Why the Name YHWH is Special Mentioned in Exodus 6:2~9?

Exegesis of Exodus 6:2-9 through the Light of the History of Israelite Religion, Source Criticism and Narrative Studies


Exodus (Ex.) 6:2~9 can be considered as one of the most interesting passage in the Exodus as it bring us the attention of History of Israelite Religion. It gives us some fundamental material for the studies of the contrast between the Religion of ‘Patriarchs Fathers’ and ‘Israel’. In the following section, different approaches are used to make exegesis on the passage and two excursus are prepared to make in-depth studies of particular topics. Therefore, every parts in this paper is highly inter-related. It is advised to go through the paper for two times at least. Here is the content of this paper:


Basic Observation

Excursus I: The Rise of YHWH

Excursus II: The Meaning of the name YHWH

Source Criticism

Narrative Criticism

Re-Interpreting the Ex. 6:2~9

Questions for Future Studies

Reflection for Theology / us


In the beginning of the paper, basic observation of the passage and main problems of the passage will be mentioned. It will be shown that the passage will bring us the problems of the History of Israelite Religion and the meaning of the name YHWH. Thus, two Excursus are prepared to give us the background information of such difficulties. However, it cannot solve all the problems. Then, the Wellhasusen’s Documentary hypothesis will be employed to identify the source of the passage in order to identify the date of writing, writing purpose, the meaning to the potential reader (source criticism). The information is helpful to the attempt of answering the questions. However, the method of source criticism likes ‘dissecting the text’ and ignoring the ‘external anatomy’ of the text, the final form of the Pentateuch. Therefore, the ‘narrative studies’ that consider Pentateuch as a unity will be employed to handle the passage as a whole to see the position of the passage in the Pentateuch. It is expected that the meaning of the ‘Guide-Book’ (Torah) towards the readers will be mentioned. It is expected that different approaches are contributed to give an in-depth insights on the problems that will be reported in ‘re-interpreting the Ex. 6:2~9’ as a conclusion.

Basic Observation

The assumption of the basic observation is that the source of this passage is from the document P.

In v.2 God uses the self-identification form to show that he is YHWH / "I am the YHWH". The phrase "I am the YHWH" is commonly found in the document P (especially in the Holiness Code) that means "The YHWH is the only God who exists and exerts his sovereign power in the affairs of men." In other words, it shows God’s authority and power in the process of revealing his name. In v.3, it states a difficult statement: the name YHWH is not known to Patriarch Father (but Moses is the first one who know this name), the fathers only know the name El-Shaddhai. However, the name YHWH is commonly used in the Genesis. When the father and tribe of Israel know the name of the YHWH and how they know the YHWH are the questions raised out. (the complex issue will be discussed in Excursus I). Moreover, it may be asked that why the distinction of YHWH and El-Shaddhai is raised in this particular passage. Furthermore, as YHWH is specially emphasized (the name is distinguished from El-Shaddhai and the name is repeating in such short passage), is there any special meaning wanted to be delivered from the name of YHWH? If it is assumed that the name can represent the nature and character of a person; then, what insight can be given from the name YHWH? This question will be discussed in Excursus II. In v.4, it emphasis the convenant made with Abraham regarding the promise of land (Ge. 17). The promise of land may be one of the major theme in Exodus. YHWH uses the first person to inform the reader that he know the groaning of the Israelites and he all remember the convenant in v.5. In v.6~8, "I am the YHWH" are used for three times in such a short passage. There are no such repeating uses in the Bible except in this passage. The writer may want to emphasis the existing and power of YHWH in this passage as the identification of YHWH and the recognition of his work is the primary reason for redemption. Repeating the phrase may made the emphasis. Interesting question of why such emphasis is made in this passage is raised. God promises to relive the Israelites from the yoke of Egyptian with punishment on the enemies of Israel that means judgment in v.6. In v.7, an I-thou relationship that is the meaning of convenant will be form after the exodus and Israelites will know the YHWH through his action. In v.8, YHWH reaffirm the promises made again. However, in v.9, it is reported that no people are willing to hear Moses when compared with 4:31.

In the following section, different approaches are adopted in attempt to answer the raised questions above. The questions seems can be summarized by this question: Why the name YHWH is special mentioned in Exodus 6:2~9?

Excursus I: Brief History of Israelite Religion

As it is mentioned above, the v.2 bring us the questions when the father and tribe of Israel know the name of the YHWH and how they know the YHWH. In this section, it is going to give a brief history of the development of Israelite Religion. There will be four parts in this section. First, the tradition treatment of this passage will be further discussed. Second, some basic concept on this topic will be introduced. Third, the brief history of YHWH will be introduced. Moreover, the charatertics in different period will be mentioned. Finally, an attempt of reconstruction of the History of Israelite Religion will be stated..

