Breaking the Third Commandment: An Essay on All the Names of God


The Vision After the Sermon (Jacob wrestling with the Angel), Paul Gauguin, 1888

by Ed Simon

Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
—Exodus 20:7

All the many names of the Supreme Being – God, Jehovah, Allah, and so on – they are only man-made labels. There is a philosophical problem of some difficulty here, which I do not propose to discuss, but somewhere among all the possible combinations of letters that can occur are what one may call the real names of God. By systematic permutation of letters, we have been trying to list them all.
—Arthur C. Clarke, “The Nine Billion Names of God”

Past the sandstone, neo-classical façade of the Scottish National Gallery, on the loft Mound which overlooks both the Old Town and the New Town of Edinburgh, down a rococo hallway with blood-red wall-paper, hangs the French impressionist Paul Gaugin’s 1888 Vision After the Sermon. Painted in that cool and fresh Brittany air, Gaugin imagines a group of contemporary, local, white-bonnet clad women apprehending a divine vision following the orgiastic ecstasies of collective worship. The women’s heads are bowed in prayer and contemplation, their black clad bodies announcing humble faith, their covered heads a statement of their simple piety. One in the congregation looks up, for beyond a felled tree trunk and across a field the color of clotting blood, she espies a struggle between a man and an entirely other being. Perhaps the sermon that these women have left provided a homiletic gloss on the scene she is watching, the portion from Genesis where the patriarch Jacob encountered a strange, heavenly, supernatural man, who “wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.” Imagined by Gaugin (and I suppose by the women in Vision After the Sermon as well), the celestial being who has arrived unannounced at Jacob’s oasis encampment appears as a blue robed angel, his golden wings spread like a raptor’s while he clenches the poor patriarch’s neck in a headlock.

The Bible’s account of Jacob wrestling with the angel is one of the myriad incidents in the scriptural canon which serve to remind us that it’s a book from an incredibly different culture. Apply more recent theological gloss all that we want, try and tame the wild narrative, but Bronze Age myths resist our boring, bourgeoise, logical perspectives. Jacob’s wrestling with this creature through the entirety of a star-filled Jordanian night, be it man, angel, or the Lord, has not the coherence of an actual event, but the sublime truth of a dream. Genesis recounts how the two fought to a draw, with Jacob gaining the advantage and refusing to let the stranger go “unless you bless me.” The Father of Israel, you see, wished to know the name of this unknown, undefined, unannounced being. “Why is that you ask my name?” the anonymous being asks, but Jacob neither answers that question, nor does the angel define his identity. In a story about names Jacob acquires a new one himself, born from the struggle with this faceless being, for “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Disagreements on the etymology of the name “Israel,” but with the word ending in “El,” the singular for a popular Canaanite mountain-god, there would seem to be some accuracy in the supernatural interlocutor’s claim that Jacob’s renaming announces him as a man capable of struggling with the divine and surviving, what the scholar Melvin Konner explains in Unsettled: An Anthropology of the Jews as being the intellectual hallmark of a “whole nation of God wrestlers, striving and undaunted, hurt but not subdued.” Certainly, Jacob thinks so, intoning that “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered,” the interpretive crux of Genesis long fixated on whether Jacob was wrestling with a mere angel, a representative of the Lord, or with God Himself.

What exactly does it mean that the Bible has a story where the omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient Creator of the universe gets into a wrestling match with a mere man, and basically loses? Why does Jacob have such an obsession with the name of this being, not just whatever culturally relative descriptor is used to designate Him, be it “El” or “God,” but with the actual name? The unheard, unknown, unpronounceable designation that the Lord uses to refer to Himself, the name only known to angels? Genesis’ reasoning is surreal, its pronouncements inscrutable, its story beautifully weird. That’s not even taking into account the detail that God dislodged Jacob’s hip, giving him permanent sciatica and a life-long limp, so that “to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket,” still true in kosher law. What any of this means has to be parsed with a historical recounting of Bronze Age culture. There’s also a truth accessible with the higher ruminations of a certain cracked transcendence. Where a complete understanding often isn’t found, is in the much-later conventional accounts of both synagogue and church.

Our later theological imposition of narrative unity and philosophical logic do a disservice to the profoundly beautiful strangeness of the original text. Harold Bloom writes in The Book of J of Jacob’s “transcendental struggle” that is shot through with ambiguity in his “extraordinary wrestling match with the angel of reality, a nameless one among the Elohim whom the enigmatic J refuses to identify, so that we wonder if this antagonist is Yahweh or the angel of death, or perhaps Yahweh playing the part of the angel of death,” for this mystery is not just a literary quality of “J,” (what Bloom calls the author of that portion of Genesis), but indeed it’s the entire point of the story. What Jacob’s transcendent struggle concerns isn’t just man’s conflict with the divine, but the issue of appearances and reality, and the distance between names and the named. As with other narrative orphans of the Bible, from the Bridegroom of Blood whereby Moses’ wife Zipporah must smear the foreskin of their child across the feet of a previously enraged Lord, to when God struck down a helpful man named Uzzah for daring to touch the Ark of the Covenant so as to prevent it from toppling down, Jacob’s tussle with the Divine is an uncomfortable and inscrutable story. It is dreamt, imagined, and communicated in an idiom for which we have no easy cipher.

