God’s Name in Early History
GOD, the Power behind the universe, is a real Person. Moreover, we have seen that he has an exclusive, personal name—Jehovah (or, Yahweh—in Hebrew, YHWH).
But what about the historical background of that name? What light can history throw on the divine name?
EARLY HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
Let us return to the 16th century B.C.E. The Israelites are in Egypt suffering under the harsh rule of Pharaoh. Moses is commissioned by Jehovah to request freedom for Israel. To show in whose name Moses should act and speak, God says to him: “This is what you are to say to the sons of Israel, ‘Jehovah the God of your forefathers . . . has sent me to you.’ This is my name to time indefinite.”—Ex. 3:15.
But Pharaoh himself later refuses to listen, saying: “Who is Jehovah . . . ? I do not know Jehovah.” (Ex. 5:2) After several plagues, God tells Pharaoh: “For this cause I have kept you in existence, for the sake of showing you my power and in order to have my name declared in all the earth.”—Ex. 9:16.
The first five books of the Bible, which contain the aforementioned record, are full of references to God’s personal name. It occurs 550 times in the Hebrew text of Deuteronomy alone. The name was used not only by priests and Levites. Moses wrote: “Listen, O Israel: Jehovah our God is one Jehovah. And you must love Jehovah your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your vital force. And these words that I am commanding you today must prove to be on your heart; and you must inculcate them in your son and speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road and when you lie down and when you get up.” (Deut. 6:4-7) Unquestionably, God’s exalted name was used freely in family worship in those days.
REIGN OF KING DAVID
In the reign of King David, the use of the name Jehovah reached new and glorious heights. Under divine inspiration, David wrote many beautiful psalms, or songs of praise, to Jehovah. David also organized a large temple orchestra and chorus involving thousands of singers and players. They regularly played and sang beautiful, moving songs of praise to Jehovah, ‘making melody to his name.’—Ps. 68:4.
Was Jehovah displeased with all this public and family use of his name? Did he condemn David and his contemporaries in the terms of the third commandment: “You must not take up the name of Jehovah your God in a worthless way”? (Ex. 20:7) Obviously not! David was richly blessed by God and his reign was highly successful.
Approximately five centuries later, Jehovah’s faithful prophet Malachi used the Tetragrammaton (the four Hebrew letters of God’s name) 48 times in the four short chapters of his prophecy. In part, the word of Jehovah spoken through Malachi was: “From the sun’s rising even to its setting my name will be great among the nations.” And the point is repeated for emphasis—“‘My name will be great among the nations,’ Jehovah of armies has said.”—Mal. 1:1, 11.
Note also what Malachi wrote concerning some of the priests of his day: “‘A son, for his part, honors a father; and a servant, his grand master. So if I am a father, where is the honor to me? And if I am a grand master, where is the fear of me?’ Jehovah of armies has said to you, O priests who are despising my name.”—Mal. 1:6.
The context shows that the priests were not guilty of failing to use God’s name but were showing disrespect for it by offering unacceptable sacrifices. The Hebrew Scriptures and other writings of that period show that Jehovah’s name was widely used. For example, documents (called the Elephantine Papyri) dating from the fifth century B.C.E. and from a Jewish colony in Upper Egypt contain the divine name. However, there is some evidence that before Jerusalem’s destruction by the Romans, there developed a superstitious tendency to avoid using the divine name.* This may have been due to an extremist, fanatical interpretation of the third commandment—not to use God’s name in a worthless way. (Ex. 20:7) But when God gave that command, did he mean that his name should never be used except on rare, special occasions, perhaps only at the sanctuary? That could not be the case, for when the divine name was widely used (as in David’s day), God’s blessing was very evident in Israel. But divine blessing was conspicuously absent from that nation as a whole at the time of Jesus Christ’s life and ministry on earth when God’s name had gone out of use due to the religious tradition of the Jews. The Jewish religious leaders of that day had become so alienated from God and his principles that not only did they shroud his name in secrecy but they also made themselves responsible for the death of his beloved Son. Not many years later, in 70 C.E., the Jews paid a terrible price for this when their temple and the holy city of Jerusalem were destroyed by the Roman armies.
WHAT DID CHRIST AND HIS DISCIPLES DO?
Did Jesus Christ and his disciples follow the Jewish tradition concerning God’s name? In a fearless way, Jesus condemned the tradition of the Pharisees and scribes, freeing his disciples from such spiritually deadening influences. He said to those “hypocrites”: “Why is it you also overstep the commandment of God because of your tradition? . . . You have made the word of God invalid because of your tradition.”—Matt. 15:3-9.
Did Jesus and his disciples, then, use God’s name freely? Assuredly so, for they all quoted frequently from the Scriptures that contained Jehovah’s name. They often used the Septuagint Version, a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek that began to be prepared in Alexandria about the third century B.C.E., copies of which still contained the Tetragrammaton. True, copies of the Septuagint Version made centuries later followed the Jewish tradition of omitting God’s name. But scrolls or portions of the Greek Septuagint dating from Jesus’ time on earth contain the Tetragrammaton in Hebrew characters.—See The Watchtower of May 1, 1978, pp. 6-8.
Jesus himself clearly indicated that he used the divine name. For instance, he said in prayer to his Father: “I have made your name manifest to the men you gave me out of the world. . . . I have made your name known to them and will make it known.” (John 17:6, 26) Moreover, Jesus taught his followers to pray: “Our Father in the heavens, let your name be sanctified.” (Matt. 6:9) Why would Jesus make those statements unless he had used God’s name?
Thus God’s name was widely used by his new chosen people, spiritual Israel, the Christian congregation. (Gal. 6:16) That is why certain translations of the Greek Scriptures (the “New Testament”) do include Jehovah’s name. For example, this is true of the Greek Scriptures in Hebrew, by Franz Delitzsch (1877); The Emphatic Diaglott, by Benjamin Wilson (1864); The Christian’s Bible—New Testament, by George N. LeFevre (1928), and the New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures (1950), as well as other translations. In contrast, the majority of translations have followed the tradition of the Jews and have omitted God’s name.
Not long after Jesus’ day, the foretold apostasy began to corrupt the true Christian doctrine and spirit. (2 Thess. 2:3; 2 Pet. 2:1-3) As the long night of the “Dark Ages” set in, the use of the divine name faded out.* For many centuries, the very knowledge of God’s name was mainly confined to the cloister—available only to such scholars as monks.
How, then, did the divine name become known world wide, as it is today?
Many Jewish religious leaders of the first century C.E. were strongly influenced by pagan Greek philosophy. For example, Philo, a Jewish philosopher of Alexandria, believed that Plato, the famous Greek philosopher, was divinely inspired and taught that God was indefinable and, hence, unnameable.
For over 1,000 years the theology of Christendom was molded by the teachings of Plato. See A History of Europe, by H. A. L. Fisher,. p. 52; The Encyclopædia Britannica, 1964 edition, Vol. 18, p. 63.