How to say the name of God
This morning I learn how to say the name of the deity I’d been raised to believe in. For Jewish tradition, it wasn’t uttered, so any knowledge of how to say it had supposedly been lost after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. If Christianity ever knew, it forgot.
No one ever told me, growing up Christian, that how to say God’s name wasn’t known. “Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah,” we’d sing.
This is my name forever,
the name you shall call me
from generation to generation. (Exodus 3:15)
We wouldn’t call Him . . . Yehowah.
Who is that?
The name of God, transliterated from the Hebrew as ‘YHWH’, four letters, four consonants, is the central mystery in the Bible.
Christians have long speculated this name means ‘I am’, but its meaning is actually debated. The Jewish scholar S. D. Goitein, in a 1956 paper, notes that an Arabic root word, h.w.y., and the word hawaya, which means “love, affection, passion, desire,” may point in a different direction.
Note Exodus 34:14. “Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous,” goes the English translation.
The word translated ‘jealous’, Goitein writes, is more like “complete devotion either to one’s own aims or to another person.”
He suggests that YHWH means: ‘passionate’.
Israel Knohl, in a 2018 paper, affirms that Exodus 34:14 might say: “For you must not worship any other god, because YHWH, whose name is Impassioned, is an impassioned God.”
This is, after all, the deity who keeps warning His humans against ‘adultery’.
“YHWH is an impassioned God who would naturally become jealous and agitated at such behavior,” Knohl adds. “YHWH’s relationship with his followers is like that of a husband to a wife; he loves his worshipers but is dangerously jealous of any ‘worshipping’ around.”
Note Proverbs 6:34: “The fury of the husband will be passionate; He will show no pity on his day of vengeance.”
Only his ‘wife’ gets to say His name—and even she forgot it.
That the names of deities aren’t said according to original pronunciations isn’t usually a concern in Christianity.
In Hinduism, yes, the precision of vocalizing words (like ‘Om’) are deeply important. But in Christianity—not really.
The name ‘Jesus’, after all, is sort of a kooky artifact of translations. Hebrew has no ‘J’, even. The messiah, in Hebrew, is ‘Yehoshua’, pronounced yeh-HO-shoo-ah, as can be contracted to Yeshua, yeh-SHOO-ah.
To change his name to ‘Jesus’ is certainly a theological act. It deprives the reader of a connection to Joshua in the Old Testament Exodus drama, whose name was ‘Hoshea’ until his name was changed by Moses to Yehoshua in Numbers 13:16. Later it’s shortened to ‘Yeshua’ (Neh 8:17).
This is important. A name, ‘Hosea’, that means ‘salvation’, has God grafted into it. The name ‘Joshua’ means: ‘YHWH is salvation’.
Only with a Latin twist did he become Iesus, and in English, becomes ‘Jesus’. A sound with no relationship to any original.
A metaphor, perhaps, for the process we call ‘religion’.
In the Bible there is no prohibition on saying the Name, and Christians aren’t under any instruction to avoid it.
In Luke 4:16–20, Jesus reads Isaiah 61:1, which contains the sentence: “The spirit of the Lord YHWH.”
The scholar Gerard Gertoux notes: “Even if it was the Greek text of the Septuagint, at this time this translation contained only the Name in Hebrew, but never the substitute ‘Lord’ (Kyrios in Greek), as noted in all copies of this text dated before 150 CE.”
Use of the Name is an important theme in the gospels. Jesus says it when he is in Galilee—that is, when not under the rule of the Jewish establishment, which sees public use of the Name as a capital crime. When Jesus is in Jerusalem, he refrains from saying YHWH—to the dismay of those, perhaps, who wish him to be killed.
Similarly, Stephen in Acts 2 used the Name in the course of his trial for blasphemy (Acts 7:31,33,49). From the text of Acts this isn’t explicit, for Stephen appears to say ‘the Lord’. But in order for him to be executed, under rabbinic rules, he must say the Name. Those convicted only of blasphemy receive a prison sentence (cf. Acts 8:3; 22:4).
Christian texts, early on, might have omitted the Name since tensions with Jews were very extreme, and manuscripts could be declared ‘heretical’ and destroyed for this reason. But lately, even Bibles marketed to Christians now replace the Name with ‘the Lord’—where there is no reason to do so.
YHWH is his name. They just didn’t know how to say it.
Christianity lately calls the Father of Jesus by the name ‘Jehovah’, as if the divine family particularly likes names starting with ‘J’—there’s Jews, Jacob, Jerusalem—using a sound the Hebrew language doesn’t even contain. This happened around the 17th century, and persists as custom.
For Jews, they are Yehudi, as the holy city is ‘Yerushalayim’.
The Creator’s name, in Hebrew called the Tetragrammaton, or the four letters, is יהוה. When shifted into Latin, it became JHVH, and in English YHWH, and when translated into English, Christians came up with the more or less arbitrary syllables . . . Jehovah.
More scholarly-minded Christians knew that was wrong, and so came up with ‘Yahweh’—a sound that drifts even further from the original. With some speculation the Name meant ‘I am’, the matter was considered settled.
“The name ‘Yahweh’ does not even sound Semitic,” notes the scholar George Wesley Buchanan. Noticing, in the Dead Sea Scrolls, a Greek translation of Leviticus suggesting how the Qumran community understood the Name to be pronounced, he set out to think through the issue.
The Muslim praise, “Ya Allah, Ya Huwa,” he suspects, may preserve a hint of the original sound. And then the Scrolls had more. He adds: “As in many other areas, the Dead Sea Scrolls have prompted a reexamination of biblical traditions that we had formerly thought were completely settled.”
Going through Exodus he reads uses of the divine name as “Yahweh” to find them sounding “rough and unrhythmical,” but they became “smooth and poetic” when read as: ‘Yahowah’.
It would be lengthened and shortened, with ‘Yahu’ or ‘Yaho’, pronounced Yah-oh, being typical for everyday use.
This might’ve been preserved in Jewish names.
‘Jonathan’ is ‘Yaho-nathan’, or ‘Yaho has given’, as John was ‘Yaho-chanan’ or ‘Yaho has been gracious’, and Elijah was ‘Eli-Yahu,’ or ‘My God is Yahu’.
Buchanan’s conclusion: “The accumulated data points heavily in the direction of a three-syllable word, whose middle syllable was hô or hû. The first two syllables were Yahû or Yahô that were sometimes abbreviated to Yô. For poetry, liturgy, and some other reasons, the name Yah was also used.”
The name of God in Jewish spirituality then seems to be transliterated, for Buchanan: Yahowah or Yahuwah. For Gertoux, it’s Yehowah.
In a shorter form, for public use, Yahô or Yah-ho.
For poetic use: Yâh or Yo. (You say this if you say Hallelujah, which means: “Praise Yah.”)
So seek guidance from Him? Yehowah, or His son Yehoshua—the deities whose names Christianity had forgotten.
For a more involved discussion, you can read Gerard Gertoux’s academic paper: “God’s name: readable but unpronounceable, why?”
Or here’s documentary made from it.