THE NAME OF GOD: WHY THE FUSS?

JEHOVAH – Who is he?

Jehovah is the name of God that appears mainly in older versions of the Protestant Bible.  The name was adopted by William Tyndale who studied Hebrew in Germany and was the first person to translate the Bible into English during the 16th Century.  Many scholars believe that the usage of the particular word began in Latin language during the 11th Century.   They took the symbol for God “JHVH” or YHWH, and fitted the vowels from the Hebrew word “adonai” (A, O, and Ai) into it.  “Adonai” is a Hebrew word and means “my lord.”   It created a Latin word Iehouah. This way of applying the vowels from a Hebrew word into another word in another language was probably a mistake.  Nevertheless many ancient English translators of the Bible adopted Jehovah  as God’s name: among them were those who produced the King James Version of the Bible first published in the 17th Century.  More recent English Bible translations, however, do not use it any more.  They prefer to use the word “Yahweh” in its place.   Many Evangelical Protestant denominations and others like the Jehovah’s Witness and the Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints – the Mormons, continue to use Jehovah.

Jewish people incidentally do not use that name.  They, in stead of  pronouncing God’s name, substitute another word and say “adonai” every time they come across the symbol “YHWH.”  The generic word for God in Hebrew is “Elohim.”  Jesus called God “Elli” in his native tongue of Aramaic, and Muslims call him “Allah”, both from the same Hebrew root “El.”  When the Bible uses Elohim, the English versions translated it into “God,” while the symbol YHWH appears, it is  translated into “Lord God” or “Lord.”  However, the United Church of Canada still uses Jehovah but only once; namely in the Voices United hymn book No. 651: “Guide me O Thou great Jehovah.”  This is because the hymn is much loved by so many people in the original form; no-one dares to change it.

You may ask, “Why so much fuss about God’s name?”  Here you must ask “Why should God need a name, if there is only one God?”  It is like mother’s name among siblings.  If they have one mother, why should they bother to call her by name?  “Mom” is enough.  A baby doesn’t know mother’s name but knows who she is.  Likewise: Isn’t calling God just “God” enough?

True: we believe in one God and don’t need to know the name.  When there is only one God, isn’t a name as such redundant?  You must understand, however, that it was necessary to refer to their God by name because ancient people were surrounded by many gods. They fought for their god’s supremacy over other gods.  They had to fight off the likes of Jupiter, Zeus, Venus, etc.  Furthermore, during the days of Roman Empire, every emperor claimed to be a god, and forced people to worship him, hence tax was meant to be an offering to a god.  This was why the Jews and the Christians who lived under the Roman occupation had problems about tax because it was an offering to a god the emperor. (Matthew 22: 15 – 22)

All in all, God’s name was a dilemma for the Jews.  In fact, when Moses heard the voice of God in the burning bush and asked what the name of God who was speaking to him was, God answered, “I am who I am.”  What God meant was this: “You can not describe me by any name or in any human language.  It’s just me as you hear me, see me, and experience life with me.” (Exodus 3:14)  It’s like calling the one and only loved one “my love” without a name.  Who needs to call her name because she is the only one?  Nevertheless, the name of God does appear in the Bible.  I guess it is a compromise to avoid confusion.  The compromise was: “Yes, God of Israel needs to be identified distinct from other fake gods, so here is God’s name if you have to know. But don’t vocalize it.”  Thus the third article of the Ten Commandment Exodus 20:7 came to prohibit calling God’s name: “You shall not call my name in vain.”  This is how holy names have become bad words in the Western culture, because we were told not to call the holy name.

This is the origin of swear words.  Many of them come from religious language in Christian culture.  In other cultures, however, bad words come from other aspects of life.  The Japanese, for example, use names of animals to swear or insult others.

 

The word that appears in the Bible for the name of God is written as YHWH in Hebrew script.  You must realize that Hebrew language, even in Israel today, does not have scripts for vowels.  Written Hebrew is all consonants.  Also another the fact you must recognize is some characters are pronounced differently in different countries.  For example, Y and W sound different in some countries.  “Y” can be “I” in Greece and Ireland, and can also be “J” in Spanish.  So John becomes Ian in Ireland.  “W” is pronounced like “V” in Germany and other northern European countries.  Even vowels can sound different.

“A” in my name “Tad” can easily be “eh or ai” in the Southern United States.  Likewise, my daughter’s mother-in-law is a Russian Yiddish speaking Jew and calls me “Ted” like they do in Southern States.

So, this is how Yahweh became Jehovah.  There is another good reason for this mistake.  After the Jews were freed from their captivity in Babylon in 450 B.C., a stricter observance of the laws of Moses was imposed.  For example, because they were not allowed to mention God’s name according to the Ten Commandments, the Jews began to say “adonai,” in stead of the proper name.  After nearly a millennium of substituting the name of god with “adonai” in place of  YHWH, the Jews completely forgotten the vowels for it.  Thus they lost the memory of its pronunciation.  By the time Protestant Christians began to translate the Bible from Latin and Hebrew into English or German nearly two thousand years later, translators tried hard to guess how YHWH was and should be pronounced.  They decided to take, mistakenly, three vowels from the word adonai, namely A, O, and A, and fitted them between Y(or J), H, W(orV), and H.  This was how the hybrid word “Jehovah” came into being.  A sacred legend was born.  Many people still believe that that was not a mistake and continue to call God “Jehovah.”  I don’t mind that so long as they know whom they are referring to.

More recently, most of the Biblical scholars, after many years of research, have adopted “Yahweh” as the much more likely pronunciation of YHWH.  However, I don’t take this debate too seriously because our God is the God of Jesus Christ and I believe who he was, and his name is LOVE.  I don’t need to know the correct pronunciation of the name of the only one I dearly love.  In Japan, for example, people can not pronounce my wife’s name “Muriel.”  There is neither “L” nor  “R” in Japanese language.  It doesn’t matter.  My family love her dearly anyway no matter how mistakenly they pronounce her name.  Their hearts are in the right place. 

 

Long live Jehovah, long live Yahweh!  God’s name is love!

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