Traditional Treatment

Some conservative may ignore this question as they adopt other interpretation. They may argue that the key problem of the exegesis difficulties is due to the meaning of the word ‘known’ (yadha) in the phrase of ‘YHWH was I not know to them.’. They argue that the meaning of this word may be ‘to know by instruction or experience.’ In other words, the Israelites only know little of YHWH until they learn the powerful work during the Exodus. Only after the salvation work in Exodus, they know the implication of the name. Thus, the name YHWH is also known to the Fathers.

However, the response ignores the writing structure of related text in Genesis. According to Wenham, the narrative in the Genesis does not make contradiction with Ex. 6:3 as the narrators of Genesis do not show that the name YHWH was known before Moses. The name YHWH only appears in the narrative framework but not the first person speech of YHWH. Therefore, we can conclude that the name YHWH is not revealed by God to the Father. The word is used as the narrator think that YHWH is the same as El/ El Shaddhai; therefore, they use the words interchangeable.

Basic Concept

In this part, some basic concept needed for the studies of the history of Israelite religion will be mentioned and the meaning of gods will be proposed in order to favor further discussion.

First of all, there should be an open attitude towards the studies of such history. There is a traditional teaching in Chinese Church that monotheistic worship of YHWH is begun with the calling of Abraham or even earlier. However, this understanding may be different from the history. Thus, an opened mind is needed to face the ‘strange new world’! As the Bible record may be different from the ‘history’, it lead to the discussion of the concept of ‘historiography’.

History means ‘those texts that were produced in the course of the events as they were happening’ while historiography means ‘those texts that were produced after the events in an attempt to clarify for future generations how things were thought to have happened’. In the following discussion, these concepts will be employed. It will be illustrated that the history of Israel’s religion may be quite different from the Bible records that seems to be the historiography.

Finally, the meaning of El and El-Shaddhai are explained. The El is the highest God in the heaven of council that have four caste level (while Baal is in the second level which deal the human affair). The compound name El-Shaddhai is first appeared in Ge. 17:1 that appear to Abraham during the making of convenant. Through the studies of etymology, El-Shaddhai may have the meaning of ‘sufficient’, ‘lord’, ‘rain-god’ and ‘mountain-god’. It should be note that the english translation of this word is God-Almighty. This is the translation influenced by Greek and Latin translation. In fact, the word Saddhai is associated with the meaning of ‘destroy’ in post-patriarchal period. When this word is translated to Greek, it is further translated as Almighty. Thus, the english translation is not appropriate. However, which meaning of El-Shaddhai is identified by Fathers? Hyatt prefers the meaning of mountain as he stated that some scholars associate this word with Assyro-Babylonian word. The Hyatt’s argument can be further supported. Mountain is always regards as a place of divine of assembly (compare with Sinai and the Olympians). If we assume that El-Shaddhai is described as the highest God (like the designation of YHWH, please note that the word YHWH and El-Shaddhai seems to be interchangeable in Genesis), it is believed that the title of the god of mountain give him the highest status (cf. with Zeus Olympus). Moreover, the Father may recognize El-Shaddhai in their particular historical background as their fundamental social and economic structure are based on the shepherd and farmer of the hill-country (Ge. 26:19ff, 37:12ff). Thus a faith of a god of mountain may fit their culture background. Thus, the name El seems to have the meaning of the god of mountain.

Brief History of YHWH

After the treatment of the traditional response on the difficulty of the Ex. 6:3, it is accepted that the Fathers do not know the name of YHWH at all. It lead us to think about what the Fathers believe in. Moreover, when do Israel begin the worship of YHWH?

Two proposals can be deduced from the passage that are studied. First, Fathers may see the appearance of YHWH but recognized him as El (and other El compound name, e.g. El-Shaddhai, El-Elyon). The name of YHWH is known later.

YHWH ------> recognized as El

-------> the name YHWH is recognized in later period.

The second proposal is that the Fathers worship and know El and worship him. The identification and worship of YHWH may begin in later period (may be in the period of Moses).

El -----> worship by Father

YHWH -----> is worshipped (since the period of Moses ?).

Both proposal are supported by different scholars. In the following section, it will be shown that the second proposal will be more reasonable through the survey of the content of the faith of the Father, Israel tribe, South and North Kingdom.

