‘Yahweh’ Is Not God’s Name, but It Will Do For Now

I’ve situated my bed just by a window on the ground floor level of my apartment building, one thatched screen away from the world at large. In the morning, I wake to the croaking strains of a day trying to get off the ground, like an old pilot spinning the propeller on his plane. It’s a little creaky but, by God, it does get going. I hear birds, of course. An old tomcat who’s taken up residence under the mailboxes. Sometimes a train. Often, the beginning of my neighbor’s commute. Her name is Megan and she parks her car just outside my window. She generally leaves before I get up, and I hear her keys jingle.

I hear all this, but I can’t see it well. I have dreadful vision, and take in the world blurry and smeared until I put my glasses on.

Strange to say, but my only concrete idea of Heaven is this: a place where I won’t need my glasses. Hopefully, that is the least of its charms, but it’s one I can, at least, grasp. The idea amuses me. Everyone else in Heaven, splashing in the river of life; soaring over the celestial mountains; bounding, block by block, down streets of gold. And I’m just grateful I don’t have to squint to read any of Heaven’s street signs.

* *

The idea that God’s actual name is “Yahweh” is not entirely accurate. In truth, when old Moses wrote down the name he’d heard from the flaming deity of the burning bush, he wrote a jumble of consonants most nearly translated in English as “YHWH.” He didn’t include any vowels (Hebrews rarely did) so the original pronunciation is lost to us.

The Hebrews were skittish about writing down God’s name anyway, which is why oral tradition gives us scant clues about what Moses might have originally heard. They preferred “Adonai” or “Elohim.”  Later, they took to adding vowels from those names into the “YHWH,” which is how we get “Yahweh.”

It’s not God’s name. But it’s about the best we’ve got.

* *

When I was very young, I went to a family reunion in which I knew virtually no one. The crowd numbered near fifty, most of them old salt-of-the-earth types, most of them dead now. It’s a family of ruddy complexions, raven hair and Roman noses. At the urging of my Great Uncle Milt—a beekeeper who was always very kind to me—I tried oatmeal for the first time and quite liked it. He introduced me to a distant cousin I’d never met and left us to find something to talk about it.

“Is that your brother?” he asked, pointing over to another table. I told him it was.

“He looks a lot more like our family than you.” He said.

“Because his hair is dark,” I said.

“And because he doesn’t wear glasses,” this cousin said, laughing. “He’s not a nerd!”

So strange, the things that stick with us.

* *

I would like to know who first dared to take a stab at naming God “Yahweh,” and why they thought it right to do so. His people had no shortage of common names for God, so referring to Him by a haphazard shot in the dark was hardly necessary.

Whatever the motivation, the name stuck, but not without some baggage. When Irish monks handwrote copies of the Bible, they would bathe themselves every time they wrote “Yahweh,” figuring God’s name was too holy a name to be written by an unclean person.

But, remember, “Yahweh” is not actually God’s name.

* *

I write this in Colorado, hemmed in on all sides by the Rockies. The sun is nearly set, and the silhouette of mountains stands black against the blaze, looking like someone ripped a strip of sky off the horizon. Above, the stars pluck and scintillate.

It’s a curious thing, looking up. I was raised in the plains, which seem to roll on endlessly. I lived near the ocean for a time, which is bigger still. And out here, the mountains are our very definition of huge. But there is nothing in all creation so vast as just looking straight up from wherever you find yourself. Near as we can tell, the sky is truly infinite.

And when I look into the sky, it doesn’t matter if I have my glasses on or no. It all looks the same. Huge beyond compare.

The infinite is very forgiving of our flaws and best attempts.

* *

The Hebrews with their imperfect nickname for the divine. Me with my imperfect eyesight for the infinite. And all of us, running around, stumbling and falling, making these imperfect advances towards God the Father.

And somehow, He is willing to meet us in those imperfections. In fact, when those imperfections meet God, something like holiness comes out of it.

* *

My eyesight is bad, but it’s pristine weighed against the ancients in the middle east, whose corneas were often ruined by the whirring sand. The reason we draw our stars with points is because ancient artists in the East had eyes so scratched and dented that they saw stars as hazy, jagged blobs.

This means, of course, that the famed star that led the Magi to the Christ child was likely not the perfect compass it is generally depicted as. That was merely a trick of the wisemen’s wrecked eyeballs.

