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1. Lord: Adonai, Adoni, Adon
(1) Adonai: Among the three words, the most well-known word is probably “Adonai.” “Adonai” is literally “my lords” as it is a combination of the plural construct (= /ʾªdōnê/) of the word “Adon,” meaning “lord”) and the pronominal suffix, 1st person singular (= /ai/ as in sky). But in biblical Hebrew, a plural form of a word does not always indicate its number but often its greatness of power, depth, width, etc. So in such cases, plural nouns are translated as a singular word. One of the most prominent examples might be Elohim, which is in form plural but often indicates the God of Israel, only one god. (But of course, it can be “gods” as well) And the word Adonai also is the same case. Adonia means “my lords,” but it most often means “my Lord.” What should be noted, however, is that this expression has indicated the God of Israel so often and long that Adonia itself became to mean just “the Lord,” rather than “my Lord(s).” Among the three words listed above, Adonia has the absolute majority of the occurrences to indicate Israel’s God.
(2)Adoni: “Adoni” is also a combination of the word “Adon” and the pronominal suffix, 1st person singular (/i/ as in ski). (Note: Hebrew pronominal suffixes slightly change their forms according to the words they are attached). In this case, the singular construct (instead of the plural) of “Adon” is used. It means “my lord.” This expression mainly designates someone’s superior. For example, when Hittites allowed Abraham to possess a piece of land in their territories to bury Sarah, they called him “Adoni” (Gen 23:6). When Abraham asked his servant to get a wife for Isaac in Abraham’s homeland, and when the servant finally met Rebekah by a well, Rebekah called the servant “Adoni”(Gen 24:18). When Laban chased Jacob as he realized someone with Jacob stole his household idols, Rachel, who stole the idols, designated her father “Adoni,” and said she could not let him search her seat because she was in her period, and the place and she were ritually not clean to be touched(Gen 31:35). So the use of Adoni is quite different from Adonai.
(3) Adon: “Adon” is the basic form of the previous two words, but this basic form appears only 13 times in the Hebrew Bible (13 times in 13 verses; 2 times in Gen; 5 times in Is, 2 times in Jer; 1 time in Mal; 3 times in Ps). What is interesting about this form is that this form is utilized with a preposition “to” or “for” instead of the possesive (~ of or ~’s). For example, in Gen 45:8, when Joseph confesses to his brothers that he became a “lord,” he said, “he[God] has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house.” Here, “the lord of all his house” is literally “the lord for/to all his house.” It is intriguing because, in a way, the possessive expression, such as “a subordinate’s superior,” seems awkward. The superior may possess the subordinate, but not vice versa. Of course, “the possessive” does not necessarily mean “possessing,” but in the case of “Adon,” “lord” is not possessed by its subordinates. That is interesting.
A unique way of using this word is found in Isaiah, where the word appears the most often, 5 times out of 13. In Isaiah, “Adon” always appears in the form of “ha-Adon YHWH tzevaot.” This is a special designation of God that occurs only in Isaiah (1:24, 3:1, 10:16, 10:33, 19:4). The particle “ha” in “ha-Adon” is the definite article. The word “tzevaot” means military (the plural). This expression is translated as “the Lord, the Lord of hosts” in KJV. “The Lord” is repetitive even though the original words are not repetitive. This happens because traditionally, YHWH, the divine name, is not read as written but pronounced as “Adonai.” So “ha-Adon YHWH tzevaot” becomes “ha-Adon, Adonai tzevaot,” “the Lord, the Lord of hosts.” To avoid the repetition, NRSV renders it as “the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts.” But it is not satisfying to me. Jews did not exchange the word “YHWH” with “the Lord.” They simply exchange its pronunciation with “the Lord” and left “YHWH” unchanged. I wonder why it is not possible for Christians too. We can also translate it as it stands (the Lord, YHWH of hosts) and read differently (the Lord, the Lord of hosts). In that way, we know what is actually written and still practice one’s religious duty such as showing respect to the deity by not calling the name directly.
*note: /o/ in “Adon” can be written in two ways as shown below.