Abrahamic Faith – 2 – The Awesome Name of God

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[First posted July 31, 2012.  We used to believe, like some “religionists” that we all worship the same God, as long as we believe that there is a God, or that God exists.  Do we really worship the same God?  Name your God and we will name our God and let us determine if we do worship the same God!  The word “God” is universal, referring to a deity in any belief system that accepts the existence of a superior spiritual being who is to be worshipped and obeyed, if the worshippers know any commandments their God has issued for them to live by. This post will, hopefully, clear up that generalization that we all worship the same God.  Related posts for those who wish to read more from this author:

This is part of the continuing series from James D. Tabor’s opening chapter “Knowing God” in his book Restoring Abrahamic Faith—a MUST-HAVE book for your personal library, available on the web at jamestabor.com  or www.Genesis2000.orgAdmin1.]

 

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Of the countless thousands of deities throughout history, and the endless ideas different individuals have about God, how can one speak of truly knowing the ONE true GOD?  The term God is used in so many ways.  For many people, the whole idea of “God” is vague and somehow unreal.  After all, can anyone really say they absolutely know God?  How could one possibly be sure?

 

It is certainly the case that we learn something about the awesome greatness and power of God by looking at our created universe, from the vast billions of galaxies to the absolutely breathtaking complexity and wonder of organic DNA-based life on our own planet, to our own internal capacity to know and feel and reason.  One can look at “nature” itself and come away with a sense of profound awe and wonder.  It is a naive view of “evolution” to assume that “science” has somehow explained the workings of our world on the basis of a reductionistic, materialistic, mechanistic process that operates purely by chance.  The very “nature” of Nature itself points us to something beyond, to complex forces that appear to be purposeful and intelligent.

 

[Footnote:  On the subject of “Creation and Evolution” see Michael Pitman Adam and Evolution (London: Rider & Co., 1984) and Michael J. Behe, Darwin’s Black Box (New York: The Free Press, 1996).]

 

Yet, from nature alone, we could never know God in the way the Hebrew Bible speaks of this ONE who created all things.  Nature points beyond itself, but can one say to what or to whom?  It is here that the Hebrew Bible puts forth a rather singular and unique claim.

 

According to these ancient texts God speaks to human beings and has acted in the concrete arena of human history.  But even more to the point, the Hebrew Bible claims that God revealed Himself clearly and dramatically, once for all, in the time of Moses, at Mt. Sinai, when Israel was delivered from slavery in Egypt.  This particular revelation was like no other before or since.  It is constantly referred to by the later Prophets and in the Psalms.  It was axial, absolutely fundamental, and never to be superseded or forgotten.  This is not just one more “O.T. Bible story,” that one can quickly skim over as “background” to the New Testament.  Rather, given the Biblical story, this Sinai Revelation is the bedrock foundation of the ancient BIBLICAL FAITH.  Without a deep understanding of this core revelation at Sinai one will never understand and know God as revealed in the Hebrew Bible.

 

This special revelation comes directly through Moses, “the meekest man on earth,” when he was 80 years old (Numbers 12:3).  Initially, God appeared to him in the Sinai area as a voice speaking in the first person from a fiery burning bush.  Notice in the text how God first identifies Himself in the most personal and direct way:

 

“I am the God of your father the God of Abraham,

the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”  

And Moses hid his face,

for he was afraid to look upon God.

 (Exodus 3:6)

 

The way God describes Himself here is striking.  He is not merely the Creator, or the First Cause, or a cosmic Power or Force.  God is the intimate, personal God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—a definite family line through which He reveals Himself.  To speak of the “God of Abraham” is to claim that the ONE GOD, the Creator, has involved Himself specifically in an unfolding historical PLAN.  In other words, He will be known and understood through the concrete historical experiences of His chosen people.  This is in contrast to philosophical inquiry or the various individual paths of seeking the “Divine” that one might pursue.

 

God told Moses that he is to return to Egypt and deliver the Israelites from their slavery, bringing them to the land of Canaan that had been promised to Abraham.  Moses was hesitant and offered many objections.  One of these is particularly noteworthy.  Moses protested that if he goes to the Israelites and tells them that the God of their fathers has appeared to him, they will ask, “What is his name?”  In other words, they will want this God to be identified.  At that point God told Moses:

 

Thus you shall say to the people of Israel, “YHWH the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is My Name forever, and this is My memorial to all generations” 

(Exodus 3:15).

