The Elohistic Psalter (Psalm 42)

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The Old Testament generally uses one of two different Hebrew words to refer to God:

  • Elohim: This term, translated simply as God, is a generic Hebrew word, comparable to the English God, the French Dieu or the German Gott.
  • Yahweh: This word is the propper name of God, but it is usually translated in English as “the Lord”. In older translations it is sometimes written as “Jehovah”.

An enigma in the Psalms is the so-called Elohistic Psalter, encompassing Psalms 42-83. This collection of psalms has been so designated because in them God is generally referred to as Elohim instead of Yahweh (230 versus 43 occurrences, respectively). We can verify this even in the English by simply comparing how often the word “God” appears in these psalms in comparison to “the Lord”. Elsewhere in the Psalms, however, Yahweh is used more frequently than Elohim. How can we explain this peculiarity in Psalms 42-83?

  • A hypothesis that is almost certainly incorrect relates the Elohistic Psalter to the “Documentary Hypothesis”. This theory states that three major documents, referred to as J, E and P, are the sources of Genesis (a fourth theoretical source, D, contributed very little to Genesis). According to this theory J refers to God as Yahweh in Genesis because J believed that the patriarchs knew the divine name Yahweh. Thus, so-called “J” texts always refer to God as Yahweh. However, E and P call Him Elohim because they believed that the name Yahweh was not revealed until the time of Moses. Thus, E and P does not use Yahweh in Genesis. There are good reasons to believe that this theory is groundless. More that that, this hypothesis has no bearing on the divine name as it appears in Psalms.
  • A second possibility is that Psalms 42-83 use Elohim instead of Yahweh in order to communicate that the God whom Israel worshipped was not merely a local, national god but the One true deity over heaven and earth: God. A problem with this explanation is that even when speaking to Gentiles about God as the universal deity, Israelites did not avoid the name Yahweh. Jonah, in Jonah 1:9, asserted to pagan sailors, “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land” (see also Psalm 89:6, 113:5, Jeremiah 51:19).
  • A third possibility is that the Elohistic Psalter reflects a shift in attitude about speaking the divine name, Yahweh. We know that in the later Judaism the name Yahweh was never pronounced for fear of committing blasphemy. Instead of pronouncing God’d proper name the Israelite would say Adonai (“my Lord”) or hashem (“the name”). When a reader in the synagogue came to the name Yahweh in a text, he would simply substitute Adonai. It may be that the Elohistic Psalter represents a specific stage in the history of the compilation of the book of Psalms. Psalm 14 is almost identical to Psalm 53, except that where Psalm 14 uses Yahweh Psalm 53 substitutes Elohim. If Psalm 14 is the original version, it may be that a later edition replaced Yahweh with Elohim in Psalm 53 (a similar relationship exists between Psalm 40 and 70). Thus, the collection and editing of the Elohistic Psalter may reflect a time when people had begun to feel uncomfortable about pronouncing the name Yahweh but had not yet developed the practice of substituting Adonai or hashem.

We do not know with certainty, however, why the Elohistic Psalter prefers Elohim over Yahweh.


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