Lessons From the Old Testament: God Tells Us His Name

Tetragrammaton in Phoenician (1100 BC to 300 C...
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Is God above having a personal name? Isn’t He too great to have a moniker other than the generic title God or Lord? He certainly didn’t have a parent to give Him a name. But God is all about naming things and people. He names Adam and has Adam name all the animals in the garden (Genesis 2). He changes Abram’s name to Abraham (Genesis 17:5) and Jacob’s name to Israel (Genesis 32:28). But does He have a name, a personal name?

When Moses meets God at Mt. Horeb (or Sinai) and is called to go back to Egypt and command Pharaoh to release his people, he asks God what His name is so that he can make a credible case to the Israelites that God has sent him:

Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am . This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.'” God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘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, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation. (Exodus 3:13-15)

God explains to Moses that His personal name has a relationship to the Hebrew verb hayah, which is the verb to be. There is some controversy as to what God is saying here. Is He saying “I am” the eternally existent one, or is He saying “I will be” whatever I choose to be because I am the sovereign One? The tense of the verb admits of both possibilities. But what follows is His actual name, represented by our translators as the word LORD in all capital letters. In the Hebrew this is four consonants, yohd, heh, waw, and heh (often represented as YHWH). In Hebrew these would be written from right to left and Hebrew has no letter symbols for their vowels. It looks like this:  יהוה.

Hebrews knew what the vowel sounds were for each word even if the sounds weren’t represented by letter symbols for the vowels. However, a later generation of scribes known as the Massoretes began to use a series of dots and dashes in their copies of the Old Testament to represent the vowels. When they came to the divine personal name they sought to keep anyone from misusing it (see Exodus 20:7) and so used the vowel pointings for the word “Lord” or master, the word adonai. When a reader came to the divine name they would see the vowels for adonai and say that instead of the divine name.

If you actually say the divine name with the vowels for adonai, you get a pronunciation Jehovah or Yehovah. But that is incorrect. It is more likely that the correct pronunciation is Yahweh (two syllables instead of three). Very few translations actually use this vocalization (see the Jerusalem Bible, The Sacred Scriptures Bethel Edition, New Jerusalem Bible, and occasionally the Holman Christian Standard Bible), preferring instead to use LORD or GOD or Jehovah. But you may find it helpful to read Yahweh whenever you see these other options. By doing so you remind yourself that it is God’s personal name that is being used.

Should we pronounce the divine name? Are we in danger of misusing God’s name if we pronounce it? If we could, why did God reveal it to Moses? Why did He allow it to be communicated so many times in the Old Testament (6,823 times)? Not only that, but His name became part of many other names of His followers (the yah part at the end of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and many others). If God is concerned to dwell among us (as the Tabernacle so aptly illustrates), then certainly He is not upset if we use His name, Yahweh. Why else would you have a personal name except to say it to your personal friends? God wants a relationship with us and part of that is telling us His name and using ours.

See the Allaboutgod.com article on this subject:  http://www.allaboutgod.com/names-of-god.htm


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