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SBL e-journal

Sandra L. Richter





Does YHWH’s Name Dwell in the Temple?





APA e-journal

Sandra L. Richter





Does YHWH’s Name Dwell in the Temple?








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Does YHWH’s Name Dwell in the Temple?

Deuteronomy refers to the central cult site as the place where YHWH chooses לְשַׁכֵּן שְׁמוֹ שָׁם,  an unusual phrase often translated “to cause His name to dwell there,” and interpreted to mean that an abstracted aspect or hypostasis of YHWH takes up residence in the Temple. A parallel phrase found in many Akkadian inscriptions refutes this understanding, offering us a critically important correction to our reading of Deuteronomy.


Does YHWH’s Name Dwell in the Temple?

Temple in Jerusalem from a Passover Haggada, Amsterdam 1695. Jewish Encyclopedia, Wikimedia

Twenty-one times the book of Deuteronomy speaks of הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר (“the place YHWH your God will choose”) as Israel’s future site of worship in the promised land.[1] In modern scholarship this oft-repeated phrase is known as the “centralizing formula.”[2]

It is at this place that the twelve tribes of Israel are commanded to gather and acknowledge their allegiance to the Sinai covenant and to each other. Only at this place may the twelve tribes of Israel offer legitimate sacrifice to their God, YHWH.[3]

In the Masoretic Text, Deuteronomy speaks of this place as a future, anonymous location chosen by YHWH from “among your tribes”—one place for one God.[4] Ten times this centralizing formula “the place YHWH your God will choose” is augmented by one of two phrases:

לָשׂוּם אֶת שְׁמוֹ שָׁם (lasum et shemo sham)—This appears three times in Deuteronomy, 12:5, 21; 14:24, and is translated as: “to place his name.”[5]

דברים יב:כא כִּי יִרְחַק מִמְּךָ הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לָשׂוּם שְׁמוֹ שָׁם…
Deut 12:21 If the place where YHWH has chosen to place His name is too far from you…

לְשַׁכֵּן שְׁמוֹ שָׁם (leshakken shemo sham)—This appears six times in Deuteronomy, 12:11; 14:23; 16:2, 6, 11; 26:2,[6] but unlike the previous phrase, its exact meaning is a matter of dispute.

דברים יב:יא וְהָיָה הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם בּוֹ לְשַׁכֵּן שְׁמוֹ שָׁם שָׁמָּה תָבִיאוּ אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם. . .
Deut 12:11 And so it will be in the place where YHWH your God will choose leshakken shemo sham that you will bring all that I am commanding you . . .

Grammatically, leshakken derives from the root שׁ.כ.נ. In the simple (qal) form, lishkon, the verb means “to dwell.” Scholars interpret the piʿel form, leshakken, as expressing a causation of state: “to cause to be dwelling” or “to settle for a certain period of time.”[7] As a result, they translate the phrase in the centralization formula as: “The place in which YHWH your God will choose to cause his name (to) dwell.” This translation may be found in the KJV, RSV, and the ASV of the Old Testament, as well as the dynamic equivalent translation of the NIV.

Some translators take a further interpretive step and write the phrase with “Name” capitalized. These scholars are interpreting “name” as some sort of hypostasis of YHWH himself, a persona that YHWH intends to “cause to dwell” in the chosen place. This interpretive theory is known as the “Name Theology.”

The “Name Theology”

The notion of Deuteronomy’s “Name Theology,” goes back to the 19th century source critics.[8] Several foundational claims are essential to understanding this paradigm. These claims are as follows:

  1. Israelite religion evolved in three stages from the simple to the complex.[9]
  2. W. M. L. de Wette (1780–1849) and Julius Wellhausen (1844–1918)[10] were correct in their assumption that this evolution may be found in the trajectory of source-writers known as J, E, D, and P.
  3. Deuteronomy (the D document) is a propagandistic piece from Josiah’s Jerusalem in the 7th century B.C.E. that served to help centralize Israelite worship for the first time (cf. 2 Kgs 22).[11]

The classic form of the Name Theology assumes the three-stage evolution of Israelite religion from the simple to the complex (foundational claim 1 above), finds that evolution represented in the source authors J, E, D, and P (foundational claim 2), and applies it to Israel’s understanding of divine presence. The stages are as follows:

Stage 1: The J & E sources. Found mostly in Genesis and Exodus, these authors from the early monarchy understood God as limited, immanent, and anthropomorphic.

Stage 2: The D source. This is the book of Deuteronomy, believed to arise from King Josiah’s reforms in the 7th century B.C.E. (cf. 2 Kgs 22). The Name Theology posits that this D-author found the earlier understanding of J & E, that YHWH physically dwells in the Temple, theologically offensive. Therefore, the D-writer corrects this older, anthropomorphic perception with the more theologically-nuanced idea, that YHWH is only hypostatically present in the temple by means of his “name.” [12]

Stage 3: The P source. Found in the book of Leviticus and much of the covenantal and genealogical thread of the Pentateuch, this author from the exilic or post-exilic period understood YHWH as fully transcendent, unapproachable, and requiring the mediation of priests and sacrifice. This author therefore, further corrects the D-source’s semi-abstract perception of YHWH with a more evolved and transcendent portrayal of the deity often spoken of as the “glory” or kabod theology. [13]

As involves the thesis of this essay, it is our idiom, leshakken shemo sham that supposedly communicates the second stage of this evolution and the “deuteronomistic correction.” God will choose “to cause his name (rather than His imminent presence) to dwell” in the holy place.

The Name Theology goes on to argue that “to cause his name to dwell” in Deuteronomy should be linked to 2 Samuel 7:5 where YHWH rebukes David for asking to build a house for God “to dwell in,” while reassuring him that his descendant will be allowed to build a house “for my name” (2 Sam 7:13). YHWH subsequently confirms that promise by accepting the temple built by Solomon as “a house for my name” (bayit lishmi) in 1 Kings 8:17-20, 44, 48.[14]

When all these pieces are arranged according to various tenets of the Name Theology, as synopsized by the German biblical scholar Gerhard von Rad (1901–1971), the old “crude” idea of YHWH’s actual presence in the Temple is replaced by the D-source with the “theologically sublimated idea” of his abstracted, semi hypostatic presence in the Temple, a mode of presence purportedly communicated by the word “name.”[15]

God’s Shekhinah and Targum Onkelos: An Early Precedent for the “Name Theology”?

While the Name Theology concept developed in the 19th century, the first association of “name” as a hypostasis of the deity may be found in early Rabbinic Judaism. In their quest to communicate the “numinous immanence of God in the world” without compromising God’s holiness with anthropomorphic imagery (i.e., God’s complete transcendence and humanity’s complete inability to physically draw closer to him), rabbinic tradition adopted the term Shekhinah for God’s Presence.[16]As a result, we find that the Aramaic Targumim do not speak of YHWH dwelling in either heaven or on earth, but YHWH causing his Shekhinah to dwell in one or the other location.[17]

The association of the name of God in the deuteronomic idiom with this Jewish doctrine of the Presence can first be detected in the Targum of Onkelos,[18] which translates both versions of the deuteronomic phrase, leshakken shemo and lasum shemo as “the place YHWH has chosen for his Shekhinah to dwell” or “the place YHWH has chosen to rest his Shekhinah.”[19] For example, Onkelos translates the first half of Deuteronomy 12:11 as:

וִיהֵי אַתרָא דְיִתרְעֵי יוי אֲלָהֲכוֹן בֵיה לְאַשׁרָאָה שְׁכִינְתֵיה תַמָן לְתַמָן תַיתוֹן יָת כֹל דַאֲנָא מְפַקֵיד יָתְכוֹן.
And it will come about in the place that the Lord your God is pleased to make His Shekhinah dwell, there you shall bring all that I am commanding you.[20]

It is possible that Onkelos’ translation of Deuteronomy’s centralizing formula (followed by Pseudo-Jonathan) resulted from:

  1. His association of the verb leshakken with the Shekhinah or Presence, since both derive from שׁ.כ.נ, the same root;[21]
  2. An anachronistic reading of Deuteronomy’s shem as Hashem (an emerging rabbinic surrogate for the Tetragrammaton).

