The Four-Letter Word

For many people, there seems to be no hesitation in spelling out and regularly using the Tetragrammaton. I’m not one of those. Perhaps it’s because the people that taught me Hebrew (Biblical, post-Biblical, and Modern Israeli) were Jewish that I’m entirely uncomfortable with pronouncing the currently favored scholarly reconstruction of this name. When reading the Hebrew Bible we always vocalized what the Masoretic Text was pointed to indicate, אדני or אלהים as the case may be. Anyhow, I just thought I’d explain, if anyone in fact had even noticed that I avoid this, or may, in a pinch resort to Y” in place of simply LORD or Lord or God, though I think I’ve only rarely used even that.

There are other reasons, too. Socially, I’m not on first name terms with God. Nor am I so with my father or my mother or any number of others whom I love and/or respect. That does it for me. The rest is icing on the cake.

Religiously, I find using that pronunciation suspect. It’s not part of any religious tradition carried down through the millennia. The Judaic tradition abandoned its pronunciation long ago. The Christian tradition never used it, though it was a curiosity, apparently. Had the syncretistic Hermetic magical tradition survived late antiquity, there might be a living connection there to a garbled version of it, but it was garbled and that tradition died out anyway. It’s a new thing in that sense, and its usage is no more necessary or required or necessarily correct than the use of the simplistically concocted “Jehovah.” The “Sacred Names” people can be all over it, with their syrupy CDs and ghastly Tshirts and coffee mugs and whatnot, in fonts with appropriatly Hebrewish-looking English letters (Lord. Have. Mercy!) but that doesn’t make it authentic. To me it just seems really, really wrong to be bandying about this name as though it’s some kind of proof or trophy badge of your authenticity when it’s not an authentic part of any tradition at all. It’s a scholarly reconstruction, utterly devoid of any traditional religious value.

I have some basic scholarly reservations, too, though they’re not so viscreally felt as my reaction to a tacky Tshirt sporting the supposed only name of God. It would be one matter if the pronunciation were preserved there in the Masoretic Text, but it’s not. Therefore, it’s another matter: that of taking the word of patristic Christian writers (who didn’t know Hebrew!) on Hebrew pronunciation. Aside from Origen and Jerome, apparently none of them, including Clement of Alexandria, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, and Epiphanius of Salamis, our star witnesses to the ancient pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton, knew Hebrew. Certainly the scribes doing the transmitting of the Greek texts of these fathers didn’t know Hebrew, and we can’t be certain that, textually speaking, these readings which we think are accurate indicators of ancient Hebrew are really such. So that’s the “traditional” pronunciation in a nutshell, based on writings from 100-200 years after the name had ceased to be pronounced by anyone, anywhere (with the date for its last pronunciation being the last celebrated Day of Atonement in the Jerusalem Temple in 66? AD). Yet with that in hand, it’s possible to back this up with data from the Masoretic Text, particularly other words ending with יה-, and some other hints, as described in HALOT. But that could also be a wild goose chase. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, but it’s certainly possible. It’s a personal name, after all, not an actual verb or noun. How certain were scholars with “Jehovah”? It was also the unquestioned darling of the ink-stained for a time. One must avoid the apparently dogmatic representation of the currently favored pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton among scholars as being either probative or truly authentic, which is exactly the warning scholars worth their salt would give, if asked. It’s certainly the best guess we can make based on the evidence we have, and thus should be treated in that manner, but not as though it’s an established fact.


  1. Kevin,

    I think you have some really good points here however I do disagree. I use YHWH in teaching Old Testament/Hebrew Bible at the college level simply because when I want to compare Yahweh with say Baal the students need to know God’s name. Many of my students are ignorant that Yahweh is the name of the God of Israel – they simply think that he went by the name Lord. When I disabuse them of this knowledge they are shocked. Now I am not comfortable with going around and speaking “Yahweh this and Yahweh that.” I do think that this would be blasphemous at best. When I do pray in my closet or when I am by myself I do call on the name of Yahweh because I do feel that I know him personally. In any case, these are just a few thoughts! Very good post by the way.

  2. Thanks, Joe. That’s an excellent point. Not being involved in teaching (thankfully!), I would have no idea what kids do or don’t think these days. They would certainly need to know that! I suppose I was a better-read undergrad than some. I think that if I had to, I would discuss the pronunciation issues, but I certainly wouldn’t be able to use it in even such a setting as the educational comfortably, however odd and irreconcilable that is!

    There are some internal, personal usages, all those YHWH+Attribute names, for instance, that I think on: He Is My Banner, and so on. In my church tradition also, the Eastern Orthodox Pantokrator icons of Christ usually include in the nimbus about His head “Ο ΩΝ”, a fine, multivalent translation of YHWH found in LXX Exodus, and which made its way wholesale into Tradition. So, in a sense, in the meaning of the name, I have no problem, but I think it’s the education with a strong Jewish input which led me to a great respect for not abusing it to the extent of not using it in most situations. For instance, when Tyler, I think it was, posted the pictures of tatoos, and one of them was the Tetragrammaton, I was scandalized! Go figure.

  3. Back in the late 1960s, I found the use of “Yahweh” in the “Jerusalem Bible” to be interesting, if problematic from my Jewish perspective; by the time the “New Jerusalem Bible” appeared in 1985, I was a little less happy about the revision’s continuing embrace of a less-than-certain vocalization, and more more concerned about the apparent obliviousness to whether it might be found offensive (even if I didn’t really care).

    However, I know people who never picked up on why other translations have LORD (instead of “Lord”) representing the Divine Name, and some who are astonished to hear that many Biblical personal names (and Hallelu-Yah) incorporate a short version of it. So I can see some justification for the practice on a pedagogical level.

    Everett Fox’s decision to use YHWH in his translation resolves some of the problems; but, not surprisingly I have encountered complaints that it “looks weird.”

    Awareness of the issue is refreshing. Arthur Darby Nock was a fine scholar, but apparently failed to recognize the standard Jewish Prayerbook abbreviated YY form (an example of Nomina Sacra!), and mechanically transliterated it, in a discussion of the early history of the Eucharist, as “Jeja” — “Blessed be Thou, Jeja Our God, King of Eternity” (“Early Gentile Christianity and its Hellenistic Background,” page 79, note 2.) He also seems to have missed that post-Biblical “olam” is usually “world.” (In fact, since he quotes from a work by H. Lietzmann, Nock may have missed these points because he hadn’t consulted a Hebrew text of the blessings at all!)

  4. Amen.

    I have always found the insistence by the sacred namers on the “correct” utterance of the Tetragrammaton inane at best and satanic at worst.

    So, if I’m deaf, dumb, have an accent or a lisp, I cannot communicate with or about my creator?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *