YHWH: The name of God in the Old Testament (Exodus 3)

Known by many titles in Scripture, the God of Israel has but one personal name – YHWH (the original, written Hebrew language contains no vowels). This name is commonly referred to as the Tetragrammaton, which is derived from a Greek word meaning “four letters”. Virtually every aspect of YHWH (it’s pronunciation, origin and significance) is widely debated.

The exact pronunciation of YHWH is unknown, but many today favour “Yahweh”. This conclusion is based upon theophoric names . names that contain all or part of a divine name. Examples include Jehoshaphat (“YHWH (Jeho) judges (shaphat)”) and Adonijah (“my Lord (adoni) is YHWH (jah)”) Although widely eccepted, the pronunciation “Yahweh” remains uncertain.

In Exodus 3:14 God referred to Himself as “I AM”. The Hebrew word translated “I AM”, a third-person form of the word for “to be”, is ehyeh, which looks like and may have sounded like YHWH. Accordingly, many linguist argue that the name YHWH was derived from this verb. Working from this premise, some scholars go on to argue that YHWH means “He is”, “He will be” or “He causes to be”. It is unlikely, however, that God intended di disclose the etymology (linguistic origin) of His name in this verse. A divine name in Hebrew is seldom merely an inflection of a verb, as would be the case if this argument were true.

Frequently Hebrew texts use wordplays or puns. Some Biblical passages, for example, make their point based on the similar sounds of words in the original language (this often occurs when God is the speaker). Sunch puns were not intended to be humorous, clever or lighthearted, nor did they imply that a word’s origin was being divulged. In Jeremiah 1:11-12, for example, God asked Jeremiah what he saw, and the prophet replied that he saw the rod of an almond tree (Hebrew shaqed). God responded by asserting that He was keeping watch (Hebrew shoqed) over His word (His revelation in Scripture). This wordplay does not suggest that shaqed (“almond tree”) and shoqed (“keeping watch”) are linguistically related. In similar vein, it is possible that the similarity between the word translated !I AM” (tehyeh) and YHWH/Yahweh represents a deliberate wordplay, while not intended to address the origin of the name YHWH/Yahweh.

The context of Exodus 3 further suggests that etymology was not God’s intended emphasis. Moses was worried about his response were the Hebrews to ask him with regard to his conversation with God “What is His name?” (verse 13). His anxiety implies that the Israelites tended to b sceptical and suggests that they might have been inclined to lower YHWH to the level of other gods, each of whom had a distinctive name. “I AM WHO I AM” was an assertion that YHWH is the one and only true God.

As early as the Second Temple period following Israel’s return from exile, the name YHWH came to be regarded as so holy that its public pronunciation was forbidden. When readers came across the name, they would say either shema (Aramaic “the name”) or adonai (Hebrew “my Lord”). Following the convention within Judaism of saying “My Lord” when readers came upon the divine name, the Jewish translators of the Septuagint (early Greek translation of the Old Testament) rendered the divine name YHWH as kurios, Greek for “Lord”. This tradition continues in many modern English translations, where YHWN is translated “LORD”.

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