Having the discussed the principal Hebrew words signifying “God”—°E~l and °E_lœhîm—in the previous two articles of this series, today I will examine the name which came to be used as the exclusive name of God in ancient Israel, that represented by the tetragrammaton (the ‘four letters’), hwhy, and usually rendered in English transliteration by block letters (YHWH). Numerous difficulties are related to this most important name, and need to be discussed in some detail.
The name hwhy (YHWH) occurs more than 6000 times in the Old Testament, as well as in extrabiblical inscriptions from the Kingdom period. A shortened form hy (YH) appears just under 50 times, primarily in poetry (all but 6 occurrences are in the Psalms); however, it is also incorporated frequently as a hypocoristic element in personal names (cf. below). According to Israelite and Jewish tradition, this name was revered and treated as sacred to the point that it was deemed inappropriate to pronounce out loud in all but the most special of circumstances. As a result, the tradition developed of using the word °¦dœn¹y (yn`d)a&, “My Lord”) in its place. The Masorete copyists of the Scriptures indicated this substitution by applying the vowels of °¦dœn¹y (¦ œ ¹) to the letters hwhy, yielding hw`hy+. The familiar English transliteration “Jehovah” is based on a misunderstanding of this scribal practice.
It is generally recognized that hwhy/YHWH is essentially a verbal form, derived from the verb of being—the old Semitic root hwy, represented in Hebrew by the parallel verbs hwh/hyh (hwh/hyh), “be, come to be”. There is some question, however, whether the form hwhy should be regarded as derived from the basic (ground) stem, or as a causative (Hiphil) form. In my view the latter is more likely, though there continues to be debate among scholars. For a good discussion of the subject, cf. Cross, pp. 63-66 and in TDOT, Vol. V pp. 500-21. As a causative (imperfect) form, it would mean essentially “he causes to be”, i.e. he calls/brings (something) into being, gives life, creates, etc. The principal passage in the Old Testament which offers any sort of explanation as to the meaning of the name among early Israelites (in the time of Moses) is Exodus 3:13ff, which has the famous formula (uttered by God himself) in v. 14—hyha rva hyha, vocalized by the Masorete scribes to mean something like “I am what I am”, or “I will be what I will be”. However, the same consonants can be vocalized as a causative—i.e., “I call into being what I call into being”—in which case the expression would be pronounced °ahyê °ašer °ahyê. According to one line of interpretation, in Exod 3:13ff, God is identifying himself with a formula that would have been known and in use by the Semitic-speakers in that region (South Palestine, Sinai), which, translating back into the older language of the period, may have been something like yahw£ ¼¥ yahw£: “he creates [i.e. brings into being] that which he creates”, etc. In other words, God may be saying to Moses, “I am that one who creates all things”, who my people worship as Creator. For more detail, cf. Cross, pp. 68-69.
It would seem that the original form of the name was Yaµw£ or Yahw£, and, subsequently in Hebrew, Yahwê. Most scholars and informed Christians today render this simply as Yahweh, and I will so refer to the tetragrammation (hwhy) in the remainder of this article. As I noted in the previous article (on °E~l), the Scriptural evidence strongly suggests that the Patriarchs and ancestors of Israel, along with the earliest Israelites, worshiped the (one) Creator God by the name °E~l (la@, “Mighty [One]”, i.e. “God”). The notice in Gen 4:26, as well as the use of Yahweh elsewhere in Genesis, likely reflects a later period when the text as we have it was written—either in the time of Moses or thereafter. The name Yahweh eventually came to be in widespread use all throughout Palestine by at least the early Kingdom period, with Yahweh and °E~l being regarded as equivalent names for the same Creator Deity. This is expressed at various points in the Old Testament, most notably in the formula of Exod 3:15, etc—
“Yahweh, God of your Fathers…has sent me to you”
