“Yahweh” as the Unspeakable Name

The Vatican has made a ruling that I fully agree with: The Tetragrammaton, YHWH, should not be uttered as “Yahweh”.

“In recent years the practice has crept in of pronouncing the God of Israel’s proper name,” the letter noted, referring to the four-consonant Hebrew “Tetragrammaton,” YHWH.  That name is commonly pronounced as “Yahweh,” though other versions include “Jaweh” and “Yehovah.” But such pronunciation violates long-standing Jewish tradition, the Vatican reminded bishops.

    “As an expression of the infinite greatness and majesty of God, (the name) was held to be unpronounceable and hence was replaced during the reading of sacred Scripture by means of the use of an alternate name: `Adonai,’ which means `Lord,’” the Congregation said.

    That practice continued with Christianity, the letter explained, recalling the “church’s tradition, from the beginning, that the sacred Tetragrammaton was never pronounced in the Christian context nor translated into any of the languages into which the Bible was translated.”

I might point out that the practice got a big impetus from the Roman Catholic translation of the Bible, the New Jerusalem Bible, but I’m willing to let that go.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://gpiper.org/katiesbeer Theresa K.

    Can anyone tell me why, besides ancient Jewish tradition, that the word is forbidden? I don’t think I’ve ever uttered the word, but not because it’s not allowed by Jewish tradition; its just not in my daily vocabulary. Actually, I take that back… I do remember uttering the word in contemporary Christian praise songs back in the 80′s and 90′s. Is the tradition based on any scripture? Just wondering…

  • Joe

    I do like this – it is a decision that understands the power of language.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    No where in the Bible does God forbid people to use his name. He does forbid the using of it in vain. But that can be done without trying to utter YHWH. I generally do not think it is a good idea to go around making rules up that God has not given to us.

  • allen

    I think the question has to do with the fact that a name for something describes, in some way, shape, manner, or form, what that something is like. This is why God answered Moses’ question with, “I am.” That is, He’s not like anyone else.

  • Terry Beck

    Our creators me is Yahweh. Like someone said before me no ware in the bible does it say not to use he’s name. We are commanded to use it with the up most respect. Using a generic name like lord, [with is used for even pagon gods] is disrespectful. When I use Yahweh I know my heavenly father is smiling with approval that I have enough respect to us he’s real name.

    Not my way Not your way
    Yahweh

  • Larry

    I’ve wondered about this tradition for a long time. Do we know exactly when the idea came into Judaism that you should not use the actual name of God? It seems to me that Moses must have used it out loud at the time of the Exodus since he was told to use it by God Himself. So when did they decide it could not be uttered? This seems to be one of those extra laws they were so fond of making up.

  • WebMonk

    Larry, from what I understand, it is something that was started to avoid committing the sin of taking God’s name in vain. To make sure there was never a time that someone might slip and use God’s name in vain, they just stopped using it altogether. Even in writing it, they used YHWH.

    There are a number of different ways to take it, one of which is that it is a very “typical” legalistic application of the 10 Commandments. Jesus spoke to the method of application when He called the religious leaders on the carpet about murder.

    God looks at the inward being and the motivations of people. A person can use the phrase “God d— it!” and it is a sin just like using “Yahweh d— it!”

  • EconJeff

    allen (@4)– Your comment made me think of something a professor of mine once said: “The name of the name is not the name.” I’m still trying to figure it out!

  • Michael the little boot

    As I understand it, it’s partly a respect thing on the part of the Jewish People. They do not use the name for the same reason people took their shoes off on “holy ground” and things like that. God’s name is too holy to be uttered. “Yahweh” is an anglicizing of YHWH, which the Jews wrote out but would not speak. They still do that. If you’ve ever read Jewish writings, you may have noticed they write G-d when they mean God. So NOT saying Yahweh is kinda moot, since we don’t actually know how the word was originally pronouced anyway. In the same manner of dead languages, it’s a dead word. No one even knows WHAT vowels went in place of the “a” and “e” we substitute.

