In my last post (part 1 here), I discussed what I perceived to be the purpose of Liturgiam authenticam: a return of the Catholic Church to its historical traditions.
One aspect of this desire to remain faithful to traditional Catholic faith and practice is the church’s use of the divine name as it appears in the Nova Vulgate Editio. The directive to translate the Tetragrammaton YHWH by a word equivalent to the Latin Dominus and the Greek Kyrios reflects the desire to maintain the ancient traditions of the church.
The revelation of the divine name to Moses on Mount Sinai reflects God’s desire to enter into a special relationship with Israel. The holy and sovereign God, the creator of the universe, in an act of sheer grace, wanted to enter the history of a nation and deal with a people who would be entrusted to carry out his will in the world.
In order to establish this relationship, God wanted to make himself known to Israel and this revelation of himself to the people came through Moses. Thus, on Mount Sinai God appeared to Moses and commissioned him to return to Egypt and bring the people out of their oppression.
Until the time of Moses, the people of Israel and the chosen leaders of the people did not know the name of God. In the past, God had appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, God Almighty (Exodus 6:3). This fact is attested in God’s words to Abraham: “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am El Shaddai; walk before me, and be blameless” (Genesis 17:1).
In his encounter with the God of the ancestors, the identity of the God who was sending him back to Egypt became an item of concern to Moses. Moses said to God: “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (Exodus 3:13).
Moses was aware that the people of Israel would be reluctant to follow an unknown God. Thus, the revelation of the divine name would establish a lasting relationship between God and Israel: Israel would be God’s people and God would be Israel’s God.
So, in response to Moses’ request, God said to Moses: “I AM WHO I AM.” Then God commanded Moses: “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14).
In addition, God identified himself with the God of the ancestors. God said to Moses: “Say to the Israelites, ‘YHWH, 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, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation” (Exodus 3:15).
The origin, meaning, and theological significance of God’s name, YHWH, has produced a vast amount of literature but no definite consensus has been reached by scholars. The name YHWH appears more than 6,700 times in the Hebrew Bible (according to Charles Halton, the name appears 6,828 times). The name appears in every book of the Hebrew Bible except Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. The fact that the God of Israel had a name implies that Israel recognized that its God was a personal being who wished to be known by his people and who desired to distinguish himself from the gods of the other nations.
When the Masoretes added vowels to the consonantal text circa the 10th century A.D., they added the vowels of Adonai to the Tetragrammaton to indicate that the name Adonai should be pronounced instead of YHWH. In 1518, Petrus Galatinus, the confessor of Pope Leo X, proposed that the divine name should be transliterated as Jehovah and this hybrid name became popular in religious writings. The name “Jehovah” appears in the King James Version in Exodus 6:3, Psalm 83:18, and Isaiah 12:2; 26:4. The name also appears in three other passages where it is combined with other elements (see Genesis 22:14; Exodus 17:15; Judges 6:24). The name Jehovah is used in the American Standard Version of 1901 to translate the divine name. However, Jehovah should not be used in theological writing nor in the liturgy because Jehovah is not the name of God.
The divine name appears in the Hebrew Bible in abbreviated form in hundreds of names of individuals such as Jeremiah, Abijah, Jehonathan, Jehoshaphat, and many others. The name of God also appears to designate holy places:
“And Abraham called the name of the place, ‘YHWH Will Provide’” (Genesis 22:14).
“And Moses built an altar and named it, ‘YHWH Is My Banner’” (Exodus 17:15).
“So Gideon built an altar to YHWH and called it ‘YHWH Is Peace’” (Judges 6:24).
“Jerusalem will be called ‘YHWH Our Righteousness’” (Jeremiah 33:16).
The name YHWH appears in the Mesha Stele (9th century B.C.E.), in an ostracon discovered at Kuntilet ‘Ajrud (8th century B.C.E.), in the Arad Letters (6th century B.C.E.), in the Lachish Letters(6th century B.C.E.). The name also appears in Syria and in Egypt.
The divine name YHWH was also used in the liturgy of Israel. In a text that reveals the nature of the God of Israel, the divine name appears twice: “YHWH, YHWH, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7).
The divine name was used in prayer by people everywhere: “Seth also had a son, and he named him Enosh. At that time men began to call on the name of YHWH” (Genesis 4:26). The name of God was invoked at the time of worship: “I will sacrifice a thank offering to you and call on the name of YHWH” (Psalm 116:17). Foreigners will pray to YHWH: “Then will I purify the lips of the peoples, that all of them may call on the name of YHWH and serve him shoulder to shoulder” (Zephaniah 3:9). The remnant of Israel will also call on God’s name: “This third I will bring into the fire; I will refine them like silver and test them like gold. They will call on my name and I will answer them; I will say, ‘They are my people,’ and they will say, ‘YHWH is our God’” (Zechariah 13:9).
I argue that it was in the liturgy of Israel that the name of God was celebrated. When the people came to the temple they would say: “Oh, magnify YHWH with me, and let us exalt his name together!” (Psalm 34:3). In worship, the people proclaimed: “YHWH is king” (Psalm 93:1). In times of need the people would cry: “Arise, O YHWH! Save me” (Psalm 3:7). When the people were asked at the time of worship: “Who is the King of glory?” They would respond: “YHWH, strong and mighty, YHWH, mighty in battle” (Psalm 24:8).
So, the name of God was pronounced by the people of Israel in worship, prayer, and celebration because YHWH was the name of their God. God said: “I am YHWH, this is my name” (Isaiah 42:8).
When Moses descended Mount Sinai and returned to Egypt and the people asked him the name of the God who had appeared to him, Moses did not say: “His name is Adonai.” Moses could not say that Adonai appeared to him because Adonai was not the name of the God who appeared to him. His name was YHWH and to identify the God who sent him back to Egypt, Moses had to pronounce the divine name.
During the Second Temple period, the name of God was considered too holy to be pronounced in public and eventually, it was not even pronounced in the temple. For this reason, the correct pronunciation of God’s name was lost and forgotten.
This reluctance to pronounce God’s name is contrary to God’s will as expressed by God himself to Moses on Mount Sinai. When God revealed his name to Moses, God said: “Say to the Israelites, ‘YHWH, 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, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation” (Exodus 3:15).
This is God’s will concerning his name: that his name be remembered forever. God said to Moses: “This is my name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation.” God wanted to be remembered by his name from generation to generation. But today, no one knows how to pronounce God’s name. It is sad that the intimacy that God desired to have with his people when he revealed his name cannot be accomplished in its fulness. The revelation of the name began that relationship, but the name of God has been forgotten. Now, our relationship is with a God whose name is not known and if we follow the directives of Liturgiam authenticam, a God whose name cannot be pronounced.
In my next post I will discuss one of the reasons the name of God cannot be pronounced and whether Christians should pronounce God’s name.
Studies on the Divine Name:
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary