The following was adapted from T hese Words Upon Our Heart , by Steven Steinbock, published by the URJ Press.
Who among the gods is like You, Adonai?
Who is like You—majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?
Exodus 1 5: 1 1
"God" is the ultimate concept. Of all the things that cannot be seen, touched, or measured, God is the highest of the high. But what do we really mean when we use that word? How do we describe that which is cannot be observed or measured? In calling God a "being," are we saying that God is a personality? An emotion? An energy? An idea?
Human beliefs about God and gods range from personal, anthropomorphic images and ideas to very abstract concepts. In this chapter we will examine how different cultures have developed ideas of the Divine to fit their condition and how these cultural ideas inform our understanding of Jewish theology.
Many religions include belief in, and worship of, more than one god. We call this "polytheism," a term that includes ancient and modern religions such as Babylonian, Greek, Roman, Hindu, and Native American religions. Other religions espouse belief in only one God, which we call "monotheism." Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all examples of monotheistic religions.
Throughout this chapter we will be referring to the gods of polytheistic religions using the word "god" with a lowercase "g." For the sake of discussion, we are assuming that the monotheistic religions (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism) all worship the same God. We differentiate this God of monotheistic religions by spelling it "God" with an uppercase "G." When talking about God as an abstraction, and when our discussion applies equally to one God as it does to many gods, we will also use "God" with a capital "G."
When we describe God, we often use human terms. We call this kind of description "anthropomorphism" (changing to human). In the Bible you may find expressions like "the hand of God," "the voice of God," and "the throne of God." Since God has no form or body, God cannot have a hand, a voice, or a throne in any literal sense; however, we can understand these images as representing the control, the message, and the presence of God.
An important problem when we are talking about God has to do with gender. In polytheistic religions, there are male gods, female gods, and gods that can be neither or both. Christianity traditionally asserts that God is masculine, whether describing God the Father or God the Son. Conversely, Judaism, Islam, and certain strands of Hinduism, teach that God, having no physical form, is neither male nor female.
Nevertheless, Jews have traditionally used masculine language to describe God. Part of the reason for this is that every noun and verb conjugation of the original Hebrew text is either male or female. As a result, words like "King," "Father," "He," "Him," and "His" recur throughout English translations and reinforce the tendency to view God as masculine. Although English has male, female, and neutral nouns and verb conjugations, religious thinkers and translators find it difficult to use the neutral pronoun "It" when describing God. This book provides no easy solutions to the problem. When we describe God, gender-neutral language is used except when quoting texts.
God . The similary between the words "God" and "good" has led people to mistakenly assume that they come from the same source. The source of the word "God" is an ancient Indo-European root, ghut , meaning "call upon," "invoke," or "implore." God is thus the being or entity upon whom we call.
Lord . Although in American standard English, this word is almost exclusively used as a synonym for God, its meaning is originally and primarily human. From a root word meaning "guardian," the word "Lord" originally meant a head of household, a husband, or a landowner. In medieval Europe, "Lord" meant the master of an estate or manor. It was commonly used as a title, similar to Duke, Baron, Earl, or Count, referring to high political, military, or commercial figures. In England, a Lord is a member of the upper class of British society, as in the title House of Lords. Yet, like its ancient Hebrew counterparts (baal ) and( adon )—both of which mean "lord," "master," or "husband"-the word "Lord" has also been used to describe God and gods from earliest times. Names of Hindu gods as well as teachers are often prefaced with the word "sri" (similar in meaning, but probably unrelated to the English "sir"), which is usually translated as "Lord" (as in "Lord Krishna").
Deity . From the Latin root deus (god), "deity" is a generic term for a god or God. It is related to the words "divine," "divinity," and "diva." "Deity," in turn, is the root of many religious terms including "theology," "theism," "atheism," "monotheism," and so on.
God . A being of supernatural powers or attributes, believed in and worshiped by a people. Adapted from the Indo-European root ghut ("called" or "invoked").
Lord. A man of high rank in society. Taken from the root wor (watchful), a person who was watchful, on guard, or in charge. As a title of respect, it is often used as a substitute for "God" or "god."
Deity. A god or supreme being, from the Latin word deus, meaning "god."
Theology. The study of the nature of God; a system of opinions or beliefs about God.
Monotheism. The worship, doctrine, and belief in one God.
Polytheism. The worship, doctrine, and belief in more than one god.
Pantheism. Often used as a synonym for "polytheism," pantheism (pan = all + theism) can mean belief in all gods, as well as belief that God is in all things. "Pantheon" means the listing of all gods of a particular religion.
Monism. A belief, found in various philosophies and religions, that all things are part of a unified One.
Adapted from Steven E. Steinbock, These Words Upon Our Heart: A Lexicon of Judaism and World Religions (New York: UAHC Press, 2003), 41-43.