Why do Judaism and Christianity not have a proper name for God?

Q. Why do currently active religions like Judaism and Christianity not give a specific name for, but refer to descriptions of God generically? Current Islam seems to have assigned the name of Allah. Current Hindu gods have names. Expired religions seem always to have used names for gods and god-men.

Because Judaism and Christianity are monotheistic, in general they do not use a proper name for God, since God does not need to be distinguished by name from other divine beings, which these religions do not believe to exist.

However, there actually is a proper name for God in the Hebrew Bible. When God sent Moses to Egypt to deliver the ancient Israelites from slavery there, Moses asked God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” God gave a very interesting answer to this question, saying in Hebrew, ‘ehyeh asher ‘ehyeh, or “I am who I am,” and then telling Moses to say to the Israelites: “‘Ehyeh has sent me to you.”

This may not actually have been the disclosure of a proper name at all, but the claim to be the only God who truly existed, i.e. “I am who I am, and all those other so-called gods are not.” But Moses took the phrase “I am,” expressed in the third person as “he is,” since Moses was speaking about God rather than as God, and used it as a proper name for God, Yahweh. This usage is found throughout the books of Moses or Pentateuch, as well as the rest of the Hebrew Bible, so that this name actually occurs thousands of times there.

However, in order not to violate one of the Ten Commandments, the one that said not to take this name in vain, Jews completely avoided saying it out loud. When reading aloud from the Scriptures, they would substitute the expression Adonai, “the Lord.” When vowel points were added to the consonants in the written text of the Hebrew Bible, the vowels for Adonai were put with the letters YHWH, and when the Scriptures were translated into other languages, the expression “the Lord” was used in place of the proper name. Greek translations of the Bible used the term kurios or “Lord,” and this usage is reflected in the New Testament. That is, when the New Testament quotes the Old Testament, it says “the Lord” where the Old Testament says Yahweh. As a rule, English Bibles follow this same practice. They say “the Lord” wherever the name Yahweh appears, although many of them put the word “Lord” in small caps to show that it represents the name..

That is how we get the impression that Judaism and Christianity do not have a proper name for God. They do. It is actually found throughout their Scriptures. But they tend not to use it, both as an affirmation of monotheism and as a way of showing respect for the name of God.

Ancient religions, by contrast, did tend to use proper names for specific gods because they felt they had to distinguish them from other divine beings. The same would apply to Hinduism, which is a polytheistic religion. Islam, for its part, is monotheistic, but I think you are correct that the name for God in Islam, Allah, should be understood as a proper name. It actually means “the God” in Arabic, but it is treated as a name. However, I do not think that this takes anything away from the strong commitment to monotheism within Islam. After all, the basic statement of faith, the first of the five pillars of Islam, is, “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.” So while I am not an expert on Islam, I do believe that Muslims would say that the one true God has self-revealed to humans under this name.

When did Zipporah convert to Judaism?

Q. When did Zipporah convert to Judaism? I have not been able to find a source that would provide that information.

Zipporah was the wife of Moses. We learn early in the book of Exodus that when Moses fled from Egypt to the land of Midian, he found refuge in the home of a man named Jethro, who was a “priest of Midian.” Moses worked for him, tending his flocks in exchange for his own keep. Moses eventually married one of his daughters, Zipporah.

The Bible does not say specifically that Zipporah embraced faith in the God of Israel when she married Moses, but we do have one slight indication that she probably did so. In a passage that is admittedly strange and difficult to understand, in order to keep God from being angry with Moses, Zipporah circumcised their son Gershom. So somehow she knew that God expected this of his covenant people, and she was prepared to do it.

That is all we really have to go on. There are some things that the Bible does not tell us as much as we would like to know about. But I think we do have enough to go on to conclude that Zipporah did come to share Moses’ faith in the God of Israel.

Why did Naomi tell Ruth to anoint herself?

Q. Why did Naomi tell Ruth to anoint herself?

As I explain in my study guide to Joshua, Judges, and Ruth, at the point in the book of Ruth that you’re asking about, Naomi was giving Ruth instructions that would signal to Boaz that the mourning period for Ruth’s late husband was now over and so Ruth was available for him to marry.

Naomi literally says “put your clothing upon you,” but by this she clearly means “your best clothing.” In other words, Ruth is to lay aside the widow’s garments she has been wearing, and instead put on something designed to be beautiful and attractive. Naomi also tells her to “anoint” herself. This means to put olive oil on her hair and head. This is still done in many similar climates and cultures to refresh the hair and skin. Some interpreters speculate that this could have been perfumed olive oil. If so, that would have been a further signal that Ruth was eligible for marriage.

