Names of G-d
The question, “What is G-d” can never be answered. But the question can be restructured into the following format. “How does G-d wish to be perceived by man?” If we are to take Judaism at face value and assume that it is true, then G-d does have a will – in other words something that he actually wants mankind to do – and communicates that will through the Torah. So to sharpen the question even more, What does the Torah say about how G-d wants to be perceived?
The Torah is not a checklist. Like any good book or movie, it communicates its message so that it requires human thinking to decode it. A checklist would be boring and lack social value, and more importantly, it would not provide any spiritual motivation for humanity to do anything it says. Mankind’s creativity discounts anything dry as inspiring. Therefore, the Torah had to encode its message so that the human mind would be have to be enlisted to discover it. The answer is there. It’s only subtle.
The first place to check would be Genesis, the opening chapters. These chapters contain two very distinct creation stories with quite opposite portrayals of G-d and His behavior. One opens with the name “Elohim,” a curiously plural term, and describes a G-d that creates everything in a strict, orderly fashion, cold and emotionless and almost pedantic. On day one he says there should be light, and there is. The light is good. Next day. This goes on for six days, in every day a similar dry pattern of G-d saying and things happening and nothing disturbing the story. Everything He creates is “good” and then He stops. Nobody relates to this G-d, nobody talks to Him, and everything went according to plan. Sort of like the watchmaker and the watch. He sets it, it goes, that’s it.
And then, in the next chapter, creation starts all over again. Why? Isn’t that already finished? In this story, G-d’s name changes. He is now “Hashem Elohim”. The original name stays, but is preceded by a first name, so it turns out that Elohim was actually a last name. The Torah is hinting that we’re are indeed talking about the same G-d, the same Elohim, even though this time we’re going to describe Him very differently. This time we’re using a personal name, a first name, we’re getting closer to Him. This G-d creates something, and says it’s not good enough. It’s not good that man is alone. Let’s create a woman. This is the exact opposite of the G-d that said everything is good. This G-d relates to things. He personally blows into man’s nose and gives him life. He doesn’t just say something and voila! This G-d talks with Adam and actually walks around the Garden of Eden during the “windy time of day.” But his double name, “Hashem Elohim” is still used, so we know somehow that this is the same G-d.
Here’s a good analogy. Referring back to the strange plural form of Elohim and it being G-d’s “last name” so to speak, we can compare this to a human last name, say, Sanders. Plurals are often used in surnames even in English and are rarely used in first names. Sanders, Williams, Reynolds, Isaacs. So say we say how Sanders the architect built a house. From a detached standpoint, we’d say that Sanders first put the foundations in, then put the concrete frame up, then installed the wiring, etc., as a step by step view of how he did it. Each step completed, good, next step. This is Sanders the architect.
Then we skip to the next story about, say, Bob Sanders, and start talking about Bob. He was feeling excited about his new project, he put up the walls, but found they weren’t enough. No good. So he added the wiring etc. and then he got tired and took a walk in the backyard. He then started planning the layout of the inside etc. This story is about Bob more than it is about an architect we only know as Sanders. But Sanders and Bob Sanders are one and the same.
Judaism through the Torah acknowledges that man cannot relate to a detached G-d. G-d must also be relatable. He must have a first name. If I know nothing about architecture, what am I going to talk to Sanders about? But I can talk to Bob.
So the quick answer about how the Torah says G-d wants to be perceived is both as an untouchable, an orderly G-d, the ultimate architect who you have no right to talk to, as Elohim. But also as Hashem Elohim, the G-d that takes walks during the windy time of day, that talks to you, that relates to you. The notion that the G-d of everything wants to talk and wants man to do something is the Torah’s gift to the world as written in the first two chapters of Genesis.