The Fight Against God’s Name
HIS name was Hananiah ben Teradion. He was a Jewish scholar of the second century C.E., and he was known for holding open meetings where he taught from the Sefer Torah, a scroll containing the first five books of the Bible. Ben Teradion was also known for using the personal name of God and teaching it to others. Considering that the first five books of the Bible contain the name of God more than 1,800 times, how could he teach the Torah without teaching about God’s name?
Ben Teradion’s day, however, was a dangerous time for Jewish scholars. According to Jewish historians, the Roman emperor had made it illegal under penalty of death to teach or practice Judaism. Eventually, the Romans arrested Ben Teradion. At his arrest he was holding a copy of the Sefer Torah. When responding to his accusers, he candidly admitted that in teaching the Bible, he was merely obeying a divine command. Still, he received the death sentence.
On the day of his execution, Ben Teradion was wrapped in the very scroll of the Bible that he was holding when arrested. Then he was burned at the stake. The Encyclopaedia Judaica says that “in order to prolong his agony tufts of wool soaked in water were placed over his heart so that he should not die quickly.” As part of his punishment, his wife was also executed and his daughter sold to a brothel.
Although the Romans were responsible for this brutal execution of Ben Teradion, the Talmud* states that “the punishment of being burnt came upon him because he pronounced the Name in its full spelling.” Yes, to the Jews, pronouncing the personal name of God was indeed a serious transgression.
The Third Commandment
Evidently, during the first and second centuries C.E., a superstition regarding the use of God’s name took hold among the Jews. The Mishnah (a collection of rabbinic commentaries that became the foundation of the Talmud) states that “one who pronounces the divine name as it is spelt” has no portion in the future earthly Paradise promised by God.
What was the origin of such a prohibition? Some claim that the Jews considered the name of God too sacred for imperfect humans to pronounce. Eventually, there was a hesitancy even to write the name. According to one source, that fear arose because of a concern that the document in which the name was written might later end up in the trash, resulting in a desecration of the divine name.
The Encyclopaedia Judaica says that “the avoidance of pronouncing the name YHWH . . . was caused by a misunderstanding of the Third Commandment.” The third of the Ten Commandments given by God to the Israelites states: “You must not take up the name of Jehovah your God in a worthless way, for Jehovah will not leave the one unpunished who takes up his name in a worthless way.” (Exodus 20:7) Hence, God’s decree against the improper use of his name was twisted into a superstition.
Surely, no one today claims that God would have someone burned at the stake for pronouncing the divine name! Yet, Jewish superstitions regarding God’s personal name still survive. Many continue to refer to the Tetragrammaton as the “Ineffable Name” and the “Unutterable Name.” In some circles all references to God are intentionally mispronounced to avoid violating the tradition. For example, Jah, or Yah, an abbreviation for God’s personal name, is pronounced Kah. Hallelujah is pronounced Hallelukah. Some even avoid writing out the term “God,” substituting a dash for one or more letters. For instance, when they wish to write the English word “God,” they actually write “G-d.”
Further Efforts to Hide the Name
Judaism is by no means the only religion that avoids using the name of God. Consider the case of Jerome, a Catholic priest and secretary to Pope Damasus I. In the year 405 C.E., Jerome completed his work on a translation of the entire Bible into Latin, which became known as the Latin Vulgate. Jerome did not include God’s name in his translation. Rather, following a practice of his time, he substituted the words “Lord” and “God” for the divine name. The Latin Vulgate became the first authorized Catholic Bible translation and the basis for many other translations in several languages.
For instance, the Douay Version, a 1610 Catholic translation, was basically a Latin Vulgate translated into English. It is no surprise, then, that this Bible did not include God’s personal name at all. However, the Douay Version was not just another Bible translation. It became the only authorized Bible for English-speaking Catholics until the 1940’s. Yes, for hundreds of years, the name of God was hidden from millions of devoted Catholics.
Consider also the King James Version. In 1604 the king of England, James I, commissioned a group of scholars to produce an English version of the Bible. Some seven years later, they released the King James Version, also known as the Authorized Version.
In this case too, the translators chose to avoid the divine name, using it in just a few verses. In most instances God’s name was replaced by the word “LORD” or “GOD” to represent the Tetragrammaton. This version became the standard Bible for millions. The World Book Encyclopedia states that “no important English translations of the Bible appeared for more than 200 years after the publication of the King James Version. During this time, the King James Version was the most widely used translation in the English-speaking world.”
