Yahweh. (Or Jehovah. Either way.)

by K.W. Leslie, 19 February

The primary name of God… and its English translation.

Because our culture is largely monotheist, even when we refer to the lowercase-G “god,” we nearly always mean the One God, the Creator, the Almighty. Other gods, like Baal or Thor, haven’t even crossed our minds; if we do mean them, we have to spell out they’re who we meant. Most of the time, if you say “god,” you aren’t even thinking about them. (Nor thinking of the One God either, but that’s another issue for another day.)

Totally wasn’t the case 3,400 years ago, when “god” was more of a generic word for any being who was mightier than mere humanity. Heck, some kings even claimed they were gods. So when you said “god,” you had to spell out which god, and that was the issue when God sent Moses to go rescue the Hebrews from Egypt. Which god was sending Moses?

Exodus 3.13-15 KWL
13 Moses told God, “Look, I go to Israel’s sons and tell them, ‘Your ancestors’ god sends me to you.’
They’ll tell me, ‘What’s his name?’ What do I tell them?”
14 God told Moses, “EHYÉH ASHÉR EHYÉH.”
He said, “You’ll tell Israel’s sons this: ‘EHYÉH sent me to you.’ ”
15 God further told Moses, “You’ll tell Israel’s sons this: ‘The LORD is your ancestors’ god.
Abraham’s god, Isaac’s god, Jacob’s god. He sent me to you.’
This is my name forever, to remember me by from generation to generation.”

Ehyéh/“I’m being” was a familiar word to the Hebrews, although it’s more a word you use with an adjective to describe yourself: “I’m being silly,” or “I’m being aggressive.” God went with “I’m being what I’m being” because the names and titles we choose for ourselves tend to define us—and God reserves the right to define himself any way he chooses. God is who he is. We don’t get to decide what he is.

The related word YHWH also means “I’m being,” but you’ll notice the bible never, ever uses it in that generic way. It’s only used to identify the One God. That’s his name. That’s the one he chose for himself, until he became human and chose to go by the Aramaic name Yeshúa/“YHWH saves” in the New Testament. Different name, but same being.

The reason I spell YHWH in all capitals is because we don’t actually know how to pronounce it. “Yahwéh” is an educated guess, based on the word ehyéh. And you might notice most Americans don’t even pronounce “Yahweh” correctly: We put the accent on the first syllable, American-style, and make it “Yáhweh.” We’re supposed to pronounce it like in the U2 song.

Of course the usual English translation of YHWH is “Jehovah,” which doesn’t even try to pronounce it correctly. Although originally it did.

Getting “Jehovah” from YHWH.

Round the 400s BC, the Pharisees developed a tradition that you don’t say God’s name. ’Cause it’s holy. Ek 36.22 So whenever they came across a YHWH in the bible, they said Adonáy/“my Lord,” and that’s where our use of “the LORD” originated. When the Pharisees translated the Septuagint, every instance of YHWH became kýrios/“Lord.” The god YHWH became “the Lord God.” The lord YHWH became either “Lord Lord” Jg 6.22 or “sovereign Lord” Jr 4.10 The name was too holy for Greek-speakers, so it simply wasn’t given to them. “Lord” did the job.

Yep, that’s why we wind up with “Lord” in our bibles. Greek-speaking Christians used the Septuagint. Latin-speaking Christians translated the Septuagint into Greek, creating the Vulgate. Which St. Jerome tried to fix by translating directly from Hebrew to Latin, but Jerome continued the practice of turning YHWH into “Lord.” Martin Luther translated the Hebrew into German, but still used “Lord.” William Tyndale translated the Hebrew into English, but still used “Lord.” And English-language bibles, from the Geneva Bible to whatever novelty translation comes down the pike nowadays, still largely use “Lord.” (The Message, bucking the trend, went with “God.”) Old customs die hard.

To indicate a translation of the Hebrew name YHWH, bibles typically put LORD in capital letters. And whenever I’m writing about YHWH, I do likewise. Ain’t nothing wrong with the custom.

For Jews, they weren’t about to start deleting YHWH from the bible and replacing it with Adonáy. They’d consider it blasphemy. But at the same time, they weren’t gonna say the name. So some of their scribes made sure to mark all the instances of YHWH in a scroll, just to remind readers to say Adonáy instead of THE NAME. And when the Masoretes invented nequddot, dots and slashes beneath the letters which’d remind readers how to pronounce all these unfamiliar Hebrew words, they didn’t bother to use the proper pronunciation guide for YHWH. Why would they?—you don’t say THE NAME! Instead they used the marks you’d put under Adonáy, as a reminder to say Adonáy instead.

