The Name(s) of God

The four-letter Hebrew name of God as a tattoo. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Usually in this space, I will describe some research I’ve done in the past month relating to my historical novel about the Exodus. This post is a little different because it explains an aspect of last month’s discussion about where our concept of Jehovah as a warrior god might have originated. This one doesn’t deal with the idea of God, but rather where the name for our deity came from. It reads a bit like a comedy of errors, but if you’re a little spiritually inclined it could be seen as a metaphor for the mystery of the divine being.

Most of us recognize “Jehovah” as God’s name. Some of us with strict religious upbringings were told as children never to say it aloud — since that might be breaking the fourth of Ten Commandments: “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave anyone unpunished who takes His name in vain” (Deuteronomy 5:11).

The word “LORD” in all caps in most English translations stands in for a Hebrew word with three different letters, one of which is repeated to total a four-letter word: Yud (“y” sound, but also sometimes “ee” or “yee” or “yih” or “yah” or “yaw” sound), Hey (“h” sound), Vav (“v” sound, but also sometimes “o” or “u” sound), Hey (here, at the end of the word, silent). The reason why there are so many possibilities of pronunciation for Yud and Vav is that there are no vowel letters at all in the 22-symbol Hebrew alphabet. Vowel sounds are denoted with what is termed “diacritical markings,” basically dots or dashes somewhere around the letters — usually beneath, but sometimes above or next to them. Here is a chart explaining their pronunciation, using the letter Bet (pronounced either “b” or “v,” in both red and black below) and Khet (pronounced with a gutteral “kh” sound that doesn’t exist in English):

Image credit: Marc Baronnet, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, the Hebrew Bible is written entirely without diacritical markings:

A Torah scroll, comprising the five books of Moses. Every Torah scroll in every synagogue in the world is hand-copied and can have no cross-outs or mistakes.
Image credit: Ebay.

This means that the word translated in all caps as LORD could be pronounced in many different ways in English, from “Yeehoo” to “Yovo” to “Yahvee.” It could even be pronounced, “Yahoo!”

(Thank you, Google Docs, for suggesting that word instead of all the nonsense pronunciations above.)

Deep superstitions around saying the names of gods have persisted for millennia; any Dungeons & Dragons aficionado knows that learning the name of a being gives a magic-user control over that being. In the absence of traditions on how to pronounce God’s biblical name, known in scholarly circles as the Tetragrammaton (“four letters” in Greek), the Church engaged in centuries of debate about it. But for Jews, the prohibition against saying the divine name was consistent until modern times. When I went to Hebrew school in the 1970s, I never even saw all four letters. The name of God was abbreviated to two yuds, with weird diacritical markings underneath to discourage even trying to say them out loud, and I was told to pronounce this two-letter word “Adonai,” which is a five-letter word meaning “My Lord” and only has one yud at the end. Of course, if my fifth-grade Hebrew teacher ever heard me calling this practice a “superstition,” he probably would have kicked me out of the classroom. He would say that this was a sign of how Jews must tremble before God, and wouldn’t even spell out the last word of that phrase in English, replacing the “o” with a hyphen. But I am firmly convinced that superstition is what it was, and what it remains.

In the pronunciation (as opposed to spelling) discussion, 15th century European biblical scholars decided that the correct pronunciation of the divine name must involve using the vowel sounds in the word Adonai, “oh” and “ah,” and transposing them into the Tetragrammaton. Then Martin Luther, the 16th century German inventor of Protestantism, translated a complete Hebrew/New Testament bible into German using the letter J at the beginning of the name (German pronounces that letter with our “y” sound). Soon after, when the King James Bible translation was printed in England, the Tetragrammaton was translated as “Jehovah” with the initial letter pronounced like the last sound in “fudge.”

The Tetragrammaton in a stained-glass window from St. Anne’s Church in Manchester, England. Using these diacritical markings, the name of God would be pronounced “Y’voh.” Image credit: Pvasiliadis, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

In our own more irreverent time, many scholars refer to the Hebrew name of God as “Yahweh,” but this is another false substitution. Even if the vowel sounds aren’t from the word Adonai but rather are “ah” and “eh,” the W is still a bad transliteration since there is no Hebrew letter with the sound of English “w.” In my novel, I transliterate this particular name of God as “Yaveh.”

So the divine name has gone through many changes and translations and misunderstandings over thousands of years, and it is ultimately not only unknown, but probably unknowable. The same could be said for humanity. Or for the word of God.

Lamb chops in the Bible. I needed to come up with a bride price for a minor character this past week, so I wrote “fifteen ewes and two rams.” It seemed obvious to me that the boy sheep would be more valuable than the girl sheep, since fewer males are needed to grow the flock, but then I thought about what would have been done with all the guys who were born. Were they slaughtered?

Little did I know that male lambs apparently aren’t as tasty as females (I rarely eat any meat other than occasional chicken or fish, and almost never lamb). But if you kill them young enough, before they reach sexual maturity, you can hardly tell the difference. So the bride price could easily be ten ewes, two “entire” rams (which is what they’re called when they haven’t been neutered while still immature), and another eight babies to provide meat for the wedding feast.

Yuck. I know, I’m imposing my 21st century values, amid our abundant industrial food supply system, on subsistence tribes trying to survive more than three thousand years ago. But yuck.

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

3 thoughts on “The Name(s) of God”

  1. Thank you, Bonnie, for your interesting and educational article….
    I want to forward it to some friends.
    Hope this finds you well…
    Shabbat shalom,

  2. Pingback: Hooks and bridges

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