On the honesty of using ‘Yahweh’ for the Tetragrammaton

The covenant name of God revealed to Moses at the burning bush, often called the Tetragrammaton because it consists of four consonants in Hebrew transliterated into Latin letters as YHWH, came into common English usage over the last four hundred years in two ways: either Lord or Jehovah [1]. The common use of Lord is, so we are told, to honor the jewish practice of pronouncing the name as Adonai; often, it is printed in lowercase caps to distinguish the word when used in this way from Lord in its ordinary usage. However, when not following the jewish practice, the received pronunciation was universally Jehovah.

Suddenly, over the last generation, most American clerics have switched to pronouncing the divine name as Yahweh. I want to make the case that this is dishonest at several levels. First, few can even give a cogent summary of the reasons why Yahweh is to be preferred to Jehovah even though willing to disrupt the tradition over it.  I am confident of this because even at the august Westminster Seminary, I caught three professors in the Hebrew OT department out of class and asked why we should say Yahweh. Two of them waved me off to “look it up.” The third, the only one to have an earned PhD from Harvard, said that Jehovah was an entirely possible way the tetragrammaton was pronounced; he used Yahweh as a disruptive mechanism, to shake people out of their comfort zone. In other words, the only real linguistic expert on the OT staff granted that the tetragrammaton could very well be transliterated Jehovah; his use of Yahweh for him was political, not linguistic.

In fact, I will argue in a future column that the linguistic arguments are weak. If there is a strong argument for it, most of our new clerics are not aware of it. So that is the first reason for my claim that the new clerics are dishonest: they claim an argument they don’t really own.

Before going into the second reason for claiming that the new practice is dishonest, let us first rehearse the fact that Jehovah is in fact the received usage in English-speaking nations, since young people may not even be aware of this. 

The AV (KJV) usually favors the Lord form. However, they do spell it out a few times.

    • Gen. 22:14, And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovah-Jireh: as it is said to this day, in the mount of the Lord it shall be seen.
    • And I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, by the name of God Almighty, but by my name Jehovah was I not known to them. (Ex. 6:3)
    • Ex. 17:15, And Moses built an altar, and called the name of it Jehovah-Nissi.
    • Judges 6:24, Then Gideon built an altar there unto the Lord, and called it Jehovah-Shalom: unto this day it is yet in Ophrah of the Abiezrites.
    • Ps 83:18 That men may know that thou, whose name alone is Jehovah, art the most high over all the earth.
    • Isa 12:2, Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and not be afraid: for the Lord Jehovah is my strength and my song; he also is become my salvation.
    • Isa 26:4, Trust ye in the Lord for ever: for in the Lord [Jah] Jehovah is everlasting strength

The AV held complete hegemony in the English-speaking world for nearly four centuries, but it should be noted that its predecessors also used Jehovah, namely the 1530 Tyndale (10x), the 1560 Geneva (4x) and the 1568 Bishop’s Bible (twice). 

The first serious attempt to dethrone the AV was the RV (1881-85), which added eight transliterations of Jehovah in addition to those in the AV. The American revision of the RV, the 1901 ARV, used Jehovah at every single place of the tetragrammaton, i.e. 6,823 times.

The Living Bible of 1971 used it ~500 times.

Apart from the unimportant Smith & Goodspeed, and Rotherham, the 1966 Jerusalem Bible appears to be the first to switch over to using Yahweh. That set a precedent that has been followed by a few, but by no means the majority, of the flood of translations that have come out in the generation of the Baby Boomers.

The same can be said about the Scottish psalter.

