“In recent years the practice has crept in of pronouncing the God of Israel’s proper name,” said a June letter from the Vatican. “As an expression of the infinite greatness and majesty of God, it 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.’” In August, U.S. bishops were directed to remove Yahweh from songs and prayers.
Of course, it has been the practice of Jews for centuries not to pronounce the divine name of God, partly as a safeguard against taking his name in vain and partly out of reverence. Scot asks how we as protestants should respond, given the Bible contains no prohibition against pronouncing God’s name. He actually tells Moses to name-drop when he sends him to visit Pharaoh.
In Exodus 3:14, God reveals his name to Moses as Yahweh, or YHWH if you prefer. The Hebrew Bible was written in unpointed text, meaning there were no vowel sounds printed within the words. The name of God was therefore simply rendered with four consonants (pictured above), yod, he, waw, he (reading right to left). This four-consonant word came to be called the Tetragrammaton, from Greek, meaning “word of four letters”.
Since the divine name was never pronounced, alternates were used when one encountered the name in the text. Commonly, Adonai was substituted for Yahweh when reading, so when points were added to the Hebrew text, the vowel points from Adonai were added to YHWH, and in a sense, the actual pronunciation of the name was lost. Eventually, German scholars determined that “Jehovah” was the proper pronunciation, but when the word is read by English-speakers, the “J” is sounded as a hard consonant, so some time later scholars decided that “Yahweh” was a more accurate pronunciation. Most likely, the pronunciation should be rendered “Yah-veh” but there is still some dispute in the matter.
When I studied Hebrew, it was suggested that we say “ha-shem” (meaning, “the name”) or Adonai when we encountered the Tetragrammaton in our reading. In the context of reading the Hebrew Bible, it therefore seems natural to me not to pronounce the name, though of course it is common in protestant writings and song. I’m not sold on the argument of avoiding using the name in vain, but when it comes to not pronouncing it out of reverence, I think there’s a very valid point to be made. Christians can often be fairly glib about the holy. There are things that are sacred and ought to be treated as such, showing reverence in appropriate forms. While I wouldn’t avoid pronouncing the name in all situations, I think there may be some wisdom in reserving it for those few and using an alternate in other situations.
A few years ago, I taught my kids what the Tetragrammaton was… partly because I get a kick out of it when a four or five-year-old says a word like “Tetragrammaton” and can tell you (basically) what it means. I actually sat down and taught them how to write it at one point. Our small group meetings with our kids has focused on some of the names of God in the Old Testament. (The book we were using kept “Jehovah” in the hyphenated names, to my great annoyance.) When we came to the end, I wondered briefly about teaching them as a group about the Tetragrammaton, the personal name of God, and teaching them how to write it. Strictly speaking, a Jew who wrote the name of God on a piece of paper would then need to treat that written text with reverence, for it contains God’s most holy name. I’m not sure I’d go quite as far as being unable to dispose of the paper, but the question actually entered my mind in the context of teaching the kids how to write it, and I never did. Or haven’t yet, whatever.
The pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton isn’t the only thing about which there remains some general unclarity… the translation of the name has been rendered in a variety of ways, most commonly as “I am who I am.” Alternates have used phrases like “I will be who I will be” or “I am that I am”, but somehow none of these translations or the interpretations that accompany them has ever really seemed to capture it for me. Something so pivotal in Scripture should have a meaning that is deeply profound, shouldn’t it? True, to say that God’s name is the verb “to be” so that God is “is” in a sustaining lifegiving way is good meditation fodder to attempt some mental gymnastics with, but to me it still seems too simple.
Early in the 20th century, Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig rejected the existing translations of Exodus 3:14 as being often more philosophic interpretations than anything else. They argued that the verse is a statement of God’s presence with and providence toward Israel, and translated it as, “God said to Moshe: I will be-there howsoever I will be-there. And He said: Thus shall you say to the Sons of Israel: I-Will-Be-There sends me to you.” Everett Fox, in his translation of the Schocken Bible, follows their example, and renders the verse in essentially the same way. (I really like Fox’s translation, but you’ll probably have to prowl some used bookstores to find it.)
In context of the story at this point in Exodus, this translation makes perfect sense. Moshe has encountered God at the burning bush, and Moshe is resisting God’s commission on him as best he can. At this crucial moment, God tells him that his very name means that he will be present with Moshe when he goes to Egypt to lead his people out. Whatever he will face: Pharaoh, his chariots, or the people of Israel, God’s response is the same: “I will be there.”
In context of the religious view at the time, this translation makes perfect sense. Gods were assumed to be territorial in the Ancient Near East, and for Moshe to encounter one at a specific location and be sent to another country to gather people there and lead them out may have been met with his assumption that he’d have to go it alone. (This is perhaps why Jonah thought he could run away from God, and why Naaman wanted to take a load of dirt home to facilitate worshipping the God of Israel.) The revelation to Moshe here is therefore a profound one: the deity he is encountering in the mysterious unburning burning bush is not a territorial one: he will go across boundaries into the domain of other gods. This God must be far, far greater than the gods of Egypt. (The eventual ten-round showdown illustrates this by this God asserting his dominance over each of the Egyptian deities in turn.)
In the greater context of scripture, this translation makes perfect sense. For Jesus to become flesh and “dwell among” his people is startling, yes, but it is yet another example of God expressing his nature… being there.
“I will be there.”
For me, the incarnation is all about the presence of God… and of course it must be simply an expression of who he is, of his very nature. Perfectly consistent to Moshe and to the twelve disciples. And when it was time for him to go, he offered a promise: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” He sent the Holy Spirit, so that we would still not be alone. Through all the ages, God is will be there, for it it is his very nature — his name — to be there.