Jehovah, Yahweh

For the Korean version, see this. (Reposted in 2022; originally posted bilingually in Korean and English in 2019)

In Christianity, the God of Israel in the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) is known as Jehovah. As the title of the article suggests, however, Yahweh is also the name of Israel’s God. Assuming that most Christians are unaware of how these two names became in use interchangeably, I will explain the names Jehovah and Yahweh.

When Moses was residing in the wilderness of Midian, he encountered a theophany of God in a blazing fire out of a bush (Ex 3). The name Jehovah is believed to be the name of that God revealed at that moment. Let’s take a look at the scene carefully. At first, God reveals a name in Ex 3:14, and the name is often translated as “I AM WHO I AM” (NRSV, NAB, NIV, etc). The first “I AM” means, of course, “my name is,” and the second “I AM” is God’s name.” So a better way to render the phrase is “I am I AM,” or perhaps, “my name is I AM.” Since we think that God’s name is Jehovah, we can assume that Jehovah is from the Hebrew word, “I AM.” But the expression “I AM” in Hebrew is not “Jehovah” but “Ehyeh.” (It is a rough transliteration.) Ehyeh means “I am/I AM.” So in the expression “I AM WHO I AM,” we have a pair of “Ehyeh.” To be more precise, the syntax is as follows: Ehyeh + relative pronoun (who) + Ehyeh. That is how we got the expression, “I AM WHO I AM.” But what does “I AM WHO I AM” mean? The sentence does not make sense. We just know that the latter Ehyeh/I AM is the name of God.

Then, where does “Jehovah” come from, and why do we not use the word Ehyeh to designate God? We need to investigate v. 15 to understand it. Unlike v. 14, God’s name in v. 15 does not appear as Ehyeh but as YHWH, which later became Jehovah in English. Now, let’s try to understand how Ehyeh became YHWH and YHWH became Jehovah.

Ehyeh (I am) is a transliteration of Hebrew consonants, ʾHYH, and its root is hyh. As a verb, hyh becomes hayah in 3rd person masculine singular, which is the basic form of the verb. Ehyeh is its first-person singular form. But it is a verb, not a noun; so it is awkward to be used as a name. So verse 15 modifies the verb-based name Ehyeh as YHWH, a derivative noun from the same root, hyh. But the problem of YHWH is that Jews never pronounced the name, but always read it as “Lord” that is (Adonai). Why? Because of one of the Ten Commandments, “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain,” the people of Israel had tried to avoid calling the name of their God. To do so, they started using the term Adonai (meaning Lord) in place of the word YHWH wherever it appears. They designated the four consonants YHWH as Tetragrammaton, “(holy) four letters.” In the meantime, the medieval Jewish scholars, known as Masoretes, developed vowel pointing systems to help people correctly read their vowel-less scripture. (The original form of the Hebrew Bible is vowel-less). To avoid pronouncing YHWH, they put vowels of “Adonai” to every “YHWH.” It was just a hint that YHWH (the written word) must be read Adonai. Jews, of course, knew this tradition, but Christians at first did not. So Christians mixed the pronunciation of the vowels of Adonai and consonants of YHWH. That is how we got Jehovah: Y H W H + A O A I = YaHoWaiH. This word eventually became Jehovah, which is a total misunderstanding of the Jewish consonant and vowel traditions surrounding the name of God in Exodus 3:14-15. So we must acknowledge that Jehovah is a wrong pronunciation of YHWH. I admit that we also do not know the exact ancient pronunciation of YHWH, but one clear thing is that Jehovah is not how YHWH is supposed to be pronounced or transliterated. At this juncture, Yahweh is our best option.

Note: In “Jehovah,” the first consonant J comes from Y. German uses J for Y sound. And later, the letter J in German is adopted in English without considering its sound. The letter V (JehoVah) in place of W (yahoWaih) is quite the opposite. In German, W is pronounced like V in English. So English speaking Christians adopted the sound of W and spelled it as V. That is how we got JaHoVaih

Concluding reflections: It is frustrating that we Christians got our God’s name wrong. What is even more frustrating is that we tend to justify our behaviors instead of changing or correcting it. Here is my experience. I am a lecturer in several seminaries in Korea. In my Biblical Hebrew classes, I always mention this Yahweh vs. Jehovah dispute. One day, one of my students actually said, “it does not matter whether we are correct or not. God knows what we mean.” Of course, God knows. But it does not mean that we do not have to correct our mistakes when we know our mistakes. We have many problems, but one thing that we should urgently deal with is that we are not eager to correct our errors. Instead, we tend to defend or justify ourselves. If you know your errors, then you have to correct it as hard as possible. Otherwise, we will never repent but create endless excuses to be incorrect, theologically, morally and even legally. We must change. Just a thought…

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