 

How remarkable!  God appears to Moses, speaks directly in the first person, and most important, He identifies Himself by name.  God actually has a Name, just as Moses, Abraham, David, or any other human being has an identifying name.  The Name here, represented by the four Hebrew consonants: Y H V H [יהוה] is called the Tetragrammaton.  It is used nearly 6000 times in the Hebrew Bible.  It is a compound of the Hebrew verb hayah, “to be.”  The meaning appears to be “The One Who Will Be/Is/Was,” combined into a single Name.

 

[Footnote:  The Jehovah’s Witnesses have a little booklet titled “The Divine Name that will Endure Forever” which is an excellent popular introduction to the historical background and manuscript traditions related to the Sacred Name: Watch Tower Society, 25 Columbia Heights, Brooklyn NY 11201.]

 

For centuries, devout Jews have considered this Name too sacred to pronounce, and have substituted the term “Adonai” (Lord) in prayer, and the Hebrew word “HaShem” (which means “the Name”) in normal discourse.

 

Most modern Bible translations have rendered it by the title LORD, written in all capital letters, but this translation is misleading and problematic.  The word “Lord” is clearly not a name, nor does it mean anything even related to the four-lettered Name of God in Hebrew.  Such a translation confuses this very definite proper Name of God with the title, Lord (adon in Hebrew), which means “Master” or “Sir.” Referring to God as “the LORD” has also led Christians for centuries to confuse the notion of the Davidic Messiah who is called Lord or Master (Greek/Lord) with the Divine Name YHVH.  There is no connection between these titles of respect used for human beings, and the Divine Name, reserved only for God. . . .the Messiah is “YHVH’s anointed one,”  the Davidic King, and certainly the prime agent of YHVH, but he is never to be confused with YHVH Himself (see Psalms 2:2; 110:1).  Using the Name YHVH eliminates any ambiguity regarding God and his chosen one or Messiah.

 

The important point here is that God reveals Himself by Name, and not by just any name, but by this AWESOME Sacred Name that belongs only to Him. There is a great difference between saying “I am the LORD” AND “I am YHVH.” The latter is personal and direct.  It immediately calls forth a unique and singular understanding of the ONE  GOD—identifying the ETERNAL ONE by Name.  Notice, in the above quotations from Isaiah, how God uses this Name constantly, in the first person “I am YHVH, there is none besides Me.”  The Scriptures speak of “calling upon the Name YHVH” which conveys a completely different meaning when translated as “calling upon the Name of the LORD” (Joel 2:32).  The latter raises the question—what is the name upon which one is to call?  But the phrase in Hebrew says literally—calling upon the Name YHVH.  There are many so-called “gods” and “lords” upon whom people call.  We hear constant talk of “the Lord” doing this or “the Lord” being asked to do that.  One should always ask, just who is this “Lord?”  What is His Name?  Notice Jeremiah 33:2-3 with this in mind:

 

“Thus says YHVH who made the earth YHVH who formed it to establish it, YHVH is His Name, “Call to Me, and I will answer you and I will tell you great and mighty things, which you do not know.”

 

This is quite an extraordinary declaration.  To literally call upon YHVH” leads one into an intimate relationship with the very Creator God, not as some kind of magical incantation, but as a reflection of intimacy and conceptual clarity.

 

Pronouncing the Name of God

 

The precise pronunciation of the Divine Name is uncertain.  Traditionally, Judaism has shunned any vocalization of the Name.  Jews came to believe that this Holy Name of God should never be pronounced publicly or written out with vowels.  One positive result of this prohibition against the profanation among the various nations fo the world.  One never hears anyone swear by the Name YHVH, while the terms “God,” “Lord,” and “Jesus Christ” are among the most frequently used bywords in our language.  Perhaps this Jewish practice was guided by the Providence of God, if not directly stipulated by the prophet Jeremiah in the 6th century B.C.E. when Judah was taken into Exile (see Jeremiah 44:26).  One can learn from this and approach this Holy Name of God with extreme respect and reverence.

 

There are several “Sacred Name” groups, most all of whom are believers in Jesus that argue for various “correct” pronunciations of the Name.

