In his introduction to the article on YHWH in the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, David Noel Freedman wrote (p. 5:500): “The correct pronunciation of the name was lost from Jewish tradition some time during the Middle Ages; late in the period of the Second Temple the name had come to be regarded as unspeakably holy and therefore unsuitable for use in public reading.”
The primary reason for this reluctance to pronounce the divine name is unknown. In the book of Deuteronomy, God’s name is called “this glorious and fearful name” (Deuteronomy 28:58). In Leviticus, the word “Hashem,” “the Name” stands for the Tetragrammaton (Leviticus 24:11). Probably it was the fear of profaning God’s name (Leviticus 22:2) that prompted Israel to restrict the use of the divine name.
Post-exilic books such as Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs do not use the Tetragrammaton. In the book of Daniel, a book that probably reflects the situation in the days of the Maccabees (2nd century B.C.), the name of God appears only in chapter 9.
The translators of the Septuagint followed the Jewish community’s tradition regarding the use of the divine name. The Septuagint translates the divine name as Kyrios, Lord. The writers of the New Testament followed Jewish practice and also used the word Kyrios to translate the divine name. A good example is seen in Joel 2:32:
MT: “And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of YHWH shall be saved.”
LXX: “And it shall come to pass that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord (Kyrios) shall be saved.”
NT: “For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord (Kyrios) shall be saved” (Romans 10:13).
In the New Testament the name “Lord,” the same word used in the Septuagint to translate the divine name YHWH, becomes a title used to identify Jesus Christ.
Josephus, writing in the Antiquities of the Jews (c. 94 A.D.) abstained from using the divine name. He wrote:
“Moses having now seen and heard these wonders that assured him of the truth of these promises of God, had no room left him to disbelieve them; he entreated him to grant him that power when he should be in Egypt; and besought him to vouchsafe him the knowledge of his own name; and, since he had heard and seen him, that he would also tell him his name, that when he offered sacrifice he might invoke him by such his name in his oblations. Whereupon God declared to him his holy name, which had never been discovered to men before; concerning which it is not lawful for me to say any more” (Ant. 2, 12, 4).
William Whiston, the translator of Antiquities added a note to Josephus’s statement. He wrote (p. 80) that the fear of pronouncing “the name with four letters, which of late we have been used falsely to pronounce Jehovah . . . is never, I think, heard of, till this passage of Josephus.” Josephus was also unwilling to write down the words of the Ten Commandments. Josephus wrote: “And they all heard a voice that came to all of them from above, insomuch that no one of these words escaped them, which Moses wrote on two tables; which it is not lawful for us to set down directly” (Ant. 3,5,4). According to Whiston, the fear to pronounce God’s name and the reluctance to write down the words of the Decalogue were taught to Josephus by the Pharisees.
The prohibition concerning the pronunciation of the divine name also appears in the Talmud. For instance, in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 90a is written:
All Israel have a portion in the world to come, for it is written, ‘thy people are all righteous; they shall inherit the land for ever, the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, that I may be glorified’ but the following have no portion therein: he who maintains that resurrection is not a biblical doctrine, the torah was not divinely revealed, and an epikoros [an adherent of the Epicurean philosophy]. R. Akiba added: one who reads uncanonical books. Also one who whispers [a charm] over a wound and says, I will bring none of these diseases upon thee which I brought upon the Egyptians: ‘for I am the Lord that healeth thee.’ Abba Saul says: also one who pronounces the divine name as it is spelt.
The fear of pronouncing the divine name may come from a possible misunderstanding of the meaning of the word נקב (naqab) in Leviticus 24:16. The New Revised Standard Version translates Leviticus 24:15-16 as follows:  And speak to the people of Israel, saying: Anyone who curses God shall bear the sin.  One who blasphemes the name of the LORD shall be put to death.”
