The Blessed Name
Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 12 December 2010; Revised 12 May 2017
NOTE: This article contains the name of God. If you print it out, please treat it with appropriate respect.
Sources: Bibliographic data for works cited may be found at the end of the article. Unless otherwise indicated Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (1995 Updated edition). Click here for Abbreviations of Bible Versions. The Septuagint (LXX) is the Jewish translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, which was in use among Jews by the mid-2nd century BC. The LXX with English translation may be found here. References to the Talmud are from the Soncino Babylonian Talmud (1948); found at Halakhah.com.
Terminology: In order to emphasize the Jewish nature of all Scripture and message I use the terms Yeshua (Jesus), Messiah (Christ), Tanakh (Old Testament), and Besekh (New Testament).
One of the great virtues of the Jewish people is their scrupulous respect for the Sacred Name of God, which is spelled hVhY (Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey, "YHVH") in Hebrew. YHVH is translated in Christian Bibles with "LORD" (small caps) and in the Messianic Jewish versions Complete Jewish Bible and Tree of Life Version with "ADONAI" (small caps). The Orthodox Jewish Bible substitutes "Hashem" for YHVH. This translation convention may be confusing to Christians since there is a separate Hebrew word of Adonai, and Hashem ("the Name") is not used in the Bible as a name for God. Christians are also confused by the Jewish practice in writings and synagogue liturgy of hyphenating the English words for deity, G-d and L-rd. Why don't Jews spell out the Sacred Name and words for deity as Christians do? In order to answer these questions we will consider the biblical usage of the Sacred Name, as well as Jewish tradition.
Legacy of the Sacred Name
The name YHVH occurs 6,824 times in the Hebrew Tanakh (Old Testament), first occurring in Genesis 2:4. While not reflected in Bible translations YHVH is not a title or a word for a deity, but the personal name of the God of Israel (Ex 3:15; 2Chr 14:11; Isa 42:8). The Genesis narrative identifies the Sacred Name on the lips of Eve (Gen 4:1), then Seth and his descendants when "men began to call upon the name of ADONAI" (Gen 4:26 mine), Lamech, father of Noah on the occasion of his birth (Gen 5:29) and then by Noah himself when he blessed the line of Shem (Gen 9:26). Abraham addressed the One who called him out of Ur in Hebrew as "Adonai YHVH" (Gen 15:2, "LORD God," NASB; "ADONAI God," CJB) and in that conversation God offered his first self-revelation as "LORD" (Gen 15:7).
The prolific use of YHVH in the book of Genesis presents something of a conundrum because God told Moses, "And I appeared to Abraham and to Isaac and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but My name YHVH I did not make known to them" (Ex 6:3 mine; cf. Gen 17:1). The statement might imply that Moses inserted YHVH into the Genesis narrative. The rationale could be two-fold: (1) the usage of YHVH in Genesis asserts that the Creator-God is the God of Israel; (2) the usage of YHVH also demonstrates that the true people of God had always worshipped the Holy One of Israel.
While the use of YHVH in Genesis does emphasize both the identity of the Creator and the One who received true worship, the fact remains that God also said to Abraham, "I am the LORD [Heb. YHVH] who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess it." (Gen 15:7). Keil suggests, the patriarchs (and those before them) were not ignorant of the name YHVH. The knowledge indicated by Exodus 6:3 is that the God of the patriarchs is "an absolute Being working with unbounded freedom in the performance of His promises. For not only had he established his covenant with the fathers but he had also heard the groaning of the children of Israel and remembered his covenant" (303f). So, the complete redemptive significance of YHVH manifest in His covenantal election of Israel was not revealed until Moses.
