The name Adonai in the Bible
Adonai by itself is not really a proper name but rather a title or appellative. As we will see below, it means my lord, master or owner, and is not unlike the word baal, which means the same. Yet adon(ai) occurs frequently as element in compound names: Adoni-bezek, Adonijah, Adonikam, Adoniram and Adoni-zedek.
Adonai is also the source of the fabricated name Jehovah. When the Masoretes wanted to preserve the pronunciation of the words used in the Bible they ran into a problem when YHWH, the proper name of the Lord that was forbidden to be pronounced, occurred. To circumvent the problem, the Masoretes inserted the vowel symbols that go with adonai, indicating that whenever the reader saw YHWH, he had to say adonai. When later readers saw the name YHWH combined with the symbols for adonai, they erroneously concluded that YHWH was to be pronounced as Jehovah.
Etymology of the name Adonai
The word adonai comes from the unused root אדן ('dn), of which the meaning is disputed, says BDB Theological Dictionary, and lists the following proposals: Some say it's comparable to the Assyrian word adannu, meaning firm or strong, and the associated adverb adannis means strongly or exceedingly. Others say it may have to do with a Persian word meaning firm or fasten, and thus it means to determine, hence command, hence rule. Others still propose relations to an Arabic verb that means to be obedient or cause obedience, hence govern and rule. This verb is thought to have to do with the Hebrew word דין (din), meaning to judge, and thus with the name דן (Dan), and also makes the best candidate morphologically spoken.
We know that this Hebrew root must have existed at some point but because it isn't used in Scriptures, we can't try it to context and we don't know what it means. But that it once was there is certain, due to its two derivatives that occur royally in the Bible, and that must have meanings that reflect the root.
One derivative is our word adon, the other is אדן ('eden), meaning pedestal, base or socket (not to be confused with the name עדן; Eden).
The word 'eden is used for the sockets or bases for the side panels of the tabernacle (Exodus 26:19) and the bases of its pillars (38:10). The bride of the Song Of Solomon likens the legs of the groom to pillars set on pedestals of pure gold (5:15), and Ezekiel sees the altar in the New Temple standing on a wooden base (41:22). Most strikingly is the usage of our word 'eden in Job 38:6, where it denotes the foundation of the earth and is used in parallel with the phrase אבן פנתה (eben pinnatah), meaning corner stone. The corner stone returns in Psalm 118:22, where it metaphorizes the rejected but resurrected and glorified Christ (Matthew 21:42).
Whatever the linguistic roots of these words may be, in practical Biblical usage, the word 'eden conveys a sense of solidity and foundation. It ties things together (like Christ—Colossians 1:17) and it gives solid footing (like the Words of Christ—Matthew 7:24, also see our critical article on the name Peter).
The word 'adon reflects authority in the sense of foundation for individuals or groups. Post-fixed with the letter yod it forms the compounds adonai or adoni, meaning either my 'adon or 'adon of. The word 'adon is usually translated with our word lord, but it should be noted that our word lord doesn't convey a sense of fundament, nor is it closely related to another, very common, word meaning foundation or junction.
In German the word 'adon would be translated with Herr, meaning mister or sir, and adonai with mein Herr. In Dutch the word for sir or mister is the very common word meneer (mister Jansen is meneer Jansen), which is a contracted form of mijn heer (my lord). These Germanic words remain in words like herrlich and heerlijk, the German and Dutch words for delicious, literally meaning "lordly," lord-like, or pertaining to a lord or being of the status of a lord. But where the Germanic word Herr reflects elevation, the Hebrew word 'adon reflects foundation.
The Pharaoh of Egypt is referred to as 'adon (Genesis 40:1), and so is king Saul of Israel (1 Samuel 16:16). But even lesser officers, such as Joseph (Genesis 42:10), general Joab (2 Samuel 11:11), the government of the Tekoites (Nehemiah 3:5), and even the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 18:7) are addressed with 'adon. Lot calls his angelic guests as such (Genesis 19:2), and Hannah says it to high priest Eli (1 Samuel 1:15). A concubine's man is called her 'adon (Judges 19:26). Ruth calls her future husband Boaz 'adon (Ruth 2:13), and Sarah calls her husband Abraham as such (Genesis 18:12) and is therefore highly appreciated by Peter (1 Peter 3:6).
The Greek word used by Peter is κυριος (kurios), which is slightly different in meaning, as it denotes only authority and might, not the idea of fundament. The feminine variant κυρια (kuria) denotes a mistress. This word is used twice in the Bible, in 2 John 1:1 and 5, where John addresses an unnamed "lordess." Some speculate that this "lordess" is Mary, the mother of Jesus. A large majority of the Biblical occurrences of the word kurios denote either God or Christ.
Similarly, about half of the occurrences of the word אדון, is applied to God. In Genesis 18:3, Abraham addresses the three men (previously introduced as YHWH, v1) with 'adoni (and nine verses later, Sarah speaks of her husband with the exact same word—v12).
Adonai is often used in conjunction with YHWH: אדני יהוה (Adonai YHWH—Genesis 15:2), or יהוה אדני (YHWH Adonai—Psalm 68:20). Moses even combines several divine names, including a form of Elohim, in his famous phrase האדן יהוה אלהי ישראל, meaning The Lord YHWH, the God of Israel.
Adon is also the word used in the following familiar phrases:
- אדני אדנים meaning Lord of lords (Deuteronomy 10:17).
- אלהי ואדני, meaning my Lord and my God (Psalm 35:23).
- יהוה אלהי הצבאות אדני, meaning YHWH the God of Hosts my Lord (Amos 5:16).
The word adonai is commonly translated with My Lord, but it doesn't mean that. More properly would be My Foundation, although that sounds a bit forged in English. It seems that modern languages have evolved to serve modern man's astounding arrogance; they are no longer capable of translating the Hebrew word adonai with a proper equivalent.
Shame on us.