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Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).

Monday, 16 July 2012

Maybe we should refer to God as "Jehovah"

I have always been somewhat amused when Jehovah's Witnesses refer to God as Jehovah. As any student of biblical studies will tell you, "Jehovah" was never a name that was used to refer to God — it is not, in spite of what JWs think, God's name.

The name of God is the tetragramaton — YHWH. This was the sacred name revealed to Moses. As time went on Jews expressed their reverence for the name by never speaking it. Various techniques were developed to avoid uttering the name and one of those techniques was that when the name YHWH appeared in the Hebrew Bible the words "Lord" (Adonai) would be said instead. Early written Hebrew employed no vowels but when later Jews developed a system of vowels (written above and below the consonants) the name YHWH was written with the vowels of Adonai inserted into it so as to remind the reader not to speak the divine name but to substitute the word "Adonai". Thus what was written in the texts was YeHoWaH (or JeHoVaH in older style transliteration). But this name was never spoken as a name. God's name is not Jehovah; it is YHWH. (As an aside, in English it is not clear how the vowels of Adonai can be e o and a, but it works in Hebrew. Trust me.)

In recent times enlightened Christians often speak what they imagine the divine name to be (we cannot be 100% sure of the correct consonants, though the first part is almost certainly "Yah"). I have often done the same . . .

. . . yet I have also felt that something significant has been lost of the Jewish reverence for the hallowed name in this common deployment of it.

Recently I read R. Kendall Soulen's book The Divine Name(s) and the Holy Trinity. One of the really good features of that book was his bringing the name YHWH right to the centre of trinitarian theology. But he shows beyond all doubt something that I had not adequately noticed before — Jesus and the NT authors, like all good Jews, avoided speaking the divine name. They employed a range of ways of avoiding doing so and they employed them very regularly.

So if Jesus and the apostles refused to speak the holy name should we Christians feel so unambiguous about it?

Interestingly, almost all English Bible translations do avoid writing YHWH (with vowels). Instead they translate YHWH as "LORD" (and Adonai as "Lord"). This is something that I have always criticized but now I can finally appreciate the wisdom of it.

However, the problem is that one cannot hear or even see much of a difference between LORD and Lord. At least with the Hebrew text one can clearly see the difference between YHWH and Adonai.

So perhaps there is some real merit with making use of the name Jehovah (or Yehovah). One can both see and hear that this alludes to the name of God and is not simply a title like "Lord". Yet, it is also NOT the name. And it is precisely because it is not the name but an indirect gesture at it than one may speak it.

So, after years of looking down my nose at Jehovah's Witnesses in their insistence that God's name is Jehovah I have come to see that while this is not so (the name is not Jehovah) there may be much merit in speaking the name YHWH as Yehovah.

7 comments:

Dianna said...

Since you say that God's name is not Jehovah but YHWH then you DO believe that He has a personal name. That's good. Differentiating between Him & other gods is a BIG thing. The Jews superstition of not pronouncing that personal name has caused this deliberation. Creating Yaweh out of YHWH was fine but in English it has turned out JEHOVAH, which is more widely known & accepted by both He Himself & people in general. It seems that somewhere around the beginning of the 2nd century substitutes crowded out the Tetragram in both Testaments.
We know Jesus used the divine name because he often quoted from the Hebrew Scriptures & the Hebrews (Jews) always used the name. It set them apart from the gods of the nations which is 1 of the main reason JW's use it today.
Also a good point is: If you wanted to be close to someone wouldn't you want to know & use their personal name?

Robin Parry said...

Dianna

Indeed I do. And you are right that the divine name was de-centered in Christian thinking. A great loss.

As I explained in the post, Jehovah is not the divine name itself (it is the consonants of the name combined with the vowels of the title "Lord"). However, it is, if you like, a shadow of the divine name that reflects something of its shape. It is an echo of the name. As such it seems to strike the ideal balance of using the name (which, as you say, is important) and yet of not speaking the name (out of reverence for its sanctity).

This has never struck me before and it seems to me to be a good way forward.

Tom Nicholson said...

Dianna,

I think you are a closet JW ??

At least you say:

"...around the beginning of the 2nd century substitutes crowded out the Tetragram in both Testaments."

This would seem to mean that you believe the original NT autographs used YHVH or a Greek transliteration of it. Right?

I wonder if the recently identified "earliest scrap of Mark's Gospel" (to be published next year) has such a YHVH -- wouldn't that be something?!

James Goetz said...

As they say in Philadelphia, yo Jehovah.

Jason Pratt said...

Robin,

In recent years I've rather liked the theory that the Divine Name of Self-Existence (YHWH, "I AM THAT I AM") features neither vowels nor consonants (although it had to be written some way so the closest applicable soft consonants were used), so cannot be pronounced by any creature--but can only be breathed!

God would "say" it slightly but crucially different than a creature would: exhale, inhale. Whereas the closest we can approximate it is inhale, exhale.

JRP

Robin Parry said...

Jason

I was unaware of that. It is rather nice.

What always perplexed about the refusal to say the name me is that clearly Moses (etc.) were supposed to actually say it. He was supposed to tell the Israelites that YHWH had sent him. That is kind of tricky if you cannot say the one vital piece of information in the sentence.

Who committed the crime?

I know! It was ... (drum roll) ... ****

... eh?

But Jesus himself followed the practise and that is good enough for me!

Jason Pratt said...

Another nifty thing about the theory is that it explains how Moses and others could "say" the name of God without "saying" it; and then how it could be lost over time by reverent care not to say the Name.

(The theory does require that no one noticed, or if so bothered to tell anyone else, that the Name was "said" by breathing. But maybe that was just as well--trying to avoid saying such a Name would lead to big problems! {g})


Another nifty thing: the "declaration" of God (as Moses puts it, with St. Paul picking up on this and applying it to Christ later in Romans) is near to everyone, in their hearts and in their mouths (a concept Paul also parallels with respected Stoic poets at the Mars Hill forum in Acts.) Whether we believe in YHWH or not, all of us spend every minute of every day (a few special case situations excepted) saying His name in order to live.

JRP