The Tetragrammaton (יהוה) is the most popular form of the name of God in the Hebrew Bible. According to the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon (BDB), the name יהוה appears 6,518 times in the text of the Bible as יְהוָֹה (that is, אֲדֹנָי) and 305 times as יְהוִֹה (that is, אֱלֹהִים). This makes it one of the most common words, appearing 6,823 times in the Bible, as opposed to these other extremely common terms: אֱלֹהִים “God/god” (2,570×), אֶ֫רֶץ “land” (2,507×), יִשְׂרָאֵל “Israel” (2,505×), and even the verbs עָשָׂה “do, make” (2,622×) and הָיָה “be” (3,570×).
By convention, the name יהוה is rendered “the Lord” (in small caps) in most Bible translations, as we find in the first appearance of the name in the Bible in the book of Genesis:
We should understand that “the Lord” is not a translation of the name, nor is it a transliteration of it. It is actually a reflection of the convention of replacing the name so that it is not read. In Greek translations, it was most common since the Christian era to render יהוה as κύριος (kürios) “Lord,” just as it was rendered with Dominus “Lord” in Latin. Before that, it seems that Jewish translations of the Scriptures into Greek used ΙΑΩ “Yaho/ Yahu” or simply placed the Tetragrammaton in the text in Paleo-Hebrew letters. The following is an example of the substitutionary use of κύριος and Dominus in Greek and Latin, respectively:
With the discovery of many biblical texts among the Dead Sea Scrolls, we had to correct some of our thinking about when and why these words came to replace the Name in the body of the Bible. “The great Christian codices—Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus, and Vaticanus—which were used initially to establish the Old Greek text, all have kurios” (Winkinson, 2015, p. 50), but there were Greek texts among the DSS that showed other tendencies.
In the first chapter of his book, Wilkinson (2015) describes several ways in which different scribes dealt with the Tetragrammaton in their copies of both Greek and Hebrew texts found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. In some texts, the Name was written in normal Hebrew letters in spots between Greek words. In others, it was in Paleo-Hebrew. In others still, it was written as the Greek characters ΙΑΩ. The treatment of the Name is not uniform, though over time it came to be rendered exclusively by “the Lord” in each language. In Hebrew, it was replaced by אֲדֹנָי in speech and reading (until even that became too holy in many people’s minds); in Greek, it was replaced with κύριος, as was mentioned as the most common way of rendering the name in Greek; and, in Latin, it was replaced by Dominus.
This is due to the religious restriction on its pronunciation since the early days of Second-Temple Judaism. It is said that the restriction of the pronunciation of the Name may also have been one of the impetuses that led to the Hellenization of Judaism (which created the background against which Christianity developed) (cf. Wilkinson, 2015, pp. 52–53). Of course, that prohibition was not always in place. When the Bible was being written, people used the name all the time. We see in the book of רוּת (Ruth) that the name was included in common greetings.
This is a simple greeting as Boaz was walking through the field, and we have no reason to think that they said anything in place of the name. It must have been extremely common, just as any other people would use their deity’s name in giving a blessing to their fellows.
The prohibition on the pronunciation of the name was not inherent to the concept of Torah and observance of the מִצְוֺת miṣvōṯ “commandments.” After all, the authors of the sacred documents “surely attached as much importance to the written as to the spoken word, and the same motives that restrained them from uttering the Name would serve to restrain them from writing it down” (Lauterbach, 41). From this, we should be able to conclude that if the authors were writing it, the people were saying it.
In fact, in most cases the authors of Scripture did not realize that they were writing Holy Writ. They thought that they were writing poems or national history. The inclusion of the name in written form at all indicates that they had no compunction about writing the name, and we can rest very well assured that they had no problem speaking it either, despite pious protestations to the contrary.
However, at some point early on in the period of the Second Temple, the concept took hold that the name of God should literally be sanctified, that it should be regarded as so sacred that no one should dare pronounce it out loud. What we know is that from the time of the Babylonian exile (גָּלוּת בָּבֶל) reverence for the sanctity of the name “grew to such an extent that its use was more and more restricted” (Kohler, 26), even to the point that knowledge of its pronunciation had essentially “fallen into oblivion” (Kohler, 28).
For the rest of this paper, I want to look at different aspects of Hebrew that influence my opinion on how the name should and should not be pronounced. Each of the following questions can be opened to review the argument as regards the specific issue, and the conclusion follows these points at the bottom of the page.
- Why are the attached prepositions significant to the question of the pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton?
- Aren’t the vowels on יְהוָֹה really different from the vowels on אֲדֹנָי?
- Why is יְהוָֹה generally written without the cholam (יְהוָה) in the Masoretic Text?
- Don’t the theophoric names like יְהוֹנָתָן Yəhônāṯān and נְתַנְיָ֫הוּ Nəṯanyā́hû confirm that we should read יְהוָֹה as Yəhōvâ?
- What about that one instance of הֲ־לַיְהוָה (or הַ לְיְהוָה) in Deuteronomy 32:6 and Gordon’s “B-52 Bomber”?
- What was most likely the original pronunciation of the name?
To summarize: The attached prepositions demonstrate that the Tetragrammaton was not originally pronounced as יְהוָֹה Yəhōvâ, since it would need to be pointed as לִיהוָֹה and מִיהוָֹה (among others), but that is not what we find in the Bible. Indeed, we can be sure that the vowels that appear on יהוה represent that it should be read either as אֲדֹנָי or as אֱלֹהִים, depending on the context. This is stressed even further by the lack of the cholam on יְהוָה in imitation of the pointing of אֲדנָי in the Aleppo Codex. That said, we should not be persuaded by the argument that the theophoric names indicate the specific pronunciation of Yəhōvâ. In fact, we have every reason to reject this pronunciation, and the scholarly suggestion of Yahweh or Yahveh is on much better footing, even with its weaknesses, than Yehovah could ever be. We should probably understand יָ֫הוּ Yā́hû (that is, יָהּ Yāh with the nominative case ending וּ û) as the original pronunciation, which led to the rest of the forms over time.
Brown, F., Driver, S., Briggs, C. (2000). The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English lexicon. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson. (BDB)
Gesenius, W. (2006). Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar. (A. E. Cowley, Trans.; E. Kautzsch, Ed.). Mineola, NY: Dover Publications. (Originally published in 1813)
Gordon, N. (2003). Pronunciation of the Name. Retrieved from http://obohu.cz/attachments/article/95/Vyslovnost_Jmena-Nehemia_Gordon_EN.pdf
——. (2014). Information Unleashed [YouTube video]. Open Door Series. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/8BrNaj16_WU
Kohler, K. (1919). The Tetragrammaton (Shem ham-M’forash) and Its Uses. Journal of Jewish Lore and Philosophy. 1(1), 19–32. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/42956616
Lauterbach, J. (1931). Substitutes for the Tetragrammaton. Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research. 2, 39–67. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/3622131
Levy, J. H. (1902). Tetra(?)grammaton. The Jewish Quarterly Review. 15(1), 97–99. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/1450497
Seow, C. L. (1995). A Grammar for Biblical Hebrew (Revised Ed.). Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
Wilkinson, R. J. (2015). Tetragrammaton: Western Christians and the Hebrew Name of God: From the Beginnings to the Seventeenth Century. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill.