There is only so much theological bandwidth within me to delay confronting the elephant in the room: There is no English version of the “true name of God”; and if there were, it would not be Jehovah.
Perhaps you sense the strong allusion here to a certain cadre of doctrine crusaders that solicit us at our doors and encamp our public walkways. Yes, I’m talking the Jehovah’s Witnesses, when they use the word Jehovah as a bull roarer of orthodoxy.
This is something that, while I contest at a doctrinal level, I do love about them. They have a passion for proper theology, and it drives their lives, their praxis. While I suggest against being stubborn on one issue over and through, we as Christians do the same thing sometimes. We may pigeonhole our audience by laying down abstruse theologies about the Trinity or supralapsarianism. (I’ll ease it on the new vocabulary now.)
Of all of my conversations with Jehovah’s Witnesses, this is actually not the topic that comes up (or that I myself bring up) the most. Do you know why?
They don’t really know why, or at least can’t articulate or corroborate the evidence for their stance about God’s true, real, bona fide, and exclusively proper name being Jehovah. Let me explain.
YHWH. These are the four letters of God’s name in the Bible. We call this the tetragrammaton: “tetra-” means four, and “gramma-” is “that which is drawn; a picture; a drawing.” In Hebrew, it looks like this:
Starting from right to left, you have YHWH: yod (Y), hey (H), vav/waw (W), hey (H). If you ever hear someone say “yod hey vav hey,” perhaps you’ll get it now!
Okay, so how do you pronounce this? Aha, so here’s what happened.
Long ago, when the Israelites were in thralldom to the Egyptians, and God saw “the misery of [his] people in Egypt,” he appeared to Moses in a bush. God told Moses to go to the Pharaoh and rescue the Israelites, but Moses was like, “Well, what if they ask your name?” God said, “I got you, mate.”
And God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And He said, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you. (Ex. 3:14, NKJV)
Before this, God was always referred to by two words: God (elohim) and Yahweh (YHWH). Here, though, God gives Moses a new “version” of YHWH, which is “eh-yeh.”
As you see above in the quotes, we translate “eh-yeh” as I AM (for in the verse, God says, “eh-yeh asher eh-yeh,” or “I am that/who I am; I will be who I will be”). He is conveying to Moses before he visits his fellow Israelites that God exists and is–as opposed to him being an ethereal being of creative power and authority or an exalted moral conscience.
No. God is and will be. He will there and present. He is here and present.
The names in Scripture God ascribes to himself or are ascribed to him are not, over and through, about communicating propriety; in other words, he isn’t trying to get the Israelites to pronounce it correctly, or use the right vowels or consonants.
He is revealing his character in his name.
- YHWH yireh – The Lord will provide (ex. Gen. 22:14)
- YHWH nissi – The Lord is my banner/standard (ex Ex. 17:15)
- YHWH rapha – The Lord who heals* (ex. Ex. 15:26)
*It actually says “YHWH raphekha,” or “The Lord who heals you,” in speaking to Israel.
- YWHW shama – The Lord is there (ex. Ez. 48:35)
- YHWH roi – The Lord is my shepherd (ex. Ps. 23:1)
- YHWH tsidkenu – The Lord our righteousness (ex. Jer. 23:6)
- YHWH shalom – The Lord is peace (ex. Judg. 6:24)
- YHWH tsebaot – The Lord of hosts* (ex. Ps. 46:7)
*Sometimes translated as “Lord Almighty,” but it’s better to preserve the military connotation of tsebaot; as God is usually ascribed “Almighty” when used in El shaddai (God Almighty, ex. Gen. 17:1).
So then, why the emphasis on Jehovah not being the proper name? “I hear ‘Jehovah rapha’ and ‘Jehovah yireh’ in church all time.”
I only make this point to be firm against the JW claim that Jehovah alone is the only proper name
Here’s how we get from YHWH to Jehovah.
First, take the tetragrammaton. Note that there are no vowels, as vowels were only added by the Masoretes circa 600-1000 AD. (Vowels are little dots above, below, or between the letters, and are in addition to the discrete consonants. They are considered diacritics: vowels are diacritics, called niqqud, as are accent marks, called cantillation.)
Now, we don’t know exactly how to pronounce this word. The early Jews, in remaining reverent of God’s holy name, did not record it, or refused to speak it. They would instead say “Adonai.”
Our pronunciation of “Yahweh” is kind of an educated guess. That’s why many people opt for “Jehovah.” To get Jehovah, we take the word Adonai, or “Lord” (literally “My Lord”).
We grab those vowels/markets above and below each of the letters, and we transfer them to the tetragrammaton (pardon the different font).
Boom. Now we have yeh-ho-wa, or via Latinization, Jehovah.
As we see, it’s difficult to pin down exactly God’s name: for he has many, and the origins of which, especially of Shaddai, are very, very recondite. What I hope you have seen here, though, is that Jehovah’s Witnesses have an exclusive claim to accuracy when they say God’s name is Jehovah. And that’s not tenable.
To be safe, we should probably say “rather, we aren’t too sure.” Using Jehovah is romanizing, late, and convenient patch-work–but it’s not heresy. It is using the research and data we have to construct God’s name for use, and we can be thankful he has revealed all to us.
I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name Lord I was not known to them. (Ex. 6:3)
So the next time you hear a knock on your door and are confronted by Jehovah’s Witnesses… just love them. Don’t argue the name. Just love.