Yet Onkelos did not consider the manifestation of the deity in the deuteronomic formula to be less immanent than the manifestation at Sinai or less transcendent than in any other place or period. Rather, he uses Shekhinah to speak of God’s dwelling in heaven (Deut 3:24; 4:39) and on earth (Deut 23:16), in the tabernacle (Exod 25:8) and among his people (Exod 33:14).[22]

Thus, although it is quite possible that Onkelos’ reinterpretation of the “name” in the deuteronomic idiom as the Shekihnah was a first step toward the hypostatization of YHWH’s “name” in Deuteronomy, the early Rabbis were clearly not “Name Theologians.” Rather, the maturation of this interpretive scheme would await the nominal realism of the 19th century critics.

LXX and Samaritan Pentateuch: The Two Phrases Are the Same

Returning to Deuteronomy, can the Name Theologian’s idea that YHWH’s name is “dwelling” in the holy place be reconciled with the book of Deuteronomy, the larger Bible, the text critical history of the passages, and the comparative data? As we have seen, Deuteronomy 12:21 and 14:24 use lasum shemo sham “to place His name” (Hebrew שׂ.ו.מ) as a synonym for leshakken shemo sham “to cause His name to dwell” (Hebrew שׁ.כ.נ). 1 Kgs 9:3; 11:36; 14:21; 2 Kgs 21:4, 7 do the same.

We are further challenged to learn that the Samaritan Pentateuch utilizes leshakken for all of the occurrences of the two phrases. Similarly, the Septuagint (LXX) translates both leshakken (שׁ.כ.נ) and lasum (שׂ.ו.מ) with Greek epiklēthēnai, “to be called” or “to be invoked.”[23] This indicates that later biblical authors and early translators understood that both phrases (leshakken shemo sham and lasum shemo sham) communicated the same thing. Moreover, the LXX does not translate the שׁ.כ.נ of our idiom with Greek skēnoō “to dwell,”[24] nor does it render shem with Greek kurios “Lord.”

Why would later biblical authors, the LXX and the SP translate leshakken and lasum identically? The answer becomes clear once we look at a parallel phrase in Akkadian.

A Borrowed Akkadian Idiom

In biblical Hebrew, שׁ.כ.נ in the qal is an intransitive verb meaning “to dwell.” In contrast, in Akkadian, the G-stem (=qal) cognate verb shakanu means “to put, to place” (an active transitive verb that shares the same meaning as Hebrew שׂ.ו.מ).[25]

Akkadian also has an idiom that shares all the principal parts of biblical Hebrew leshakken shemo sham —Akkadian shuma shakanu. In Akkadian, this phrase means, “to place a name,” the same thing that Hebrew lasum shemo sham means. Moreover, this phrase can be found all over Mesopotamian literature—in victory stelae, correspondence, building inscriptions, and even songs.

The phrase is best known for its use in the Mesopotamian royal monumental tradition, where it means to inscribe one’s name on a building, a votive gift, or a monument, and thereby claim the item (and/or what it marks) as one’s own. Eventually, shuma (“name”) came to mean the entire inscription (not just the king’s name), and shuma shakanu came to communicate not just inscribing the monument but installing the inscribed monument as well.

By extension, shuma shakanu also came to communicate claiming the territory marked by the monument, or even becoming famous because of the heroic deeds reported on the monument. For example, Iahdun-Lim of Mari (c. 1830 B.C.E.) reports installing a victory monument in the Amanus mountain range to announce a military conquest:

But Iahdun-Lim, the son of Iaggid-Lim, the mighty king, a wild ox among kings, marched to the shore of the sea in irresistible strength. To the “Great Sea” he offered a multitude of royal sacrifices and his army washed in the waters of the “Great Sea.” To the Cedar and Boxwood Mountain, the great mountains, he penetrated…. He set up a monument, placed his name (shu-mi-shu ish-ta[26]-ka-an) and made known his might.[27]

Abdi Heba, the 14th century Canaanite king of Jerusalem uses the idiom to remind his Egyptian overlord, that he owes military aid to his vassal (EA 287: 60-63):

