Sacred or profane? What’s in a divine name?
An Orthodox rabbi said to a pastor visiting Israel, “God speaks Hebrew.”
“Isn’t He able to understand any language?” asked the pastor.
“Yes,” the rabbi replied. “He can understand any language, but Hebrew is His native tongue. Therefore, the Jew prays only in Hebrew.”
I can understand a religious Jew making such a comment. In the last few years, more Christians have begun to wonder if God really hears them if they do not address Him in Hebrew. For example, the website israelitenation.org claims that a large number of words used today in different English Bible translations have their origin in pagan worship, and therefore they must be replaced with Hebrew words. Words such as Lord, atonement, Jesus and God must be stricken from the lexicon of English-speaking Christians according to this website because of their “profanity.”
There’s a common denominator with all extreme views regarding the name of God. It is the concept of “The Sacred Name.” The gist of the argument is this: The name of God is YAHWEH.”
Many take this one step farther: You cannot be saved if you do not use this name, they claim.
One group known by the name Qodesh la Yahweh, headed by R. Clover, published a four-volume study called The Sacred Name in 1989. The major thrust of this publication was to convince Christians that God must be called YAHWEH and nothing else. Your very salvation depends upon it.
How do we answer such claims?
What is His Name?
If you have ever had a discussion with a Jehovah’s Witness, the first question you are likely to hear is this: “Do you know that God’s name is Jehovah?” The followers of the Sacred Name theory would argue back, “No, His name should be pronounced YAHVEH.” They often go even further and assert that athe name of “Jesus” is incorrect and should be pronounced YAHOSHUA.
The answer to all these questions, of course, must come from the Bible. For starters, the issue of God’s name occurs for the first time in Exodus 3—the story of Moses’ encounter with God, who appeared to him from the burning bush. Both Jehovah’s Witnesses and the followers of the Sacred Name theory often refer to Exodus 3:15 as their most important proof text.
We need, however, to start two verses earlier, in verse 13, to understand what is going on. Verse 13 states:
Moses said to God, “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?”
God starts answering Moses in verse 14, not in verse 15:
God said to Moses, ‘Elyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.’
The Lord continued:
Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Elyeh sent me to you.’ (Exodus 3:14, JPS)
This Jewish translation is chosen in order to demonstrate how the traditional English rendering of this phrase—”I am that I am”—appears transliterated from the original Hebrew. In verse 14, God first calls Himself ‘Ehyeh’ not YAHWEH. This important point significantly undermines the main argument of the Sacred Name, which asserts that God has a proper sacred name, YAHWEH. In Exodus 3:14, God first calls Himself Ehyeh.
What does this mysterious word mean?
First, Ehyeh is not a proper name. It is a verb—an imperfect form of the verb ‘to be’ (Hebrew root HYH). Biblical Hebrew verbs don’t have tenses, at least not tenses as we understand them in English. Rather a Hebrew verb has what is called a perfect or imperfect aspect. The imperfect aspect denotes and unfinished action.
In other words, the Hebrew verb to be (HYH) in its imperfect shows a state of being that is not complete—one that has no end. For this reason, the Hebrew ‘Ehyeh’ has much wider connotations than can be expressed in the English ‘I AM.’
John the Revelator used the Greek equivalent to Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh in Revelation 1:8. The phrase is translated into English as “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’ says the Lord God, ‘who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty'” (Revelation 1:8, NRSV). This more closely reflects the meaning of Ehyeh.
The JPS translates Exodus 3:15 as follows:
And God said further to Moses, “Thus shall you speak to the Israelites: The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you: This shall be My name forever, This My appellation for all Eternity.
Here the well-known four letters appear: YHWH ‘LWHY ‘BWTYKM, translated, “Yahweh, God of their fathers.” YHWH appears to be an acronym for the longer name used in verse 14, Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, which is correctly translated when it gives the idea of the One who was, is and will be.
Hebrew grammarians understand that the words YHWH and HYH have the same root, HYH (to be). In Hebrew, the written letters Yud and Waw look very similar and can be grammatically interchangeable. The prefix Alef (spelled with an “E” in Ehyeh) is used to identify the first person. The prefix Y (yud) is used to identify the third person. The divine name YHWH is derived from the Hebrew verb to be in the third person imperfect, often written as YHYH. This is definitely not the same as the first person imperfect of to be, Ehyeh.
In these two verses, it appears that both names are used. Is one more correct to use? It would appear not.
In another blog, we will look at whether it is important to pronounce the name.