J is for “Jahwe”

This is an entry in the “Acrostic Contemplations.

Jahwe is how it is spelled in German. In English we usually render it Yahweh. In Hebrew it originally only had the consonants יהוה, YHWH. It is one rendering of the Name that God provides Moses with when asked, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”

Periodically a notion that the Name is “breath” circulates through the public consciousness (today known as “the internet”). The most cited example seems to come from Rob Bell and his series “NOOMA.” In that short video he says that, “the ancient rabbis believed that these letters were … essentially kind of breathing sounds and that ultimately the name is simply unpronounceable because the letters together are essentially the sound of breathing. Yod. Heh. Vav. Heh.” No.

No, the rabbis did not believe that the letters were “kind of breathing sounds” and that the name was “unpronounceable.” Yes, they did believe that one should not pronounce the name YWHW, but that was due to the holiness of God’s name, not because it was impossible to pronounce.

House of YHWH Temple Ostraca, c. 900 BCE.
House of YHWH Temple Ostraca, c. 900 BCE

We know that the tradition of not uttering the Name (the reason it is referred to as the “ineffable” Name, not the “unpronounceable”) goes back to at least the second century BCE when the Hebrew (and Aramaic) text was being rendered into Greek, the version of the Bible that would come down to us in the Septuagint (LXX). The Greek used to represent the Hebrew יהוה YHWH is Κύριος, kurios or “lord.” By the time we have Hebrew manuscripts with vowels, we find that the Name is represented with the vowels for אֲדֹנָי ‘adonai, or “lord.” So in those manscripts it appears as יְהוָה. This is how we end up with (the incorrect) “Jehovah” because German scholars simply transcribed the text with the vowels for ‘adonai and why in most English Bibles the Name is represented with LORD in either all caps or small caps.

Bell next asks, breathlessly, “Is the name God the sound of breathing?” No, it is not. The Name of God is, in fact, the verb of existence, “to be.” That is why YHWH could (and should in representing Exod. 3:15) be translated as “HE IS.” It is the third person masculine singular conjugation of the verb HYH, “to be.” So when God first responds to Moses’ question he says, “’I AM WHO I AM.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I AM has sent me to you.”‘” God is the speaker and so he says his name is “I AM.” The perspective shifts in the next verse to Moses as the ultimate speaker and so God finally says, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD [HE IS], the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’”

God’s name is not breath and it is not Bob. Think about it. Most gods names reflect some sort of trait or element. Shamash, for example, was the Mesopotamian sun god and his name actually means “sun.” (This is why, in Genesis 1, the sun and the moon are the “greater” and “lesser” lights, to emphasize their creation by God and avoid using names associated with other deities.) But the God the Israelites, the God of their ancestors, that God’s name is the very essence of existence.

God IS. To borrow a phrase from John’s Gospel (1:3) “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” God, our God, is not the sun or the moon, the fish or the grain, fertility or death. God is. And God always has been. God is.

God Is. And we and all creation are sustained by him. We exist because He Is.

This is not to suggest some pantheistic notion that “God is in everything,” that we all “contain God,” or any other such notions. Rather to say God Is is to affirm that all things have come into being through God and without God there is nothing. God Is. Full stop. In fact, just as the opening to John’s Gospel makes these statements about Jesus, Jesus himself declares that He Is God. In eight instances in the Gospel of John, Jesus says clearly, “I am,” ἐγὼ εἰμί. This is the Greek rendering of that passage in Exodus where God tells Moses his name, I AM. In John 8:58, for example, when challenged how he could possibly know Abraham, Jesus replied, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” Jesus Is. Just as God Is. He Is.

Breathe deep the breath of God. Breathe and reflect upon the Name that is Being and Existence and consider that, because God Is, we are.

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