Theology and Christian Faith
Language and Culture
In the back of the King James Bible glossary (red letter edition of course), under the letter "Y" it shows the name of the Lord as Yahweh. It goes on to state that the Jews basically said that the true name of the father was too holy to mention and that the names Lord and God were substituted.*
The name form Yahweh you have found is a proposed phonetic form in the Latin alphabet to represent the four Hebrew consonants of a Hebrew word used in the Hebrew scriptures. The equivalent in our letters is thought to be YHWH.
This appears to be used like a personal name. This is the only such word I am aware of in the Hebrew scriptures that would be close to what we consider a name.* Note that in the Hebrew Bible there is no command or order on what word or name to use. Various words are used and different local names are used and attributed to Yahweh.
The common words used across all the Semitic languages are used in the biblical texts. The concept of God is different among the various ancient cultures who used the same general term El. Just like the modern English generic word God, which has means all kinds of different things to various different people. Biblical writers also used this common term for the God called Yahweh. The word is used in the singular and the plural (Elohim) for the same reference.
Though this is the closest to a "name" we have for the Creator God in the Bible, this is not a "name" in western terms. It is simply a normal word, like the common English equivalanet word "god." And scholars are still not really sure what it meant or how to interpret it. (Though some ideas sound more definitive and better reasoned than others.)
The name YHWH, usually with vowels understood as Yahweh, appears to be a form of the common verb "to be." The verb phrase written YHWH in our transliterated Hebrew consonants is often translated as "I will be what I will be." Or it seems to me it means something like "I am the One."
Though it is related to the verb "to be," the eastern and biblical concept is dynamic, though, not like the abstract and static Greek-German philosophical concept of "Being" in western philosophy. In relational cultures like the Bible reflects (and like most cultures of the world, except the western world), "Being" is related to action and relationship – in eastern cultures, and definitely in the biblical context. What is the core theme of the Hebrew scriptures? Covenant.
Relationship is in focus, faithful commitment to this mutual relationship, faithfulness to the terms of the relationship. This is why in the Old Testament the common metaphor of the relationship between God and Israel or Judah is marriage and sexual faithfulness.
There is no abstract question about the right terms or names or language or even ritual. The prophets are very clear about that. It is relational. Jesus is square in this prophetic stream when he refocuses everything about the Kingdom of God on the heart, the intention, the commitment. This is the dynamic core of the Covenant.
I suggest a quick read through Genesis to get this dynamic feel of the ancient stories in these Scriptures. No analysis, just movement and flow. That is the way stories work. This will recover some of their dynamic, real-life power. Theories are not in focus, not even what Moderns call "facts" – relationships and identities are.
Genesis is an exciting, even thrilling, book of covenants. Note there also that Yahweh is making covenants with many individuals (and the peoples that came from them or that they represent in history), not just Abraham.
Now about speaking the holy name. The actual writings appear to have been written to be read exactly as they were written (read aloud for that communal, oral culture). I have lived in such story cultures. There is no analysis, no abstraction, no discussion, no application.
The Torah is powerful story format, a life drama. In dynamic oral story cultures, the story is the meaning, the story itself is the application.
The tradition of avoiding speaking this name was very late in Hebrew history, and it is unclear to me when the practice actually began. The practice of substituting another word for the name YHWH was in place in the early European Middle Ages, when vowels were added to the Hebrew text by scholars.
Hebrew was like all other Semitic languages, and some languages of other families in the ancient times. No vowels were written, only consonants. By the time of Jesus, few people spoke Hebrew.
Hebrew was a technical and religious language, but still familiar to the people. It seems the scrolls were read in Hebrew, but then they were summarized and discussed in Aramaic or Greek, depending on the mother tongue or common language of the area.
Words for God, references to God – they were all what were appropriate in the language and culture of each people. That is the pattern used by Bible translators today.
The Hebrew and Aramaic writings of the Jewish Scriptures were first translated into Greek in Alexandria in about 250-150 BC. This translation became the Scriptures (scrolls) of most of the Jews of the Greco-Roman world, living across the Empire.
These Greek scrolls apparently were used also in Syria-Palestine, where Greek was the primary language. But in the home areas of Judea and Galilee and surrounding areas, Aramaic was still the common spoken tongue.