As the king has placed his name in (sha-ka-an MU[28]-shu) the region of Jerusalem forever, he cannot abandon the lands of (the city of) Jerusalem![29]

This comparative evidence demonstrates that Deuteronomy’s idiom, leshakken shemo sham was well known in Israel’s world—and in this idiom, שׁ.כ.נ is read as the Akkadian transitive verb shakanu, “to put, to place,” not as Hebrew שׁ.כ.נ “to dwell.” In sum, our deuteronomic phrase is best understood as a loan-adaptation of Akkadian shuma shakanu meaning “to place a name”—a centuries-old idiom, borrowed into the Hebrew Bible from the royal literature of Mesopotamia.

Why is the Verb leshakken (piʿel) in Hebrew?

According to Frank M. Cross (1921–2012) of Harvard University, the peculiar vocalization of Hebrew leshakken in the piʿel in Deuteronomy was created by the Masoretes to communicate the active/transitive sense of שׁ.כ.נ in the borrowed Akkadian idiom (Akkadian shakanu, [G-stem] “to put, to place”), and to set it apart from the native intransitive (biblical Hebrew shakan, [qal] “to dwell”).[30]

This is how Hebrew leshakken shemo sham can express the same meaning as Hebrew lasum shemo sham—the first phrase is a loan-adaptation of the Akkadian idiom into Hebrew; the second is a Hebrew translation (calque) of the Akkadian idiom. This also explains why the the LXX and the Samaritan Pentateuch would translate the leshakken and lasum phrases synonymously—they are synonymous.

This clarification of Deuteronomy’s two idioms is confirmed by the 9th century B.C.E., bilingual Tell Fakhariyeh inscription. This life-size, basalt image of king Hadad-Yithʿi is particularly helpful in that its inscription is written in both Akkadian and Old Aramaic (Old Aramaic, like Hebrew, is a Northwest Semitic language). As Aramaic is a step closer to Hebrew, we can see in this inscription that Akkadian shuma shakanu is repeatedly translated into the Northwest Semitic equivalent of Hebrew lasum shemo sham. One example should suffice.

Whoever comes afterwards, should it become dilapidated, may he restore it, may he put my name on it (Aramaic ושמים לשם בה [wshmym lshm bh] // Akkadian shumima lishkun).[31]

In short, Deuteronomy’s two phrases are synonymous, and both derive from Akkadian shuma shakanu “to place the name.” One is a loan adaptation—leshakken shemo sham; and one a loan translation—lasum shemo sham. And both emerge from the royal practice of inscribing and installing monuments.

The Significance of shuma shakanu for Deuteronomy’s Centralizing Formula

In the Mesopotamian tradition, the Akkadian idiom shuma shakanu is always found in the mouths of kings. A royal hero would “place his name” to declare his mighty acts to the world. The idea was to inscribe one’s “name” (literally the name of the hero, but also by extension the entire inscription) upon a statue or stele, building, or votive gift, and install it in a public place so that everyone would know what that royal hero had accomplished.

To remove the king’s inscribed name was to violate the deceased king’s sacred trust. For example, the stela of Shalmaneser IV (782–773 B.C.E.), discovered at Tell Abta, commemorating his founding of a new city in the desert, states:

As for my stela (na4.na.rú.a) you must not remove it from its place, put it somewhere else. You must not put it in a Taboo House, you must not smash it, you must not cover it with earth, you must not throw it into water, you must not splash bitumen on it, you must not burn it, you must not erase (my) written name (mu.sar la ta-pa-šiṭ)…. As for the one who alters my inscription or my name (MU-ia), may the gods Ashur, Shamash, Marduk, (and) Adad, the great gods, not have mercy upon him, to his utter destruction![32]

This perception of the significance of the inscribed name, and the impact of removing it is echoed in Deuteronomy 12:1–3:

