When devout Jews read the word YHWH (or YHVH) in the biblical texts they read the word as Adonai. In doing this they are showing a reticence to use the divine name. The word Yahweh is one way of rendering the four letters YHWH, or YHVH, known as the Tetragrammaton. The reticence to vocalise the divine name has left some uncertainty as to how to pronounce YHWH when vowels are added. Hence the uncertainty about whether we should use Jehovah or Yahweh. Pronunciation depends on how vowels are added. The latter results if the vowels associated with Adonai, translated Lord, are used as in some manuscripts. As is evident by now to readers of this blog, I prefer the rendering Yahweh.
Although the name Yahweh is ‘revealed’ by God in the book of Exodus the name is used before this point in the biblical story. In Exodus 3:13‒15, Moses encounters a burning bush which is not consumed by fire. The story is full of imagery typical of a theophany, or divine encounter. In the narrative, God reveals himself as Yahweh. Because, as we have seen, the necessary vowels for vocalisation are not present the name might mean a range of things. These include: ‘he is’; ‘he becomes’; ‘he will be’; ‘he causes to be’; etc. Semantically this can sound very profound but also rather abstract. It is therefore important to note that the burning bush account indicates that Yahweh is anything but remote. The story makes it clear that Yahweh’s presence and his relationship with Israel are central to the story that is being presented:
But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am [YHWH] has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, 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 my title for all generations.
Exodus 3:13‒15 (NRSV)
The name Yahweh has immensely important implications for the Bible story and also for our understanding of the psalms. What we find in this name is the idea of a special relationship between God and Israel. Yahweh is the God of Israel; the nation of Israel are the people of Yahweh. This is a startling claim and raises profound issues for interfaith dialogue and the relationship between Judaism and Christianity with their rival truth claims. Questions are raised as to how we go from a special revelation, to a single people, to a universal religion open to all. This challenging issue is sometimes termed the scandal of particularity.
It has been suggested that the longer name (technically an appellation), Yahweh Sebaoth is the solemn cultic name of the God of Israel. This is based on the use of the appellation in Psalm 24 which can be seen as a special psalm used in an enthronement ceremony of Israel’s God:
Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
The Lord of hosts [i.e. Yahweh Sebaoth],
he is the King of glory. Selah
Psalm 24:9‒10 (NRSV)
Given that the Hebrew Bible so clearly presents Yahweh as the revealed name of God and that he has other appellations too, why are people of faith today reticent to name him? Most Christians will call Yahweh, God for much of the time. It is certainly not due to the sense of fear and awe that made scribes omit the vowels from the divine name.