Greek had been established there ever since the Greeks took over the Persian Empire before Alexander the Great died in 323 BC. Aramaic, the native language of many nations, and the Judeans (Jews) after the Babylonian Exile, continued to be used right alongside the Greek of the other nations in the area.
As the Christian era progressed, even the formal knowledge of Hebrew was being lost, and Jewish leaders tried to preserve the language for later generations who would not know it. The scholars developed a way of adding vowel indications to the Hebrew script. Wikipedia comments:
"Several diacritical systems were developed in the Early Middle Ages. The most widespread system, and the only one still used to a significant degree today, was created by the Masoretes of Tiberias in the second half of the first millennium in the Land of Israel [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hebrew_diacritics]."
The Masoretes did not want to disturb the form and format of the all-consonant text, so they used dots and small lines over and under the consonants. This is called "pointing."
A problem comes up with the name Yahweh where it occurred in the ancient Scriptures. The vowels they used were not those of the word "Yahweh." They used the vowels for the word "Adonai," a general word for "Master." This is similar in meaning to the old use of the English word "lord."
When they would come to this YHWH in the text, they would instead pronounce the word Adonai. So the vowels for Adonai were put on the letters YHWH. This later caused some confusion in the first translation into a western European language, when the German scholars did not understand this and could not figure out the name.
They transliterated it with the same consonants and vowels they read there. They read the consonants YHWH with the vowels for Adonai as one word. So in Martin Luther's translation of the Bible he had a new combined word.
In Latin letters this combined and erroneous word or name came out as Jehovah. This was taken over in the early English translations, and perpetuated an erroneous form of word or name that had never before been pronounced.
This is a funny example of the basic problem of human language and our invented writing systems and the common problems that affect the simplest questions of translation. This was corrected soon,but many people developed an emotional commitment to that artificial term Jehovah that had arisen only because of ignorance about that word and its usage in the written text.
My primary reference point is the scriptures themselves, what they say, and the context and purpose of the writings to the time each of them was written. It is important for us to know tradition and how certain ideas and practices arose, but all that for me must be put in perspective by the scriptures, the ancient writings we now have in the collection called the Bible (which means "the Books").
I just want to be sure of the actual sources for various ideas, perspectives and beliefs. It is too easy to impose modern ideas from our culture, experience and expectations upon the ancient writings, that are not appropriate to that culture or era in history.
No "True Name"
I am intrigued by the phrase "true name" that you use to focus your enquiry. The term "true name" or "real name" does not appear in the scriptures, as far as I recall, so that does not appear to be a biblical concern. There are no instructions on what to call God.
I suggest you look up some references on the term "God" in the Old Testament and see what Hebrew words are used there. Let's get beyond the translation problems and probe the original context if we can.
An interesting thing about the Hebrew scriptures is that they used ordinary, normal terms for God, and only one stream of reference uses the term Yahweh. The term Yahweh is used right alongside other terms used by all the Semitic peoples for God.
One thing to keep in mind is that we have only human language and the terms in various human languages. Humility is called for here as we seek deeper spiritual insights. The answer is not in our wisdom and knowledge. We don't want to be pretentious or presumptuous.
We need a healthy humility here about what we can know and how well we can know it. The capacity of human knowledge is not the measure of the universe!
We do not have access to God's view and what to call him never seems to be a concern in the scriptures. The prophets were very concerned with attitude and intention, just as Jesus emphasizes.
There is much we don't know about the context and even the meaning of some of the terms and references in the ancient writings. One thing that is clear is that these writings had to make sense to the people of that time and are written in their language and cultural terms.
Otherwise no communication could have occurred and they would not have been preserved for us. The primary meaning for us arises out of the meaning they had for the people for whom they were written and preserved originally.
Writing was precious and rare until recent times. These sacred stories made sense to the people of the time and arose out of their real life. It is not academic, but dynamic, dealing with real life.
El - the Common Word
In the Bible the main term used to refer to the Creator God, or often called "One True God" traditionally, is the general Semitic word El, which means "god" in general. In Canaanite mythology, the common Semitic name El for the High God was symbolized by a bull. This symbolism appears in the two bull idols created in the northern territories after the split with Judah, one in Dan and one in Samaria.
The bull god is central in the Sinai story where Aaron molded the image. Note also, in reference to the historical establishment of the two idols in the north, in the Sinai story, Aaron says: "Israel, here are the gods (plural) that brought you out of Egypt!"
