The book of Genesis is considered foundational to both Jewish and Christian faiths. Subsequently it introduces God with numerous names and varying portrayals of His character and conduct. This short essay attempts to unveil the God of Genesis as the author intended within the context of the book alone.
Introduction: God equally transcendent and imminent
The first book of the Bible, Genesis, offers the reader an introduction to the primary history (Genesis-Kings 2) of the Israelites and to its main character, God. God may be considered unfathomable in description; however, the authors of Genesis offer a variety of names and characterisations for the God of Israel. The most utilised names for God in Genesis, include Elohim and Yhwh are introduced in Genesis 1 and 2, respectively. These names present a depiction of God as being a transcendent but imminent, omniscient but then inquisitive, a cosmic ruler while also a modest gardener. Additionally, God is described as an anthropomorphic deity as evidenced most noticeably in theophanies to the characters in Genesis. This essay will explore these characterisations of God as described in Genesis and evaluate the importance and value of a multifaceted portrayal of God.
Elohim revealed in the first creation story
The God revealed in Genesis 1-2:3, is a divine authority whose presence is portrayed through a collection of concise verbal commands that create the universe. The first of the two creation accounts detailed in Genesis has been accepted to be a Priestly source, in which God is named Elohim, whilst the second creation story commencing in Genesis 2:4 names God as Yhwh. Speaking from a transcendent position of absolute power, the Priestly account describes God as first speaking into the darkness, commanding, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3). Miraculously and without delay, God’s command results in the appearance of light and he proceeds to name the light day and the dark night before the conclusion of the first day. The author clearly portrays in the text a God of divine supremacy, who orders the world through infallible commands. Furthermore, God is also characterised as being separate from creation and the earth, with the only connection between the omnipresent ruler of the cosmos and the material world being his spoken word. Brown correctly observes that, “God’s presence from the priestly perspective is primarily verbal. Palpable, overwhelming, glorious presence is entirely lacking”.
El Shaddi, almighty God
God characterised as a divine commander continues to appear throughout Genesis. Another portrayal of this is located in Genesis 17:1-22, where God appears to Abraham and reveals himself by a new name, El Shaddi, which means ‘God of the mountains’ or ‘The Almighty God’. Arnold states, “Abram speaks hardly at all but hears five divine speeches, in which God emphasizes again how vast will be Abram’s offspring, changes his and Sarai’s names, institutes circumcision as a sign of their covenant relationship, and announces the birth of Isaac”. The introduction of God as El Shaddi further emphasises God’s authority and continues the Priestly depiction of a highly verbal God deficient of physical characteristics. As with Elohim in Genesis 1, El Shaddi appears and speaks what is to be, before returning to his heavenly abode.
The Priestly source is recognised by the sequential prose describing the six days of creation, which follows a predictable pattern of God speaking, creation occurring as instructed, and the creator describing His work as good. The author presents a deity who is measured, decisive, and omnipotent, whilst simultaneously remaining distant and lacking physicality. As God commences his final creation, mankind in Genesis 1:26, the English translation records God addressing himself three times, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness…”. Elohim is the plural form of El, the Canaanite name for god. In its original context, Elohim does not describe a trinitarian God or polytheism, but rather the infinite and incomprehensible nature of God. Humankind is created theomorphic, bearing the imago Dei, reflecting Godly characteristics. As God shares his likeness with human beings the author conversely reveals the anthropomorphic characteristics of God, humanising the divine authority.