    This wasn’t the case back when the practice started, however. So the whole “taking God’s name in vain” thing doesn’t really apply here, as “God” is not God’s name but God’s office. Using Jesus’s name in vain is probably more appropriate in this context.

  • Michael the little boot

    I should say NOW God is God’s name in Judaism, but it wasn’t when they stopped saying YHWH. As it is now considered to be a name for God, the Jews write it G-d.

  • Frank

    sorry. I think you’re wrong here. Check out Jeff Myers 3 part series addressing this http://jeffreyjmeyers.blogspot.com/2008/09/lord-language-liturgy.html

  • Bryan Lindemood

    I tend to agree with Bror here. I guess if this is just out of respect to Orthodox Jewish sensibilities, I would be tempted to counsel Christians to refrain from using the tetragrammaton with these non-Christians and instead use the offense of Christ and His cross in order to convert them to Christianity. I too remember using this name in contemporary (fairly inane) songs at a Christian youth camp. I personally think the Lord’s name should be taken a little more seriously than was taught to so many young people at that camp. The song I’m thinking of in particular seemed to trivialize the name (to me at least).

  • Michael the little boot

    Frank,

    I’m not sure what you’re saying I’m wrong about. He pretty much agrees with what I said. I never said anything about how we should act NOW in relation to that. I agree with him there’s no evidence to suggest OT Israelites and Jews probably DID use the name YHWH, and even spoke it aloud. The practice IS a later practice. But, as a result of that practice, we do not know how to pronounce the name. HE AGREES! He even says we can substitute Jehovah for Yahweh, as it is better than simply using a different WORD as most translators do (i.e., Lord/LORD, the example given). I don’t know where you find me incorrect. Please explain.

    btw, You might not want to recommend that post to any of your Jewish friends. Very condescending. Some might find it offensive.

  • Michael the little boot

    I’m sorry. No evidence to suggest they didn’t say it out loud. They probably DID say it aloud. Syntax no friendly today.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    If YHWH was never translated in the early church, somebody better explain “Dominus” in the Vulgate and “Kyrios” in the New Testament and Septuagint to me. Sorry, it was translated, if not precisely.

    Sorry, but Bror’s right here. The proper objection to the use of “Yahweh” is clumsiness, not Scripture or history. Moreover, although using “Adonai,” “Lord,” or even “HaShem” may seem reverent, it may not be really so. All of the evidence I’ve seen indicates that the tradition has its roots in the Pharisees, not in Moses or the Prophets.

    In short, we may have a situation here where the tradition has its roots in pious-sounding rhetoric that actually detracts from true piety–a pre-incarnation version, more or less, of “I don’t drink and I don’t chew, and I don’t go with girls that do.”

  • http://chaz-lehmann@yahoo.com Pr. Lehmann

    Might be a stupid question, but why do you agree with the decision?

  • framk

    no in fact the blog entry is wrong. the author agrees with vatican that we are not to use Yahweh. the article clearly and well demonstrates the opposite conclusion.

  • Terry Beck

    Sorry about the typing errors in the last post. Yahweh is the most popular way to say our fathers name. [ya-ho-vay] is much closer to the real way of saying it. The real name of Jesus is yahshua which means Ya a poetic form of Yahweh is hshsua which means salvation. So yahshua’s [Jesus] name means my father is salvation. Yes once you know the proper name of the father you have a great responablity to use it properly, and with the up most respect. It is said by some that the Pharisees did this so as to not be responble for some of the laws they made and that are not from God???

  • Paul

    Someone smarter than me may point this out, but the God of Israel says His name is “I Am.” This is repeated by Jesus and considered the greatest blasphemy. The prophets and the psalms regularly use “He Is” and we have not reason to believe that they didn’t actually speak that name aloud as well as in print.