דברים יב:ב אַבֵּד תְּאַבְּדוּן אֶת כָּל הַמְּקֹמוֹת אֲשֶׁר עָבְדוּ שָׁם הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם יֹרְשִׁים אֹתָם אֶת אֱלֹהֵיהֶם עַל הֶהָרִים הָרָמִים וְעַל הַגְּבָעוֹת וְתַחַת כָּל עֵץ רַעֲנָן. יב:ג וְנִתַּצְתֶּם אֶת מִזְבּחֹתָם וְשִׁבַּרְתֶּם אֶת מַצֵּבֹתָם וַאֲשֵׁרֵיהֶם תִּשְׂרְפוּן בָּאֵשׁ וּפְסִילֵי אֱלֹהֵיהֶם תְּגַדֵּעוּן וְאִבַּדְתֶּם אֶת שְׁמָם מִן הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא.
Deut 12:2 You shall utterly destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess serve their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. 12:3 You shall tear down their altars, you shall smash their matzevot (sacred standing stones), you shall burn their Asherim (pillars dedicated to the Queen of Heaven) with fire, you shall cut down the images of their gods, and you shall efface[33] their name from that place.

As we have seen, to efface someone’s name (i.e., inscription) from a monument was to claim their monument (or the heroic acts, structure, or territory marked by that monument) as one’s own. Deuteronomy 12:1–3 is commanding Israel to do just that by removing the names of the deities of Canaan from the monuments of their sacred sites.

Once the inscribed names of the Canaanite deities are effaced—and thereby their claims to both those cult sites and the territory of Canaan eradicated—the name of a new deity, YHWH, is to be inscribed at his sacred site. In the human political arena, such actions would communicate that a new king has claimed the territory and/or accomplishments of his predecessors. In Deuteronomy, the message of “placing the name” is the same.

Deuteronomy’s Message: YHWH as a Conquering King

Reading Deuteronomy’s leshakken shemo sham in light of this Akkadian evidence helps us to translate Deuteronomy’s centralization formula more accurately, and more importantly it helps us understand what the biblical writers meant when they used this foreign idiom. [34]

Here the biblical authors present YHWH as the hero of the conquest

דברים ד:לז …וַיּוֹצִאֲךָ בְּפָנָיו בְּכֹחוֹ הַגָּדֹל מִמִּצְרָיִם. ד:לח לְהוֹרִישׁ גּוֹיִם גְּדֹלִים וַעֲצֻמִים מִמְּךָ מִפָּנֶיךָ לַהֲבִיאֲךָ לָתֶת לְךָ אֶת אַרְצָם נַחֲלָה כַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה.
Deut 4:37 …He personally brought you from Egypt by his great power, 4:38 driving out from before you nations greater and mightier than you, to bring you in, to give you their land for an inheritance, as it is today.

When the Deuteronomist records YHWH’s command that “You shall do such and such in the place I choose to place my name...” he is marshaling thousands of years of royal monumental imagery to inform the statement. It is the conquering king who is demanding their obedience; it is the new sovereign of the region who is awarding Israel her land grant. As had the great kings and heroes of Mesopotamian history and legend, YHWH states that he has “placed his name” in the Promised Land, specifically in Israel’s singular place of worship.

Thus, unlike previous theories, this new data helps us to understand that the message of the deuteronomic idiom is not an evolving form of divine presence, nor is there a “deuteronomistic correction” occurring in these passages. Rather, the writers of Deuteronomy are utilizing an internationally recognized idiom to emphasize the sovereignty and fame of YHWH and his covenant by right of conquest.


August 11, 2021


Last Updated

April 15, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Sandra Richter is the Robert H. Gundry Chair of Biblical Studies at Westmont College. Richter earned her Ph.D. from Harvard University’s Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department and her M.A. in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Richter is best known for her work on the Book of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History, and has a forthcoming commentary on Deuteronomy with Eerdmans Publishers Commentaries for Christian Formation series. She is the author of The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament (IVP 2008), The Deuteronomistic History and the Name Theology: lešakkēn šemô šām in the Bible and the Ancient Near East. BZAW 318 (de Gruyter, 2002), and most recently Stewards of Eden: What Scripture Has to Say about Environmentalism and Why it Matters (IVP 2020). Richter has taught at Asbury Theological Seminary (Wilmore, KY), Wesley Biblical Seminary (Jackson, MS) and Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL), and spent many of those years directing Israel Studies programs focused on historical geography and field archaeology.