Yahweh (Jehovah) revealed in the second creation story
The second creation account commencing in Genesis 2:4 is recognised as a Lay or non-priestly source (L). This account of creation, in conjunction with the temptation and fall narrative of Genesis 3, typify God as a grounded gardener with a fatherly presence that comprises both intimacy and authority. Through these stories in Genesis, the redactor successfully reveals another aspect of God’s character and conduct. It is in the L account of creation that the transcendent and highly verbal God depicted in Genesis 1 and named Elohim, is given another name in Genesis 2:4, Yhwh. Brown describes the Genesis 2 account as the “drama of the dirt” and Yhwh as the “down-and-dirty deity”. In stark contrast to Genesis 1, God is the divinity on the ground, who makes the earth and heavens (v 4), plants a garden (v 8), makes all kinds of trees (v9), separates great rivers (v 10), and takes the man and places him in the garden (v 15). Yhwh is clearly portrayed as a present, practical, and participatory God who is comfortable being seen at the epicentre of his earthly creation. The transition from the God of Genesis 1 to Genesis 2 is aptly summarised by Brown who states, “God exchanges the royal decree for a garden spade”.
The second creation story unfolds quickly with the entire cosmos, including the earth, appearing to be created in one day. Yhwh acts rapidly with perfect competence. The authors emphasis is on God as particularly active in making and shaping the garden and its inhabitants. God appears distinctly anthropomorphic and is portrayed as a visible deity in close proximity to his creation. The anthropomorphic presence of Yhwh is most obvious early in the creation account. In Genesis 2:7, Yhwh forms the man from the dust, metaphorically revealing him as the master craftsman constructing and shaping a complex human by his own hands. Interestingly, the earthling is merely ornamental until Yhwh appears face to face with his human creation and breathes his divine breath into the man bringing him to life. This face to face close encounter with God is consistent with accounts recorded later in Genesis. In Genesis 16:13, Hagar expresses, “I have now seen the one who sees me,” and subsequently Hagar names God, El Roi. In Genesis 32:30 where Jacob, upon realising he has wrestled with a deity exclaims, “I saw God face to face.” Through these passages the redactor characterises the God of Genesis as tangible, personal and at times face to face with his highly treasured humanity.
Yahweh’s Fatherly concern
The Genesis 2 creation account not only depicts Yhwh as an active gardener cultivating creation who possesses supreme authority, but also as a fatherly God with deep care and concern for his creation. Yhwh reveals this affection for Adam by placing him at home in the garden and providing him with meaningful work (v 15). God also endows Adam with the authority to name the animals as he seeks to find Adam a suitable helper (v 18-19), another act revealing fatherly interest. God’s concern for and participation in earthly affairs does not stop with Adam. In Genesis 18:17-33 the interactive and involved Yhwh includes Abraham in his intimate thoughts and his deliberation concerning the grievous sin of Sodom and Gomorrah. Yhwh’s authority as judge of all the earth (v 25) is abated by his decision to not hide from Abraham his destructive intent (v 17), but collaborate face to face with the patriarch. This characterisation of God as both intimate and relational with humankind, whilst simultaneously being the ultimate judge, interplay throughout Genesis. Genesis 3 contains the account of Adam and Eve’s temptation by the serpent and the consequences of which render Yhwh imminent once more. In Genesis 3:8-9, God’s afternoon stroll is disturbed by the unusual absence of Adam and Eve. At this point, Yhwh is illustrated as investigator and judge, where inquiry leads him to judge and punish the three culprits, Adam, Eve and the serpent. Yhwh’s all-powerful authority is clearly portrayed to the disobedient characters, however, L’s explanation does not end the narrative with God as judge and condemner. Rather, despite exiling the first humans from their garden sanctuary, God, like a father graciously clothes Adam and Eve (v 21), generously helps Eve birth Cain (4:1-2), and in his mercy protects the murderer Cain in his exile (4:15). Yhwh proves to be both ‘shield of protection’ and ‘very great reward’ to the characters of Genesis, just as he self-identified when he appeared in a vision to Abram in Genesis 15:1.
