Is it true that Elohim has said, "Do not eat of every tree of the garden"?'" (TS98) (emphasis added)
- We also learned that "Adonai" represents God as our Master, Sovereign Ruler, and Provider. For example, Judges 16:28 — "And Shimshon (Samson) called to , saying, 'O Master [Adonai] , remember me, I pray! Strengthen me, I pray, only this time, O Elohim, and let me avenge myself on the Philistines with vengeance for my two eyes!'" (TS98) (emphasis added)
- As I searched the Scriptures to try to determine which name/designation God revealed to us, I used a very simple pattern:
- I disregarded the references that employed the same name/title for both "Adonai" and "Elohim" (CJB, MKJV, and WEB).
- Using as a guide the Bible versions that actually employ the name "Elohim", I searched several versions of the Old Testament for additional usages of the same and marked them accordingly. (If you don't already have a computer-based electronic Bible, I encourage you to get one. Click here to download e-Sword and several different Bible versions for FREE!)
- Using the Bible versions that employ the words "Sovereign", "Master" or lower-case "Lord", I concluded that the original name for each of those words was most likely "Adonai"; and I searched the Scriptures for additional usages of the same and marked them accordingly.
- If the Bible version uses the lower-case "God" and refers to the Creator interacting with His creation, I concluded that the original name was "Elohim" and I marked all of those searches accordingly.
When and Where the Names "Adonai", "YHWH Adonai", "Elohim", and "YHWH Elohim" Are Used in Scripture
Using the pattern above, I determined that the name/title "Adonai" represented as "Master", "Sovereign", or "Lord" — not as a substitute for "" — appears in the Old Testament ±325 times, especially in Isaiah (30 times), Jeremiah (14 times), and almost exclusively in Ezekiel and Amos (208 times and 18 times respectively). Obviously, I can't list all them here, so I am presenting only a sampling of the verses that use the name "Adonai" to describe our Most High God.
- Psalm 8:1 — O , our Master [Adonai], how excellent is Your Name in all the earth, You who set Your splendour above the heavens!" (TS98)
- Psalm 109:21 — "But you, God [Adonai], Adonai [YHWH], treat me as your name demands; rescue me, because your grace is good." (CJB)
- Psalm 114:7 — "Tremble, earth, at the presence of the Lord [Adonai], at the presence of the God [Elohim] of Ya'akov" (CJB)
- Psalm 147:5 — "Our Lord [Adonai] is great, his power is vast, his wisdom beyond all telling." (CJB)
- Isaiah 3:15 — "What do you mean by crushing My people and grinding the faces of the poor?" declares the Master [Adonai], of hosts. (TS98)
- Isaiah 6:8 — "I heard the Lord's [Adonai's] voice, saying, 'Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?' Then I said, 'Here I am. Send me!'"
- Isaiah 25:8 — "He will swallow up death forever. Adonai [YHWH] Elohim [Adonai] will wipe away the tears from every face, and he will remove from all the earth the disgrace his people suffer. For Adonai [YHWH] has spoken. (CJB)
- Jeremiah 14:13 — "But I said, 'Ah, Master [Adonai] ! See, the prophets say to them, "You are not to see a sword, nor have scarcity of food, for I give you true peace in this place."'" (TS98)
- Ezekiel 39:25 — "Therefore thus said the Master [Adonai] , 'Now I am going to bring back the captives of Ya'aqob. And I shall have compassion on all the house of Yisra'el, and shall be jealous for My set-apart (holy) Name.'" (TS98)
- Malachi 3:1 — "'Look! I am sending my messenger to clear the way before me; and the Lord [Adonai], whom you seek, will suddenly come to his temple. Yes, the messenger of the covenant, in whom you take such delight — look! Here he comes,' says Adonai [YHWH]-Tzva'ot." (CJB)
- Genesis 2:15-16 — "Yahweh  God [Elohim] took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. Yahweh  God [Elohim] commanded the man, saying, 'Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat'"
- Genesis 9:17 — "And Elohim said to Noah, 'This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between Me and all flesh that is on the earth.'" (TS98)
- Exodus 6:7 — "I will take you as my people, and I will be your God [Elohim]. Then you will know that I am Adonai [YHWH] your God [Elohim], who freed you from the forced labor of the Egyptians." (CJB)
- Deuteronomy 5:24 — "...Yahweh our God [ our Elohaynu] has shown us His glory and His greatness, and we have heard His voice out of the midst of the fire..."
- Deuteronomy 8:11 — "Be careful not to forget Adonai  your God [Elohim] by not obeying his mitzvot (commands), rulings and regulations that I am giving you today." (CJB)
- Psalm 68:1 — Let God [Elohim] arise! Let His enemies be scattered! Let them who hate Him also flee before Him."
- Isaiah 45:18 — "For thus says Adonai , who created the heavens, God [Elohim],who shaped and made the earth, who established and created it not to be chaos, but formed it to be lived in: 'I am Adonai ; there is no other'" (CJB)
- Isaiah 54:5 — "For your Maker is your husband, of hosts is His Name, and the Set-apart (holy) One of Yisra'el is your Redeemer. He is called the Elohim of all the earth." (TS98)
- Jeremiah 32:27 — "'See, I am , the Elohim of all flesh. Is there any matter too hard for Me?'" (TS98)
As mentioned previously, since "Adonai" and "Elohim" are plural nouns, many Christians have used this as a foundation on which to build the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. However, while these names are written in the plural form, they regularly employ singular verbs in Hebrew grammar and are singular in usage. For instance...
- Deuteronomy 10:17 — "For
your Elohim is Elohim of mighty ones and Master [Adonai] of masters
[adonai], the great El, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality nor
takes a bribe." (TS98)
[If using plural verbs and pronouns along with the plural "Adonai" and "Elohim", the verse would read: "For your Elohim are Elohim of mighty ones . . . who show no partiality nor take a bribe."] (TS98)
- 2 Samuel 7:22 — "You are great indeed, O Master [Adonai] . For there is none like You, and there is no Elohim but You, according to all that we have heard with our ears."
[If using plural verbs and pronouns along with the plural "Adonai" and "Elohim", the verse would read: "You are great indeed, O Master [Adonai] . For there are none like You, and there are no Elohim but You..."]
- Psalm 35:23 — "Stir up Yourself and awake to my right-ruling — To my cause, my Elohim and my Master." (TS98)
[If using plural verbs and pronouns along with the plural "Adonai" and "Elohim", the verse would read: "Stir up Yourselves and awake..."
Other scholars call it a plural of intensity. They argue that the Hebrews often expressed a word in the plural to give it a stronger meaning (such as in Isaiah 6:3 with "Holy" being expressed three times). But as one Theologian points out, the use of the plural "only implies (even in the plural of majesty) that the word in the singular is not full enough to set forth all that is intended."
Thus, whether plural of majesty . . . plural of intensity . . . or implying a Triune God . . . the plural words "Adonai" and "Elohim" teach us that no finite word(s) can adequately define the infinite personality of God!
As Nathan Stone wrote concerning the name "Elohim": "There is blessing and comfort in this great name of God signifying supreme power, sovereignty, and glory on the one hand . . . and on the other hand signifying a covenant relationship which He is ever faithful to keep. Thus He says to us, 'I will be to you Elohim,' that we may say, 'My Elohim; in Him will I trust.' (Psalm 91:2)."