    Furthermore, that God has revealed to us His “Name” (which essentially reminds us that we don’t name Him, but He names us, as in: “You mortal creature cannot utter my name, besides who is there to ‘name’ me? Therefore, just call me “The One Who Is”) reminds us of our proper relationship with Him – He is the One from Whom we all came and in Whom alone we even still live. This meaning cannot be conveyed by “God” (Elohim) or “Lord” (Adonai). Consider the text: “Hear Oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” The actual language there is “Hear Oh Isreal, YHWH Adonai, Adonai is One.” It seems meaningless as presently translated into English and its no wonder people don’t understand it. It’s akin to the Christian saying: “Jesus Christ Alone is Our Lord.” The God who revealed Himself to Israel and established a personal relationship with them (“I shall be your God and you shall be my people”) is not a generic “god” like so many others, but The One. All of this personal relationship (He has made Himself known to us) is lost when we use the generic “God” or “Lord.”

    Finally, we find ourselves in a culture which wants all ‘gods’ to be the same “One True God” which biblically simply cannot be the case. The One who revealed Himself as “I Am” to the Israelites is the same One who revealed Himself to Israel before the Sanhedrin saying “I Am” or “before Abraham was, I Am.” To give up “The Great I Am” would thereby to give up Jesus as “The Way, the Truth, and the Life.” He continued: “No one comes to the Father except through me.”

    In the end, I think we would be most faithful to the text and most helpful to the people if we would set aside “YHWH” and use “He Is” or “I Am” respectively where and when they occur. If we want to note an alternate reading in the margins as the Jews did, then fine. But I wonder whether we would be setting aside the Word of God for the words of men.

    That’s my view.

  • Paul

    BTW, I think we should do the same with the word “catholic” and/or the alternate “Christian” Church in the Creed by simply translating to original word directly into English: “The Holy Universal Church.”

  • Manxman

    “And everyone who calls on the alias of YHWH will be saved?”

    If salvation depends on it, I think people ought to use a less generic term than “Lord.” Also, the God who tells His children to call him “Abba” probably, as part of that relationship, desires them to use His real name, too.

  • http://gpiper.org/katiesbeer TK

    Good thing salvation DOESN’T depend on which name of God (in Jesus Christ) we call out.

  • Anon

    God’s Name for Himself that He told to Moses was not YHWH. It was “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh”. It is in the first person. I certainly wouldn’t want to pronounce it without the equivalent of quotation marks, because it is in the first person. YHWH is not in the first person, though it is also a conjugation of ‘to be’, it means roughly “He, the Creator” Yahweh is a transliteration, but the consonants are the same, and the vowels supplied as always has to be done with Hebrew, and supplied based on the conjugation of ‘to be’ that it is. “Jehovah” is a transliteration error into German, combined with a transliteration error into English. It is not a referent to God except by mistake.

  • Anon

    “To call on a name” is which deity do you rely upon, pray to. This is English, folks.

  • Mary

    Any evidence of whether Jesus spoke the name publicly or whether He submitted to the tradition of that time?

    And, for the record, I don’t call my daddy by his first name and so far as I can tell, he is not offended, but delights when I call him, whether it is by another word or not.

  • Anon

    Mary, we know that Jesus used HaShem for Himself, on more than one occasion, for immediately afterwards the crowds would try to stone Him for blasphemy.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    Christians are baptized “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” We are to pray in the “name” of Jesus. Now we are to name the Triune and Incarnate God. (I do like Michael the little boot’s comment that “God” is not His name, but His office.)

  • Terry Beck

    Back again sorry but yes god is a generic name there are many gods in the bible remember the command thou shell have no other Gods but me. Yahweh said him self that there are other Gods but he is the one and only God. When we use Jesus he hears us but when I use Yahshua I think [this is me talking] That he like it because of my respect for him.

  • WebMonk

    Terry – God/Yahweh/Jesus/Father deserves our respect and honor, but as far as I can tell in all the examples in scripture, the specific name by itself is not what generates the respect, but rather the meaning and intent of the person saying the words.