where the more common word °E_lœhîm (cf. the previous article) is used instead of °E~l. As an independent Divine name, Yawheh is attested in extrabiblical texts and inscriptions, such as the 9th-century Moabite (Mesha) stone, and the 7th-6th century letters from Lachish and Arad. It would seem that the earliest recorded use of the name preserved to us comes from Egyptian lists of place names from Southern Palestine in the 14th and 13th centuries, which happens to correspond generally with the time of Moses and the geographical setting of Exodus 3. Most likely, however, the name was a verbal epithet applied to °E~l, emphasizing his role and power as Creator, and which eventually came to be used as a separate and distinct name. Such a title could have been expressed simply as Yahwê °E~l, “God [°E~l] brings/calls into being”. In fact, such an expression is found among the personal names, incorporating the verbal element yahwê (or yahw£), in the texts from Mari (18th century B.C. and earlier), which are roughly contemporary with the time of the Patriarchs (Cross, p. 62). Israelite tradition preserves at least one similar expression, the famous Yahwê ƒ§»¹°ôt (toab*x= hwhy), meaning something like “He (who) creates the (heavenly) armies” (Cross, pp. 69-70). It no doubt derives from the tradition of God (El/Yahweh) as a warrior and the ritual “holy war” beliefs and practices of the ancient Near East (Josh 5:14, etc). God is seen as leading the “hosts of heaven”—sun and moon, wind and storm, et al, and the powers (or “Angels”) associated with them—on behalf of Israel (cf. Josh 10:12ff; Judg 5:20). The expression appears to have been associated specifically with symbolism of the Ark in the sanctuary (1 Sam 4:4; 2 Sam 6:2).
We should take most seriously the Scriptural tradition that associates the ‘introduction’ of Yahweh as the name of God for Israel with the time spent by Moses in Midian. Most of the earliest evidence for the use of Yahweh as a distinct name points in the direction of Southern Palestine (cf. above). By the time the Israelites had left Egypt and became established throughout Palestine, Yahweh had begun to supplant °E~l as the primary name of God. There appears to have been relatively little conflict between these two names, as they essentially referred to the same God (and idea of God)—the Creator Deity, the (one) true God. With the split of Israel into the Northern and Southern kingdoms, older °E~l traditions (in the North) may have reasserted themselves, against the Judean royal theology that associated Yahweh specifically with Jerusalem. Yet, even here, the same basic idea of God is involved. There are few, if any, instances in the Old Testament where the name °E~l refers to a (Canaanite) deity different from Yahweh.
By the time of the New Testament, the God of Israel would have been understood by the exclusive (Scriptural) name Yahweh. Israelites and Jews would long have been accustomed, when speaking, to use the substitution °A_dœn¹y (“My Lord”)—or its Aramaic equivalent—for that name. Similarly, in Greek, the word Ku/rio$ (Ky¡rios, “Lord”) was commonly used in place of Yahweh, both in speech, and in translation of the Old Testament Scriptures (in the Septuagint [LXX], etc). When the word ku/rio$ is used of God in the New Testament, at least in a Jewish Christian context, we can assume that the name Yahweh is in view. A certain complication was introduced, however, with the regular use of ku/rio$ in referring to Jesus. There is no doubt that this application reflects a belief in Jesus’ divine nature and status in relationship with God the Father (Yahweh), but it also creates a certain ambiguity in a number of passages. When the word ku/rio$ (“Lord”) is used, without any other qualification or explanation, is the reference to God the Father or to Jesus? We find this problem in a couple of places in the Lukan Infancy narrative (1:17, 43, 76), which will be discussed in upcoming notes in this series.
There are also examples of names in the New Testament—including several in the Infancy narratives—which preserve the name Yahweh (the shortened hypocoristic Yah[û]) in their transliteration from Hebrew (or Aramaic) into Greek. The names Zechariah (Z§kary¹h, “Yah[weh] has remembered”) and John (Yôµ¹n¹n, “Yah[weh] has shown favor”) will be discussed in the notes on Luke 1:5-6, 13-20, and 57-66. Most notably, of course, is the name Yeshua or Jesus itself (Y¢šûa±), which will be examined, in detail, in the note on Luke 2:31.
In the references above, “Cross” = F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973 / 1997). “TDOT” = Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, ed. by G. Johannes Botterweck and H. Ringgren, English translation by John T. Willis (Eerdmans: 1974 / 1977).