Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Tracking God's Name

In the beginning ...

The original generic Semitic word for God is just "El", or more accurately just the letter "L", since the vowels weren't written.  Hebrew made El plural, "gods", by adding a masculine plural ending, "im"giving Elohim.  Other important words:

ADoN = Lord, ADoNay = My Lord.

Baal (two syllables, Ba-al) = Husband.  (Name given to Canaanite gods.)

YHWH = God's proper name in Hebrew.  Actually this should be YHVH, but thanks to the Germans pronouncing W as a V, we are stuck with the transcription of YHWH.

The Canaanites had a God ("L"), whose proper name was also El, which caused a lot of confusion.  The Bible prefers Elohim, which is usually translated as a singular "Lord".  Most likely this apparent plural is just a device to maintain a distinction, but there is plenty of room for confusion.  Scooting over to Arabic, the definite article ("the") is "al", so "the god" became "al La", or Allah.  

YHWH is linguistically related to the Hebrew verb for "to be".  Thus, in Exodus 3:14 God explains His name to Moses:  "God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM". And he said, "Say this to the people of Israel, "I AM has sent me to you."  God's unique, self-existent status is the focus of this name.

Thus, the Hebrew Bible was using YHWH ("I am"?), Elohim ("God") and Adonay ("Lord") for God at different points, interleaved throughout the Old Testament.  When the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible was made, these three names were usually reduced to the Greek word for Lord, "Kurios", or God, "Theos".  (Note:  I have not fully traced all the translations!)

Moving to Latin, the preferred translation seems to have been the Latin word for God, "Deus".  

This overly simplistic and unsophisticated situation was clearly not acceptable as we advanced to the modern era, so a German scholar decided to help deduce a name for God derived from the Hebrew, YHWH.  Keep in mind that Germans pronounce "J" as an English "Y", so YHWH was changed into JHWH.  We also need some vowels, so the vowels from ADoNay (Lord) were chosen and merged with YHWH ("I am") which gave something like JaHoWaH.  This was then transmorgified back into English resulting in the linguistic gem, Jehovah.  The German scholar who did this was probably named Frankenstein, but admittedly I haven't gotten around to verifying his real name.

I do hope that God does not take offense at the way even the well meaning folk manage to abuse His name.

My understanding is that we usually take YHWH to be God the father, although from Deuteronomy 6:4, the orthodox might argue that this is the Trinity, since YHWH is used in that verse:

"Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one."

Lord = YHWH, God = Elohim, thus, the plural is "one".


I should mention the latest attempts to pronounce YHWH (i.e. Jehovah) correctly.  The most common pronunciation in the academic circles is Yahweh, with an accent on the first syllable.  As noted above, this reflects an anglicized pronunciation of a German spelling.  Using the Masoretic vowel markings, the pronunciation for Deuteronomy 6:4 would be more like Yeh-vah, with an accent on the second syllable.  The "e" in the first syllable is short, so that the first syllable is pronounced quickly while the second is held longer.


Delirious said...

We believe that Elohim is the Father, and Jehovah is the Son. But I don't think other Christian churches believe they are two separate beings the way we do. Thank you for this explanation. I know what my religion, but I don't always understand others beliefs.

Looney said...

I added a bit more to the posting to make it more complete. Most Christian theology was developed using the Greek (Eastern Church) or Latin (Western Church) old and new testaments, which don't distinguish between YHWH and other forms. Thus, YHWH doesn't figure into any of the traditional church statements of faith as an independent word, except that the new Testament writers used Lord, Kurios, as a reference interchangeably for YHWH, Elohim and Christ Jesus. The distinction of YHWH from Elohim is vital to Judaism. Even the atheist Jews know that you are not permitted to pronounce YHWH, because the name is to be honored above all. A puzzle for us is why the Apostle Paul, as a trained Pharisee, did not bring these distinctions out.

Max Coutinho said...

Hi Looney,

יוהו is God's unutterable name, so in Hebrew we do not even try to pronounce it, thus saying "Hashem" (The Name) or "Adonai" (our Lord, keeping in mind the Plurality of God's Unity).

I realised you didn't include "El Shaddai" (God who says "Dai/Enough"!), it is one God's most beautiful name.

Your explanation of YHWH was absolutely beautiful. All I can say is: אמן!

Of course, I do not agree that YHWH is Jesus; and most Christian denominations wouldn't agree either. YHWH is God, Jesus' Father. But I would like to understand the foundations to that theory.


Looney said...

Hello Max,

Thanks for the explanations on Hashem and El Shaddai. Wonderful names.

My professor referred to YHWH as the "tetragrammaton". He also conditioned me to say "Adonai" everytime I encounterd YHWH, which got a bit tricky when we came across "Adonai YHWH" in the text.

Max Coutinho said...


You are most welcome. They are gorgeous names indeed.

Yes, the "Tetragrammaton" (which can also be found in several mystical works [Jewish or not]). lol Whenever you come across "Adonai YHWH" in a text you say "Adonai Elohim" - that way you should be safe :).

Have a blessed week ahead.