Adonai, the elusive God
The three visitors to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre recorded in Genesis 18:1-15, describe God’s manifest presence to be somewhat mysterious and elusive. In this story, Abraham addresses the three strangers and in turn God as Adonai, which is translated as ‘lord’. Adonai is not exclusively a title for a deity and is often utilised throughout Genesis in the addressing of a superior individual, such as a master. For example, Jacob addresses Esau as Adonai in Genesis 33:8 in their reconciliation dealings. The emphasis of the aforementioned passage concerning Abraham, revolves around the identity of the visitors and their intention. Genesis 18:1 reveals that the passage is a theophany, however, Yhwh is represented as three and the dialogue in the narrative vacillates between a singular and a plural Yhwh. In this narrative, Yhwh is clearly depicted as a man or men who are walking, talking, eating, and enjoying Abraham’s hospitality, all the while remaining unidentified. The three visitors appear to talk as one until Yhwh is unveiled by the supernatural nature of the promise in verse 10 where he states, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.” Brown captures this stating, “The narrative gradually builds to an unveiling of the divine identity from “three men,” to “one” to Yhwh”. The intent of the ambiguous visitors is revealed, the delivery of the promise, a son for the aging Abraham and barren Sarah. Yhwh is revealed as a prophetic voice and a broker of the miraculous. The portrayal of Yhwh as the three visitors in Genesis 18 contrasts with Abraham’s other visions, words and theophanies recorded in Genesis 12, 15, 17, 19, and 22. Despite the differing context or manifestation, however, Yhwh’s promises provide reassurance of his covenant on each occasion. Yhwh is revealed to be unmistakably without equal, however, in Genesis 18:1-18 appears casually, unannounced, and without formally revealing his authority, hence the label Adonai from the unsuspecting Abraham. Despite the humanness of God and his unspectacular manifestation, his promise supersedes Abraham and Sarah’s unbelief, altering their future, and further revealing Yhwh as a covenantal, involved, and concerned God.
Laying the foundations for Monotheism
The God of Genesis is afforded a diverse range of names and representations. This may indicate an attempt by the redactor to convey and establish a monotheistic Israelite theology. Monotheism, the belief that only one God exists, is not specifically stated throughout the Genesis story. As previously mentioned, it is evident that the numerous characteristics of God reveal him to be multifaceted in nature and definition, including a cosmic creator, a practical gardener, a caring father, an obscure three in one stranger, and a divine covenant keeper. Given the differing names and explanations for God in Genesis, it could be considered that the God of Israel is not one but many indicating Polytheistic Jewish origins. Furthermore, P’s name for God in Genesis 1, Elohim, is derived from El, the chief God in the Canaanite pantheon. The multiplicity of God’s name and character is prominent in Genesis 14:18. Abram, on his return from victory over the five Kings meets Melchizedek, the King of Salem and Priest of El Elyon. Melchizedek blesses Abram in the name of his god, El Elyon, who like Elohim and Yhwh also holds the title of creator of heaven and earth. It appears in this interaction that Abram is comfortable to amalgamate Yhwh with Melchizedek’s God, when he abruptly states to the seemingly manipulative King of Sodom that he has sworn an oath to Yhwh El Elyon. This may suggest that Abram’s allegiance to Yhwh is not subdued by his acknowledgment of El Elyon. The redactor may be indicating that Israel’s one true God and creator can possibly be understood by many names, including foreign designations. Whilst not explicitly stated, the theology of Genesis does appear to align to monotheism as opposed to monolatry, an exclusive and Israelite only God among many other gods. The many names and characterisations of God in Genesis, rather than imply polytheism or monolatry, may instead be a product of an intricate procedure to shape an Israelite identity and nation, promoting a theology of a singular God who is above all nations and has many names and forms.
