What Happened to God’s Name?
THE woman mentioned on the last page was used to Bibles that read “LORD” and “God” in many of the places where she now found “Jehovah.”
But when the minister kindly reasoned with her that LORD is a title, not a personal name, she agreed. Then he referred to Isaiah 42:8, which in many Bibles reads: “I am the LORD, that is my name; and my glory will I not give to another.” (An American Translation) She commented that LORD obviously meant the Creator, but acknowledged that it is not a name. Since this verse speaks of God’s “name,” what is that name?
To appreciate the answer, we need to examine briefly some facts about the Bible, which was written originally in Hebrew and Greek. Even if you are not usually concerned with these details, briefly consider the following, for it has a bearing on our later consideration of God’s name and yours.
In the original Hebrew at Isaiah 42:8 you will find, instead of a word for the title “Lord,” these four Hebrew letters that are God’s name יהוה (modern style Hebrew). They are often called the Tetragrammaton (meaning, “four letters”) and are represented in English by YHWH or JHVH. The most common English pronunciations for the Tetragrammaton are “Jehovah” and “Yahweh.” (More will be said about this later.)
God’s ancient Hebrew people had great regard for His name and they made use of it. It was highlighted in the Bible, occurring over 6,900 times. Can you see what that means? God’s name was constantly before true worshipers as they read the “word” of God or heard it read. (Josh. 1:8; 8:34, 35) For instance, Moses commanded the people to gather regularly to listen to the reading of the law in Deuteronomy, which meant hearing God’s name over 500 times. (Deut. 31:10-12) Also, it seems that Psalms 113 to 118 were sung by each family at every Passover. In the 29 verses of Psalm 118 alone, the personal name of God would be sung 22 times.—Compare Matthew 26:30.
WHY DID THEY STOP USING HIS NAME?
The Hebrew worshipers had abundant reasons to make use of God’s name. The Bible exhorted them to “call upon his name,” and to ‘love his name.’ (Isa. 12:4; Ps. 69:36) Despite that, at some rather late point, the Jews began superstitiously to avoid pronouncing that sacred name. In reading the Bible, as they came to it, they said Adonay (LORD) or Elohim (God). But why?
Some say that this resulted from a fear of misusing the sacred name of God. It is true that the Ten Commandments said that his name was not to be taken up in a worthless way. (Ex. 20:7) That clearly ruled out any flippant or fraudulent use of the name. And Leviticus 24:16 commanded that any abuser of God’s name, whether a native Hebrew or an alien resident, was to be put to death. But that meant to avoid abusing it, not to avoid using it. Thus, the evidence indicates that during much of the Biblical period ordinary Hebrews did use God’s name, both in religious activities and respectfully in daily aspects of life.
For example, in 1961, an ancient burial cave was uncovered some 20 miles (32 kilometers) southwest of Jerusalem. The cave appears to date from the time of King Hezekiah (745-716 B.C.E.). On its walls were Hebrew inscriptions using the Tetragrammaton, such as “Jehovah is the God of the whole earth.” And, in 1966, there was published a report on pottery fragments with writing on them that were found at Arad, in southern Israel. One of them, which you see, was a private letter in the Hebrew language from a subordinate to Eliashib. The letter began: “To my lord Eliashib, Yahweh may ask for thy peace. And now . . .”—Israel Exploration Journal, Vol. 13, No. 2, pp. 74-92; Vol. 16, No. 1, pp. 1-7.
In view of the fact that many ancient Hebrews even used the divine name in settings that were not exclusively religious, one might wonder when the superstitious avoidance of it developed. Actually, no one today can say for sure. Some have held, on the basis of Jewish rabbinical writings, that the name was not used in the first century when Jesus was on earth. But if the superstitious avoidance of it was spreading then, it does not mean that God’s personal name was never used. In this regard, Dr. M. Reisel wrote: “The Tetragrammaton must have been pronounced by the High Priest until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.”
You may wonder, though, about Jesus and his apostles. Would they have used God’s name in writing, speech or in reading the Scriptures? For example, what about the time when Jesus stood up in the synagogue in Nazareth and read Isaiah 61:1? The Tetragrammaton appears in the Hebrew text, which begins: “The spirit of the Lord Yahweh has been given to me, . . .” (Jerusalem Bible) Do you think that, even if some superstitious Jews declined to pronounce the divine name, Jesus would intentionally avoid it? Remember that he said: “I have made your name manifest to the men you gave me out of the world.”—John 17:6.
The account of what Jesus said when reading Isaiah 61:1 is found in Luke 4:18, 19. If you look up these verses in any widely distributed English version other than the New World Translation, you will not see God’s personal name. You will find, instead, that Jesus is presented as reading: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me . . .”—An American Translation.
Do you imagine that to be what Jesus said? Why is it that most Bibles say “the Lord” here rather than using God’s personal name? The answer involves a recent investigation that has all the intriguing interest of a detective story. We invite you to follow the trail and note some of the surprising clues that have been discovered.
[Picture on page 5]
Tetragrammaton in ancient pottery-shard letter