Yet this name or word El is the common term used for the Creator God with whom Israel entered into a covenant! So these writers and the Divine Motivation behind them did not seem concerned about a particular term or word.
After El, the next most common word is Elohim, which is just a plural feminine form of the same name. The plural seems to be used commonly in Semitic languages to make emphasis. So a general view is that the plural is a literary means of placing emphasis or importance on God here.
God - the Common Word
Didn't you ever wonder why in English, there is no special word for God? Note that in English and other Germanic languages we used the common word for any god or divinity for the Creator God. We just used a capitalized form of it. Does God require or prefer the capital G? That sounds funny, doesn't it!? The language is for us, the words are for us, the words and our arbitrary spelling systems are for our usage.
God is beyond that, but our understanding arises from within our cultural context. But through it we rise in faith to a level beyond our words and language.
In Bible translations, the common word for God is the normal word for God in that language. This is the common format of translation and usage around the world.
I noticed you expressed this at the end of his email message. You note that you feel a strong urge to use the correct form of name yet you realize that "no one actually says or knows how to pronounce it. I have to try rather using the substitutes given for man to use."
Good insight! All we have to use is human language. The only terms we have and know are in human language. Jesus seems to point us beyond mere words to the vision of faith in the relationship involved.
The Heart - Not the Tongue
The prophets spoke of a covenant written on the heart. The rabbis even before Jesus had clearly known that the idea and intention of the Torah (Instruction) was not the specific commandments and how literally we followed the prescription, but that we loved God with our whole being and loved our neighbor like ourselves. This is a basic life commitment. This is how Jesus describes the Kingdom of God.
Jesus sums up the Torah in these two commands. He also follows earlier rabbis in stating a single summary of the fulfillment of the Torah covenant: Treat others they way you would like to be treated (The "Golden Rule").
The core of the Covenant was by definition relational, not legal. The insight you stated is a good guiding focus, I think. I'd put it this way: God is God, you and I are not.
I feel that the Father in Heaven is telling me not to pray to and use these false Baalim/Baal titles - Hosea 2 Verses 16-17
In the passage you referenced, Hosea 2:16-17, I did not find this passage talking about false gods, at least not directly. This passage is not talking about names you may call God. It is not talking about names, but about relationships and commitments. The way the Hebrew is translated varies with different translations, for there is an important play on words here.
Let's look at the passage, based on the Holman Christian Standard Bible, but with my modification to represent the Hebrew terminology:
v 16 "In that day – Yahweh's declaration: You will call me 'My Husband,' and no longer will call me 'My master'."
This verse sets the context. Note that the HCSB uses the term "Lord" to represent the Hebrew YHWH. Also they transliterate the Hebrew term for "master," the common Hebrew word "baal." This everyday Hebrew word "baal" was the word for a "master" or "boss." It was used of a superior in the Hebrew military service.
Love not Fear
So the perspective here is that Yahweh does not want to be just a master like the gods of the Nations, imposing rules and requiring service of various kinds, like the pagan Gods. God does not want to be a military master to his legions. Yahweh wants a personal relationship.
Yahweh is not a selfish God who intimidates his people. Yahweh does not arbitrarily exercise his power over them, issuing orders for rituals and observances, or giving arbitrary commands like the pagan gods, to be obeyed just to placate the god. Yahweh wants a personal relationship.
In Hosea 2:16-17 I see that Hosea is quoting Yahweh as saying that the relationship he wants is that the people not relate to him as a master (Hebrew word baal) but as a husband. Here is the metaphor of marriage again. The most intimate and close relationship and commitment possible. This was how Yahweh wanted to relate to his people, not just as a master over his servants. Yahweh wants a personal relationship.
The power of the passage hits like a hammer in the next verse, where the play on words comes into focus:
v 17 "For I will remove the names of the lords from her mouth."
The Hebrew word I have translated as "lords" here is the plural of the same Hebrew word, baalim" The play on words is that the Canaanites used the word baal as the name for the son of El who had rebelled and taken over from his father the High God or Sky God of the Semitic peoples. They just called him Lord.
Remember even the Hebrews (whose language was a dialect of Canaanite speech) used this same word or name El for the High God, the creator God, the Covenant God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob.
Also note that these languages did not have capital and lower case letters. They did not capitalize "baal" like some English translations do. That is totally a written English mechanism chosen by the translators as they attempt to interpret this Hebrew play on words.