 Ps. 145:9  The Lord Jehovah unto all
        his goodness doth declare;
     And over all his other works
        his tender mercies are.
Ps. 148:7  Praise ye Jehovah from the earth,
        dragons, and ev’ry deep:

The Trinity hymnbook reigned supreme for about three decades in conservative Presbyterian denominations from its publication in 1965. There, the references to Jehovah are so numerous that it will be left to the reader to look them up. Just a few memory-joggers however:

#6. All ye that fear Jehovah’s name, His glory tell. This is reprinted from the 1912 Psalter, which can serve as another resource, with many examples.
#9. Hallelujah! Praise Jehovah for his mighty acts of fame. (v.2)
#17. Sing forth Jehovah’s praise, ye saints that on him call! (v.5)
#32. The God of Abraham praise… Jehovah! Great I AM!
#53. Hallelujah, praise Jehovah, O my soul, Jehovah praise.
#82. Jehovah is himself thy keeper true (v. 3)
#83. We praise thee, O God, our Redeemer, Creator…to thee great Jehovah glad anthems we raise.
#229. Unto the Lord Jehovah said (from Irish Psalter)
#275. Zion stands by hills surrounded… no changes can attend Jehovah’s love
#305. O God of hosts, Jehovah, how blest (v.3) (from ARP Psalter, 1931)
#501. Guide me, O thou great Jehovah
#587. Stayed upon Jehovah, hearts are fully blessed (chorus)

The unspoken premise for overthrowing this centuries-long usage is apparently 

P1: “whenever the original pronunciation of a name is known, we should strive to pronounce it that way.” 

The process of language formation makes it so that once a child’s linguistic root is established, it becomes hard, not only to pronounce, but even to hear phonemes that are not part of the linguistic repertoire of his mother tongue. Traditionally, this was accommodated in the standard naming of international entities. We say Munich, not München, Florence, not Firenze (with front tongue-flap ‘r’). Even when the transliteration is identical, say for Berlin or Paris, the pronunciation is quite different than that of the natives (rear glottal ‘r’, the dropped ’s’ sound, accent, and other differences). 

The received transliterations of names, both sacred and secular, belie P1.  As mentioned, it was not followed, partly because it is impossible to follow: P1 is a fool’s errand. The new clerics don’t pronounce the morpheme-pair Yah-weh as it would have been: namely, they leave out one or both of the puffs of air associated with the ‘h’ [2]. James White does a valiant effort with the first one; it’s almost impossible for an English speaker to pronounce both h’s without emptying his lungs and sounding like he just got in from a long jog.

It seems like no one has noticed that P1 is only ever applied to biblical names in this one case. For, there are numerous names in the Bible where, in contrast to the tetragrammaton, we know the original pronunciation [3]; yet there is not the slightest effort to “correct” our received English pronunciation. Just a few example of dozens that could be given:

1. We can start with Eve the wife of Adam. In Hebrew, this name is pronounced Chawa (where ‘ch’ represents the palatal fricative, like the light-form of the ‘ch’ in German). Yet I have yet to hear a preacher tell the story of Adam and Chawa. (Note that there would be a stronger case for using the Hebrew form here than there is for the Tetragrammaton, as it would set the stage to explain the linguistic connection with Eve as mother of the living.) 

2. The great king of Israel was not Day’-vid, but Da-weed’ (where I am indicating the phonetic spelling and indicating the accented syllable). But imagine how silly and affected it would seem if a pastor preaching through I and II Samuel was always referring to a character named Da-weed’ (unless perhaps it was an “urban” church).

3. The name John is interesting, because this is given to us in the Greek NT text as Yoannes, but the Greek is already almost certainly an adaptation to Greek of the Hebrew or Aramaic Yo-cha-nahn’  which would have been spoken. There are two things to notice here. (i) by the same principle of P1, I suppose that is how our scholarchens should pronounce it: Yo-cha-nahn’. (ii) Notice however that the Holy-Spirit-inspired Greek text does not hesitate to transliterate Yo-cha-nahn’ rather freely into the Greek usage, without this overweening effort to be “accurate” — even though the writers would have known the “correct” pronunciation with apodeictic certainty, having heard and spoken it themselves.

4. Continuing in the NT, the name that comes to us as James in the tradition is actually Ya-ko’-boos. But imagine how affected and pretentious it would seem if your pastor spoke of Ya-ko’-boos and Yo-cha-nahn’, the sons of Zebedee. 

So if the second reason for saying our new clerics are dishonest is that they can’t do it anyway, the third reason is that even if they had a good linguistic argument, and could carry it out, it still wouldn’t follow that we should change our received usage in English, and they do not do so in any other case — even when, unlike the Tetragram, there is indisputable linguistic knowledge. 

