Friday, April 15, 2011

The Meaning of the Name Yahweh or Jehovah

Yahweh is the most probable reconstruction of the divine name יהוה (see “The Reconstruction of the Pronunciation of the Divine Name Yahweh”). This name (pronounced incorrectly as Jehovah—see “The Mispronunciation of Yahweh as Jehovah”) is considered by Jews to be the supreme name of God, so sacred that they dare not pronounce it. Instead of speaking the name יהוה they substitute the name Adonai, which means Lord or Master. The Septuagint, the early Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, followed this tradition, and translated יהוה as κύριος, which means lord. From this Jewish usage has come the tradition followed in most English translations of the Bible where יהוה is translated as LORD or the LORD (i.e, the three letters o r d in LORD are written in small capitals).

The tradition of avoiding the pronunciation of God’s name is understandable—the sin of blasphemy is a serious sin—but at the same time there numerous psalms which actually call upon God’s people to bless or praise the name of Yahweh (e.g., Ps 113:1–3; 116:4, 13, 17; 129:8; 135:1; 148:1, 5, 13). Furthermore, by avoiding the name, the meaning of the name Yahweh is masked, and an opportunity to understand an important aspect of the character of God is potentially lost.

So what does the name Yahweh mean? The word יהוה is associated in Exod 3:14 with the Hebrew expression אהיה אשׁר אהיה, which means I am who I am or I will be who I will be. אהיה (ehyeh) is simply the first person singular form of the Hebrew imperfect verb היה (hayah), the Hebrew verb to be. The third person masculine singular imperfect form of היה is יהיה (yihyeh), which in turn looks and sounds like it is related to the divine name Yahweh. It seems, therefore, that the expression אהיה אשׁר אהיה is a word play on the divine name. This suggests in turn that the name Yahweh originally meant he is. Yahweh is not so much the great I Am but the great He Is.

But in what sense is Yahweh the great He Is? Some have suggested that the name Yahweh communicates the eternal existence of God. While it is true theologically that Yahweh is an eternal being, this is not the best explanation of the sense of the name Yahweh.

The expression I will be with you in Exod 3:12 preempts the expression I am who I am in Exod 3:14. This suggests that the meaning of the name Yahweh is (in part) connected with the idea of God being present with his people.

But there is more to the meaning of the name Yahweh than simply the idea of God’s presence with his people. In Exod 6:2 God says to Moses that he “appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty; but by [his] name Yahweh [he] did not make myself known to them.” Some people have suggested in the light of this that the patriarchs did not know God by the the name Yahweh. But this contradicts Gen 4:26 where it says “at [the time of Seth] people began to call upon the name of Yahweh.” Genesis 4:26 suggests that very early on in human history the name Yahweh was known by human beings, and used in the worship of God. We also have the name Yahweh used on the lips of Noah (Gen 9:26), Abraham (Gen 12:8; 14:22; 15:2, 8; 21:33; 22:14); Sarah (Gen 16:2, 5); the angel of Yahweh (Gen 16:11); and other angels (19:13). We also have Yahweh identifying himself as Yahweh to Abraham (Gen 15:7), or using the name to refer to himself (Gen 18:14; 22:16). So, if the biblical text is accepted as being an accurate record of historical reality at these points, then clearly the patriarchs knew and employed the divine name Yahweh.

According to Exod 6:2–8, the significance of this name would be revealed through the events of the exodus. God spoke to Moses and said to him:
“I am Yahweh. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty; but by my name Yahweh I did not make myself known to them. I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they lived as sojourners. Moreover, I have heard the groaning of the people of Israel whom the Egyptians hold as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant. Say therefore to the people of Israel, ‘I am Yahweh, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am Yahweh your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am Yahweh” (Exod 6:2–8).
The idea that God appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai (rather than Yahweh) is derived from the language used at various points in Genesis. God appeared to Abraham in Gen 17:1, and identified himself as El Shaddai. In Gen 28:3 Isaac blesses Jacob by the name El Shaddai. Jacob had wanted to know God’s name (Gen 32:29); but God appeared to him shortly thereafter, identifying himself to Jacob as El Shaddai, and changing Jacob’s name to Israel (Gen 35:9–11; see also Gen 48:3).

The name El Shaddai communicates something of the destructive potential of God and his power, but Yahweh was going to reveal a different aspect of his character through what he was about to do for the people of Israel who were at that time being oppressed by the Egyptians. But how would the events of the exodus reveal the significance of the name Yahweh?

It is true that God’s power would be revealed through the events of the exodus (see Exod 9:16; 14:31), but God’s word to Moses in Exod 6:2–8 emphasizes how God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt was going to be in fulfillment of the promises of the covenant that God had entered into with Abraham, Isaaac, and Jacob previously. Yahweh would keep his word. He had promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that he would deliver their descendants from oppression, and take them to the promised land. This was what Yahweh was about to fulfill.

In this way, the exodus deliverance was going to show that God keeps his promises, and this lies at the heart of the meaning of the name Yahweh. God is I am who I am in the sense of I will do as I have promised. In the exodus, therefore, Yahweh displays the meaning of his name, the Ever-Faithful God, the God who keeps his promises.

Yahweh = He Is (Faithful)


Carl Garrett said...

Steven, I believe that what you wrote is ALMOST the complete meaning of Yahweh's name. I believe the complete meaning is Yahweh = "He is good; His love endures forever" (His promise of Faithful Love, which was completely fulfilled by Jesus).

Carl Garrett said...

Let me illustrate this with only a very few of the many verses that are directly applicable:

- Psalm 100:5 For the LORD is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.

- Jeremiah 33:11 “Give thanks to the LORD Almighty, for the LORD is good; his love endures forever.”

- 1 Chronicles 16:34 Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.

- Psalm 54:6 I will sacrifice a freewill offering to you; I will praise your name, O LORD, for it is good.

- Psalm 109:21 But you, O Sovereign LORD, deal well with me for your name’s sake; out of the goodness of your love, deliver me.

- Psalm 115:1 Not to us, O LORD, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness.

- Psalm 107:1 Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, Carl, for your comments and for those Bible verses.

I think it depends on what one means by meaning. I was focusing more on the denotation of יהוה, but you are right to point out the connotations and closely associated concepts of יהוה in the thinking of the ancient Israelites of orthodox faith.

God’s faithfulness is not just an abstract concept in the Old Testament, but it has a concrete aspect. Supremely for the orthodox Hebrews, when they thought of God’s faithfulness, they thought about how this abiding attribute of God had been revealed (i.e., activated) through the salvation of their fathers at the time of the exodus. In the light of the subsequent exile, as the people of God began to look forward, there was an expectation that there would be a new revelation of Yahweh’s righteousness in a future salvation event that would rival, indeed eclipse, the salvation event of the exodus (e.g., Ps 98:1–3).

It is interesting that the Apostle Paul understood that this expectation was fulfilled through God’s new covenant revelation of his righteousness which took place through the “exodus” of Messiah Jesus from death (Rom 1:16–17).

It is no wonder then that the Apostle could say “in [Christ] it is always yes. For all the promises of God find their yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our amen to God for his glory” (2 Cor 1:19–20). There is a nice symmetry here: we say amen to God’s revelation of his name in Jesus. Faith is saying yes to the God who has said yes in Jesus!

Yes, Yahweh is faithful (and good and loving)!