Monotheistic worship of YHWH does not begin in the period of the Father, but the Father may worship the gods (e.g. El) of Cannian that is predicted through their living. First, if monotheistic worship of YHWH begin in the Father period, they are required to separate themselves from the living of Cannan as the command in the Holiness Code. However, they have good relationship with the Canninaite of other faiths. Moreover, the content of Father’s faith resembles the one of El in Cannian. According to Ugaritic text, ‘El promised land and descendants to his worshipers’; the stories of Genesis also emphasis on such concerns. To conclude, the basic charatertictics of the Father’s faith is that they worship the El of Cannian as their family god

In the period of Israelite tribe, some scholars claim that the history of the faith of YHWH is begun with Moses who bring the faith to the Israel tribe in the Exodus. They argue that YHWH is a southern Palestinian mountain God who is located somewhere in Mount Paran, Mdribath Kadesh (Deut 33:2), Seir, the region of Edom (Judg 5:4~5) or Mount Paran (Hab 3:3). There is a hypothesis that Moses know the god YHWH as a mountain god in his Midianite father-in-law and bring this faith to Israel tribe for the battle of liberation. However, it should be noted if the monotheistic faith of YHWH begin during the period of Moses although the faith of YWHH is begun. If monotheism begin in Moses period, why the phenomena of polytheism is found in the South & North Kingdom?

Before further discussion, it should be noted that the worship of Baal is raising to replace the worship of El in the pre-Israel period.

During the period of South Kingdom, it can be found that the worship of YHWH in Jersulaem Temple reorded in the Bible is closed to be the worship of Baal who is the God fighting with the Yam, the god of sea. For example, the image of YHWH described in Psalm 29 is quite close to Yam. In Ps. 29:3: "The voice of the LORD is over the waters (Yam?), the God of glroy thunders, the LORD thunders over the mighty water.". As Baal is understood as the God who hold the lighting spear and thunder club and make victory over Yam. The passage seems to describe the Baal. Moreover, the Psalm 93 of book four that is the collection of Korah give more information for the comparison. The YHWH is described as ‘king’ over the ‘floodwater’. It have same theme of a record of Ugarit Text that claim ‘Yam (the god of ‘floodwater’) is truly dead, Baal is king!’. Such similarity leads us to think about the who the object of worship is in that period. It is suggested that the similarity is caused due to the ‘synthesis’ of YHWH and Cannianite ideas .

In North Kingdom, Jereboam setting up the ‘Golden Calf’ in Dan and Berthen (I Kg. 12:28~29) likes the record of Ex. 32 and both claim that ‘These your gods, O Israel, who brought you up our of the Land of Egypt". As the purpose of setting up the Calf is the prevention of the Northern people visiting to Jerusalem; thus, the meaning behind the symbol (calf) should be the same as the one in Jerusalem. What is the identity of the Golden Calf? There is no absolutely certainly, but it has the certainty of association with Baal. As the Golden Calf may represent with the Baal, it is expected that the object of worship in Jerusalem may be the ‘synthesis’ of YHWH and Baal as well. However, some scholars argue if the Golden Calf is used as a symbol to represent YHWH solely like the symbol of Ark. However, is it possible to use a symbol that have associated with the meaning of Baal to represent YHWH? Take a modern illustration, ‘blood and wine’ and cross are used for the symbol of Christ. Will the symbol of [ or ÿ used to represent Christ? Moreover, if someone have conflict with a church, then, he setup another church. Would he setup a image of ‘Buddha’ or ‘Mikcy Mouse’ in the new church? Thus, it is reasonable to make such prediction that the worship of Golden Calf representing the YHWH in Jerusalem Temple that have the element of the faith of Baal. Moreover, the plural form of gods in their claim, it may imply that there is polytheism is common in the South Kingdom and this situation may be as early as in the Aaron period.

Reconstruction of the History of Israelite Religion

So far, it is shown that the actual ‘history’ of Israelite Religion is different from the record of Bible that tend to be a ‘historiography’. ‘Historiography’ is not a good evident to reconstruct the ‘history’. A better way to find out he actual history is using the archaeological remains (e.g. building, artifacts, clay tables etc.) combing the interpretation of the biblical record. The following is a summary done by Niehr that may be a good way to conclude the ‘fragment’ of the phenomena of Israelite religion that are mentioned above:

YHWH was seen to be a northwest Semitic weather god from southern Palestine who achieved the position of supreme god in the panthea of Jerusalem and Samaria. In these two capital YHWH was venerated as the god of the dynasty and the kingdom but not as the different towns......

The process of YHWH’s rise began in the early first millennium BCE and did not end until the postexilic period.... many religio-historical aspects of YHWH’s rise remain unknown to us.