The Septuagint, however, has a different understanding of the word. The Septuagint translates Leviticus 24:16 as follows: “And he that names the name of the Lord, let him die the death.” The Jewish Publication Society’s (TNK) translation of this verse follows the Septuagint: “ And to the Israelite people speak thus: Anyone who blasphemes his God shall bear his guilt;  if he also pronounces the name LORD, he shall be put to death.”
The text in which this legislation appears relates the story of a man whose mother was an Israelite and whose father was an Egyptian. This man was fighting with another man and in the process he blasphemed the name of God in a curse (Leviticus 24:10-16).
The NRSV translates Leviticus 24:11 as follows: “The Israelite woman’s son blasphemed the Name in a curse.”
The TNK translates Leviticus 24:11 as follows: “The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name in blasphemy.”
Both translations render naqab as “blasphemy.” However, in Leviticus 26:16, the TNK translates the word naqab differently from the NRSV.
NRSV: “ One who blasphemes the name of the LORD shall be put to death.”
TNK: “if he also pronounces the name LORD, he shall be put to death.”
So, the issue in question is: does the word naqab mean “to blaspheme” or “to pronounce”? I believe that the proper interpretation of this text determines whether the divine name can be pronounced. According to J. Scharbert, the root naqab appears in most Semitic languages and it means “pierce, make a hole.” The word also appears in Akkadian with the meaning of “deflower.” However, the word never appears with the meaning “to pronounce.” Scharbet wrote (p. 552):
In Lev. 24:11,15f. naqab takes on a different nuance in conjunction with the name of Yahweh. Because the verb parallels the piel of qll, it is usually translated “blaspheme (the name of Yahweh).” The different legal consequences (“bear the sin” in the sense of “have to live with the curse conjured up by the act” vs. ‘be put to death”’ show that nqb denotes a more serious offense than qillel. “Cursing” refers to careless derogatory speech concerning God; “blaspheming” refers to deliberate slanderous speech concerning Yahweh, with explicit emphasis on Yahweh’s name. It is unlikely that this passage already interprets the prohibition against wrongful use of Yahweh’s name (Ex. 20:7; Dt. 5:11) as an absolute prohibition against any use whatever of the name. The text refers rather to a negative “branding” of the name of Yahweh.
God said: “I am YHWH, this is my name” (Isaiah 42:8). God also said: “This is my name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation” (Exodus 3:15). Giving his name to Moses and to all Israel was an act of divine grace which demonstrated how serious God was in his desire to establish a personal relationship with his people. As Fretheim wrote in his commentary on Exodus:
Giving the name entails a certain kind of relationship; it opens up the possibility of, indeed admits a desire for, a certain intimacy in relationship. A relationship without a name inevitably means some distance; naming the name is necessary for closeness. Naming makes true encounter and communication possible. Naming entails availability. By giving the name, God becomes accessible to people. God and people can now meet one another and there can be address on the part of both parties.
So, I do not believe there is a biblical admonition against pronouncing God’s personal name. But, should Christians pronounce God’s name? Since God revealed his name, a name by which he wants to be remembered from generation to generation, I believe Christians should be free to use God’s personal name with respect and reverence. However, since we do not know how to pronounce the Tetragrammaton, the use of “Yahweh” may suffice. The name “Jehovah” should be avoided because such a name does not exist. However, people will continue to use it in traditional hymns; I prefer not to use it.
I seldom use God’s name in preaching; in this I follow the biblical tradition and use either “Lord” or “God.” I generally use ‘Yahweh” or “YHWH” when writing or teaching. In using the divine name, however, I remember the principle established by the Apostle Paul. Since my Jewish brothers and sisters may be offended by the use of the divine name, I do not use God’s name in their presence for I do not want to offend them.
Freedman, David N. “Yhwh.” Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament. Vo. 5. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986.
Fretheim, Terence. Exodus. Interpretation. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991
Scharbert, J. “Naqab.” Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament. Vo. 9. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998
Whiston, William. The Life and Works of Flavius Josephus. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, n.d.
Studies on the Divine Name:
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary