The full and proper name of the Lord of Israel, written with four consonants YHWH, known as the Tetragrammaton. Its form and meaning and the history of the sacred Tetragrammaton are considered in this article.
It appears only twice outside the Bible: in the 9th-century (b.c.) mesha Inscription and in the 6th-century (b.c.) Lachis Letters (J. B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts relating to the Old Testament 320, 322). A shortened form yhw or yāhû appears at the end of names, e.g., Isaiah (y eša'yāhû ), both in the Bible and in the 5th-century Elephantine Papyri. The form yh is used in names, e.g., 'ăbiyyâ, and in poetical passages, or liturgical formulas, e.g., hal elûyāh [Ps 103 (104).35]. The name occurs in other abbreviated forms (y ehô-, yô-, yē -) in many compound proper names.
Judging from Greek transcriptions of the sacred name (ιαβε, ιαουι), YHWH ought to be pronounced Yahweh. The pronunciation jehovah was unknown in ancient Jewish circles, and is based upon a later misunderstanding of the scribal practice of using the vowels of the word Adonai with the consonants of YHWH.
Great diversity of opinion prevails as to the meaning of the word Yahweh. For some it is an acclamation (Yah! ) meaning "It is he!" But this does scant justice to the revelatory character of the name. Others trace the word to hyh or hwh, the verb "to be." The Lord, speaking to Moses from the burning bush (Ex 3.14), revealed His name to Moses by saying "I am who am." In relaying this information to the people, Moses would have had to resort to the use of the third person singular form "He is who he is." Some scholars consider the Lord's reply a refusal to answer Moses' question (for an analogous reply in the negative, see Ex 33.19–23). This view however runs counter to Moses' subsequent behavior, for he proffers the divine name as justifying his mission; the name ought therefore to be considered a true reply, containing in it a revelation of the Lord's true nature (see god, name of). Yahweh is not a blind force but a person. Because He is always what He is, He is perfectly reliable, unchanging. Always present, He manifests His saving interest in His people, and is ready to help them. The Egyptians and all other peoples shall know from His actions "that I am Yahweh" (see Ex 7.5 and passim ).
Some translate the name by "I shall be what I was," which would bring out the Lord's eternity; but this view is not consistent with the context, or even a good translation, for as both verbs are in the imperfect, both should be rendered in the same way. Still others consider the divine answer to be a revelation of God's essential nature as an Ens a se in whom all being is to be found in all its fullness. This view, however, attributes to the Hebrews a philosophical awareness that they did not possess.
All these explanations, however, overlook the fact that in Ex 3.14 a merely folk etymology of the name, based on the qal form of the verb "to be," is given. Grammatically, because of its vocalization, yahweh can only be a hi'phîl or causative form of this verb, with the meaning "He causes to be, He brings into being." Probably, therefore, yahweh is an abbreviated form of the longer yahweh 'ăšr yihweh, "He brings into being whatever exists." The name, therefore, describes the God of Israel as the Creator of the universe.
According to many texts (Gn 4.26; 9.26; 12.8; 26.25, etc.) the name of Yahweh was known before the flood and by the Patriarchs. These cases are scribal anticipations of the name revealed to Moses (see yahwist), and thus another way of affirming the identity of Yahweh with the God worshiped as El, or El-Shaddai, or Elohim. The name yôkebed in Moses' genealogy (Ex 6.20; Nm 26.59) is a Yahwistic theophoric name but yō -has probably been substituted for some other name of God by the priestly writers. Hosea also suggests (12.9; 13.4) that God was known as Yahweh only from the time of the Exodus. A Madianite or Cinite origin of the name has not been proved.
Sometime after the end of the Exile, the name Yahweh began to be considered with special reverence, and the practice arose of substituting for it the word adonai or elohim. Such reverence for the divine name may have been prompted by a religious scruple or by the fear that by being named, the Lord might seem to be put on a par with pagan deities, who also had personal names. In any case, the practice led in time to forgetfulness of the proper pronunciation of the name Yahweh. It is interesting to note that the name Yahweh does not appear in Ecclesiastes, is used in Daniel only in 9.1–20, and is often replaced by Elohim in Ps 41 (42)–82 (83). In the Dead Sea Scrolls (1QS 6, 27 and 1QpHb) the name is written in archaic letters.
Bibliography: h. gross, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 1957–65); suppl., Das Zweite Vatikanische Konzil: Dokumente und kommentare, ed. h. s. brechter et al., pt. 1 (1966) 4:1127–29; 6:713. w. eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, tr. j. a. baker (London 1961–). e. jacob, Theology of the Old Testament, tr. a. w. heathcote and p. j. allcock (New York 1958). j. p. e. pedersen, Israel: Its Life and Culture, 4 v. in 2 (New York 1926–40; reprint 1959). p. van imschoot, Théologie de l'ancien Testament (Tournai 1954–). t. vriezen, An Outline of Old Testament Theology, tr. s. neuijen (Newton Centre, MA 1958).
[r. t. a. murphy]