Maimonides maintained that the being was always simply an angel, an emissary of the Lord rather than the actual deity Himself. John Calvin argued that it was a vision, the celebrated literalist turning to allegory and metaphor when the implications of the tale got too weird to consider. Ironically, some atheists are better at approaching the Bible’s resplendent literary oddness, with Ernst Bloch writing in Atheism in Christianity that the story is about “a bloodthirsty, vengeful God… outdone by cunning human beings to avoid his fury.” Bloch’s interpretation allows for the obvious but overlooked –Jacob wasn’t wrestling with an angel or an idea, not with himself or a concept, but with the actual living God. But while Bloch’s honesty on that score is admirable, and he’s not wrong to see a bit of the trickster in Jacob’s noble draw, it does little to answer the overweening concern with names, both Jacob’s desire to know God’s designation and the latter’s resistance to sharing it. Translator and author Aviya Kushner writes in The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible that “Jacob didn’t just fight with the angel… he overcame the angel, and so ruled over a creature more powerful than he.” For in a narrative that has Jacob being renamed, and thus designating all of his ancestors by this label that emphasizes God as not just a being to worship but one that’s crucial to struggle against, names have a central importance. “God,” as author Alexander Waugh writes, “is fussy about names.” The focus of the tale isn’t the fight, it’s not that wrestling match viewed in spectral reverie by the pious maids of Brittany as dreamt by Gaugin, but it’s this question – what is God’s actual name, the one that He whispers to Himself and that generates all of reality?

God’s name is a narrative itself; not a character, but the story, that secret code which makes all other stories a possibility. Does this describe any literal state of affairs? Is that “real” or not? That’s the wrong question, for no name, not for anything, be it “chair,” “desk,” or “tree,” is actually real either. Take my nominalist affectations with a judicious literalism, for “God” is what we make of it; what’s less important than what the name refers to is what the word does. What the tale of Jacob’s midnight fight is actually about, at least in the context of the desert based, patriarchal, Bronze Age culture which produced it concerns the sublime aura of names. God’s unwillingness to tell Jacob his proper name makes more sense when you realize it’s because the knowledge of another’s identity and designation allows you to do certain things; that in the knowing of a name there is theurgy, there is magic. God doesn’t want Jacob to know his name because then the patriarch would have certain powers over Him. Jacob would be able to use the very letters of God’s name, whatever it may be, to affect the world, to alter reality. To have such knowledge would be a reduction in God’s power, it would allow one of his own creations to use the divine alphabet to alter the world.

For in the Bible, God may be Creator, but He’s not exactly omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, at least not yet. Konner writes that in Genesis that God may have “had the transcendent power to bless, but the other had the power to demand, even compel, the blessing.” Those abstract categories concerning God’s agency are a later theological affectation, they have to do with the Rambam and Rashi, Augustin and Aquinas, but the splendor of rabbis and schoolmen was not the perspective of the nomads who had the strange vision, for those authors to know God’s name was to tame the wild deity, to have a degree of control over that being who causes us such trouble. Kushner explains that the “Bible itself insists that names matter,” none so more than that of God’s. For a “Hebrew reader,” Kushner writes, “the Bible’s names are a big part of its meaning.” There is magic in a name, and it’s for that reason that the Lord could never tell Jacob what His actually was.

Which is the origin and justification of the third commandment of the Decalogue. The injunction that the Lord’s name must not be taken in vain has little to do with blasphemy or heresy as conventionally understood, for the all-powerful deity who evolved in our understanding over the past two-and-a-half millennia surely isn’t effected by a “Goddamnit!” uttered after a stubbed toe, but the agent of theophany struggling against Jacob could be bounded in letters had the patriarch known his true name. This command not to take the Lord’s name in vain has nothing to with prudishness and decorum, blasphemy is neither a question of politeness nor an issue of etiquette, rather as literary critic Roger Shattuck writes it’s an issue of “forbidden knowledge closely related to unbridled curiosity and imagination.” As Shattuck asks in Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography, “Can anyone look upon the Lord?” Can anyone for that matter know the Lord’s actual story, the biography which He keeps from all of us? Can anyone know His real name? And do we understand that those things are the same, and that to know a name is to know a story is to acquire the key to all narrative that have, will, or could be?

