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What is the Name of God?

I am frequently asked what the "real" name of God is and how it is pronounced. I'm not sure why most people care, but a lot of them do.

The God of Israel goes by a variety of names in the Hebrew Bible. Most are "el" derivatives (El-Shaddai; El-Olam; El-Roi, etc.). At other times Israel's God is referred to with Hebrew ha-shem ("the Name"; e.g., Isa 30:27 [cp. vv. 29, 30). Questions about the "true" name of Israel's God, however, have the special covenant name in view - the name revealed to Moses at the burning bush event preparatory to the deliverance of Israel from Egypt. Consequently, that's my focus here. The subject can get pretty technical very quickly. For those who want excruciating detail, here’s a link to a discussion drawn from three sources: Jenni and Westermann, Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament; the entry on "Yahweh" from Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (DDD); and the entry on "Yahweh (deity)" from the Anchor Bible Dictionary. Note that this file discusses the fact that Yehovah / Jehovah is a mis-vocalization of the divine name. so we can weed those two options out right away.

What is the Name of God? Exodus 3 and the Burning Bush

In Exod 3:12, 14, God responds to Moses’ query about God’s name with אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה (ʾehyeh ʾasher ʾehyeh, usually rendered, "I am who/that I am" or "I will be who/what I will be"). However, over 6800 times the name of God is written yhwh (יהוה), not אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה (ʾehyeh). This naturally gives rise to two questions: (1) Why the difference in spelling? and (2) How is the name pronounced? I'll address both of these questions in tandem since they are related.

The difference in spellings is a matter of Hebrew morphology (word formation). God is the speaker in Exod 3:14 and is speaking of himself. As a result, what God says in answer is in the first person. God's answer (ʾehyeh ʾasher ʾehyeh) employs the "to be" verb in biblical Hebrew (hayah) two times. The middle consonant in that verb (y) was frequently interchanged in ancient Semitic languages with the consonant "w" (waw). In other words, the “to be” verb could be spelled either hayahor hawahin most ancient Hebrew (the Hebrew known from inscriptions that pre-date the writing of the Old Testament). I bring this up because it is necessary to account for the "w" in yhwh (as opposed to yhyh) in the divine name form.

What is the Name of God? Spelling of the Name of God

1. God, speaking in the first person, gives his name as ʾehyeh, the grammatical first person form of hayah / hawah.

2. The first person form thus has four consonants: ʾ-h-y-h (the first consonant is one we don't have in English; it is the letter aleph which is a stop in the back of the throat and not pronounced).

3. The above name (ʾehyeh) is based on a verbal root (hayah / hawah), and therefore has a parsing. In Hebrew grammar / morphology this would be: Qal stem, first person, singular, imperfect conjugation.

4. The *expected* third person form of the same stem and conjugation would be yihyeh (or, yihweh). Its translation would be "he is" or "he will be".

Now it’s time for an obvious question. Why do scholars say that the first vowel in the divine name is an "a" vowel - yahweh instead of yihyeh (or yihweh)?

The "a" vowel in the first syllable is actually quite secure. We know this because an abbreviated form of the divine name (YH) that appears in the Hebrew Bible is always vocalized with "a" wherever it is found. The short form of the name occurs approximately 50 times, mostly in Psalms (e.g., Exod 15:2; Exod 17:16; Isa 12:2; Isa 26:4; Psa 68:5; Psa 68:19). This short form is most familiar to readers as being part of the phrase halelû-Yah ("praise Yah!" or “Praise the Lord!”; e.g., Psa 146:10; Psa 147: 1).

The real controversial part of how the name should be written and pronounced for scholars comes with the second syllable. Here's what must be accounted for:

1. The form itself must be the imperfect conjugation, since the "y" of the first syllable is prefixed to the verbal root (hayah / hawah).

2. The first syllable must have an a-class vowel (yah) to account for the abbreviated form of the name noted above.

3. The second syllable must be an i-class vowel because of the verbal root. The ancient Semitic root hawah also requires an i-class vowel in the second syllable.

What is the Name of God? The Meaning of YHWH, the Name of God

There is only one morphological verb formation (parsing) that makes sense of these elements: Hiphil stem, third person, singular, imperfect conjugation, from hayah / hawah. This form is vocalized yahyeh / yahweh and would mean "he who causes to be" (the Hiphil is a causative stem in Hebrew). The preferred form is yahwehbecause the consonants that form the divine name as written in the Hebrew Bible include the w(yhwh).

Believe it or not, this is controversial, because the verb hayah / hawah does not appear in the Hiphil causative stem anywhere else. Hence scholars are uneasy about taking the divine name this way. Personally, the logic here doesn't feel compelling to me. I’m not sure why it's necessary to have a verb form appear elsewhere for it to be considered coherent where it does occur. I understand the desire for another example, but it is not a logical necessity. In the context in which the divine name is revealed—Israel’s God in effect creating a nation out of the slave population of Israel—a name that meant “he who causes to be” makes good theological and conceptual sense.

There are other, much more technical, reasons why a Hiphil cannot be deemed certain. If you want that information, click on the link to the reallytechnical discussion above.

Resources:

  • David Noel Freedman, “The name of the God of Moses,” Journal of Biblical Literature 79:2 (1960): 151-156
  • C. R. Gianotti, “The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH,” Bibliotheca Sacra142:565 (1985): 38-51

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