To conclude, the YHWH worship was not begun in the period Patriarchs Fathers but may begin since Moses. It rises as one of the most important religion during the period of South and North Kingdom. However, the worship is not monotheism but polytheism. Even YHWH is worship, the content may like the ‘synthesis’ of YHWH and Baal. The absolute monotheism is expected to begin in the prophetic tradition during the Exile.

Excursus II: The Meaning of the name YHWH

What insight can be given from the name YHWH as the name is specially mentioned from the name El-Shaddhai? The name can be understood with the parallel passage of Ex 3:12~15. Moses asks the name of the God, he answer Moses that "Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyer". Then, the name YHWH is mentioned again in v.15. Therefore, it is believed "Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyer" is used to describe the attribute of YHWH. Thus, these two terms are inter-changeable. This phrase is translated as "I am that I am" in English and "I am that self-existing and remaining unchanged" in Chinese. There are many opinion on such difficult passage, only two view are discussed here: the ontological view and phenomenological view.

The ontological view is adopted by the Chinese Translation but it is incorrect when it adopt the translation of LXX. The LXX translators translate the text to meet the challenge in their time and distort the original meaning of "Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyer". In the period of Greek, spirit is not considered as "self-existing and remaining unchanged" but substance is:

The substance of a thing may be: (i) its essence, or that which makes it what it is... (ii) That which can exist by itself, or does not need a subject for existence...

Therefore, the LXX translation of the phrase is used for the teaching of the correct attribute and understanding of God to their reader. The translation in Chinese is not appropriate.

The phenomenological view may be better. This view identifies the name YHWH means that ‘God will reveal himself in his actions through history.’ Thus, ‘Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyer’ means that "The God who acts" and "I am what in creative activity and everywhere I turn out to be." This view have the advantage that the explanation meet the need of the reader. YHWH promises to redeem the Israel in Ex. 3. And his promise of deliverance and repeating of his name are emphasis in Ex. 6. YHWH revealing of his name to showing his presence and work in the history of the hard time in Egypt is a important message to the Israel. On the other hand, is it useful for a suffer if God tell him a ‘difficult’ theological doctrine that he is ‘self-existing and remaining unchanged’? Moreover, this view can be supported by archaeology. Two scholars have studies the personal name in Ancient Near East., it is found that the name of men are attempted to demonstrate the hope that god has shown himself to present and helpful. With this background, the above proposal is supported. "Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyer" can be understood as "I am ‘here and is now helping’". It is expected this proposed meaning of the name YHWH may be the best to fix the context of the reader.

   œ œ œ

Source Criticism

Knowing the writing background and writing purpose that can be found through source criticism, can give us some insights to understand the Ex. 6:2~9.

It is commonly accepted that the passage is developed from P sources that give a remark of the parallel passage of JE source. When compare 6:2~4 and 3:12~15, it give additional information that the knowing of YHWH started from Moses. Moreover, P may be developed (without full knowledge of JE source)(?) to fit within their context. It is proposed that P document is developed during Exiles where their political power and identity of community are lost. Moreover, their status if cruse or blessing before God is unknown. Thus, the writer of P need to provide the hope to the Israel. With such background knowledge, it is easier to understand the how the three characteristics of P document are related to the particular historical context. First, the convenat of God with Abraham that is the promise of land is mentioned. Second, the stories of Israel’s becoming a people of God. These two special emphasis do give the hope of the Israel to identify themselves. Finally, it is very comforting because:

‘... (it) is a powerful affirmation of faith in God’s unconditional commitment to Israel which, although delayed by human fragility, will never be deflected from the ultimate goal of God’s love.’

Moreover, the idea of DtrH may be integrated in the writer of P. Thus, the historiography of Kings comment that the destruction of Jerusalem and the deportation are the result of affirming the gods of Assyria and Babyloan. It can be further deduced that the punishment is also the result of polytheism that are discussed above. Moreover, they give a new value of history, they try to point the intervention of YHWH in the human society instead of a myth (e.g. Baal make victories over Yam).

All this information will be used in later exegesis.

However, it states the writing purpose of P document only. It is necessary to study the writing purpose of the final form of Exodus to give a holistic picture.

Narrative Studies

When the Exodus is consider as a whole, it is generally accepted that the description of Moses Saga and YHWH are the theme in Exodus. YHWH appears to Moses in order to make convenant with him (as a call to be prophet). The record in Ex. 6 is parallel to Ex. 3, but it is not a redundancy but complementary to each others for a theme. It is because Ex.6 serves as a ‘renewal’ of initial calling of Moses in Ex. 3 that encouraging Moses despite the failure of his initial mission. Moreover, the stories in Exodus is considered as the beginning of Israel:

"This is what the Sovereign LORD says: On the day I chose Israel, I swore with uplifted hand to the descendants of the house of Jacob and revealed myself to them in Egypt. With uplifted hand I said to them: ‘I am the LORD your God’" (Ezkiel 20:5)


Re-Interpreting the Ex. 6:2~9

With the background information get from History of Israelite religion, source criticism and narrative studies. It is possible to go through the passage again in order to answer: Why the name YHWH is special mentioned in Exodus 6:2~9?