Of course if you didn’t know what the Masoretes were doing, you might guess YHWH is pronounced Yahowah. And that’s exactly what happened: Germans in the 1200s started spelling the LORD’s name as Jehovah (which, if you pronounce these letters German-style, comes out Yahowah). Tyndale and other bible-translators repeated what the Germans had started, and it caught on. But of course, English-speakers pronounced it English-style. Still do.

Yeah, people back then realized it was an incorrect pronunciation. More than one book was written in the 1600s complaining about it. But like I said, old customs die hard.

Better to think of it as a translation, just as every language has a different word for “God.” Just about every language has a different word for “Jesus”—including English, ’cause obviously “Jesus” isn’t how he was addressed when he walked the earth; people called him Yeshua. People nowadays call him all sorts of variants of Yeshua, from Issa to Gesu to Hesús to Jezi. I doubt he’s particular about which variant we use; he knows who we mean when we pray to him. I’m not fussy when foreigners try to pronounce my name, and mangle it a little because they’re not used to English; I likewise know who they mean. If my name had a foreign version, I’d expect ’em to use that instead. It doesn’t—unfortunately for them.

So YHWH is the original; Yahwéh is probably how the original’s pronounced, but Jehovah is English for YHWH. Got that?

Jehovah, Evangelicals, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Used to be that most English-speaking Evangelical Christians would use “Jehovah” when specifically referring to God’s name. In the past 20 years that’s changed, and Evangelicals are starting to rediscover the name “Yahweh.” And no, that’s not because of the U2 song: It’s a backlash against the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Charles Taze Russell was a Pennsylvania megachurch pastor in the 1880s, who co-founded the Zion's Watch Tower Tract Society and wrote several volumes of bible studies. (They’re now called Studies in the Scriptures.) Problem is, Russell was one of those self-educated preachers who thought he was making new discoveries or rediscoveries, and really he was just repeating old heresies—like embracing Arianism, the idea the Father created Jesus. Like taking various End Times beliefs and making ’em mandatory for his church members. Like claiming Jesus was gonna return in 1914. (And when he didn’t, insisting he totally did—but invisibly.) Like producing a translation of the bible, even though under oath in court he couldn’t identify the letters of the Greek alphabet.

After his death, Russell’s organization evolved into the Jehovah’s Witnesses, naming themselves for another practice which Russell was big on: Using God’s proper name Jehovah, instead of the title “LORD.” Not that JWs consider anything wrong with “Lord,” but they wanna specify which Lord, and that’d be Jehovah.

Anyway. Christians tend to suck at loving our neighbors, and one example of this is the way Evangelicals interact with heretic Christians. We don’t treat ’em like they’re merely wrong: We frequently treat them like they’re enemies, and evil, and willing followers of Satan in undermining Christianity, and that we need to keep them at arm’s length lest we catch any of their heresy cooties. It’s a crappy attitude which isn’t gonna win anybody over to our side, yet plenty of Christians feel justified in adopting it, and treating Jehovah’s Witnesses like traitors. Our enemies aren’t flesh and blood, remember? Ep 6.12 Heretics are not the bad guys. They’re just mistaught. (Which stands to reason when you don’t believe our teacher, the Holy Spirit, is a person, and Jehovah.) You win ’em over the same way God won us over: With patience, grace, and love.

Well, one of the ways Evangelicals try to keep the JWs at arm’s length is to keep the word “Jehovah” at arm’s length. The re-emphasis on “Yahweh” is a deliberate attempt to point out how “Jehovah” isn’t precisely God’s name; Yahweh is. If a JW tries to tell you Jehovah is God’s real name, you can come right back at ’em with “No it’s not; Yahweh is.”

For all the good that argument is gonna do you. JWs are fully aware God’s name in Hebrew is YHWH. They’re just using the English word.

In any case the adoption of “Yahweh” among Evangelicals has nothing to do with pursuing truth and historical accuracy. It’s all about a petty argument against the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Probably one of the worst reasons to embrace one of the names of God. Meh; that’s Christianism for ya.