Now perhaps our opponents will argue that the divine name is unique: all names can be morphed and adapted to our usage except divine names. But then they are not consistent, for they continue to use ‘God’, which is both a class and a name, instead of El or Elohim.

Moreover, the name of our Savior the God-man in the original usage was Yeshua/`. The guttural at the end of the Hebrew and Aramaic version is all but impossible for an English-speaker to pronounce without sounding like he is choking. Greek speakers likewise gave it up and transliterated to Iesous, from which the morph to Jesus is fairly clear even to a non-linguist I think. The name of His office in Hebrew, meshiach’ went into Greek as Xristos based not on sound but meaning, and into English by sound affinity as Christ (from Greek, when used as the name) or Messiah (from Hebrew/Aramaic, when used to tag the office). The name Jesus bears scant resemblance to any of the indicated forms of Yeshua.

Hardly any of the Yahweh-pronouncing clerics refer to our Savior as Yeshua Meshiach, even though this is known to be much closer to the original pronunciation than Yahweh to the tetragrammaton, which is largely speculative. Their feet must be held to the fire: why don’t they?

Is it important?

A common response after objections are lodged is to say, “it doesn’t really matter anyway.” Michael Heiser actually thinks the rabbinic superstition is the proper way to honor the name for those for whom it is such a big deal. (Note his virtual admission that honoring and revering God’s name is not that big a deal for him, which is why he gets to play around with it.) Many of the new clerics follow this idea, which is actually one aspect of the “argument” for Yahweh, as I will point out in a future post. However, that the Jews were seeking to honor and revere the name of God by substituting Lord or “the Name” is belied by the fact that when Jehovah appeared in their midst, they murdered him. It is far more likely that their bashfulness before the Name is similar to the awkwardness experienced by everyone in the use of the proper name of someone he is at shamed enmity with.

Sneering academics follow a four-fold cycle: (i) inject the innovation; (ii) in response to queries, rattle off some arguments (whether sophistical or sound); (iii) when these arguments are answered, sniff “lighten up; it doesn’t really matter anyway”; then (iv) go right back to the innovation. People that act this way deserve to be beaten, not answered.

How could it not be important? Even among humans, it is annoying when people chronically mess up our name. What could be more important than calling God by his name? But naming is an act that only makes sense in the environment of a linguistic community. There is something disruptive and seditious about someone arriving in the community and announcing, “I’ve done research, and I declare that from now one we should call Tom Bill.” What is on the birth certificate is actually irrelevant, unless he is in trouble with the law. What is relevant is the function of the phonemic name in the community’s life, including the consent of the one named.

Now God does not interact with us as another man, so we don’t hear a literal voice protesting this or identifying that. That being the case, we take the other feature of name-calling as sufficient, namely, its community usage. The community usage was documented above.

Finally, the rhetorical question, “why is it important?” can be echoed back: why is it so important to you to disrupt the received tradition, especially seeing as you are not honest in coming to the position, and do not follow the principle of original usage in any other case?

The real question is not that of importance, but to ask what the root sin is that causes the new clerics to overthrow received usage while doing so dishonestly. Is it pride at having arcane knowledge that the rubes in the congregation can only grasp at? Is it dull obtuseness of mind, that merely parrots the results delivered to them in seminary? Is it a sign of the lack of the fear of God? A willingness to take His name in vain when they can get away with it? Could it even indicate a nascent atheism?

I think all of these are at play, weighted differently with this or that cleric, of course. I don’t impute the last-named sin to our pastors, but it cannot be ruled out within the army of academic disruptors.

It is not a small thing; it is a very big thing.

Notes

[1] Of course, granting that the Hebrew morpheme “Ye” is transliterated into French and English as “Je,” as in Jehoshaphat, Jehu, Jeroboam, and so forth.

[2] Unless the final ‘h’ is a “mater lectionis,” i.e. a vowel-indicator. But it would seem strange that the final ‘h’ of the divine name is merely a mater lectionis, i.e. not part of the original morpheme. 

[3] By “knowing the pronunciation,” I mean to the extent that a foreigner can. Matching an accent precisely requires more than book knowledge.