(If you don’t feel like reading, you can watch the tutorial video at the bottom of the post.)
What is God’s personal name? The answer to that question is found in the story of Moses at the burning bush (Ex. 3). After receiving his call from God, Moses offers several objections, one of which is that he doesn’t even know God’s name. God responds by stating, “I AM WHO I AM” and then commands Moses to say two things to the people of Israel: “I AM has sent me to you” (Ex. 3:14) and “‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever ” (3:15 ESV).
The names “I AM” and “LORD” are closely connected because they’re used interchangeably. But in Hebrew there’s an even closer connection because both words share certain letters. The name, LORD, however, is God’s personal name as God states in Exodus 3:15, “This is my name forever.” And later in Exodus, God tells Moses, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name, ‘The LORD'” (Ex. 33:19 ESV).
The Tetragrammaton: God’s Four-Letter Personal Name
Many English Bibles use the word “LORD” (capital L followed by small capital letters, sorry I’m not sure how to get the small caps on my blog) as a translation for God’s personal name. In Hebrew, the personal name of God is composed of four letters and those four letters enter English as YHWH. (The academic term for this four-letter name is Tetragrammaton.) We’ve all struggled to pronounce certain names correctly, but how can we possibly pronounce YHWH?
The Ancient Scribes and God’s Name
The challenge of pronouncing the Tetragrammaton is not unique to English speakers. The problem stems from the ancient scribes who hand-copied the Scriptures. Centuries after the Hebrew texts were originally composed, the scribes inserted vowel points into the words to ensure correct pronunciation. But they hit a stop sign. And that stop sign was God’s personal name. Specifically, the stop sign was their tradition of not pronouncing God’s personal name out of respect for it.
So what would you do if your job was to help people pronounce written words correctly but you didn’t want them to pronounce one of the words in your text? Think about it, you can’t erase that word because you respect the text too much. And you can’t ignore the word and hope no one notices because it appears almost 7,000 times in your Scriptures. Your job is to insert vowels so that people can pronounce written words, but you don’t want a certain prominent word in your text to be pronounced because you respect it too much. What would you do?
The ancient scribes had an ingenious solution: insert the vowels of another word used for God—Adonai, meaning “Lord”—into the name YHWH. In that way, the scribes indicated that readers should pronounce Adonai when they came to YHWH.
Translating God’s Name into English
But scribal ingenuity leaves us with a translation dilemma. Here are our options.
- Use the vowels of Adonai and come up with something like Jehovah which was a popular solution in the past. (There’s overlap between certain letters in English and Hebrew such as the letters y and j or w and v.) Instead of LORD God, English versions would read Jehovah God. But by using the vowels from one word with the consonants of another word we would be creating a hybrid word.
- Follow many modern-day scholars who believe Yahweh is the most accurate rendering, so Yahweh God would replace LORD God.
- Use the technically accurate but unpronounceable option: YHWH God.
- Adhere to the tradition found in many English Bible translations and use “the LORD.”
- Use Hashem, the Hebrew way of saying “the Name,” as found in the Orthodox Jewish Bible.
The first two options—Jehovah and Yahweh—share the same weakness: we’re not entirely certain how best to pronounce or translate YHWH. So if we decide to use Jehovah or Yahweh, we should keep in mind that they are, at best, highly educated guesses. The third option, while appearing to be the safest, may also be inaccurate because the Hebrew for YHWH could be transliterated as YHVH or even JHVH. Plus option three is the most impractical. How would we enunciate “YHWH God” during a public reading of Scripture? The fourth option is problematic because it can cause confusion between the title Lord and the name LORD as both are spelled and pronounced the same. If you read one of the Bible versions that use LORD, remember that LORD does not equal Lord. LORD is not a title; LORD is God’s personal name. And the fifth option is not a translation of God’s name, but a reverential way of avoiding it.
If the translation decision was up to you, which option would you choose? It’s okay if you can’t decide because this name has baffled translators for centuries. Here’s the bottom line: The personal name of the infinite God is elusive—we have it and yet we don’t have it. What else would you expect?