And yet. It got them to God.

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  1. Emily Judds

     /  June 30, 2013

    Did you know that for Jews it is sometimes considered one of the signs of Messiah if he knows the real pronunciation of G-d’s name? So cool.

  2. Every time I get an email telling me you have written a new blog I feel excited. I love the way you craft your writing, the sincerity you have and vulnerability in challenging even your own notions of what it is to be a Christ follwer. Thankyou so much, I hope someday I am able to reach the level of skill and influence that you possess in your writing.

    • Oh, I think your writing is exquisite, and I’m very glad our ramblings can encourage each other. Thanks so much for the kind words.

  3. Thank you for this. I am reminded of the words of Rilke:

    “The poets have scattered you.
    A storm ripped through the stammering.
    I want to gather you up again
    in a vessel that makes you glad.”

    Our conception of God will always be in fragments. The elusive whole that is God is available to us only in separate parts. Our work as seekers of God is to gather these rusty metaphors, half-blind revelations, and crumpled clues and artistically piece them together in a whole. The work will never be complete, but it is a compelling journey.

  4. Paula

     /  August 29, 2013

    Refreshing and encouraging. (Read it with my head tilted so I could see through the strongest part of my bifocals.)

  5. “The Hebrews were skittish about writing down God’s name anyway”

    We still exist, you know. We did not disappear in a puff of smoke at the beginning of Church history. Actually, the reluctance to write down or pronounce God’s Name is a post-Biblical phenomenon. It is a superstition that developed over time, including the myth that “nobody knows” what vowels go with the consonants or that the pronunciation was “lost”. In ancient times, YHWH was invoked by name quite a bit, though by the time of the Second Temple, only the High Priest was really supposed to say it aloud, when he went into the Holy of Holies once a year on the Day of Atonement. Then, after the Great Diaspora in the 70s CE, it became the custom to avoid saying it. Actually, it is STILL not at all prohibited to write it down in full–but the issue is that if one DOES write it down, whatever piece of paper or other medium on which it is written becomes a holy object that shouldn’t be put on the floor, etc. That can be inconvenient and, from a traditionalist perspective, incurs additional and unnecessary risk of doing something disrespectful to God. Never mind that even according to tradition, unintentional disrespect cannot be held against anyone.

    I am personally not superstitious about the Tetragrammaton, but I find that using it with caution and awe is a good positive spiritual practice to cultivate reverence for the Most High. I try not to put Bibles or other sacred book on the floor, or put my backpack on the floor when it contains them. This isn’t a legalistic superstition–I don’t think anything will “happen” if I put it on the floor, but I am taking on a voluntary measure of reverence because I want to.

    While fundamentalists undoubtedly believe that the Tetragrammaton was literally revealed to Moses in the burning bush, and in ancient Israel, it was certainly thought to be THE “personal name” of the Deity, for most of Jewish history since then people have generally understood that it’s a holy Name because of its Biblical origin, but that a transcendent God Who is infinitely Other cannot be bound by any pronounceable name in a human language. Still, it’s worth owning the tradition–it’s a beautiful one, even if it doesn’t really reflect God’s ontology.

    Jordan F.

    • I greatly appreciate the history lesson, and certainly did not mean to imply that Jews all vanished once the New Testament only had been canonized—only that the tradition developed in antiquity (something you have clarified.)

      Also, I suppose I should have made more clear, that I agree: it’s a beautiful tradition, one that I wish Protestants would be willing to consider adopting.

      • Thank you for your gracious and comforting response–I should really apologize for having an accusatory and belligerent tone. I am taking a few grad-level courses at a Catholic university before entering Rabbinical seminary, and I was just reading a series of articles on the history of supersessionist theology. The “past tense” feel of that one sentence sort of reminded me of it, and hit a nerve. I know that you could not possibly have meant it that way. Wish I could teleport to wherever you are and give you a hug.

        Peace (for real this time), and God bless.


      • Not at all. You were entirely in the right, and my tone was confusing. My tradition has a long and storied history of marginalizing our Hebrew roots, and it’s not something I have any intention of taking part in. All the best with your studies and, by all means, feel free to correct me whenever my facts are in error.

  1. honey&salt | of general interest | july 12, 2013

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