The Divine Name of God

The Divine Name of God as found in the Bible – sometimes referred to as the Tetragrammaton, meaning four letters – is essentially the Hebrew proper name attributed by God to Himself. tetragrammaton_200

The image here shows how it is written in Hebrew characters.

In the present day its pronunciation is unknown, since at some point in history the Jewish people felt that the Name was too holy to utter out loud. The Hebrew alphabet does not contain vowels, so it is now only a matter of speculation as to how it may have been spoken.

In most modern languages there have been attempts to transliterate the Name. For example in English the equivalent of the Hebrew characters approximates to YHWH or JHWH. By placing vowels between the letters certain attempts at a transliteration have become accepted by some Christian denominations or individuals e.g. Yahweh, Yehowah, Yahuah, or Jehovah.

For the purposes of this article we will use “Yahweh” as a convention, but this is not to say that it is necessarily preferred over the others.

The Christian is really presented with the following questions in how he or she treats the Divine Name today.

  • Is it right or wrong to use the Divine Name?
  • If it is right, then does it matter which transliteration of the Name we opt for?
  • Whether or not it is uttered, how important is the Divine Name for Christians today?
  • Is it necessary for our modern Bibles to include the Name?

That the Divine Name really was used by the Jewish people in the writings of the Old Testament is beyond doubt. Manuscripts of very early dating have been discovered that prove this. Most scholars accept that the Name appeared more than 6000 times in the Old Testament.

Therefore in an attempt to be true to God’s Word some translators will use one of the traditionally accepted versions of the Name in those places. Others more commonly have inserted “LORD” instead. A good translation will at least include some note somewhere to explain the decision taken by the translators in this regard.

Is a Bible translation “bad” if it does not include the “Divine Name” in some form of proper noun? There is no reason to conclude such a thing. Such translations are not necessarily removing the Divine Name as an act of rejection, but rather it may indicate a humble acknowledgement that we simply do not have an accurate word to take the place of the original Hebrew Tetragrammaton. After all, the most accurate way of including the Name is not to translate it at all, but simply to insert the Hebrew characters as displayed above whenever the word occurs in the text. But that would present its own difficulties to the reader.

All that being said there are some important things we should know about the Divine Name. Consider the following passage of scripture:

God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.
(Exodus 3:14, 15)

As with the majority of citations on this site, this one is taken from the ESV translation (English Standard Version). Now note carefully the use of “LORD” in the above quotation. It is not a proper noun or personal name. In some sense the meaning of the passage is lost by rendering it in this way. Lord, after all, is a title rather than a name. The scriptures themselves later say “For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”—”. (1 Cor 8:5)

But now if we are to consider the original manuscript words of Exodus 3:15 we would find the Divine Name or Tetragrammaton in that place rather than “LORD”. Therefore if the words of this ultimate LORD in Exodus 3 are to take on real meaning then the specific Name of God takes on particular importance.

What is the Meaning of the Tetragrammaton?

Consider the context of Ex 3:14,15 quoted above. Moses is being commanded by God to return to Egypt after fleeing there many years earlier. It is God’s purpose that Moses should lead the Israelite nation out of captivity in Egypt and on into the promised land[ref]Moses later lost the opportunity to lead the Israelites into the promised land due to his sin at Meribah (Num 20:12)[/ref]. God miraculously has his agent – an angel – appear to Moses in a bush that burns without being consumed by the fire. As the conversation between God (via the angel) and Moses progresses Moses understandably foresees a problem with his mission. The Israelites now present in Egypt have been immersed into a culture in which many gods are presumed to exist. If Moses says he has been sent by God, the Israelites will want to know which god in particular he means.

Even though God had previously revealed Himself as Yahweh to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – the forefathers of the Israelite nation – it would seem that this was a renewed revelation to Moses, which in turn he was to convey to the people.

In his own words God told Moses that he was known as “hayah hayah” (as transliterated from Hebrew), and as rendered in the ESV translation of Ex 3:14 above “I AM WHO I AM”[ref]Although this is probably the most common translation in English, some translations vary.[/ref]

Some have tried to come up with complex meanings to these words. Yet on one level they are simple. The One who identifies himself with the phrase “I am” is the one who simply is. He is the self-existing one. This understanding about God is essential to answering the common question/objection – if God created the world, then who created God? If God is self-existing as expressed by His words to Moses, then the question itself is invalid. Nobody created God because He simply exists and is the first cause of all other things.

Let us remember that this was not given to us as a way of evading the question “who created God?” since that question was not even on the table when the explanation was given. Neither Moses nor the Egyptians or Israelites were asking such an existential question at the time. As far as we know the existence of gods was simply an accepted fact back then, and only with the dawning of philosophical thought many centuries later could such a question have arisen. Therefore the declaration of God to be the self-existing one back when these words were recorded is something that should make us truly think.

Should Christians Be Using the Name?

At one extreme we find Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have taken it upon themselves to self-identify using a version of the Name and make it one of the most important things in their doctrines. At the other extreme we find those who actively avoid the use of any form of the Divine Name. For example the Catholic church declared in 2008 that no version of it should be used in any church service. Both sides see it as a matter of respect or disrespect for the Divine Name in their own way.

Rather than become embroiled in that controversy, perhaps this scripture should help a Christian to think on the matter:

And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.
(Acts 4:12)

The name being referred to in this passage is that of Jesus Christ. This is the consistent message throughout the New Testament. Furthermore there is no evidence that the New Testament manuscripts ever contained the Hebrew Divine Name, although some theories have been put forward proposing that it originally did, but has since been lost. It should be noted that the shortened form of the Name – Jah – does appear within the word Hallelujah (meaning “praise Jah”) in Revelation 19:1,3.

The Dead Sea Scrolls
From an Exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran

Either God has preserved his Word in the way he wants or he has not. If we were to believe the theory that the Divine Name has been removed without a trace from the New Testament, then how could we possibly trust the rest? When we study the manuscripts for God’s Word as a whole – both Old and New Testaments – then we find remarkable evidence that, although handed down to us through a series of copies, the text has indeed been preserved with unusual accuracy. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in a cave in Qumran around the middle of the twentieth century was one measure of this. Although containing manuscripts much older than the ones that had been used to produce the Bible up until then, the variances in the text were by and large insignificant.

Therefore it is a reasonable assumption that the Old Testament contained the Divine Name, whereas the New Testament did not. Furthermore there is a specific shift in focus from the Name YHWH to the name of Jesus Christ.

None of this invalidates the sacred name of God and its meaning. Perhaps it is God’s intent that the focus will shift back once Jesus has fulfilled all there is to be done before handing the Kingdom back to his Father (1 Cor 15:24). In the meantime we can learn much about God by examining the meaning of his Name and the import it carried throughout the Old Testament. Yet, our focus as Christians is on the Son of God – Jesus Christ – who is the only way to the Father.

Further reading:

Wikipedia: Tetragrammaton