I am frequently asked what the “real” name of God is and how it is pronounced. I’m not sure why most people care (though I learned why at least some anti-Semites care). If you’re one of those, I don’t recommend reading further, as no amount of Hebrew morphology (and other facts) will matter to you. You need to cure the hate first; then you can come back. For everyone else, read on.
The God of Israel goes by a variety of names in the Hebrew Bible. Most are “el” derivatives (El-Shaddai; El-Olam; El-Roi, etc.). At other times Israel’s God is referred to with Hebrew ha-shem (“the Name”; e.g., Isa 30:27 [cp. vv. 29, 30). Questions about the “true” name of Israel’s God, however, have the special covenant name in view – the name revealed to Moses at the burning bush event preparatory to the deliverance of Israel from Egypt. Consequently, that’s my focus here. I’ll try to keep the discussion from becoming too technical. For those who want a more technical explanation, see the link in the footnote.1
We read in Exod 3:12, 14, in response to Moses’ question to God about his name, that God responds אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה (‘ehyeh ‘asher ‘ehyeh = usually rendered, “I am who/that I am” or “I will be who/what I will be”). However, over 6800 times the name of God is written YHWH (יהוה) — conventionally vocalized as yahweh, not אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה (‘ehyeh). This naturally gives rise to two questions: (1) Why the difference in spelling? and (2) How is the name pronounced? I’ll address both of these questions in tandem since they are related
The difference in spellings is a matter of Hebrew morphology – word formation. God is the speaker in Exod 3:14 and is speaking of himself. As a result, what God says in answer is in the first person.2 God’s answer (‘ehyeh ‘asher ‘ehyeh) employs the “to be” verb in biblical Hebrew two times. That verb is Hebrew hyh. The middle consonant (y) was frequently interchanged in ancient Semitic languages with the consonant “w” in “to be” formations. The Semitic root hwy (“to be, become”) and Aramaic hwh (“to be, become”) are also considered part of the explanation. I bring this up because it is necessary to account for the “w” in yhwh (as opposed to yhyh) in the divine name form.
So, to this point, what do we have?
1. God, speaking in the first person, gives his name as ‘ehyeh, the grammatical first person form of hyh/hwh.
2. The first person form thus has four consonants: ‘-h-y-h (the first consonant is one we don’t have in English; it is the letter aleph which is a stop in the back of the throat and not pronounced).
Moving on ….
The above name is based on a verbal root (hyh/hwh), and therefore has a parsing. In Hebrew grammar/morphology this would be: Qal stem, first person, singular, imperfect conjugation, from hyh/hwh.
The *expected* third person form of the same stem and conjugation would be yihyeh (or, yihweh). It’s translation would be “he is” or “he will be.”
So why do scholars say that the first vowel in the divine name is an “a” vowel – yahweh instead of yihyeh (or yihweh)?
The “a” vowel in the first syllable is quite secure. We know this because an abbreviated form of the divine name (“Yah” – always vocalized with “a”) appears in the Hebrew Bible nearly 50 times, mostly in Psalms (e.g., Exod 15:2; Exod 17:16 – note, this is the same book as the longer form; Isa 12:2; Isa 26:4 – along with the longer form; Psa 68:5; Psa 68:19). The most familiar form to readers is no doubt the phrase halelû-Yah (“praise Yah!”; e.g., Psa 146:10; Psa 147: 1).
The real controversial part of all this for scholars comes with the second syllable (scholars lead exciting lives). Here’s what must be accounted for:
1. The form itself must be the imperfect conjugation, since the “y” of the first syllable is prefixed to the verb root (hyh/hwh).
2. The first syllable must have an a-class vowel (“yah”) to account for the abbreviated form of the name noted above.
3. The second syllable must be an i-class vowel because of the verb root (lemma). The ancient Semitic root hwy also requires an i-class vowel in the second syllable.
There is only one morphological verb formation (parsing) that makes sense of these elements: Hiphil stem, third person, singular, imperfect conjugation, from hyh/hwh. This form is vocalized yahyeh / yahweh and would mean “he who causes to be” (the Hiphil is a causative stem in Hebrew). This is controversial because the verb hyh/hwh does not appear in the Hiphil causative stem elsewhere. Hence scholars are uneasy about taking the divine name this way. Personally, the logic here doesn’t feel compelling to me. I;m not sure why it’s necessary to have a verb form appear elsewhere for it to be considered coherent where it does / might occur. I understand the desire for another example, but it is not a logical necessity if it makes sense. And in the context of Israel’s God in effect creating a nation out of the slave population of Israel, it makes good theological / conceptual sense. But I’m in the minority here, probably because of the (in my view, overly cautious and logically unnecessary) desire for an external example of this lemma in this stem.
There are other, much more technical, reasons why a Hiphil cannot be deemed certain. For example, one concerns its meaning: “he causes to be.” Scholars expect some sort of direct object (what is caused to be) and so some suspect that yahweh is actually part of a fuller divine title. The obvious biblical example here is yahweh tseba’ot (translated, “Yahweh/Lord of hosts/armies”) which would mean “he who creates the (heavenly) hosts/armies”). I like this suggestion, as it would be a theological claim to the supremacy of Yahweh above all other divine entities as their creator, but this approach is still only speculative.
So, to sum up, the above is why most scholars feel fine with yahweh as a conventional vocalization of the Tetragrammaton, even though they aren’t sure or comfortable as to how to explain its etymology.
I at times also get the bizarre question about whether “Jesus” (Greek: Ιησους) is really the name “Zeus” (or somehow related). Short answer: no – just because some sounds in a word in a language are used in another word in that language doesn’t mean the meanings of both words overlap (!) – like I said, bizarre. For a longer answer, you can check out Dr. Mike Brown’s essay on the question.
- Click here for a 17-page PDF file of the relevant pages discussing the divine name YHWH and Exo 3:14 from three sources: Jenni and Westermann, Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament; the entry on “Yahweh” from Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (DDD); and the entry on “Yahweh (deity)” from the Anchor Bible Dictionary. Note that this file discuss the fact that Yehovah / Jehovah is a mis-vocalization of the divine name, a mistake created either in the Middle Ages or later in 1518 under Pope Leo X. I recommend all three of these resources to readers. ↩
- God does, via the biblical writer, speak of himself in the third person as well. For example, note the change from first person to third person in Amos 4:11. ↩