Another reasonable explanation is that YHVH is actually a shortened version of a much longer name that was revealed to Moses. Jewish scholar Louis Hartman explains,
"The explanation of the name as given in Exodus 3:14, Eheyeh-Asher-Eheyeh, "I-Am-Who-I-Am," offers a folk etymology, common in biblical explanation of names, rather than a strictly scientific one. Like many other Hebrew names in the Bible, the name Yahweh is no doubt a shortened form of what was originally a longer name. It has been suggested that the original, full form of the name was something like Yahweh-Asher-Yihweh, "He brings into existence whatever exists" or Yahweh Ẓevaʾot (1Sam. 1:3, 11), which really means "He brings the hosts [of heaven – or of Israel?] into existence." (JVL-Names)
Once God revealed His full name He intended Moses to share that name with Israel and present demands to Pharaoh in that name. When the Israelites learned God's name and that He cared for them they believed (Ex 4:30-31). The conversation that follows with Pharaoh is riveting:
And afterward Moses and Aaron came and said to Pharaoh, "Thus says the LORD [YHVH], the God of Israel, 'Let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to Me in the wilderness.'" But Pharaoh said, "Who is the LORD [YHVH] that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the LORD [YHVH], and besides, I will not let Israel go." (Ex 5:1-2)
Pharaoh may have meant that he had never before heard the name YHVH and reinforces the idea that it was only known to those among the ancestors of Moses. Yet, God intended for Pharaoh to know YHVH and directed Moses to tell him, "I have allowed you to remain, in order to show you My power and in order to proclaim My name through all the earth" (Ex 9:16). While "Name" in this verse might simply be a euphemism for power and reputation, it's just as likely that the name of YHVH was broadcast abroad because of his mighty acts in Egypt. We find YHVH spoken later by Balaam, an Aramean (Num 22:5; 23:26), Rahab, the Canaanite (Josh 2:9), the Gibeonites (Josh 9:9), the Phoenician widow of Sidon (1Kgs 17:12) and Naaman, also an Aramean (2Kgs 5:11).
At Sinai God issued important instructions about his name:
"You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain." (Ex 20:7)
“Moreover, the one who blasphemes the name of the LORD shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall certainly stone him. The alien as well as the native, when he blasphemes the name, shall be put to death.” (Lev 24:16)
The usage of YHVH in Scripture reveals a number of qualities of the nature and personality of the God of Israel. (1) He is self-existent. No one created Him and He did not evolve into existence (Ex 3:14-15). (2) He is alone. There are no other gods. This fact is one meaning of the Shema declaration, "the LORD is one" (Deut 6:4). The essence of Heb. echad, “one,” is aloneness (Isa 43:10-11). (3) He is a holy God who imposes standards of righteousness and holiness upon his people (Lev 19:2). (4) He is unchangeable (Mal 3:6). His character and standards have never changed.
The importance of YHVH to Israel, His chosen people, cannot be overstated. In this name God revealed himself as Israel's deliverer (Gen 15:7; Ex 20:2; Isa 43:11), faithful presence (Ex 33:14), covenant-keeper (Deut 7:9), and guarantor of the Land to the descendants of Jacob (Gen 28:13; Deut 4:14). All these blessings still remain in force (Rom 9:4-5; see my Notes on this passage).
The avoidance of speaking YHVH in any casual sense is assumed by some scholars to have begun early in Israel's history based on the comment in Amos 6:10, "For we must not mention the Name of YHVH." However, this injunction was connected to a specific context and not any hesitation of speaking the Name. The advent of the LXX changed matters. According to the Letter of Aristeas (ca. 200 BC) the project was initiated by King Ptolemy Philadelphus (285-247 BC) who requested the Jewish High Priest Eliezer to provide a translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. The Talmud records that 72 elders came together during the King’s reign to translate the Torah (Megillah 9a).
In the LXX kurios occurs over 9,000 times, principally to translate Heb. words for God. In the overwhelming majority of instances (over 6,000 times), kurios replaces the Heb. tetragrammaton Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey. Using kurios for YHVH ("LORD") is not translation as it is for Adonai ('Lord'), but an interpretative substitution that encompassed all that the Hebrew text implied by use of the divine name. YHVH is the Creator and Lord of the whole universe, of men, Lord of life and death. Above all He is the God of Israel and His covenant people. By choosing kurios for YHVH the LXX also emphasized the idea of legal authority.
