The Divine Name in the Hebrew Scriptures
The divine name, represented by the four Hebrew consonants יהוה, appears nearly 7,000 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. This translation renders those four letters, known as the Tetragrammaton, “Jehovah.” That name is by far the most frequently occurring name in the Bible. While the inspired writers refer to God by many titles and descriptive terms, such as “Almighty,” “Most High,” and “Lord,” the Tetragrammaton is the only personal name they use to identify God.
Jehovah God himself directed Bible writers to use his name. For example, he inspired the prophet Joel to write: “Everyone who calls on the name of Jehovah will be saved.” (Joel 2:32) And God caused one psalmist to write: “May people know that you, whose name is Jehovah, you alone are the Most High over all the earth.” (Psalm 83:18) In fact, the divine name appears some 700 times in the book of Psalms alone—a book of poetic writings that were to be sung and recited by God’s people. Why, then, is God’s name missing from many Bible translations? Why does this translation use the form “Jehovah”? And what does the divine name, Jehovah, mean?
Why is the name missing from many Bible translations? The reasons vary. Some feel that Almighty God does not need a unique name to identify him. Others appear to have been influenced by the Jewish tradition of avoiding the use of the name, perhaps out of fear of desecrating it. Still others believe that since no one can be sure of the exact pronunciation of God’s name, it is better just to use a title, such as “Lord” or “God.” Such objections, however, lack merit for the following reasons:
Those who argue that Almighty God does not need a unique name ignore evidence that early copies of his Word, including those preserved from before the time of Christ, contain God’s personal name. As noted above, God directed that his name be included in his Word some 7,000 times. Obviously, he wants us to know and use his name.
Translators who remove the name out of deference to Jewish tradition fail to recognize a key fact. While some Jewish scribes refused to pronounce the name, they did not remove it from their copies of the Bible. Ancient scrolls found in Qumran, near the Dead Sea, contain the name in many places. Some Bible translators hint that the divine name appeared in the original text by substituting the title “LORD” in capital letters. But the question remains, Why have these translators felt free to substitute or remove God’s name from the Bible when they acknowledge that it is found in the Bible text thousands of times? Who do they believe gave them authority to make such a change? Only they can say.
Those who say that the divine name should not be used because it is not known exactly how to pronounce it will nevertheless freely use the name Jesus. However, Jesus’ first-century disciples said his name quite differently from the way most Christians do today. To Jewish Christians, the name Jesus was probably pronounced Ye·shuʹa‛. And the title “Christ” was Ma·shiʹach, or “Messiah.” Greek-speaking Christians called him I·e·sousʹ Khri·stosʹ, and Latin-speaking Christians Ieʹsus Chriʹstus. Under inspiration, the Greek translation of his name was recorded in the Bible, showing that first-century Christians followed the sensible course of using the form of the name common in their language. Similarly, the New World Bible Translation Committee feels that it is reasonable to use the form “Jehovah,” even though that rendering is not exactly the way the divine name would have been pronounced in ancient Hebrew.
Why does the New World Translation use the form “Jehovah”? In English, the four letters of the Tetragrammaton (יהוה) are represented by the consonants YHWH. As was true of all written words in ancient Hebrew, the Tetragrammaton contained no vowels. When ancient Hebrew was in everyday use, readers easily provided the appropriate vowels.
About a thousand years after the Hebrew Scriptures were completed, Jewish scholars developed a system of pronunciation points, or signs, by which to indicate what vowels to use when reading Hebrew. By that time, though, many Jews had the superstitious idea that it was wrong to say God’s personal name out loud, so they used substitute expressions. Thus, it seems that when they copied the Tetragrammaton, they combined the vowels for the substitute expressions with the four consonants representing the divine name. Therefore, the manuscripts with those vowel points do not help in determining how the name was originally pronounced in Hebrew. Some feel that the name was pronounced “Yahweh,” whereas others suggest different possibilities. A Dead Sea Scroll containing a portion of Leviticus in Greek transliterates the divine name Iao. Besides that form, early Greek writers also suggest the pronunciations Iae, I·a·beʹ, and I·a·ou·eʹ. However, there is no reason to be dogmatic. We simply do not know how God’s ancient servants pronounced this name in Hebrew. (Genesis 13:4; Exodus 3:15) What we do know is that God used his name repeatedly in communication with his people, that they addressed him by that name, and that they used it freely in speaking with others.—Exodus 6:2; 1 Kings 8:23; Psalm 99:9.
Why, then, does this translation use the form “Jehovah”? Because that form of the divine name has a long history in the English language.
The first rendering of God’s personal name in an English Bible appeared in 1530 in William Tyndale’s translation of the Pentateuch. He used the form “Iehouah.” Over time, the English language changed, and the spelling of the divine name was modernized. For example, in 1612, Henry Ainsworth used the form “Iehovah” throughout his translation of the book of Psalms. Then, in 1639, when that work was revised and printed with the Pentateuch, the form “Jehovah” was used. In 1901, the translators who produced the American Standard Version of the Bible used the form “Jehovah” where the divine name appeared in the Hebrew text.
Explaining why he used “Jehovah” instead of “Yahweh” in his 1911 work Studies in the Psalms, respected Bible scholar Joseph Bryant Rotherham said that he wanted to employ a “form of the name more familiar (while perfectly acceptable) to the general Bible-reading public.” In 1930 scholar A. F. Kirkpatrick made a similar point regarding the use of the form “Jehovah.” He said: “Modern grammarians argue that it ought to be read Yahveh or Yahaveh; but JEHOVAH seems firmly rooted in the English language, and the really important point is not the exact pronunciation, but the recognition that it is a Proper Name, not merely an appellative title like ‘Lord.’”
What is the meaning of the name Jehovah? In Hebrew, the name Jehovah comes from a verb that means “to become,” and a number of scholars feel that it reflects the causative form of that Hebrew verb. Thus, the understanding of the New World Bible Translation Committee is that God’s name means “He Causes to Become.” Scholars hold varying views, so we cannot be dogmatic about this meaning. However, this definition well fits Jehovah’s role as the Creator of all things and the Fulfiller of his purpose. He not only caused the physical universe and intelligent beings to exist, but as events unfold, he continues to cause his will and purpose to be realized.
Therefore, the meaning of the name Jehovah is not limited to the related verb found at Exodus 3:14, which reads: “I Will Become What I Choose to Become” or, “I Will Prove to Be What I Will Prove to Be.” In the strictest sense, those words do not fully define God’s name. Rather, they reveal an aspect of God’s personality, showing that he becomes what is needed in each circumstance to fulfill his purpose. So while the name Jehovah may include this idea, it is not limited to what he himself chooses to become. It also includes what he causes to happen with regard to his creation and the accomplishment of his purpose.