Monday, February 16, 2009


Sorry about the missed post on Friday... I was abducted by Biblical literalists. Just kidding, I was actually just tired and lazy.

Today in Exodus class, we discussed Exodus chapter 3, the theophany (appearance of God) at the burning bush. This chapter is especially interesting, because it includes the account of God revealing his (God's, sorry for the non-gender-inclusive language, but that's the subject for another post) personal name to Moses. In order to understand the significance of this, it helps to know a bit of Hebrew.

In Hebrew, the word for god (any god, not just the God of the Israelites) is El. This is included in other names for God, such as El-Shaddai (something like "almighty God"). El can be used in Hebrew to refer to any god. When the God of Israel is meant, it is almost always written Elohim, which is actually the plural form of El. This is understood as a "plural of majesty", like the use of the "royal we" in English. As far as I can tell, the God of Israel is always referred to in this plural form, Elohim. However, the use of El or Elohim or compound names like El-Shaddai is really the use of titles, not personal names. This makes sense in English, as well; when we say "god," it could be any god; it's simply the title we use to denote a deity.

The personal name of God is another matter. It is referred to as the Tetragrammaton, which literally means "four-letter name," because it is written with four consonants in Hebrew: YHWH. (Keep in mind that the Hebrew alphabet has no vowels, only consonants; vowel markings have been added to the text, but all the meaning of the words in contained in the consonants.) It can also be referred to as Hashem, which simply means "the name". This name is treated with immense reverence among Jews. For Christians, it is often something of a mystery, and there is a lot of disagreement about how to treat the Tetragrammaton in scholarship and Biblical study.

In Exodus 3, the personal name of God is related to the Hebrew verb "to be". Moses asks God's name, and God responds, "I will be what I will be" (in many translations, "I am what I am"). The Hebrew transliteration of this phrase is Ehyeh asher ehyeh, where ehyeh is the verb meaning "I will be" (it is in the future tense; Hebrew has no present tense). However, this response from God does not include the Tetragrammaton, and it is a bit of a mystery how the Tetragrammaton relates to this phrase. Scholars hypothesize that the word ehyeh, which is spelled with the letters 'HYH, would be changed to YHYH, which would be the third person singular instead of the first person singular—"he will be". Then it is conceivable that the third letter changed from Y into W (because Hebrew just does things like that), resulting in YHWH. This conclusion is by no means certain, and it is a bit tangential to the topic at hand, so I'll leave it be.

What I'm particularly interested in is how the name YHWH should be treated today, especially by Christians. In Jewish thought, especially orthodox Judaism, the name of God should never be spoken (think of the Ten Commandments—"You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God"). Indeed, this reverence was taken so seriously that when the Masoretic texts were compiled (remember the Masoretes from an earlier post?) and the vowel markings added, the name of God was marked in such a way that it is impossible to read it aloud. This is a bit hard to understand, but I'll try to explain; in Hebrew, every consonant must take a vowel. The name of God, YHWH, would therefore need to have four vowel markings (one per letter), but it only has two. Instead of reading the name of God, the person reading the Scriptures would say Adonai, which means "my lords" (again using the plural of majesty). This is why most translations of the Bible use LORD (in all caps) wherever the Tetragrammaton appears. However the name of God might have been pronounced back before the Scriptures were written down, that pronunciation has been lost to time—no one actually knows how YHWH should be pronounced.

So for Jews, YHWH is always read as Adonai, because the name of God is considered too holy to speak aloud. What about Christians? There is no consensus. Many Christians and scholars took to using the word Yahweh for YHWH, and this is still common today. However, inserting vowels into YHWH—whatever vowels we might choose to use—is very offensive to orthodox Jews, because it is an attempt to pronounce the name of God. The same goes for the name Jehovah, which comes from German (in German, the J takes the place of the Y, and the V the place of the W). Why should we, as Christians, care? Well, some Christians argue that we shouldn't care. In Jesus Christ, we are given a personal connection to God which allows us, in effect, to speak God's name with impunity. Theologically, this may be true (I'm a bit skeptical), but the counter argument is that we should be very concerned with how we treat our Jewish brothers and sisters. It has even been argued, in very provocative papers, that the use of "Yahweh" by Christians contributed to anti-Semitism and ultimately the treatment of Jews during the Holocaust.

This is ultimately a matter of personal piety, and not something that should be forced on Christians. In my experience, most Christians do not even think about the importance surrounding the name of God, and there is little understanding of the language and history behind this issue. My intention is to raise the question and hopefully provide some information to those who might not know why the personal name of God is so significant. Personally, I've become uncomfortable with using "Yahweh". Having a little more reverence in our treatment of God also appeals to me—yes, as Christians we believe that God came down and lived among us, and that is a marvelous thing. But perhaps we can worship a little more by bringing in more reverence in our speaking of and experiencing God.

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