    Absolutely God is pleased by your honoring of Him by using His “name”, but I think that He is more pleased by your intent to honor Him than He is by the fact that you’ve managed to track down the “proper” pronunciation of Jesus.

  • http://chaz-lehmann@yahoo.com Pr. Lehmann

    Very helpful answer, Dr. Veith. Thank you.

  • Terry Beck

    If we are going to stop using Yahweh because the Jewish people use adonai [lord] when they come to the name Yahweh writen as YHWH are we also going to stop using God because the Jewish people write G-d when they come to the name of God. This is getting silly there must be another reason for all this.

  • Michael the little boot

    Terry,

    Don’t know if anyone’s reading this thread anymore, but I just wanted to say THANK YOU for this: “Yahweh said him self that there are other Gods but he is the one and only God.” Exactly. Now THERE’S an example of someone who actually DOES take the Bible literally. Anyone have anything to say about this?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Michael (@32), I wouldn’t mind discussing the matter, although I’m guessing at some point I may be hindered by a lack of Hebrew knowledge (if the discussion comes to a question of the underlying meaning of words translated into English).

    Anyhow, it seems like you believe there’s a conflict in what the Bible says about there being only one God vs. there being other gods (but only one worth worshiping). Is that right?

    If so, let’s start with some actual verses, and not the paraphrase @32. That way, we’re both working from the same thing. So what else do you have in mind besides Exodus 20(:3)?

  • Michael the little boot

    tODD,

    I’m not really sure what else I have in mind. I can’t cite chapter and verse as easily as I was able to in the past! Probably the stuff about Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al would be an interesting place to start. I will try to look some things up over the weekend. If you know the portion to which I refer above, you might begin by citing it, so we’ll be on the same page. I must admit I lost my last Bible in a move after college and have neglected to replace it…Any translation you’d like to use beside the NIV or KJV would be fine by me. And I do mean TRANSLATION. As you pointed out, using paraphrases is not conducive to this type of discussion.

    Oh, and don’t worry about knowledge of Hebrew. I know hardly any Hebrew…and I’m Jewish! :)

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Michael (@34), sorry, but my response got long.

    Anyhow, perhaps understandably, I’m not the best person to supply verses as evidence for an argument I don’t believe. So I can’t help much in that regard. But let’s work with what we have here.

    Well, first, I guess we have to pick a translation. I’m not sure what you don’t like about either the NIV or KJV (I mean, I’m aware of issues with both, but I don’t consider them bad on the whole), but how about the ESV? I kinda picked that one at random, I admit, but I know others here seem to like it.

    (Along with many other translations, you can find the ESV at BibleGateway.com for easy reference and searching. And I must admit I’d be at a loss without a Web-enabled, searchable Bible. That’s actually how I found the Elijah/prophets of Baal story — I know the story, just not where to find it.)

    Anyhow, Exodus 20:3 (part of the Ten Commandments) in that translation reads “You shall have no other gods before[a] me,” with a footnote reading “[a] Or besides“. Similar passages to this one (and I pulled these from the ESV’s own cross references) are 2 Kings 17:35 (“The LORD made a covenant with them and commanded them, ‘You shall not fear other gods or bow yourselves to them or serve them or sacrifice to them’”) and Jeremiah 25:6 (“‘Do not go after other gods to serve and worship them, or provoke me to anger with the work of your hands. Then I will do you no harm’”).

    The story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal is found in 1 Kings 18:20-40. Its usage of what is rendered as God/gods seems to me consistent with the passages in the previous paragraph. That is, the other “gods” are always (that I could find) referenced in the context of men serving or worshipping them.

    After doing some googling, I found some verses that may, to you, seem to contradict all that. They’re scattered throughout Isaiah, chapters 44-45: “‘I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.’” (Isa. 44:6b); “‘I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God’” (Isa. 45:5a); and so on. (No idea why the difference in capitalization on “god” in those verses, by the way.)

    At first glance, there is an apparent contradiction. God says there is no god other than him, and yet God tells his people not to worship other gods. Now, my answer to this will necessarily proceed from English language context, since I can’t tell you what word(s) is(/are) being translated as “God” or “gods” in these verses. Sorry.

