The Name of God

The Name of God

Most modern English translations of the Old Testament use the same convention in referring to God’s name. When translating the so-called tetragrammaton (a term that simply means “a word with four letters”), which is yhwh  (Hebrew ‎יהוה ), most English Bibles use an initial capital L followed by small capitals. Several other Hebrew terms may be translated as Lord, but I won’t list them because my focus here is solely on the name  יהוה —which the Jerusalem Bible and the New Jerusalem Bible translate as Yahweh, following the practice of most biblical scholars, but which sneaked into English usage as Jehovah because of a misunderstanding on the part of the King James Version translators.

There is no such biblical word as Jehovah. No English speakers—and certainly no Jews—ever referred to God as Jehovah until the King James Bible unfortunately made that term popular. It appears that around the third to second centuries B.C. it became the custom in Jewish circles not to pronounce the name of Yahweh, the reason being that the divine name was too holy for mere mortals to bring to their lips. So when they ran across yhwh (יהוה) in their Hebrew texts, they would speak aloud the word adonai (אֲדֹנַי), which means “my Lord.” Longstanding Jewish tradition added a slight twist, dating possibly to Hellenistic times: Use adonai when praying, and at all other times use hashem (~Veh;), which means literally “the name.”

Where did the word Jehovah come from?

In the traditional Hebrew text that the Jewish community used for hundreds of years, and from which the Old Testament portion of the King James Bible was translated, the scribes added the vowels for AdOnAi to the consonants for YHWH.

This was a reminder that one must not speak the name Yahweh, which was considered too holy to pronounce, but must rather say adonai. The result, when transliterated into English, came out Jehovah (the e in the first syllable of Jehovah rather than the a in the first syllable of adonai comes from a standard Hebrew vowel rule that is too complicated to mention here). Because the  King James Version translators apparently didn’t understand that the vowels associated with the consonants yhwh weren’t original, they simply transliterated the whole thing, coming up with a word that didn’t really exist—Jehovah.

An absurd example in order to clarify what happened: let’s imagine that a weird religious cult in Idaho worships spruce trees and believes that it’s indecorous to say the word spruce out loud. Instead, they say the word gymnosperm. And as a reminder to readers never to speak aloud the holy word spruce, whenever the word spruce occurs in their literature they add to its consonants the vowels for gymnosperm: SyPoReC.  They know that, when they see the written word SyPoReC, they should simply say aloud the word gymnosperm. Someone who is unfamiliar with their practice would easily come to the conclusion that these people had great reverence for the syporec tree, whatever that is. But, of course, there’s no such word as syporec.

For the same reason, there is not and never was a Biblical word Jehovah. A relatively modern Jewish sect has adopted the term Jehovah, largely because of its ubiquity in English usage; and millions of Christians cling lovingly to the name Jehovah and would never want to give up hymns that use the term (e.g., “Guide me, O Thou Great Jehovah” is a popular eighteenth-century hymn; “Jehovah Jireh” is a popular Christian song from the 1980s).

As gracious as our God is, I am confident that he is in no way scandalized by use of the term Jehovah. Yet I believe it might be good, whenever Christians want to use an actual name (instead of Lord) when referring to the Hebrew yhwh, to use Yahweh rather than Jehovah whenever they can do so appropriately.

After all, most of us like to have people get our names right simply as a matter of courtesy, and it seems extremely appropriate to me to apply such courtesy to God!

 

N.B. There is no scholarly consensus that Yahweh is the correct transliteration. Some suggest Yahu, others a few other variations. Yahweh has garnered more scholarly approbation than any other term, however; and if one must choose something to replace the unfortunate Jehovah, it’s a good choice.

For the possible meaning of Yahweh (he is, he is who he is, he brings into being that which is, etc.), I refer you to any good discussion such as the appropriate Wikipedia article. I won’t go into that topic here, because it’s beyond the purpose of this brief excursion.

Again, I have no beef with those who insist on using the word Jehovah. But those who do so would do well to be aware that it’s not in the Bible, it is not the name of God, and it was never used of God in ancient Israel.