The prophet is declaring here that Yahweh says His people will no longer pray to the false gods of the Nations but wil lpray to him, worship him, be true to him. It does not have anything to do with the words they use.
Yahweh is not Like the Lords
So the prophet is stating Yahweh's perspective here that Yahweh is not like the other gods, the one(s) they call "lord" (baal/baalim). God does not want a relationship of fear and intimidation like the "Lord" (the Baal) of the Canaanites, which requires killing children, and other things, just to get his blessing or keep him from doing something capricious in retaliation against his people.
They will not address the True and Living God, Yahweh, like a pitiful "master" like the Canaanites envisioned him. They will enter in to a safe and loving, protective relationship in which they can trust in Yahweh, and feel safe to give themselves fully to his loving care.
So Yahweh says to turn from the lords that you cannot trust, the lords that do not have your best interest in mind, turn to me and be mine forever in a loving marriage relationship of faithful commitment.
This powerful marriage metaphor is used throughout the Hebrew scriptures to represent the Yahweh covenant intentions. This seems to be what Hosea is presenting.
This is not about phonetics, not about ascribed names or words or titles. This is about a sacred relationship unlike that of any other people and their divinity.
The Common Name
In translations of the Bible, the name used for the Creator, covenant God is the common name of God in the language of that culture. Bible Translators may wrestle for months with implications and meanings in the worldview to determine how best to translate the term for God in the new language.
The overwhelming pattern is to use the common term for the universal creator God. The learning about God and the attitude of faith develops out of the faith relationship that develops in response to the message of love and hope in the Good News. Who God is to us is an internal attitude, not an external observance or deed.
One other thing.
What's in a Name?
I suggest you look through the scriptures (maybe do a search on BibleGateway.com) for the term "name." Note how the term "name" is used in regard to God. Phrases like "my name" and "your name." The latter occurs especially in the Psalms, which is instructive to us in the meaning of this usage. Note that no specific "name" is in focus. It is not the term or the phonetic sounds in a particular language, but the concept of "name."
The term "name" is used in the scriptures as a metaphor for or reference to identity, character, reputation, and also power. Like we use in the phrase "I value my name," "Our name stands behind it." We use it to mean reputation.
This is how the term is used in the Old Testament. God's name - identity, power, reputation - is to be known, proclaimed, preserved, honored. Yahweh is to be spoken of honorably, respectfully, because he is an honorable, faithful, trustworthy God.
Note how much the Psalms focus on what God has done. He is a God of action, of relationships. The covenant is not about information, or rituals, either verbal or otherwise. It is about relationships. Yahweh is a God of Covenant relationships.
The metaphor of adoption is used in the Old Testament and by the Apostle Paul as a symbol for our relationship with God. The adopting father gives us his name, extends his identity to us, takes us into his power and protection. This is how the term "name" is used throughout the Bible.
The Problem is not Phonetics
God's "name" is this moral character of Yahweh, this trustworthiness, protection, acceptance, forgiveness, reputation, etc. Yahweh calls us by his name. He gives us his identity. A common way of saying this in popular religion is "I am a child of the King!"
When the Gospel writer says [John 5:43] that the son came in the father's name, this is the reference point. No actual name is mentioned or referenced, or suggested, is it?
No, the point is that this son is sent with the identity of the Father, with the authority of the Father, to represent the Father. This representation model is used as a theme through the whole Fourth Gospel to declare who Jesus was and what his authority was. The Son came in the Father's name.
God doesn't care what human sounds you use to call out to Him, to praise Him, or to proclaim your relationship with Him to others. These are just the limitations and foibles of human speech.
This is not a phonetic problem. This is a faith-covenant relationship problem.
*Note that the two terms you mention as substitutes, "the names Lord and God" are not names. They are just normal words. The term "Lord" can be a Title. Like "Lord Mountbatten" or "My Lord" to a Duke. "God" is just a normal English word and "Lord" is a title, indicating a relationship or status.
The Holy Name
The Linguistic Names of God
Names of God and Words for God: Thoughts on Beliefs and Usages
Related on the Internet:
Adonai -- Hebrew Names of God
Jesus or Yeshua
First written in an email exchange 17 May 2012
Topic developed for this article 19 May 2012
Posted on Thoughts and Resources 20 May 2012
Last revised 31 October 2012
Last edited 28 January 2015
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2012 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Please give credit and link back. Other rights reserved.