Because YHVH delivered His people from Egypt and chose them as His possession, He is the legitimate Lord of Israel. The LXX thus strengthened the tendency to avoid the utterance of the name of God. The overwhelming use of kurios for the sacred name was not an immediate development. The oldest LXX MSS (fragments) have YHVH written in Hebrew characters in the Greek text. The use of kurios for the sacred name is also found in post-Tanakh Jewish literature, such as Wisdom of Solomon (27 times), and frequently in Philo and Josephus (DNTT 2:511-512).
While caution was exercised in writing the Sacred Name, the Mishnah confirms that there was no prohibition against pronouncing the Name in ancient times. In fact, the Mishnah recommends using God's Name as a routine greeting to a fellow Jew (Berachot 9:5). During the days of the second Temple the name of YHVH was spoken during worship services. In the course of the services on the Day of Atonement the high priest pronounced the name YHVH ten times (Deut 21:5; Yoma 37a, 39b, 66a) and the people standing in the temple courts bowed with their faces to the ground. Yet Yoma says that the ineffable name was apparently spoken so loud that it was heard "even unto Jericho."
However, by the time of the Talmud was written, it had become customary to use substitute names for God. As the Talmud expresses it: "Not as I am written am I pronounced. I am written yod he vav he, and I am pronounced alef dalet" (nun yod, i.e., ʾAdonai; Kiddushin 71a). Even in legal settings where the accused or witnesses were required to make an oath using YHVH they would use a substitute (Sanhedrin 56a). The name of YHVH was not to be spoken outside of sacred worship services, but allowance was made for an "emergency," such as when Ezra read the Torah scroll from a pulpit made of wood (Neh 8:4-6) (Yoma 69b).
Members of the Qumran sect were very scrupulous in using the sacred name and in Heb. biblical manuscripts wrote Adonai instead of YHVH (DNTT 2:512). Likewise, the apostles made no direct attempt to translate YHVH in their writings. Only 66 verses quote a passage from the Tanakh containing YHVH (e.g., Matt 3:3; 4:10), but these are all from the LXX, which uses Kurios to translate both YHVH and Adonai. Since there were no tape recorders we can't know for certain whether those who offered these quotes spoke "YHVH" in Hebrew or used a substitute such as Adonai. We do know that Yeshua, following Jewish custom, taught his disciples to say, “Avinu" (Our Father) instead of using God’s personal name in prayer. In the apostolic letters "Father" is a frequent title used of God.
The actual pronunciation of YHVH is a matter of some dispute. The Hebrew alphabet has only consonants, and originally certain letters functioned when needed as vowels (the Aleph, Ayin, Vav and Yod). Obviously Israelites in Bible and Talmudic times knew the correct pronunciation. Louis Hartman asserts,
"The true pronunciation of the name YHWH was never lost. Several early Greek writers of the Christian Church testify that the name was pronounced "Yahweh." This is confirmed, at least for the vowel of the first syllable of the name, by the shorter form Yah, which is sometimes used in poetry (e.g., Ex. 15:2) and the -yahu or -yah that serves as the final syllable in very many Hebrew names." (JVL-Names)
However, another Jewish scholar, Tracey Rich, says,
"Scholars passed down knowledge of the correct pronunciation of YHVH for many generations, but eventually the correct pronunciation was lost, and we no longer know it with any certainty. We do not know what vowels were used, or even whether the Vav in the Name was a vowel or a consonant. Some religious scholars suggest that the Name was pronounced 'Yahweh,' but others do not find this pronunciation particularly persuasive." (JVL/Name)
Beginning about A.D. 500 a family of scribes known as the Massoretes developed a system of diacritical marks for the Hebrew text, called "vowel pointing," to give precision to pronunciation. The work of the Massoretes was completed around 900 and the resulting Hebrew Bible is known as the Masoretic Text (abbreviated as MT). For YHVH the MT uses the vowel pointing for Adonai. The Masoretic mispointing of YHVH in the Hebrew text was misinterpreted in 1520 by Petrus Galatinus (1460–1540), an Italian Friar and theologian, who mixed the vowels of Adonai with the consonants of Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey. The hybrid result was YaHoVaH, later rendered as "Jehovah" in the KJV and ASV (Kohlenberger xviii), even though there is no "J" letter or sound in the Hebrew alphabet.
