Whatshisname February 5, 2016

Remembering God's Name Speed Bump

I really liked yesterday’s Speed Bump cartoon, which may just be poking fun at the fallibility of human memory, and our penchant to forget names, even when we should remember them.

But I wonder whether it reflects an awareness of the tendency of people in our time to forget that, in the Bible, God was said to have a personal name, probably pronounced Yahweh.

The custom of not pronouncing the name was introduced so as to avoid its misuse (for instance, blurting it out as a swear word when one accidentally hits one’s thumb with a hammer).

But the result has been for the name itself to be forgotten, which is rather ironic, if you think about it.

Was any of that Biblical studies stuff in the cartoonist’s mind, I wonder?

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  • His name was Yahweh – except when it was El.

  • Shiphrah99

    I cringe whenever I see/hear a well-meaning Christian use Yahweh (it pains me even to type it!). It’s Just. Not. Done. among Jews. The Renewal types alone will go so far as to use Yah, but only in prayer.

    • arcseconds

      Does it pain you to see McGrath do it?

      • Shiphrah99

        Yes. Maybe even especially, because I respect him.

        • I’m not sure I understand. Christians, and secular scholars, do not have the historic prohibition against writing or using the divine name. I wasn’t advocating that Jews ought to change their practice, if that is what you thought I meant.

          • Shiphrah99

            No, that’s not it at all. I know that it’s common usage in academic circles, and I have the same reaction wherever I see it. It’s almost an autonomic reaction for me. I know that nothing offensive is meant, yet it feels … wrong. I can’t quite articulate what it is. A form of cultural appropriation, maybe? If only the High Priest, once a year, under a very proscribed set of circumstances, was permitted to say it, how come scholars 2000+ years later can whenever they like? Of course, that’s absurd. It’s just me.

          • When scholars do it, it is an attempt to take seriously the fact that the texts use the name, which later readers sought to avoid using.

            We also publish esoteric works which Gnostic groups like the Mandaeans consider secret.

            I am not sure that there is a way to do scholarship on religion without writing or publishing things that some people who adhere to particular religions would not write or publish.

  • arcseconds

    I had always assumed it was connected with the idea that names themselves are sacred and powerful, and you don’t want to profane them by connection with filthy mundane things. The most holy name of course should be given the most holy treatment, and hardly ever be used because even ordinary sacred contexts are too profane.

    I suppose this is similar to what you’re saying, but the way you phrase it sounds a bit to me as though you’re proposing it’s just a pragmatic thing to avoid breaking the 3rd (or 2nd, depending on which school you went to) commandment.

    Other examples of names being taken out of use: at the end of King Solomon’s Mines, H. Rider Haggard has the Kukuana ban the use of the protagonists’ names as a mark of respect. As one of them has become known as ‘Elephant’, this means that a euphemism has to be developed.

    Also, apparently the ancient Indo-Europeans probably used the words for ‘wolf’ and ‘bear’ with some reluctance, as euphemistic terms for them became the actual terms for them in several daughter languages.

    • arcseconds

      Oh, forgot to mention: Haggard has his narrator say that the custom is one known from other tribes in africa, and I have a vague idea he didn’t make this up.

    • Shiphrah99

      Yes, IMHO pretty much Anthro 101 – to know a thing’s [er] proper name is to have ultimate power over it. And then it goes downhill from there.

    • It is hard to trace the development of the prohibition against using the name at all. In out oldest translations of the Hebrew Bible we find a range of different ways it is rendered, from keeping the Hebrew to writing PIPI (the Greek letters resemble the Hebrew consonants) to transliterating it as Iave or in some similar manner.

      • arcseconds

        How does rho seem like yod or waw?

        • That was an English “p” representing Greek pi, not a “p” in order for it to look like a rho.


          • arcseconds

            Oooh, I see now! How clever. I’m definitely keen to write the name of God as PIPI as much as possible from now on.

            I’m afraid working out that I was required to transliterate into Greek, despite the fact it already looked Greek, and then read ‘resemble’ as ‘look like’ rather than ‘sound like’ was too many steps for your conundrum before my first cup of coffee 🙂

          • If I had just used Greek characters from the outset, the entire confusion would have been avoided. Sorry!