[Footnote:  Some of these groups refer to Jesus as Yahshua, although his Hebrew name is Yehoshua, or the shortened form Yeshua.  The form Yahshua is impossible in Hebrew and ignores the second syllable, represented by the letter “vav” as explained below.]

 

Some of these maintain that God will not respond unless one uses the correct pronunciation of His Name.  Most seem to prefer the pronunciation YAHWEH, and indeed, this vocalization has the support of the majority of scholars.  Others argue for such possibilities as YEHOAH, YAHUWEH or YAHUEH; YAHUWAH or YAHUVAH; YAHVAH or YAHWAH, and so forth.  As is clear from these examples, not only are the proper vowels disputed, but also there is much discussion as to whether the third letter of the Name should be represented as a “V” or a “W” in English.  Some of this confusion and controversy results from a lack of basic knowledge of Hebrew grammar.  But even the experts, who know the language, do not always agree on this subject.

 

If one understands that the four Hebrew letters (Yod Heh Vav Heh/יהוה) represent four vowels, rather than four consonants, then the Name is best represented by the four sounds I-A-U-E or ee-ah-oo-eh.  If one pronounces these rapidly you can hear the combined sound in English.  This appears to agree with Josephus, with the Greek transliterations of the Hebrew Bible, and other ancient texts.  It would be written in English, as YAHUEH, not strictly YAHWEH, which is the consonantal form.

 

The problem with this proposal is the question of meaning.  These four sounds appear to mean nothing in Hebrew, and they lose their connection with the verb hayah, “to be,” upon which the Divine Name appears to be based.  Hebrew names usually carry some kind of meaning and are not simply a string of syllables.

The combination of YE-HO-AH makes better grammatical sense.  In Hebrew YE represents the future or imperfect of the verb “to be,” “HO” represents the present, while “AH” represents the past.

 

[Footnote:  This understanding of the Divine Name is reflected in the Jewish liturgy today in the “Adon Olam,” an ancient hymn of praise to YHVH.  There is a line translated, “He was, He is and He shall be,” that in Hebrew echoes and reflects the Name: Hu Hayah, Hu Hoveh, HuYih’yeh.”  Read backwards one gets the equivalent of Yi-Ho-aH or Yehovah.]

 

In other words, this form of the Name would have a specific meaning  and not be merely a repetition of vowel sounds.  Quite literally, YEHOAH means “shall/is/was”—that is, the Eternal, the Everliving One who will be, is and always was.  For this reason I find the pronunciation YEHOAH, or even the more popular form,

 

YEHOVAH, quite compelling since it expresses and carries this meaning in Hebrew.

 

[Footnote:  The first two syllables, YEHO, are common in many biblical names (Jehoshapat Jehoiakim).  These three letters or syllables in Hebrew simply cannot be represented by YAH.  YAH in Hebrew is Yod Heh, while the letters of the Sacred Name,  reflected in such compounds, are Yod Heh Vav.  The Vav must have its common vowel sound in this form, it can not be silent or ignored.  It is not the case that YEHOVAH is a merely mistaken reading of the Masoretic, or traditional Jewish vowel pointing taken from ‘adonai.  Nor is it an “evil name,” as some have suggested, maintaining that it comes from the Hebrew term hovah, which means “ruin” or “disaster.”  This Hebrew word hovah is from the verb havah which simply means, “to happen.”  It has no grammatical connection to the Divine Name.]

 

YAH is then the contracted, or shortened form of this full Name, taking the first and last sounds together.

 

In writing many choose to represent the Name as YHVH, written without the vowels.

 

[Footnote:  The controversy over whether to use “v” or “w” for the third letter does not come in here.  I am representing in English the four letters of the modern Hebrew alphabet.]

 

This has a number of advantages.

 

  • First, this is precisely the form in the manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible—these four Hebrew letters יהוה/Yod, Heh, Vav, Heh.
  • Second, it allows for flexibility, readers can read or pronounce it according to their own sincerely held convictions.
  • Third, it avoids profanation of the Name in keeping with Jewish tradition.
  • Finally, it reminds us in a way that cannot be forgotten that YHVH is the Holy and Sacred NAME of God, not merely a title like LORD.

 

In public, many many prefer to use the term “HaShem,” which in Hebrew means simply “the Name.”  This practice dramatically calls attention to the word, as not merely another word, or a title, but the sacred NAME itself.