Then, thanks to European Christian scholarship of the 19th century the pronunciation of "Yahweh" was introduced, which American Christians pronounce as "Yah-way, not realizing that the "w" is actually pronounced as a "v." Indeed, the third letter in YHVH (the sixth letter in the Hebrew alphabet) is pronounced “Vahv” (Ross 20). Therefore, the assumed spelling of "Jehovah" and "Yahweh" is based on insufficient evidence.
Modern Jewish Practice
While Jews avoid speaking of the name YHVH, Judaism does not prohibit writing the name of God per se; it prohibits only erasing or defacing a Name of God. However, observant Jews avoid writing any name of God casually because of the risk that the written Name might later be defaced, obliterated or destroyed accidentally by one who does not know better. Observant Jews avoid writing a name of God on any medium where there is a risk that someone else will print it out and deface it. To avoid writing YHVH, many Jews and others will substitute letters, punctuation marks or syllables, such as writing "G-d" instead of "God" or "L-rd" instead of "Lord." (See JVL/G-d)
The practice of hyphenating the English words for deity to prevent defacing YHVH is based on another Torah commandment:
"You shall tear down their altars and smash their sacred pillars and burn their Asherim with fire, and you shall cut down the engraved images of their gods and obliterate their name from that place. You shall not act like this toward the LORD your God." (Deut 12:3-4)
The people of Israel were commanded to not only destroy seven tribes in Canaan, but also their idols and with it the names of the local deities. The instruction is followed with the warning not to do the same to the name of the God of Israel. From this, the rabbis inferred that we are commanded not to destroy any holy thing, and not to erase or deface any Name of God.
"It is worth noting that this prohibition against erasing or defacing Names of God applies only to Names that are written in some kind of permanent form, and recent rabbinical decisions have held that writing on a computer is not a permanent form, thus it is not a violation to type God's Name into a computer and then backspace over it or cut and paste it, or copy and delete files with God's Name in them. However, once you print the document out, it becomes a permanent form. That is why observant Jews avoid writing a Name of God on web sites like this one or in BBS messages: because there is a risk that someone else will print it out and deface it." (Rich).
Hyphenating the English words for deity is a uniquely Jewish practice and serves as a reverent reminder of the covenant-keeping relationship God has with Israel. This G‑d is the God of Israel. In my research I've noted that hyphenation of English words for deity is not universal among Jews. No hyphenated words for deity are found in David Stern's Complete Jewish Bible nor his Jewish New Testament Commentary. Similarly, other published works by Messianic Jewish authors do not engage in deity name hyphenation. Authoritative published works by non-Messianic Jews may also be noted. The Traditional Prayer Book for Sabbath and Festivals, ed. David de Sola Pool (Rabbinical Council of America, 1960) makes abundant use of "God" and "Lord" without hyphenation.
A more recent prayer book, The Complete ArtScroll Siddur, ed. Rabbi Nosson Scherman (Mesorah Publications, 2001), substitutes HaShem for "Lord," but uses "God" throughout with no hyphenation. In addition, the Jewish Publication Society Bible (1917, 1955 and 1985 versions) uses "LORD" for the tetragrammaton and "God" for Elohim without hyphenation. The two source articles cited from the Jewish Virtual Library website would confuse any Gentile reader with its inconsistent spelling convention. Some articles do not hyphenate "God" and "Lord" whereas hyphenation is used in other articles.
