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Concerns About the Names for God in Arabic

Concerns About the Names for God in Arabic

At the 41st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America this past June, during the presentation of the Study Committee Report on Insider Movements, the hottest issue was the concern of the use of “Allah” for God and the possible confusion or identity of the God of the Bible with Allah of the Quran. 

However, throughout the Semitic languages, the generic term for a divine being is ‘el, “god or gods.”  Thus in Phoenician and Canaanite it is ‘el, in Ugaritic it is ‘il (plural ‘ilm or ‘ilhm),  in Akkadian (including Assyrian and Babylonian) it is ilu(m), in Aramaic it is ‘elah (plural ‘elahin), in Hebrew it is ‘el (plural ‘elohim), and in Arabic it is‘allah.  These are all cognates for “god”. 

In the Old Testament, there are three words used for “god”, namely, ‘el, ‘elohim, ‘eloah all assumed to come from the same root ‘lh. The pantheon of the Canaanites includes gods and goddesses.  In that pantheon, El is the creator god, Mot is the god of death, and Asherah is the consort of El, the “creatress of the gods.”  Another epithet for her is “lady Asherah of the sea” or “she who walks on the sea,”thus she is closely identified with the underground source of fresh water in the north and west.  She was the patron goddess of Tyre as far back as the fifteenth century. She was also given the appellation of qudshu, “holiness,” which characterized her as the patron goddess of the temple prostitutes.  This title was a complete distortion of the Biblical notion of holiness, Hebrew qadosh.  Baal is the god of the storm, rain and lightening.  The word "baal" is used in the OT both as a generic term meaning "lord, master, husband" and as an official title or personal name "Lord, Master."  Notice how the prophet in Hosea 2 used it in word plays.  Nobody should think for a moment that Hosea was confusing or idetifying "Baal" of the Canaanites with the "baal" (Lord, husband, master) in his book.

In 1 Kings 18 Elijah confronted and challenged Ahab and the prophets of Baal and the prophets of Asherah whom Jezebel had imported from Tyre.   It needs to be noted that the word ‘elohim is used both for the gods of the Canaanites as well as for the God of Israel.  Note 1 Kings 18:24, Then you call on the name of your ‘elohim,  and I will call on the name of Yahweh, and the ‘elohim who answers by fire [lightning], he is ha’elohim [The God].   Does this mean that the “elohim” of the Canaanites is the same as the “Elohim” of Elijah?  Of course not.  Yet, the words are the same.  They are cognates.  But semantically (the meaning—stating who God is in contrast to the “gods” of the Canaanites) they are completely different.   Nobody would think that Elijah was confusing or identifying the elohim of Baal worshipers with the Elohim of Elijah.

When Moses wrote the Pentateuch, he used the generic word for god (i.e. ‘el, ‘elohim) and applied it to the God of Israel.  El is used in the OT by itself or in combination, such as, ‘El-Shaddai, El-Roi, El-Elion, as well as in theophoric names, Dani-El, Ezeki’El, et al.  He is the ‘Elohim, the sovereign creator of the universe.   The term Yahweh, was the personal name of God, but the meaning or significance of that ineffable name was not revealed until Moses was ready to return to Egypt and take on the mantle of leadership over the people of God  (Exodus 3:13-18).  During the Second Temple Period, the Jews began the practice of not pronouncing the Tetragrammaton  (YHWH) out of extreme caution not “to take the name of YHWH in vain.”  So in reading the Hebrew Scriptures, Jews used the title Adonai (“Lord”) as a substitute in the reading without changing the written text.   In the Septuagint the rabbis who translated the OT into Greek for Ptolemy Philadelphus in Alexandria, Egypt, in the 3rd century BC, used kurios (“lord, Lord”) wherever Yahweh appears in the Hebrew text.  This practice is further found in the Masoretic text of the OT where the written text (the Kethibh) preserves Yahweh, but the marginal notes (the Qere)  call for reading the word as Adonai , “Lord”.  Most English versions continue the practice of replacing the Hebrew Yahweh with the title “LORD” (capitalized to show that the Hebrew is the tetragrammaton not adonai which is translated “Lord”, lower case).  The 1906 ESV and ERV used “Jehovah” keeping the term as a personal name.  Interestingly, the standard Spanish versions of Reina de Valera transliterate the personal name as “Jehová” more accurately reflecting the Hebrew text.

Thus, one must distinguish between the use of a generic term and a personal name or an official title, and if used as an official title one must think of how it applies and what meaning it connotes.   Therefore, nobody should think that a Christian reading John 3:16 in Arabic (For Allah so loved the world that He gave his only begotten ibn (son)….) is either confusing or identifying this Allah with the Allah of the Quran.  The words are the same, but they are distinctly different as to their meaning, just as the El and the Baal of the Canaanite pantheon are distinctly different from the El or Elohim or the baal of the Scriptures.


July 8, 2013


By WRF Board member, Paul R. Gilchrist, who may be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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