In the passage Ex. 6:2~9, the phrase of "I am the YHWH" have been repeated for four times. For the first reader of P, it is very important for them in a dark age to get the message that God is present and will be active to take action. Furthermore, the description of the I-thou relationship and the promise of the land to their Fathers in a convenant (v.6~8) are important message to the reader. The revelation of the name YHWH also serves to affirm that is very important for the ‘landless’ people. Moreover, the name YHWH also shares the similar meaning that God is a helping one. Thus, the name YHWH is specially emphasized. Moreover, when the Exodus is read as a whole, the reader can get the message that God never give up to encourage Moses even he have failure in his first mission. In other words, it implies that there is always a hope and encouragement from God in people’s failure. This message is valuable to those in the uncertainty of God’s grace in the dark age. On the other hand, the name is even distinguished from the name of El-Shaddhai. It is proposed that the writer have accepted the theology of DtrH. Therefore, they urged the reader to identify their object of worship, i.e. YHWH and do not commit the same error of polytheism in the past.

However, a question of why the distinction is made during that particular time (by P redactor) left behind. It is suggested that the name of God YHWH is revealed for showing authority in a special moment like the calling and making convenant. As the period begin with Moses (who may begin the faith of YHWH) in Exodus is recognized as the birth of Israel as it is a religious symbols of historical and political liberation, the name (as a new revelation) is dated back to that time to mark the beginning of exodus generation. On the other hand, the worship object of the Father (i.e. El of Cannian) is quite different from the Israel’s one; therefore, an attempt to bridge the El-Shaddhai and YHWH is made in order to harmonize the ‘history’ by the redactor of ‘historiography’. In other words, the history may be that the Father worship to El-Shaddhai that is different from YHWH, but both of the faith are bridged by the writers (historiography). They try to claim that their Patricians Fathers also worship YHWH.

However, why the redactors make the ‘bridging’ in v.3? It is proposed that the writer try to give a better description of the ‘ungraceful’ history (through the view of DtrH) of Father’s religion. Although he may know the father’s worship to El-Shaddhai that is different from YHWH, they may want to mask the ‘sin’ of the Father of worshipping to other gods by making such bridge. It is very important for a tribe that have a ‘historiography’ that record their ‘graceful’ origin; thus, the ‘sin’ of the their Father may be tried to harmonized.

Questions for Further Studies

The excursus prepared in this paper is used for a introductory purpose only, both topics can be further studied. Here are three question raised for further studies.

First, as Niehr suggested, YHWH may be considered a god of weather; does it a further evidence that the faith of Baal (may be considered as weather) has integrated into the Faith of YHWH?

Second, Garrett suggest that the translation of Ex. 6:3 should be: "... And my name is YHWH; Did I not make myself know to them?". This translation may implies that the name YHWH is known to the father. It is worth to study if this translation is correct and how to harmonize this finding with the history of Israelite religion.

Third, as the conclusion mentioned, it seems that the writers of Ex.6.3 try to dated back the faith of YHWH back to Ex. 6 and then bridge the faith with their Fathers’ worship of El. The reaons behind is not certain. It is interesting to find the reasons behind throught different approaches.

Reflection for Theology / us

As the faith of YHWH need time to develop and there is a period that the faith of YHWH is ‘synthesizing’ with the faith Baal, does it give us some insight on the mode of preaching of Christianity in China?

It has been proposed to discard Chinese’s Culture before accepting Christianity and it is also proposed for a ‘synthesis’ of Christianity and Chinese Culture. It is expected that the Exegesis of Exodus 6:2~9 can give some insight for us to think about the problem. Through the insight given from the passage, it is expected that a period of ‘synthesis’ of Christianity of Chinese culture may be allowed, but a absolute Christianity belief should be developed at the end. The question we should considered is what a absolute Christianity belief is. Is it a Christianity mixed with western ideology? This is an open question for our re-consideration.

On the other hand, what is our response to encounter the YHWH, the one who is active and helping?

The God of Abraham Praise

The God of Abraham praise,

Who reigns enthroned above;

Ancient of everlasting days,

And God of love.

YHWH, great I AM,

By earth and heaven confessed;

I bow and bless the sacred Name Forever blest.

   œ œ œ


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