Thus, Christians may question whether the practice of hyphenating G-d and L-rd is necessary. Even with hyphenation we still pronounce the words as prescribed in the English language. It's not like seeing Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey and saying "Adonai." After all, the word "God" is not the NAME of God; it is only a word that refers to deity. Conversely, the respectful practice certainly stands in sharp relief against the constant profanation of "God," "Jesus" and "Christ" on the lips of nonbelievers. No other religious deity receives such widespread disrespect. Jewish sensibilities reflect the fear of God, a virtue sadly lacking in modern culture and even in many segments of the Body of Messiah.
The Name of Yeshua
The apostles very early began associating the "Name of the LORD" with Yeshua (Acts 8:16; 9:28; 19:5, 17; 21:13). Paul gave this instruction, "everything you do or say, do in the name of the Lord Yeshua, giving thanks through him to God the Father" (Col 3:17 CJB). This command rests on the authority that Yeshua is "Lord of all" (Rom 10:12), which probably refers to Yeshua's role as Messianic Judge (cf. Matt 25:31-32). Yeshua told his adversaries, "For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son" (John 5:22). Peter conveyed this message to Cornelius. Because Messiah Yeshua is "Lord of all" (Acts 10:36), he "has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead" (Acts 10:42). In addition, he is the King of the Jews (Matt 2:2; 27:11; Luke 23:38), he will reign over all the earth (1Cor 15:25; Rev 20:4) and at his feet everyone will bow (Php 2:10).
It is in this blessed name that disciples are to be immersed (Matt 28:19; Acts 2:38; 8:16), to gather for prayer and conflict resolution (Matt 18:20), to petition the Father for all manner of material, physical, emotional, spiritual and relational needs (John 14:13-14; 16:23; Acts 3:6; 4:30), to cast out demons (Mark 16:17), to confess him as Master of one's life (Rom 10:9), and to spread the glad tidings of the kingdom of God (Acts 8:12). We may not know how to pronounce the Hebrew name of the God of Israel revealed to the patriarchs and Moses, but it is not important. "Our Father" we know. Yeshua we know and the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) we know. These names we may use freely and often.
The call to imitate the example of Yeshua and walk in his steps (John 13:15; Heb 13:7; 1Pet 2:21) would behoove Christians to exercise greater care in using any name for God and to reconsider the indiscriminate use of the uncertain "Yahweh" or the archaic "Jehovah." Use of these terms may well give offense to the Jews which Paul commanded us to avoid (1Cor 10:32).
The name of YHVH was given to Israel as the guarantor of their covenantal rights. If a Christian were to use these names while denying the covenantal rights of Israel (an attitude which still exists in Christianity), then he could be in danger of violating the Third Commandment. Perhaps Jews can be driven to jealousy and seek their Messiah (Rom 11:11, 14) if Gentile disciples would demonstrate that they revere and respect the name of the God of Israel and affirm Israel's covenantal rights promised to them in that Name.
DNTT: Dictionary of New Testament Theology. Ed. Colin Brown. Zondervan Pub. House, 1975.
JVL/G-d: The Nature of G-d, Jewish Virtual Library. American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, 2010.
JVL-Names: God, Names of, Jewish Virtual Library. American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, 2013.
Keil: C.F. Keil, The Pentateuch. Vol. 1, Commentary on the Old Testament (Keil and Delitzsch, 1866-1891), 10 vols. Hendrickson Publishers, 2006.
Kohlenberger: John R. Kohlenberger III, The Interlinear NIV Hebrew-English Old Testament, Zondervan Pub. House, 1987.
Rich: Tracey Rich, The Name of God. Judaism 101, 1996-2011..
Ross: Allen P. Ross, Introducing Biblical Hebrew. Baker Academic, 2001.
Stern: David Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, Jewish New Testament Publications, 1996.
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