Pronouncing The Divine Name

With Tim Harmon

God has revealed His divine name in Scripture – so shouldn’t we call Him by it? This is a question that many Christians have wrestled with, though conclusions on the matter tend to differ. Before telling you my conclusion, let’s explore the issue a bit further.

What is the Divine Name?

Referred to as the Tetragrammaton (literally, “four letters”), the divine name involves four Hebrew consonants, transliterated as YHWH. According to one count, the name is used a whopping 6,828 times in the Hebrew Bible. The divine name is derived from the Hebrew verb meaning ‘to be.’  As such, when the people of Israel used this term, they were essentially affirming that their God was ‘He who exists,’ over and against idols who were merely the work of human hands, with no real existence beyond their physical representation.

How was the Divine Name Pronounced in Ancient Israel?

Scholars tend to agree that ‘Yahweh’ is a reasonable representation of how the divine name was originally pronounced by the Ancient Israelites.

The often-used pronunciation ‘Jehovah’ stems from a misunderstanding. It came about like this. The original text of the Old Testament had no vowels – only consonants. This may seem awkward, but y cn ndrstnd ths, rght? The original Hebrew reader would have known just what vowels to supply – like you do with English.

Later on, Jewish scribes added vowels to preserve what they perceived to be the correct reading of the text – though these vowels are not considered part of the inspired text. When they came across the divine name, YHWH, they would add the vowels of the word ‘my Lord’ (adonai) to remind the reader not to pronounce the name, but to say adonai instead.

If YHWH was preceded or followed by the actual word adonai, then the vowels for the word ‘God’ (elohim) were used instead. In this case, the reader was supposed to say adonai elohim.

In neither case was it the intent for the reader to pronounce the consonants YHWH with the vowels of adonai or elohim, but rather a reminder not to pronounce YHWH at all! Many years later, it was through people mistakenly reading YHWH with the vowels for adonai that the pronunciation ‘Jehovah’ came about.

Today, it is common for Jews, when referring to the Tetragrammaton, to simply say hashem meaning ‘the name.’

Why Don’t Jews Pronounce the Divine Name?

Religious Jews no longer pronounce the Tetragrammaton. There are two main reasons why.

The first reason stems from a desire to be reverent, and avoid taking God’s name in vain. If no one says the divine name, then they can’t take it in vain. Problem solved. Further, to avoid misusing the name in writing, some Jews will not even write the word ‘God’ in their correspondence, but will write ‘G-d’ instead. Others will substitute different letters for the Tetragrammaton, or will separate the letters with hyphens (Y-H-W-H).

The second reason is because they believe usage of the divine name to be one of the signs of Messiah. When Messiah comes, he will pronounce the unspeakable name of God. Interestingly, it so happens that a Messianic pretender used this fact to try and underscore his false claim. In 1663, Nathan of Gaza, a Jew living in the land of Israel, and a student of Kabbalah (the mystical books and practices of Judaism), became convinced that a man with the name Shabbetai Tzvi was the actual messiah. In 1665, Shabbetai Tzvi revealed his messiahship to the world, by proclaiming the Tetragrammaton – a practice forbidden by all except for the Jewish high priest in the Temple in Jerusalem on the Day of Atonement. However, after Shabbetai Tzvi later converted to Islam, hopes in the authenticity of his messiahship were dashed.

Why I don’t pronounce the Divine Name

I do not think it is a sin, or even wrong to pronounce the divine name, as long as it is used in a reverent manner. However, I still do not pronounce it for two reasons:

1. Having studied under Jewish teachers (or teachers who themselves had Jewish teachers) I am used to saying adonai instead of ‘Yahweh.’

2. This second reason, for me, is the stronger one. I once attended a conference that was trying to bridge the gap between Jews and Evangelical Christians. One of the speakers, a well-known Evangelical scholar, went on eloquently about his topic, all the while pronouncing the divine name as ‘Yahweh.’ As he did, I noticed that some of the Jewish scholars present were so appalled that they were physically shaking. So then, for the sake of not offending our Jewish friends (we Christians seem to have been experts at that in the past) I have chosen not to pronounce the divine name. As I see it, there is no reason to erect an unnecessary wall between us.

About Jan Verbruggen

Dr. Jan Verbruggen is a Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature at Western Seminary. He originally came from Belgium, where he taught for 6 years at the Evangelische Theologische Faculteit, Heverlee and ministered as a pastor for 3 years. He has published a number of articles in Dutch at various magazines and journals in the Netherlands and Belgium. Jan Verbruggen serves as an elder at Hinson Memorial Baptist Church, Portland Oregon. His most recent publication is "Deuteronomium" (commentary on Deuteronomy in Dutch), Groen, Heerenveen, 2008.