Returning to the Bible (as is popular, I’ve heard, among some denominational upstarts) garners a bit of assistance in ascertaining the name, or at least some names, of God. The deity is referred to by several different terms throughout scripture, most commonly El (or its plural Elohim) and YHWH, which is regularly rendered as “Yahweh” even though its proper pronunciation has long been forgotten, since the utterance was limited to only the High Priest within the Holy of Holies upon Yom Kippur when the Temple still stood. In English translations, El is commonly rendered as “God,” while instances of Yahweh are figured as “Lord,” in imitation of the Hebrew word “Adonai” which Jews read aloud instead of sounding the divine name. YHWH, composed of the Hebrew letters היה, has long been as mysterious as the Godhead Himself, especially considering its unpronounceability, the prohibition on even trying, and the absence of any direct translation. Linguist Joel M. Hoffman explains in his book In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language that “the letters in yhwh were chosen not because of the sounds they represent, but because of their symbolic power in that they were the Hebrews’ magic vowel letter that no other culture had.” He continues by claiming that the lack of consensus on how to say the word isn’t because “the pronunciation was lost but because it never had a pronunciation to begin with.” This is the aura associated with the Tetragrammaton, the technical designation for God’s four-letter name, and found in the gematria of Kabbala and the Rosicrucian enthusiasms of Renaissance Christian mystics alike, an attempt to harness that awesome magic of God’s name that was denied to Jacob.

Because there is something unsettling in that vowel filled howl that is God’s proper name, this title more hoot than nomenclature. An understandable obsession for what God’s name, or names may be, in addition to how the Tetragrammaton should be pronounced. In such there is an acknowledgement that there is power, significance, and meaning in what we call things. To believe that God even has a name evidences a faith that language is never arbitrary, at least not exactly. If not arbitrary, however, than God’s names are certainly… multiplicious. In the Bible, in addition to being known as El and Yahweh, God is also referred to as El Shaddai, Eloah, Tzevaot, Jah, Baal, Elah, El Roi, Elyon, HaShem, and by the feminine Shekinah, among others. In the Islamic Qur’an Allah has a similar roster of potential names, with specifically 99 listed, including al-Qahtar for “He who overpowers,” al-Qabid for “He who takes away,” and al-Ghani (“The Abundant and Infinite”). According to tradition, there was a hundredth secret name known only by the Prophet Muhammad himself.

Then of course there are all the names of the pagan gods, which depending on your degree of ecumenicism are either manifestations of the divine absolute, devils which have tricked their worshipers, or completely non-existent. What’s the relationship with that mysterious ground of being, that God from the whirlwind who denied Jacob his answer, and say, those other father-gods, be they grey-locked and bare-chested Jupiter and Zeus, helmeted Odin, or the pot-bellied druid Dagda? Are these all names of the God, or more empty signifiers? The Romans, interestingly enough, were generous enough to include Yahweh within their pantheon upon the conquering of Judea (as was their tradition with all of those people whom they dominated), choosing to refer to the Jewish God as “Iao.” If relation to those other characters is not metaphysical, some have suggested that they may be etymological, with Waugh writing in his under read God that as concerns the origins of the Tetragrammaton, that there “have been many attempts to trace the origins of the name. Perhaps it comes from the Graeco-Egyptian divine name Iao… [and] Others have claimed that Yahweh is related to the divine name of Jove, the god who was worshiped by the Etruscans and by the Romans as Jupiter.”

Occult traditions have exceedingly more esoteric and untranslatable ways of referring to the Lord. The Kabbalistic Alphabet of Rabbi Akiva from the first or second century after the Common Era lists seventy potential names for the Lord, all derived from numerological methods and including among other exotic permutations Ne’urion, Webidirion, Qapaqupuron, Ab’ibib, Lablabib, and Hadirion YHWH of Hosts, Holy, Holy, Holy. Any of these were, perhaps, the name the belligerent wrestler refused to impart to Jacob at Jabbok. Christian Gnostics in texts like the Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit or The Hypostasis of the Archons variously claimed names like Abraxas, Barbelo, Norea, and Setheus as the names for the various emanations of God or of the demiurge responsible for crafting our fallen world. Waugh explains that the Gnostics “believed that God’s name was a secret, but to those who knew it and could shout it out, he would appear,” which may go a bit to explaining His reticence after being bested by Jacob. “Whoever could discover God’s secret name would thus be in possession of great power,” Waugh emphasizes.

