Should Jews Pronounce God’s Name?

Should Jews Pronounce God’s Name? January 7, 2015

Judaism forbids the pronunciation of God’s name. What is God’s name? It is not “Father,” as many Christians think. Jesus’ favorite identification of God was “Father.” That conveys the wonderful concepts of love, nurturing, and protecting. But “father” is a title of God, not his name. The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is very clear in saying that God’s name is yhwh/YHWH. See especially Exodus 3.13-15 NIV. Moses therein asked the angel of the LORD in the burning bush incident about God, “What is his name?” (v. 13). The angel answered, “I am who I am” (v. 14). The angel then told Moses to tell the Israelites, “‘The LORD,… has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation” (v. 15). I think this personage speaking to Moses was an actual angel who represented God as his personal agent. Thus, he could speak as someone distinct from God or as representing God.

The word “LORD” in small capitals appears in the Old Testament of English Bibles almost 7,000 times. It is the rendering of God’s name, which is yhwh. Thus, yhwh appears in the Hebrew Bible almost 7,000 times. This name does not mean “lord/LORD.” Then, why do translators so translate it? When Jewish scholars translated the LXX (Septuagint=Greek trsanslation of the Hebrew Bible in the 3rd to 1st centuries BC), each time they rendered God’s name as kurios, which is the Greek word for “lord.”

However, during the last half of the twentieth century there arose a debate among biblical scholars about whether or not the LXX translators translated yhwh as kurios or not. The reason is that some LXX manuscripts have yhwh instead of kurios, thus transliterating it. Then why this difference in manuscript evidence? Some scholars have claimed that the LXX translators transliterated yhwh every time but that later, Christian scribes who made copies of the LXX changed yhwh each time to kurios.

Hebrew was becoming a dying language. During the time of Jesus, Jews in Israel spoke Aramaic as their native language due to the Exile. Therefore, after the Second Temple period (after 70 AD), Jews became uncertain about how yhwh should be pronounced. So, they feared mispronouncing it. They also thought that if you mispronounce God’s name, you would be breaking one of the ten commandments which the KJV translates, “Thou shall not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guitless that taketh his name in vain” (Exodus 20.7).

The word here translated “in vain”  is lashav, which appears twice in Ex 20.7. The standard Hebrew lexicon Brown-Driver-Briggs says it means here, “take up name of God in vain (to no good purpose).” While the NASB and the ESV translations continue this “in vain” translation here, the NIV renders it “misuse,” and the NRSV translates it “wrongful use.” The meaning is surely that people are warned not to misuse God’s name yhwh, not that they are never to pronounce or write it. Jews, in their fear of taking God’s name in vain, have chosen not to take it at all!

This practice of translating God’s name as “LORD” has been continued throughout history no matter what language the Hebrew Bible is translated into. It is placed in small caps to signify that it refers to yhwh rather than “lord/master,” which is adonay in Hebrew and kurios in Greek. I don’t think this is right for translators to do this, but I don’t make a big deal about it. Why? Jesus obviously didn’t since Jews had been practicing this tradition before he came along. We never read in the New Testament gospel sayings of Jesus that he said God’s name–yhwh. I think Jesus had an ingenious way of solving this dilemma, and thereby respecting Jewish sensitivities, by uniquely referring to God repeatedly as “Father.” The Old Testament does this rarely, but only for Israel as a nation, thus not by individuals calling God “Father.” Besides, Jews were not speaking Hebrew in Jesus’ day.

Hebrew used to be like other ancient languages in that it only consisted of consanants, thus no vowels. The vowel points were added to the Hebrew language by the Masoretes in the 7th century AD. They were the group of scholars who lived on the Sea of Galilee, in Tiberius, who recovered the Hebrew Bible. Scholars refer to this version as the Masoretic Text (MT). But even those scholars were not sure what vowel points to use for yhwh. Their guess resulted in pronouncing God’s name as Yehvah. But most modern scholars rended yhwh as Yahweh. One issue is obviously how to render the sixth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, whether as a waw or a vav.

The Jewish Bible (Old Testament) has many instances in which devout people of God say or write his name. Prophets do so constantly. One that is especially meaningful to me is in the book of Joel. The context is about God pouring his Spirit out upon “all flesh” (Joel 2.28), which I think refers to all “Israel” in the previous v. 27. It refers to the “last days” (Joel 2.28/Acts 2.17), which for Christians means the second coming of Christ to innaugurate the consummation of his kingdom on earth. The “all flesh” of “Israel” coincides with what the Apostle Paul writes, that at that time “all Israel will be saved; as it is written, ‘Out of Zion will come the Deliverer,'” referring to Jesus at his second coming (Romans 11.26).

Then Joel adds concerning that glorious event for these Jews, “Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD,” that is, yhwh, “shall be saved,” meaning “delivered” (Joel 2.32). Even in our day, the native language of Israeli Jews is Hebrew. So, in the last days Jews will have abandoned this traditional practice of their forefathers in not verbalizing God’s name. Instead, they will utter his name, pleading for his mercy. Because they do that, they will be saved.

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  • Joe Martin

    Great review! Also, some of the early Greek manuscripts of Hebrew often had the paleo-Hebrew name for God. Thanks again for your scholarly posts!

  • Carlos Xavier

    So does this mean that the majority of NT Greek manuscripts are corrupted?
    And if Jesus and his apostles were pronouncing the Name why did the Jews, who were always critical and always lokking to pick at them for something, not say anything?

  • Dale Tuggy

    Great post. Just a small typo in the last line: “Because when they do that, they will be saved.”

    • kzarley

      Dale, it’s not a typo. You may be saying this due to us having a difference about the last days.” I connect Joel 2.32 with Zechariah 12-14. Several prophets say the nations’ armies will invade Israel. Jerusalem be taken (Zech 12.1-6; 14.1-2), Jesus returns (vv. 3-4a), and Jews escape thru the God-shaped valley made through Mt. Olivet v. 4b-5). Thus, they are delivered-saved. At some point here Zech 12.10 is fulfilled–Jews “look on the one whom they have peirced” and “mourn for him.” I have all of this in my WFH book.