The point of all this is not to chant the correct syllables as if the Name YHVH works like an incantation or mantra.  Rather, it is the awesome meaning of the Name, and what it conveys about God’s being and nature, that carries such power.

 

“Knowing God,” implies this fundamental revelation of God’s Sacred Name, with all it involves.  It is a tremendous revelation, and once understood, can transform one’s whole sense of who God is.  Later God tells Moses:

 

I am YHVH.  I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as El Shaddai, but by My Name יהוה I was not known to them. [Exodus 6:2-3).

 

[Footnote:  See Genesis 17:1; 28:3; 35:11, where God declares “I am El Shaddai,” which is usually translated “God Almighty.”  It means “God of protection,” or literally, “God of the Breast.”  It is worth observing that the numerical value of “HaShem” (the Name) in Hebrew is 345, which is the same as the value of “HaShem” (the Name) in Hebrew.  Even though the Name YHVH does appear throughout the Genesis account in the patriarchal narratives, according to this verse in Exodus, such references are retrospective, written after the fact.  In other words, Genesis was written after the revelation of the Name YHVH to Moses, and so the Name, which was in common use at the time of Moses, was included in these accounts.  This phenomenon is common with place names in Genesis as well, where a later name, current in Moses’ day, will be used  (see Genesis 14:14).  However, it should be noted that according to the very old tradition of Genesis 4:26, the pre-Flood generations from the time of Seth did know and use the Name YHVH.  It may well be that due to the increased wickedness of human beings the Name was either forgotten or forbidden, only to be revealed again in the time of Moses when there would be a proper convenient context in which it would be understood and guarded by the people of Israel.  For a translation of the Hebrew Bible, still in the process of being produced, that brings out all the various names of God and their significance in context, see the website: originalbible.com.

 

Although the Name itself, according to this tradition, was not revealed to Abraham or to those before him, the essential meaning of that Name was known.  Notice Genesis 21:33 where Abraham calls on “the Everlasting God” (El ‘olam).  El Shaddai was understood to be “the Most High God, Creator of Heaven and Earth,” (Genesis 14:19).  The revelation of the Name at Sinai serves to capture these concepts in a single, mystical, awesome, Word.

 

Much later, when Israel came out of Egypt and was gathered by Moses at Mt. Sinai, the dramatic scene was set.  According to the account in Exodus God revealed Himself to the whole nation in an overwhelming display of power and glory, speaking directly to them, and setting forth the Ten Commandments (literally “the Ten Words”).  There was thunder, lightning, clouds of smoke and fire, the piercing sound of a trumpet.  The whole mountain shook and the people were terrified.  Finally God Himself spoke in an audible voice for all to hear.

 

First, He identifies Himself by Name:  “I am YHVH your God . . . . you shall have no other gods besides Me” (Exodus 20:2-3).  The Israelites assembled at the foot of the mountain called out to Moses in terror, “You speak to us and we will hear, but let not God speak to us lest we die!” (20:19).  Forty years later Moses reminded the Israelites of the uniqueness and the purpose of this great moment of revelation:

 

For ask now concerning the days that are past, which were before you, since the day that God created man upon the earth, and ask from one end of heaven to the other, whether any great thing like this has happened or anything like it has been heard.  Did any people ever hear the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard and live? . . . To you it was shown, that you might know that YHVH Himself is God; there is none other besides Him.  Out of heaven He let you hear his voice, that He might instruct you; on earth He showed you His great fire, and you heard His words out of the midst of the fire . . . Therefore know this day, and consider it in your heart, that YHVH Himself is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other. (Deuteronomy 4:32-39).

 

Often in his farewell speeches in Deuteronomy Moses recalls  the extraordinary nature of this event, when God personally spoke His Name and revealed His Ten “Words.”   (Deuteronomy 5:4,22: cf. 4:9-14).

 

This was a unique one-time revelation, centered on the Ten “Words” and the manifestation of God’s awesome personal Presence.  Moses warns the Israelites not to turn to other gods “whom you have not known” (Deuteronomy 11;28; cf. Jeremiah 7:9).  The verb here rendered “known” can be translated “experienced.”  This Sinai revelation was to be remembered as the one special time when Israel experienced direct contact with YHVH.

 

Continued in:  Abrahamic Faith 3 – The Awesome Self-Description of God

 

 

 

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