The above are just three of the many Bible translations published over the past centuries that omit or downplay the name of God. It is no wonder that the vast majority of professed Christians today hesitate to use the divine name or do not know it at all. Granted, over the years some Bible translators have included the personal name of God in their versions. Most of these, however, have been published in more recent times and with minimal impact on the popular attitudes toward God’s name.
A Practice in Conflict With God’s Will
The widespread failure to use God’s name is based strictly on human tradition and not on Bible teachings. “Nothing in the Torah prohibits a person from pronouncing the Name of God. Indeed, it is evident from scripture that God’s Name was pronounced routinely,” explains Jewish researcher Tracey R. Rich, author of the Internet site Judaism 101. Yes, in Bible times God’s worshipers used his name.
Clearly, knowing God’s name and using it brings us closer to the approved way of worshiping him, the way he was worshiped in Bible times. This can be our first step in establishing a personal relationship with him, which is much better than simply knowing what his name is. Jehovah God actually invites us to have such a relationship with him. He inspired the warm invitation: “Draw close to God, and he will draw close to you.” (James 4:8) You may ask, however, ‘How could mortal man enjoy such intimacy with Almighty God?’ The following article explains how you can develop a relationship with Jehovah.
The Talmud is a compilation of ancient Jewish tradition and is regarded as one of the most sacred and influential written works of the Jewish religion.
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What comes to your mind when you hear the term “Hallelujah”? Perhaps it reminds you of Handel’s “Messiah,” a musical masterpiece from the 1700’s that features the dramatic Hallelujah chorus. Or you may think of the famous American patriotic song “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” also known as “Glory, Hallelujah.” Surely, from one source or another, you have heard the word “Hallelujah.” Perhaps you even use it from time to time. But do you know what it means?
Hallelujah—The English transliteration of the Hebrew expression ha·lelu-Yahʹ, meaning “praise Jah,” or “praise Jah, you people.”
Jah—A poetic shortened form of the name of God, Jehovah. It appears in the Bible more than 50 times, often as part of the expression “Hallelujah.”
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God’s Name in Your Name?
Many Bible names are still popular today. In some cases the original Hebrew meaning of these names actually included the personal name of God. Here are a few examples of such names and their meaning. Perhaps your name is one of them.
Joanna—“Jehovah Has Been Gracious”
Joel—“Jehovah Is God”
John—“Jehovah Has Shown Favor”
Jonathan—“Jehovah Has Given”
Joseph—“May Jah Add”*
Joshua—“Jehovah Is Salvation”
“Jah” is an abbreviated form of “Jehovah.”
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Bible Terms for God
The Hebrew text of the Holy Scriptures uses numerous terms for God, such as Almighty, Creator, Father, and Lord. Yet, the instances in which he is referred to by his personal name far outnumber all of the other terms combined. Clearly, it is God’s will that we use his name. Consider the following list of terms as they appear in the Hebrew Scriptures.*
Ancient of Days—3 times
Grand Instructor—2 times
Approximate number of occurrences as they appear in the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
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A God Who Makes Things Happen
Scholars are not in full agreement as to the meaning of God’s name, Jehovah. After extensive research on the subject, however, many believe that the name is a form of the Hebrew verb ha·wahʹ (become), meaning “He Causes to Become.”
Hence, in the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures,* the account at Exodus 3:14, where Moses asked God his name, is translated this way: “At this God said to Moses: ‘I shall prove to be what I shall prove to be.’ And he added: ‘This is what you are to say to the sons of Israel, “I shall prove to be has sent me to you.”’”
That rendering is appropriate because God is able to cause himself to become whatever he needs to be. Nothing can stop him from fulfilling whatever role is needed to accomplish his will. His purposes and promises always become reality. Outstandingly, God proved to be the Creator, the one with unlimited ability to make things happen. He caused the physical universe to come into existence. He also created myriads of spirit creatures. Truly, he is a God who makes things happen!
Published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
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A relief depicting the execution of Hananiah ben Teradion
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Places Where the Name of God Is Prominently Displayed
1. A church in Lomborg, Denmark, 17th century
2. Stained-glass window, cathedral of Bern, Switzerland
3. Dead Sea Scroll, in early Hebrew script, Israel, c. 30-50 C.E.
Shrine of the Book, Israel Museum, Jerusalem
4. Swedish coin, 1600
Kungl. Myntkabinettet, Sveriges Ekonomiska Museum
5. German prayer book, 1770
From the book Die Lust der Heiligen an Jehova. Oder: Gebaet-Buch, 1770
6. Stone inscription, Bavaria, Germany
7. Moabite Stone, Paris, France, 830 B.C.E.
Musée du Louvre, Paris
8. Church dome painting, Olten, Switzerland