Only God Can Name God

As we tick off another year of the 21st century, it’s not easy to talk about God. A recent blog I posted cites a New York Times op-ed, “It’s Getting Harder to Talk About God”, which notes, “An overwhelming majority of people say that they don’t feel comfortable speaking about faith, most of the time.”

On a much more localized level, among people who do feel comfortable speaking about faith, there’s another wrinkle in talking about God. Among the apparently growing Hebrew Roots movement a significant subgroup advocates speaking the Tetragrammaton, YHVH, the four-letter Hebrew name of God that has been considered too holy to pronounce in Jewish practice since the days of Messiah, and perhaps before. (You’ll often see it spelled as YHWH instead of YHVH as I have it here, which highlights the problem. The ancient pronunciation of this name, and even one of the specific Hebrew letters comprising it, has been long lost, so any spoken name presented as the Name is speculative.)

This Hebrew Roots subgroup interprets biblical statements that we’ll consider in a moment with strict literalness to say that the Tetragrammaton should be pronounced. Such folks also say that “pagan” names for deity like “God” and “Jesus” shouldn’t be pronounced. They claim to be restoring the real name of Yeshua, which they often present as Yahshua or Yahushua—even though these two names don’t exist in Hebrew or the Hebrew Bible. More to the point of this blog, these folks seem to be misreading the discussion of God’s name that started in last week’s parasha, Shemot (Exod 1:1–6:1), and continues this week in Va’era (Exod 6:2–9:35).

burning bushLast week we read about Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush. God tells Moses that he’s going to send him to Egypt to deliver his people, Israel, from their enslavement.

Then Moses said to God, “Behold, I am going to the sons of Israel, and I will say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you.’ Now they may say to me, ‘What is His name?’ What shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM” [ehyeh asher ehyeh]; and He said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM [ehyeh] has sent me to you.’” God, furthermore, said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘The Lord [YHVH], the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is My name forever, and this is My memorial-name to all generations.” (Exodus 3:13–15; I cite the NASB throughout because it’s the most literal of popular translations.)

God first makes it clear to Moses that he is beyond human naming: I will be what I will be (probably a better translation than I am what I am, although both have similar implications). Only God can name God. Whatever name God provides for himself shouldn’t be understood as a label or formula that we humans can use whenever we will.

When God says that this is his “name forever and [his] memorial-name to all generations,” he’s referencing his whole covenantal history with Abraham and his offspring through the centuries. “Name” doesn’t refer just to God’s tag or label but to his reputation and impact in history. Knowing his name—a theme throughout Exodus—means knowing his deeds and character.

Though we don’t currently pronounce the Tetragrammaton [YHVH] in Jewish practice, we preserve it in the text of Scripture. When we pronounce it as “Adonai” or “the Lord” we understand that we are referring to the unique covenantal name and all that attaches to it—reputation and character—even though it is currently not pronounced because of deep reverence and respect. We sometimes use the circumlocution Hashem, “the Name”, to refer to the Lord in place of the Name itself, which is a good way to preserve the sense of a specific personal name without actually pronouncing it. And of course the four Hebrew letters are preserved in the Torah scroll and in the Hebrew text of the Tanakh that we read regularly. So the true Name is not lost.

This week’s parasha reveals more about the meaning of the divine name. Last week we saw Moses faithfully, if reluctantly, go to Egypt, bring words of hope to the Israelites, confront Pharaoh with Hashem’s demand, “Let my people go” . . .  and get turned down flat. Now, as Parashat Va’era opens, Moses is pretty discouraged and God provides some hope:

God spoke further to Moses and said to him, “I am the Lord; and I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as God Almighty [El Shaddai], but by My name, Lord, I did not make Myself known to them. (Exodus 6:2–3)

It’s clear in Genesis that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob spoke the name Lord, that is YHVH, but God reveals here that he did not make the full implications of that name, his deeds and character, known to them. That revelation had to await Moses and the Exodus from Egypt. Hence, knowing the divine name doesn’t mean simply knowing the right label for God and pronouncing it (more or less accurately), but knowing who the one true God really is. The Jewish Study Bible notes, “‘to know that He is YHVH’ means to experience or witness His power.” Accordingly, Hashem continues his encouragement to Moses: “and you (plural; the Israelites) shall know that I am [YHVH] your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians” (Exod 6:7). And even the Egyptians get in on the action: “The Egyptians shall know that I am [YHVH], when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the sons of Israel from their midst” (Exod 7:5).

The point is not that now the Egyptians know how to pronounce the proper name of deity, but rather that they know the character, the behavior, the impact of the one true God.

Of course, you could argue that this all might be the case, but we should still pronounce the Name. You’d be arguing, however, not only with 2000 years of Jewish practice, but with the New Testament as well. The New Testament supports our practice of substituting Adonai or Lord for YHVH, because that is exactly what it does, translating Hebrew texts that contain YHVH simply with the Greek Kyrios or “Lord.” This practice in turn reflects the Septuagint (the Greek-language version of the Tanakh often underlying NT texts), which likewise translates YHVH as Kyrios. Prominent Christian theologian R. Kendall Soulen writes that when Christians avoid pronouncing YHVH “it is not because the name is obsolete, but rather because they follow the precedent of the New Testament (whether knowingly or not), which always refers to the name obliquely, in keeping with Jewish oral law” (The Divine Name(s) and the Holy Trinity, p. 13). If Christians follow the New Testament (and the oral law) in this regard, how much more should Messianic Jews!

All this means that the practice of not pronouncing the Holy Name is very ancient (dating from before the coming of Messiah), and also that the NT authors saw no reason to reverse it. Neither did Yeshua, who is quoted throughout the Gospels as saying Kyrios, Lord, and never as pronouncing the Tetragrammaton. As always, Messiah is our example, and here he models respect and solidarity toward time-honored Jewish usage, as well as reverence for the holy and unpronounceable Name itself. Only God can name God. We know his name, not through finding a way to literally pronounce it, but through recognizing his deeds and his character revealed through history and especially through his son Messiah Yeshua.




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