    But even the Isaiah passage acknowledges that there are “gods” that men worship that are not the LORD (to use that formation). However, in acknowledging this, it also mocks the man who does this, noting (in Isa. 44:15) how the man takes a tree, “takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it.” So other “gods” are mentioned in context of God saying “besides me there is no god”, but it is clear that these “gods” are powerless, the invention of human hands. Or, as Isaiah notes witheringly (44:19), “Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” And (45:20) “They have no knowledge who carry about their wooden idols, and keep on praying to a god that cannot save.”

    So clearly there is a distinction being made here between that which men believe to be a “god” — which they think can help them (but cannot) — and the LORD, the true God who actually did (and does!) something, like create the world, save men from their sins, and so on.

    The Bible doesn’t say that men don’t worship other things — obviously they do — but nor does it claim that what they worship is actually a “god”. (I mean, in Philippians 3, Paul says of the “enemies of the cross of Christ” that “their god is their belly”, but I think we understand that their bellies are not, in fact, deities.)

    Now, just to confuse things, I will add a caveat to what I’ve said. The Bible is also clear that there are other spiritual beings besides the LORD. In short, they are the angels, the demons, and Satan. While most of what people worship is manmade foolishness (whether carved idols or man’s own selfish interests), no doubt some people do worship these other beings. The Bible is clear that this is wrong, and it is also clear that all these things are ultimately subservient to the LORD. None of these beings is the Creator, none of them sustains life, and none of them save men from their sins. In this regard, there is still only one God.

    So now I’ve typed waaaay too much. But have I made any sense? You’ll have to let me know. And please do point out where I have been unclear or not resolved the apparent contradiction. But I need to get to bed!

  • Terry Beck

    So what’s your point. Sorry that was bad of me to say but I think your trying to over analyize this. God is saying there are other gods [use of the small g to show not the true GOD] I”m really the only true God, and that is why many of us are upset at someone trying to stop it from being used.

  • Terry Beck

    typeo on last when I said stopping us from using it of course I mean Yahweh.

  • Michael the little boot

    tODD,

    Okay, I’m SOOO sorry I neglected this one for a few days. Hope you check this again. If you do and I don’t come back here for a bit, I apologize!

    Wonderful work, really. The only thing I would add is: Isaiah was written during and/or after the exile. This is when the Hebrews/Israelites/Jews began to become monotheistic. So in the books written during and after this period, you will find references to other gods harmonized toward this monotheistic interpretation.

    Since this is not a book, but a number of different books bound together, we should not read them as necessarily referencing each other (though they often do). It is found in books largely composed prior to the exile period that there was a pervasive belief in other gods. Also, from books external to the Bible, we read of many people groups who were contemporaries of the Israelites, and these groups worshipped many gods. Since we know of these, and the common practice of believing in one’s regional gods, it seems to adhere closer to the text if we read the references to other gods which appear in books written before the exile as referring to gods which people actually believed to be real. Whether the Israelites did we do not know for sure; but if we read them in the context of their time in history, it seems a reasonable conclusion.

    The problem I have with the NIV is it tends not to be conservative enough for me (and I mean conservative in a translational sense). It tends to translate based on theological bias, rather than context. Basically, it translates everything from a Christian perspective, which I find to be irresponsible, since the book was largely NOT written by Christians. The KJV is just plain bad. There is bias all through it. King James himself guided the translation, and injected support for the Divine Right of Kings and other similar ideas into it. The language is lovely, but it is not accurate.

    Hope I didn’t wait too long to respond! :)

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Michael (@38), no worries. I have ways of keeping track of new comments on old threads … ;)

    At some level, this becomes a question of how one approaches the Bible. I’ve read it all the way through, and find no inconsistencies — to the contrary, I find that knowing the whole story allows me to see an amazing amount of harmony between books both old and new — so I do not agree that it is inconsistent and, as such, explainable only by imposing on it a reading driven by external sources. Of course, I know you don’t agree with me on that, but it does color our approaches.

