When Moses was confronted by Yahweh on the mountainside, he was understandably curious. It’s not every day the Creator of the Universe pays you a visit. But Yahweh was more interested in revealing his Israelite Master Plan than answering a bunch of silly questions.
Moses persisted. “What’s your name? Who are you?” And God replied with a voice like thunder:
“I Am Who I Am — that’s who I am!” (Exodus 3:14).
To the modern ear that sounds a bit like ‘mind your own business’. Not to mention being the catchphrase of Popeye The Sailor Man. But in fact it was a devastating affirmation of God’s existence and majesty. Moses quailed before the Lord and said “okay, fair enough”.
Now things get confusing. The Old Testament was written in ancient Hebrew, which has no vowels whatsoever and precious little punctuation. The phrase ‘I Am Who I Am’ — God’s name as revealed to Moses — is written with four consonants: Y H W H. Hence YHWH = I Am Who I Am.
These four letters are known as the Tetragrammaton and they contain a divine mystery: no-one knows how to pronounce them.
The Hebrew people didn’t dare speak aloud the Name of God. It was a name of such awesome holiness and majesty that no mortal tongue was allowed to utter it. The priests imagined what might happen if they sneezed or burped while saying it and shuddered with dread.
To avoid blasphemy, other words were substituted, such as ‘Adonai’ (Ruler), or ‘Ha Shem’ (The Name). Even today, Bibles depict the Name of God with the euphemism ‘Lord’ instead of his actual moniker. Orthodox Jews even censor their own euphemisms, fearing blasphemy should someone come along later and scribble over a reference to God.
(The invention of computers presented an even trickier problem for Orthodox Jews; if you type the word ‘God’, is it blasphemy to edit it? If a text file contains the word ‘God’, is it blasphemy to delete it? What about spam emails containing the word. Are you stuck with them forever? It isn’t easy being devout.)
The correct pronunciation of Y H W H eventually sank into obscurity through disuse — and now it’s lost forever. There has been much linguistic research and archeological speculation on the subject, but of course ancient Hebrew had no vowels so we’ll never be sure.
Nowadays the name YHWH is written Yahweh, which at least looks nicer. You are free to pronounce it how you wish. If there ever was a Bible Code, try solving it without vowels.
YHWH Facts and Figures
Pronunciation: Coming soon
Alternative names: JHVH, JHWH, YHVH, YHVH, TETRAGRAMMATON, HA-SHEM
Area or people: Old Testament – Jewish
Celebration or Feast Day: Unknown at present
Role: Unknown at present
Good/Evil Rating: Unknown at present
Popularity index: 1049
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Article last revised on May 14, 2019 by Rowan Allen.
Editors: Peter J. Allen, Chas Saunders
References: Coming soon.