You can read my study guide online or download it from this link. For a longer discussion of the meeting between Ruth and Boaz on the threshing floor, see the series of posts that begins here.

When did Esau “break off the yoke” of Jacob?

Q. Isaac promised his son Esau that even though he had made his younger brother Jacob his “lord,” someday “you will throw his yoke from off your neck.” Did the yoke get broken off from Esau in the later episode when Jacob bowed down to Esau and called him “lord”? Was Esau saved?

As you suggest, I think it would be accurate to say that Jacob’s yoke was broken off Esau when Jacob returned from being away for 20 years and bowed down to Esau and called him “lord.” We may conclude this not just from the events of the narrative in Genesis, but from the very shape of the narrative itself. The episode in which Jacob cheats Esau out of his position as the family leader in their generation and the episode in which Jacob returns and makes restitution are parallel elements in an elaborate arrangement. Here is how I illustrate that in my study guide to Genesis. (You can read the study guide online or download it free at this link.) Note how episodes marked with the same letter balance each other:

A Jacob deceives his father and steals Esau’s blessing

B Jacob flees towards Harran and encounters God at Bethel

C Jacob arrives in Harran

D Laban deceives Jacob

E Jacob’s children are born

D Jacob deceives Laban

C Jacob leaves Harran

B Jacob returns towards Canaan and encounters God again

A Jacob returns Esau’s blessing and they are reconciled

So the narrative in Genesis is put together in such a way as to indicate that when Jacob came back home and returned Esau’s blessing, bowing down to him as his “lord,” that was a fulfillment of the promise that their father Isaac had made to Esau that he would eventually “throw off” the yoke of servitude to Jacob.

I talk more about how Jacob made restitution to Esau in this post.

As for whether Esau was saved, the Bible does not say specifically. I do not believe we should take Paul’s comments in Romans to mean that Esau was not saved. Paul is speaking specifically of which brother the covenant line would continue through, not of individual salvation, when he says that “in order that God’s purpose in election might stand,” Rebekah was told, “The older will serve the younger.” Paul also quotes the statement from Malachi, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated,” but we need to appreciate that the Hebrew language uses the term “hated” in contexts like this to refer to a son or wife who is not favored, by contrast with one who is favored. The meaning is, “I favored Jacob, but I did not favor Esau.”

So, we do not know for sure whether Esau was saved. But we might conclude from the fact that Esau did not attack Jacob when he returned, even though he had said earlier that he was going to kill Jacob, that Esau somehow found the motive and power to forgive, and so perhaps he had experienced God’s forgiveness himself.

Why are the numbers 144,000 and 12,000 in Revelation so mathematical?

Q. In John’s vision in Revelation of the “servants of God” who were sealed, any ideas as to why these numbers (144,000 and 12,000 from each tribe) are so mathematical? That is, apparently the Lord picked these exact numbers to be included here. Just curious. Is there something more?

You are on to something here. Yes, those numbers are mathematical. 12,000 = 3 x 4 x 10 x 10 x 10, and 144,000 = 12 x 12 x 10 x 10 x 10. I discuss the symbolism of such numbers in this post: Are the numbers 3, 4, 7, 10, etc. intentionally symbolic in the book of Revelation?

I also have a separate post on, Who are the 144,000 in the book of Revelation?

In these posts I draw on my Daniel-Revelation study guide, which you can read online or download for free at this link.

Why does Luke mention Phillip’s daughters?

Q. Why does Luke mention Phillip’s daughters in the book of Acts?

This is an excellent kind of question to ask, because Luke no doubt had a lot of material to work with as he was putting together the book of Acts, and presumably he did not include everything that was available. So we can and should ask why details like this one were included. How do they fit into the overall plan and theme of this biblical book?

The episode you’re asking about comes in one of the “we” sections of the book of Acts, in which Luke is relating events that he took part in personally. Luke is accompanying Paul on his way to Jerusalem to deliver the offering from the Gentile churches, and about this specific incident, which took place as the travelers neared Jerusalem, he says: “We continued our voyage from Tyre and landed at Ptolemais, where we greeted the brothers and sisters and stayed with them for a day. Leaving the next day, we reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven. He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied.

By “one of the Seven,” Luke means that Philip was one of the seven people who had earlier been appointed to oversee the distribution of food to needy members of the church in Jerusalem. But Philip did many things after that to help spread the good news about Jesus, and at this point he was no longer living in Jerusalem. Luke probably mentions that the daughters were “unmarried” to indicate that they were still living at home. And while his language could be understood to mean that they “prophesied” as a regular ministry (some Bibles say that they “had the gift of prophecy” or “were involved in the work of prophecy”), it seems to me that they must have prophesied while Paul and Luke were staying in their home, and that is how Luke knew that they had this gift.

So why does he mention it? Was it just a memorable experience along the way? He probably had more reason than that, since the travelers no doubt had many other memorable experiences on this trip that he could have included. I think Luke mentions these four prophesying daughters specifically because this detail illustrates the overall theme of his book. As I say in my study guide to Luke-Acts (which you can read online or download at this link), Acts describes how the community of Jesus’ followers “spread throughout the Roman Empire as it proclaimed the good news about Jesus to people of many different backgrounds, languages, and regions.”

Early in the book, Luke records how the Holy Spirit descended on the young community on the day of Pentecost and enabled its members to speak all  the different languages of the visitors who had come to Jerusalem for that festival. That was a picture of how the community would spread to people of all backgrounds. To explain to the crowd that gathered what was happening, the apostle Peter quoted these words from the prophet Joel:

In the last days, God says,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your young men will see visions,
    your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
    and they will prophesy.

The Pentecost episode is like an overture, encapsulating the themes that play out in the rest of the book. The prophetic gifting and ministry of Philip’s daughters is a fulfillment of the words, “Your … daughters will prophesy.” So I think that when Luke was putting together the book under divine inspiration, he recognized that staying in their house and witnessing them using this gift was not just a memorable personal experience, but something that he should share with his readers as an example of how the words of Joel continued to come true as the Holy Spirit empowered the community of Jesus’ followers—men and women, young and old, of different social classes—to spread the good news.

Why did Abraham send all his sons away from Isaac?

Q. Why did Abraham send all his sons away from Isaac?

The book of Genesis tells us that after Sarah died, “Abraham married another wife, named Keturah.” She bore him six sons. The book goes on to explain that “Abraham left everything he owned to Isaac. But while he was still living, he gave gifts to the sons of his concubines and sent them away from his son Isaac to the land of the east.” The plural word “concubines” refers both to Keturah and to Hagar, another wife of Abraham who was the mother of Ishmael.

So the reason why Abraham sent the other sons away seems to be that he wanted to make sure that Isaac indeed inherited his estate. He may have been concerned that after his death, the six sons of Keturah, whose mother would likely still have been living (since Keturah seems to have been younger than Abraham), might have banded together against Isaac, the son of a different mother who had died, to try to claim the inheritance for themselves.

The case of Jephthah presents a comparable, even though slightly different, example. He was the eldest son of a man named Gilead, though his mother was a prostitute. The book of Judges relates, “Gilead’s wife also bore him sons, and when they were grown up, they drove Jephthah away. ‘You are not going to get any inheritance in our family,’ they said, ‘because you are the son of another woman.'” Abraham may have been concerned that the same kind of thing would happen to Isaac, and so he sent the other sons to live in another place.

The Bible does not say whether Keturah’s sons actually would have tried to get the inheritance away from Isaac. It does not say whether Abraham sending them away was a good or a bad thing. So we have to come to some conclusion about that ourselves. In this post, “Who was Abraham’s second wife, Hagar or Keturah?” I say that Hagar (along with her son Ishmael) “is one of the figures in the Bible who is treated worst by the people who were supposed to be following and obeying God.” We might similarly wonder whether it was right for Abraham to remarry after Sarah’s death but then treat his second wife’s sons so unfavorably compared with his first wife’s son. We would probably not think that was suitable if someone did it today. So beyond the question of why Abraham sent the other sons away, we have the question of whether that was a proper thing for him to do. And we must come to some conclusion about that by reflecting on all the principles that the Bible teaches us.

Who was Solomon’s first wife?

Q. I am wondering who Solomon’s first wife was. The book of Kings describes how Solomon married the daughter of Pharaoh after making an alliance with Egypt. But the Song of Solomon speaks of his love for the Shulammite.

The Bible does not actually tell us who Solomon’s first wife was. The first woman it describes Solomon marrying was indeed the daughter of Pharaoh, as you say. But that does not necessarily mean she was his first wife.