    For instance, I would not agree that the Israeli believers (to pick a different term) were ever not monotheistic, understanding the word to mean something like “believing that there is only one efficacious spiritual entity, and he the Creator, Sustainer, and Savior.” I can find no evidence for this in the Bible. I welcome challenges to this effect, however, though I believe I have addressed the ones I knew of earlier (@35).

    I won’t deny that the Bible’s books have various focuses, of course, and reflect their immediate audience and time period (while not implying that they are, as such, irrelevant outside of that context). So it is not surprising that books written during or about the time of the Canaanite conquest contain warnings about following the “gods” that the pagans therein worshipped. Nor is it surprising that the New Testament doesn’t have a lot to say about Asherah poles — they weren’t nearly as much of an issue at that point as was Pharisaical legalism.

    Anyhow, the claims you make are vague enough (and without reference) that I don’t really have a lot to say about them. But I have given a general overview to how I see the Bible, above. If you’d like to present passages that you believe do not fit in with my reading, feel free. Until then, I will maintain, as defended in particular above, that the Israeli believers were always monotheistic. (As to my choice of the phrase “Israeli believers”, the Bible is clear that many Israelites did, in fact, worship other gods. Clearly, they were convinced that these gods were efficacious, and not merely the creations of men’s hands or demons. I can find no indication, however, that those who believed the Scriptures believed in any other God than the LORD.)

    As for the quality of the NIV or KJV, I have little to offer, since I know little to nothing of Greek or Hebrew. My pastors (who do know more than a little), occasionally tell me where they think the NIV has made a poor choice in translation, but that’s all I have (though they don’t think it’s a bad translation, as such).

    I will take issue with your assertion that the Bible “was largely NOT written by Christians”. Of course, I know what you mean in a literal sense. Yet it is clear that the Old and New Testaments point to Jesus, the Messiah. To say that the Old Testament was not written by Christians is to say it was written by those who did not believe in the Messiah — a claim you would have a hard time proving!

  • Arturo

    Well, I was inspired to put music to psalm 23 and 91…I did it in a joyful manner and used Yahweh as a key chorus line in one of the psalms. Now I plan to record it next year…my intention is not to offend but I feel blessed to have been inspired and obligated to share it with the world.

  • Dimitri

    I think Arturo is right.
    PSalms 79:6 Pour out thy wrath upon the nations that know thee not, And upon the kingdoms that call not upon thy name.
    AND
    JER 23:27 that think to cause my people to forget my name by their dreams which they tell every man to his neighbor, as their fathers forgat my name for Baal.
    AND
    JOEL 2:32 And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of Jehovah shall be delivered; for in mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those that escape, as Jehovah hath said, and among the remnant those whom Jehovah doth call.

  • http://none John

    The opening article is very interesting.
    “YHWH” is described as sacred, holy, inutterable and unspeakable by human lips. Those more scholarly will know the right verses and references. This Tetragrammaton is a denotation or indication of the Name. As it can’t be spoken it also can’t be written. Why? Simple. Gods’ Name, like Him, is infinite. It creates, sustains and manages the whole of creation. It was there in the beginning and before the beginning, just as He is. Something wihtout beginning or end cannot be written or spoken. But it is, and can be known. Moses revered this Name, just as Jesus Christ. John, the writer of the Gospel spoke clearly about it. It is given so much respect because by it’s very nature it has to be respected. Knowledge of God’s Name binds us forever in devotion and gratitude. Sometimes we need to lay down our speculation, realise our minds are not capable of comprehending something bigger than the mind. Sometimes intellectual learning separates us from our hearts and blinds us to undertanding these things. The most holy place of all is opened up when we allow ourselves to surrender to the deepest and most real place within us where the Breath of God whispers His Holy Name. God, please give us the wisdom to read without prejudice and preconceived ideas propagated by those who are still searching for the Divine.


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