When people called God by name

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Some years back, in 1995, Joan Osborne sang:

If God had a name what would it be?
And would you call it to his face?

One of Us: written by Eric Bazilian, sung by Joan Osborne on the album Relish

At some point in their history, not only did the Jewish people believe, as they still do, that God has a special, holy and personal name, but they did indeed, it seems use it to his “face” – that is, they addressed him by that name.

In Saturday’s post on the book of Exodus, I said I would add an extra post about God’s name. The scriptures use various names for God. Near the beginning of the Exodus story, however, is the encounter Moses has with God at the burning bush. (Exodus 3:1-15) There God identifies himself with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He is the same God that their ancestors worshipped, and is known through the stories people tell about them.

Sébastien Bourdon – The Burning Bush – via Wikimedia Commons

More significantly he also introduces himself to Moses by another name, represented in the text as YHWH (earlier versions of the Hebrew letters were translated into English as JHVH). Although the text is very clear that this is a new revelation,1 the writers and collectors of the stories in Genesis used it alongside other names, right from the beginning of the bible. It is yet another reminder of the messiness of the editing process.

Most scholars think this was originally pronounced Yahweh, which is what is printed in the various editions of the Jerusalem Bible and in many academic writings. This is simply a best guess – and I’m sure a very good one indeed. The original pronunciation, however, got lost, as the Jewish people at some point stopped pronouncing it out of reverence for the one whose name it was. Instead, as the Greek translation (third century BC) shows, they came to replace it with the word for “Lord.” Most English bibles still follow this tradition, printing it Lord in capital letters, to signify where it translates this name.

In 2008, the Vatican issued a directive upholding this tradition, saying that the Tetragrammaton – the technical term for the letters YHWH, meaning four-lettered – was not to be used in public worship.2 Jewish tradition has become even stricter over time. Most commonly Jews when reaching this name in the text will use the word HaShem – The Name – and Orthodox Jews have often extended this prohibition to not even writing the word God. They prefer instead to write it as G-d.

As this four-letter name shows most clearly, texts that were written in Hebrew only had consonants. There were no vowel signs, but a tradition of reciting or reading that told people how to pronounce the marks on the page. (Written texts were primarily an aid to reading: it was the text read aloud which provided most people’s access to scripture – a point I seem to be repeating frequently in this series.)

Much, much later, this reading tradition was joined to the written text by a series of dots and dashes written mainly under the consonants. When they came to the consonants YHWH, they signalled how it was to be said by adding the dots and dashes that represented the vowels in the word “Lord”. William Tyndale, the first translator of the Bible into English, started a new tradition when he combined the consonants JHVH (another way of representing the Hebrew letters YHWH) with the vowels from the Hebrew word for Lord, and ended up with the name Jehovah – a name no-one had ever used or heard of before the sixteenth century.

The reticence about pronouncing the name is both a reminder of the impossibility of naming God, in the sense of grasping God’s essence, and at the same time of the graciousness of God in offering a name to humanity. Its meaning, usually translated as “I am who I am”, hints at this ungraspability of God, even while revealing Godself to Moses. There is much that can be known of God through the stories of God’s dealing with the ancestors, but there is always something unknowable in the encounter. The same paradox continues to lie at the heart of Christian and Jewish tradition.


  1. See Exodus 6:3 “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name ‘The Lord’ I did not make myself known to them.”
  2. Letter from the Congregation of Divine Worship, 29 June 2008 (PDF)

2 thoughts on “When people called God by name

  1. Pingback: Leviticus: lawyer’s paradise – Liturgica

  2. Pingback: Faith when the world makes no sense – the book of Job – Liturgica

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