The unpronounceable Name

I was at work recently and saw two different groups of women with young girls sitting at our tables. It is a small library so it is easy to overhear what people are doing. They were not tutoring. They were indoctrinating. They were teaching the girls Bible lessons and specifically the Jehovah’s Witness faith. I knew that it was this particular denomination because one of the ladies said to the girls with her that “Jehovah is God’s true name”.

It requires a lot of self-discipline on my part not to chime in sometimes, but I can do it here.

In Judaism the name of God is rendered in English as YHVH or sometimes YHWH. The Hebrew letters are pronounced Yud Hay Vav Hay. This is not a word. It is a contraction of the words “am, was, (and) will be”. That alone is worthy of contemplation. God is a verb of being. God is beyond all concepts of time.

This collection of letters is not pronounced by the Jewish people. The Name is considered too holy to be spoken lightly. Many years ago when the holy Temple was still standing it was pronounced only once a year and then only by the high priest, and then only in the innermost part of the Temple known as the Holy of Holies. He was alone in this sacred place and he would say the name of God. It is not something the average person would ever pronounce. Also, the actual pronunciation of it was lost when the Jewish people went into exile.

It is impossible to know exactly how it was pronounced. The Hebrew language has no vowels. How you pronounce a word depends to where you put the vowels. You can’t simply read a word in Hebrew and automatically know how you are supposed to pronounce it. Imagine if you just simply saw the letters T and R. How would you pronounce that “word”? Is it “tear”, “tire”, “tore”, or “tour”? Those are all entirely different words, with different pronunciations and meanings. Now you can see the difficulty in trying to pronounce the Name of God.

Jews today do not even try to say the name of God. Most of them don’t even write out the word “God”. They make it look like this – “G-d”. Some will even say “Hashem” instead, which means “The Name”.

So for Jehovah’s Witnesses to say that this is God’s name is not true. Also, there is no J sound in the Hebrew alphabet, so there’s no way that God’s name could be Jehovah.

In Judaism, it is considered the height of arrogance to attempt to call God by any name, as God is the Name above all names. It is like calling up the President of the United States and saying “Hey, Barack, how are you doing” – but you’ve never met him. You don’t know him personally. Multiply that by a thousand times and you begin to approach the arrogance of calling God by a name.

What is God’s name?

What is God’s name? Can God be named? What does God say that God’s name is?

There are a couple of examples where God says what the Name is. One is in Exodus 3:13-15. This is after Moses has seen the burning bush and first heard from God. He’s gotten the commission to go to Pharaoh and ask him to set all of Israel free.

13 Then Moses asked God, “If I go 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 should I tell them?” 14 God replied to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you.” 15 God also said to Moses, “Say this to the Israelites: Yahweh, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is My name forever; this is how I am to be remembered in every generation.

Line 14 is transliterated as “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh” and is translated as “I am who I am” -but Rabbi Lawrence Kushner in “The Book of Words” says it is better translated as “I will be who I will be.” It is a verb – an action. God is doing – not a name.

The Bible Gateway website also offers these translations (caps are theirs)- I AM BECAUSE I AM, or I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE.

Then a little later in Exodus 6:2-8 one of the names is repeated.
2 Then God spoke to Moses, telling him, “I am Yahweh. 3 I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty, but I did not reveal My name Yahweh to them. 4 I also established My covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, the land they lived in as foreigners. 5 Furthermore, I have heard the groaning of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are forcing to work as slaves, and I have remembered My covenant.
6 “Therefore tell the Israelites: I am Yahweh, and I will deliver you from the forced labor of the Egyptians and free you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and great acts of judgment. 7 I will take you as My people, and I will be your God. You will know that I am Yahweh your God, who delivered you from the forced labor of the Egyptians. 8 I will bring you to the land that I swore[a] to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you as a possession. I am Yahweh.”

“Yahweh” isn’t really what God said. The name is unpronounceable, as it is all vowels. It is transliterated as YHVH – yod-hay-vav-hay (transliterated Hebrew letters). The “name” is really a contraction of “I was,” “I am,” and “I will be” all together.

Once again, God is a verb.

It is common for Jews to refer to God as “Hashem” which simply means “The Name” They believe that it is presumptuous to try to pronounce God’s name, because previously, the “name” was pronounced only once a year by the High Priest, while standing in the Holy of Holies. This was on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. After the Temple was destroyed and they went in to exile, the exact way to pronounce the “name” was forgotten. Rather than try to do it and do it wrong, it is simply not said.

So God doesn’t have a name. God is a state of being, of doing. God is action. God isn’t locked down into a fixed form or state. Even the word “God” is just a job description. It is not a name, so much as how we describe the indescribable Creator.