YHWH

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.

Related:

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.

 

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

14 Responses to “YHWH”

  1. [...] The Naked Bible Biblical theology, stripped bare of denominational confessions and theological systems HomeABOUTAnthropologyBooksDivine CouncilElectionEschatologyHeaderInspirationPODCASTRomans 5:12VersionsVideosYHWH [...]

  2. Ahayahbahashamyashiya says:

    Why did you not post my comment?

    Answer: my blog is not the place for you to post a thousand words in a comment. If I was afraid of anyone pushing this BS I wouldn’t have posted anything on my blog. If you want your spew to go out on the web, get your own blog or website (or post it on Henry Makow’s site). You won’t be using mine to do it.

    And that of course goes for anyone else who thinks my blog is a forum for this tripe.

    Clear?

  3. KSS says:

    What is the word that is used in the Aramaic language for YHWH? I was shown the following and wondered if you knew of this and if this is true?

    “Mar Ephraem (4th century) instead of defining MarYah, said it’s an acronym which stands for:
    Meem: Marutha (“Adonship”)Resh: Rabbutha (“Mightyness/Grandeur, Splendour, Splendor, Greatness”)Yodh-Aleph: Ethya (“Self-Existence’)”

    I have also read that MYRA is the word used for YHWH and is only used for YHWH and is not an emphatic form for ‘lord’ even though a lexicon says it is.

    • MSH says:

      it’s often abbreviated, so there’s often no word. I don’t see it as an issue. We use “lord” in VERBAL English to denote the high God and other persons of lesser status. It’s only in print that publishers have adopted conventions like all caps or first-letter capitalization.

  4. Mario says:

    Mr. Heiser, what about the topic of popular etymology in the Hebrew Bible? For example Gen 19.38? Whats the relation of this kind of etymology to history? could you do a blogpost on that?

  5. Ricky says:

    Dear Mr Heiser
    I’m studying the difference between God of the OT VS. NT, what changed? Or actually why did it change. Is it the same God. And there seems to be a huge connect to Saturn to one of these. Since I have opt. Out of Americanized religion im on my own, teaching myself and kids. There’s so much crap out there I dont know what to believe. Looks like the God of all Gods is letting another god control earh and he gave us a choice to make, which God will we serve. Hate to say it but it looks like a game. I was born in a charade and was brainwash by puppets of some god. Is our destiny on this earth to lead people to Christ? What church should I tell people to go to, they all our evolved in pagan worship Christmas, Easter, etc. Thanks for your time, Ricky Jacksonville, Fl

    • MSH says:

      I’m not directing this AT you, but your email is a living illustration of the confusion you describe. There’s a hodgepodge of ideas reflected in it. I’m not sure where to even begin (which problem). There are about a half dozen subjects/problems in here.

      Anyone who says God changed across the testaments has a poor grasp of the sweep of biblical theology — how the motifs, vocabulary, concepts are threaded across and between each testament. But I realize an answer like “get a grasp of biblical theology” is useless. But I also can’t think of a single doctrinal idea that doesn’t occur in and connect through each testament.

      Again, I don’t really even know where to begin.

  6. Ricky says:

    Well lets begin with jacob a biblical icon having two wives, and these laws in exodus which is similar to Sharia law, compared to matt. 5: 38-48. Keep in mind I just really started to study the bible a year ago. And this saturn thing, im trying to find the orgin of this freaking eye, cubes, x,etc. I see everywhere. Why would God make it to where you have to be a hebrew scholar to really understand this stuff, he knew we would we would be speaking English. How can all of us get into the heads of people who wrote these books thousands of years later. Im working 50 hrs a week aint got time to do what you did. I just want to get it right before I teach my kids.

  7. Ricky says:

    Im trying to figure out who YHWH is by studing his comands and the people who was following him. To me thats more important than how many different names he had or breaking it down to what the name means. It is different than how Jesus told us to live our lives. Just one example, thou shall not kill, then he says if your child is defiant he should be stoned. Or when Joshua told YHWH’s people in 24:19 that God will not pardon your sin . Oh well your obvious not interested in none of my issues so there’s no use in wasting both of our time, but thanks for your compassionate response, thats why I like studing the word with people who are really trying to live a Christian life.

    • MSH says:

      According to the NT (which quotes the God of Israel a lot, and which quotes the OT a lot), the theocracy was not intended to live on (in fact, it was done away with prior to the OT). Commands associated with a theocratic kingdom are, by definition, set aside by the Bible itself. The only reason there’s even a discussion in the NT is that Jews were being converted. The NT great commission does not ask that we start a new theocracy in the mold of OT Israel (or any other mold). Consequently, concerns like the one you have can be set aside. Don’t revive something (a theocracy) God did away with, even before Jesus.

  8. Gerardo says:

    Hi Dr. Michael Heiser
    I really appreciate your efforts and your content.
    I was gonna ask if there is somewhere I can read some of your peer reviewed publications?
    Thanks

    • MSH says:

      Do you have access to the ATLA database? if not, there are a couple floating around on the web that you could find using Google:

      “Deuteronomy 32:8 and the Sons of God,” Bibliotheca Sacra 158:629 (January-March 2001): 52-74
      “Monotheism, Polytheism, Monolatry, or Henotheism? Toward an Assessment of Divine Plurality in the Hebrew Bible” Bulletin of Biblical Research 18:1 (2008): 1-30
      “Does Divine Plurality in the Hebrew Bible Demonstrate an Evolution from Polytheism to Monotheism in Israelite Religion?” Journal for the Evangelical Study of the Old Testament 1:1 (2012): 1-24

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