How to pronounce the name YHWH
But the angel of YHWH said to him, "Why do you ask my name, seeing it is incomprehensible?"—Judges 13:18
The name YHWH is very old and we may assume that the source texts that later added up to the Torah we now have contained it. And it is equally likely that the Book of the Covenant, which Moses read aloud to the Israelites, contained it too (Exodus 24:7). But at some point in time, people began to believe that the name YHWH was so holy, that normal mortals better not pronounce it. In stead, wherever the text called for YHWH, a reader would pronounce the Hebrew word for lord: Adonai. And so, what started out as a wonderfully pious idea made the pronunciation of God's personal name vanish from human consciousness.
Here at Abarim Publications, we prefer to transliterate God's name directly to the unpronounceable "YHWH," and whenever we're called to read it out loud, we say adonai or lord.
The name YHWH in the Bible
As told by Joel M. Hoffman Ph.D. in his delightful and riveting book In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language, the Hebrews were the first to incorporate vowels in their written text, and by doing this the previously esoteric art of writing and reading became available to the masses. The seemingly casual command to 'write' something on doors or foreheads included the invention of a writing system that could be learned by everybody. A very big deal, and resulting in the most powerful tool of data preservation up to this common age.
Hebrew theology is by far the most influential ever, and this is in part due to the Hebrew invention of vowel notation. This power (this theology) contrasted others by use of the vowel notation, using symbols that were already used and until then only represented consonants, namely the letters ו (waw), י (yod) and ה (he). And to give an example: the word דוד is either the word dod, meaning beloved (and the ו is a vowel), or it is the word dud, meaning jar (and the ו is again a vowel), or it is the word dawid, which is the name David (and the ו is a consonant).
These letters became markers for both the Hebrew identity and the Hebrew religion, including the various names for God. One of these names is the famous Tetragrammaton יהוה (YHWH) which actually exists only of vowels, and is utterly exceptional in many ways, including the fact that we don't know how to pronounce it (if it contains of only vowels, it may have sounded like: AAEEIIOOUU!!).
The word אל (El) was the name of the prominent Canaanite god, whose name was either derived of or became the common word for god in general. The plural of this word is אלים; gods. With the addition of the letter ה, creating the word אלהים, the Hebrews not only stated essential monotheism (by naming a single God after the plural word "gods") but also marked their God as theirs: Elohim is the singular pantheon of the vowel-people.
Etymology of the name YHWH
The name YHWH may be an artificial construct of the Hebrew language's available vowels, which would be equivalent to our AEIOU (and even if the name YHWH existed before the Hebrews began to note vowels, they may have chosen for their vowel-symbols the letters that made up the name of their God). But it may also be a proper word, derived of some verb, that coincidentally came out existing of only vowels. If that is so, the etymology of YHWH is utterly unclear, and therefore subject to much debate.
The key scene in this respect seems to be Exodus 3:13-15, where God names Himself first: אהיה אשר אהיה (I AM WHO I AM), then אהיה (I AM), and finally יהוה (YHWH) and states that this is his name forever and a memorial name to all generations.
It has been long supposed that YHWH was derived from the verb that is used to make I AM, namely היה (haya), meaning to be or to become, or rather from an older form and rare synonym of haya, namely הוה, hawa, hence y-hawa or yahweh, the proper imperfect of the verb, thus rendering the name either BEING or HE IS. (But note that the Hebrew language is far more dynamic than our modern languages. The verb to be indicates an action that intimately reveals the nature of the one who is doing the acting. For more on this, see our article To Be Is To Do):
HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament goes even further as it states, "...there is a problem with the pronunciation Yahweh. It is a strange combination of old and late elements.[...] In view of these problems it may be best simply to say that YHWH does not come from the verb hawa at all. [W]e may well hold that YHWH [...] is an old word of unknown origin which sounded something like what the verb hawa sounded in Moses' day. However, if the word were spelled with four letters in Moses' day, we would have expected it to have had more than two syllables, for at that period all the letters were sounded." Meaning: if people in the time of Moses indeed wrote the Name as יהוה, and they would have still pronounced it, it would have sounded like Yahay Wayhay.
In other words, the name YHWH looks like a hybrid of times, as if it can not be localized but spans centuries of evolving grammar. Then it also looks very much as if it was derived of a verb that means to be, but which is spelled differently than the regular verb to be, and similarly to a verb that means something very bad. Perhaps all this confusion, or rather, this wide pallet of negotiations is what this Name most essentially conveys: existence in its broadest sense, yet unlike any regular human perspective; a blessing to the wise, but the undoing of the wicked.
On the other hand, perhaps the name YHWH means Tom, Dick or Harry in a language that has slipped out of the collective human consciousness and we are left with the echo's of a revelation that was as sincere and confidential as the word abba: daddy.
After all this it should be clear that the name YHWH can't be readily interpreted.
If we're dealing with an expression of the verb הוה (hawa II), and we maintain that this verb means to fall, then YHWH would mean Falling, or He Will Fall or He Will Cause To Fall. This line of reasoning may seem to lack any trace of sound theology, but the divine name Shaddai reflects a similar negative, and may mean My Destroyer. The prophet Isaiah writes, "Wail, for the day of YHWH is near. It will come as destruction (shad) from Shaddai" (Isaiah 13:6).
But perhaps we have the verb הוה (hawa II) all figured wrong, and הוה (hawa II) is the same as הוה (hawa I), meaning to be or to happen. Then YHWH would comfortably mean Being or He Is or He Will Cause To Be.
Here at Abarim Publications we are most charmed by this particular explanation. Time and again the Bible urges its readers to focus only on that which is real, on "That Which Is", and steer clear from mumbo-jumbo, superstitions and nonsense. To the modern world Yahwism may seem like just another religion but to the ancients it wasn't. The Jews were known as the people without a god (meaning without an effigy) and it appears that Christians in the Roman empire may have been accused of atheism (again meaning without a visible deity; see Cassius Dio 67.14). Even though the name YHWH is etymologically difficult to explain, to a Hebrew audience it may have looked very much like He Who Causes "That Which Is" To Be. Yahwism, therefore, can be most aptly viewed as a kind of proto-science. Or in other words: a mind which is trained in Yahwism will automatically be good at science, whereas a mind which is trained in paganism will automatically jump too quickly to conclusions and will base these conclusions on emotions rather than observations. Whether science will lead to bliss or to destruction depends wholly on whether man worships his knowing self or the Creator (for more on this, see our article on the familiar word Amen).
BDB Theological Dictionary lists the following interpretations of the name YHWH, proposed by a score of venerated theologians (but note that, even though BDB is still considered "the finest and most comprehensive Hebrew lexicon available," it was published in 1906, and some views have changed in the last century):
BDB states, "Many recent scholars explain יהוה as Hiph. of הוה:
- The one bringing into being;
- Giver of existence, creator;
- He who brings to pass;
- Performer of his promises;
- He who causes to fall (rain or lightning);
"But most take it as Qal of הוה:
- The one who is;
- The absolute and unchangeable one;
- The existing, ever-living;
- The one ever coming into manifestation
- He will be;
- He will approve himself (give evidence of being, assert his being)