What gravitas does mere “God” have in the light of Abraxas; what power does a simple “Lord” have when we’re given the option to call the demiurge “Barbelo?” Indeed, the word “God” is another culturally relative, temporally contingent, completely arbitrary referent for something totally beyond our understanding, our knowledge, our experience. To parse the word “God” as much as the Word of God is to remember how relative all such terms must by necessity be when we’re confronted with the absolute. The word “God” of course appears nowhere in the Hebrew Tanakh or the Greek Septuagint, it doesn’t make its appearance in the context of Yahweh until the sixth-century Gothic Codex Argenteus, derived from the Proto-Germanic ǥuđán, itself theoretically traceable back to the Proto-Indo-European of the Central Asian Steppe spoken several millennia ago, and possibly having the literal meaning of everything from “invocation” to “libation.” In Greek God is designated as “Theos” and in Latin as “Deus,” those words still obvious in everything from theology to the divine. Whatever the angel could have answered Jacob with, it would most likely not be in Greek or Latin, German or Proto-Indo-European or English. Those are languages that God has limited fluency in, the better to believe that it is that unpronounceable matrix of letters or that vowel-heavy shout that most closely mimics the designation that the Lord gives Himself.

The better to chant the name of “God” over and over and over until it’s drained of all meaning and becomes a sound; defamiliarized as all such words are when they’re repeated continually, so that any internal sense is chased off like a demon exorcized from a body. This sort of prayer may actually approach the closest version of what God’s name might really sound like, which is nothing at all. God speaks in tautologies and paradoxes; all other statements are mundanely human in their correspondence to mere fact. Syntactically, these utterances are closest to the sound of nothing while containing words which seem to actually be saying something. The greatest of tautologies stated by God was in His own name, one of the ways of designating the Lord which we have yet to consider. Such was the moment in Exodus, when Jacob’s distant descendant Moses encounters God in the form of the famed burning bush upon Mount Horeb while he was grazing his father-in-law’s flock of sheep. Moses converses with the fiery bramble, the deep resonant basso profundo of the Lord emanating between the cracks and flickers of His branches in that flame that lights and heats but does not consume. Naturally, at one-point Moses asks the burning bush who shall he say has sent him when he returns to his people with their discussed task? To which the burning bush/Creator of the universe enigmatically responds that his proper name is “I am who I am.”

Or variously as “I am what I am,” or in the future-tense as “I will be what I will be.” The variability of ancient Hebrew grammar makes it difficult to parse the exact tense of God’s evasive response, but what is clear is that He answers in a tautology, that is to say that He gives Moses a statement which seems to offer no actual content, that seems to refer to nothing outside of itself. Yet it would be a mistake to see this name as being a dodge, for what defines God, what defines the very Ground of Being, more than that for which there can be nothing outside of its existence? With such qualities a name that is a tautology makes complete sense, for in a tautology (and a paradox) the semantic content is the infinite everything and the deepest nothing. When we use words like “God,” “Theos,” or “Deus,” they’re referents that are culturally relative and contingent, they are at best rhetorically play-acting when it comes to their correspondence for the absolute, in the same way that “Jupiter,” “Odin,” and “Dagda” are as well. God is not a being within existence, but being itself, existence itself. God’s actual name must transcends mere contingency, a word whose circumference is nowhere and whose center is everywhere. What qualifies more in its pristine and essential simplicity than “I am what I am?”

If God’s name as given to Moses has an intrinsic and complete power because it expresses everything and nothing, than it also can be observed that as a complete sentence it’s also a story. God’s name is a narrative. How do we parse this short story, clocking in at only five words (three in Hebrew) and thus beating Ernest Hemingway’s famed and apocryphal contribution to the genre of micro-fiction? In “I am that I am” we have a character, the most fundamental one that can exist who goes by the name “I” and is both the narrator of all third-person omniscient tales as well as the voice which you hear in your own skull, and we have a narrative, which concerns the continuation of that character in time. The preferable translation for this interpretation would be that God actually says “I will be that I will be,” for in that sense we have action in an otherwise static narrative, and the implication that the Lord’s narrative has yet to be told, and as such is not a fable, but a promise. That sense of future-tense dynamism, of things to come and things to be revealed, seems an appropriate enough name.

A precedent for that reading in that other name, the letters of the cryptic Tetragrammaton. Waugh writes that some have considered that the etymology of “Yahweh” may “lie in the third person singular of a rare Hebrew version of the verb ‘to be,’” with Hoffman concurring that Exodus derives “God’s name from the verb ‘to be.’” When considering questions of narratology, no “story” is more basic, is more elemental. The verb “to be” is the key and code, the cipher and origin for all stories. “To be” is the most potent and elemental story that can exist; it is literally the form of all narratives, and it is also the actual name of God. The Lord is not something that dwells within stories; the Lord is all stories. Scripture is not about God; God is scripture. God is not something that exists, rather God is something that shall exist. The Lord is not a noun; the Lord is a verb. Not a narrative, but the possibility of narrative itself, that which is capable of unfolding the world. God’s only name is To Be.


About the Author:

Ed Simon is Editor at Berfrois, the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a frequent contributor at several different sites, having appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek and Jacobin among others. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, his Facebook author page, or at his website. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion was released by Zero Books in 2018.