I think a good case can be made for the argument that his first wife actually was Abishag the Shunammite, presumably the same woman who is called by the similar name Shulammite in the Song of Solomon. This beautiful woman had kept the aging King David warm in his bed when he could no longer stay warm himself, but the Bible is very specific that David did not have sexual relations with her and he was not married to her. This meant that David’s son and successor could marry her. (The Law of Moses forbade a man to marry a woman who had been his father’s wife.)

Solomon’s older half-brother Adonijah, who had tried unsuccessfully to seize the throne for himself even though Solomon was David’s announced choice as successor, recognized that marrying Abishag might still give him some claim to the throne. So he asked Solomon if he could do that. Solomon realized what Adonijah was up to and that it was a violation of Adonijah’s oath not to keep pursuing the throne. Solomon had warned him that he would be put to death if he did that, and when Adonijah make this request, Solomon had him executed.

The Bible says nothing about Abishag after that, but reading between the lines, it makes good sense to think that Solomon then married her himself. As Adonijah had realized, being married to the last woman who had been something like a wife to King David, without actually being his wife, would strengthen his claim to be David’s successor.

But if so, was that all there was to it? Probably not, if Abishag the Shunammite is also the Shulammite of the Song of Solomon. If Solomon was indeed writing about her in that great love poem, then the two of them had much more than a marriage of convenience. It would have been a true love match.

We do need to acknowledge that Solomon later did marry other wives, including Pharaoh’s daughter and the daughters of the kings of many other surrounding nations, for alliance purposes. Ultimately these foreign wives led him to worship idols, and God punished him by taking away most of the kingdom from his successors. So when it came to marriage, unfortunately Solomon did not make very good choices in the end. But we can at least hope that he made a good choice in the beginning, and that for some time he experienced what God intended marriage to be.

What did Isaiah mean when he said, “I saw the Lord”?

Q. What did Isaiah mean when he said, “In the year King Uzaiah died, I saw the Lord“?

Here is what I say about that in my study guide to the book of Isaiah. You can read the guide online or download it at this link.

Even though the account in which Isaiah has a vision of the Lord in the temple does not come right at the beginning of the book of Isaiah, it actually relates the earliest event recorded in the book: Isaiah’s call from God to be a prophet.

This episode in Isaiah’s life took place about six years before Israel and Aram invaded Judah. King Uzziah had ruled the country for fifty-two years. During his reign it had been prosperous, stable, and secure. Now this great king was being succeeded by his son Jotham, who had been his co-regent for the previous ten years. Jotham would only reign another five or six years himself before dying and leaving the people in the untested hands of his twenty-year-old son Ahaz. Meanwhile, the Assyrian empire was growing in strength and size and threatening the entire region. So along with the whole nation of Judah, a young man named Isaiah was facing an uncertain and fearful future as he went into Jerusalem’s temple one day to try to find hope and reassurance by worshiping God.

As the Scriptures say, Isaiah has a remarkable vision in the temple that reveals that Israel’s true king, the Lord Almighty, the God who has called the people into a special relationship with himself, is established on his throne above the whole world. Whatever earthly kings and their armies might attempt, it is God who ultimately determines the destinies of nations. Isaiah will never forget this vital truth throughout his career, as he continually calls the people to trust in their God rather than in the strategies they might devise or the alliances they might form.

But this glimpse of God’s power and presence also leads Isaiah to an awful realization about himself. The seraphs (a special kind of angel) proclaim that the Lord is “holy, holy, holy,” and that the whole earth is full of his glory. This means that every living being is continually confronted with the reality of God’s purity and radiance. In response, Isaiah can only acknowledge that he is “unclean.” Within the ceremonial life of the nation’s covenant with the Lord, this means that he is impaired, polluted, defective, and so unfit to be used in any way connected with God.

Isaiah describes himself specifically as “a man of unclean lips.” Interpreters have different ideas about why he chooses this particular part of the body (rather than, for example, his heart or mind) to represent his spiritual state. It may be because the lips express, and thus make evident, a person’s innermost thoughts and intentions. Or Isaiah may be saying that he can tell he isn’t pure because his lips, unlike those of the seraphs, aren’t continually praising God for his holiness and glory.

Because God wants Isaiah to be available for his service, one of the seraphs flies to him with a live coal from the altar (where sacrifices for sin were offered) and touches his lips with it. The seraph announces, “Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” Isaiah has admitted his need for cleansing and forgiveness, and these are applied to the very place he used to symbolize that need.