Despite the apparent theological polytheism, the Genesis redactor appears to be constructing the foundations for a monotheistic God. The redactors ambition does not appear to be construct a monolatry for Israel. This can be evidenced by the inclusion of many foreign characters such as Melchizedek in the plot of Genesis. Inclusivity not exclusivity is a character trait of Yhwh. In Genesis 16:7, Hagar, the runaway slave is graciously encountered by Yhwh’s messenger beside the road to Shur and the son in her womb is promised to be a great nation. Likewise, Yhwh appears in Abimelek’s dream in Genesis 20:3 to warn him of Abraham’s deceit in the sister-wife incident. Genesis presents a belief in one true God not only for Israel but for all peoples and nations. The God of Genesis is depicted in a wide range of names and forms that do not explicitly outline a monotheistic Israelite theology or communicate allegiance to a single deity. However, the God of Genesis is Creator of heaven and earth, his dominion is cosmic, what he says happens, foreigners are included in his care and concern and Israelite worship is exclusive.
Conclusion: All-powerful yet personal God
The God of Genesis is known by differing names such as Elohim and Yhwh and according to the text is characterised in a multifaceted manner. God is portrayed as both king and landscaper, transcendent and imminent. God commands from on high and also comes down to eat and wrestle like a human being. God is both elusive and near, he is depicted as all powerful while also portrayed to the reader as a concerned protector and gracious judge. The significance of God’s multiple names and descriptions could be suggested that the redactor’s intention in Genesis is to introduce the all-powerful cosmic Creator to the Israelite people as a God who is also eager to be known in a meaningful and personal way. In addition the text suggests that the monotheistic God is God of all nations. This essay has not been exhaustive in its approach to the names and characteristics of God in the Genesis text. The names mentioned along with El Olam (21:33) and Yhwh Jireh (22:14) could be explored further for their significance. In addition, place names involving the appearance of God like Bethel (28:19), Peniel (32:30) and Jacob’s new name, Israel (32:28) contain further opportunity to understand the nature of the God of Genesis.
Arnold, Bill T. Genesis. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Brodie, Thomas L. Genesis as Dialogue: A Literary, Historical, and Theological Commentary. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Brown, William. “Manifest Diversity: The Presence of God in Genesis.” In Genesis and Christian Theology, edited by N. McDonald et al, 3-25. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012.
Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis. Louisville: John Knox Press, 2010.
Carr, David M. An introduction to the Old Testament. Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons, 2010.
Clements, Ron. “Monotheism and the God of Many Names.” In The God of Israel, edited by Robert Gordon, 47-59. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Knafl, Anne Katherine. Forming God: Divine Anthropomorphism in the Pentateuch. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2014.
 Thomas L. Brodie, Genesis as Dialogue: A Literary, Historical, and Theological Commentary (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 35.
 David M. Carr, An introduction to the Old Testament (Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons, 2010), 195.
 Anne Katherine Knafl, Forming God: Divine Anthropomorphism in the Pentateuch. (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2014), 47.
 William, Brown, “Manifest Diversity: The Presence of God in Genesis.” In Genesis and Christian Theology, edited by N. McDonald et al, 3-25 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 22.
 Bill T. Arnold, Genesis (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 167.
 Brown, “Manifest Diversity: The Presence of God in Genesis,” 22.
 Knafl, Forming God: Divine Anthropomorphism in the Pentateuch, 62.
 Carr, An introduction to the Old Testament, 189.
 Brown, “Manifest Diversity: The Presence of God in Genesis,” 23.
 Brown, “Manifest Diversity: The Presence of God in Genesis,” 24.
 Brown, “Manifest Diversity: The Presence of God in Genesis,” 23.
 Knafl, Forming God: Divine Anthropomorphism in the Pentateuch, 52.
 Brown, “Manifest Diversity: The Presence of God in Genesis,” 24.
 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2010), 157.
 Brown, “Manifest Diversity: The Presence of God in Genesis,” 9.
 Knafl, Forming God: Divine Anthropomorphism in the Pentateuch, 51.
 Ron Clements, “Monotheism and the God of Many Names.” In The God of Israel, edited by Robert Gordon, 47-59 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 48.
 Clements, “Monotheism and the God of Many Names,” 52.
 Clements, “Monotheism and the God of Many Names,” 56.
 Arnold, Genesis, 218.