God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

On God’s Name (or “Who shall I say is calling?”)

One of God’s very common names in the OT is spelled with the four Hebrew letters Y-H-W-H.

Folk wisdom holds that the proper pronunciation of that four-letter word — technically called the tetragrammaton (“four letters” in Greek) — has been lost over the ages, so it had to be pronounced adonai in Hebrew; because the word adonai is related to the word for “lord,” it became kurios in Greek translation, and then “the Lord” in English.

I believe that a more likely scenario is that the tetragrammaton didn’t originally have a pronunciation. (I’ve written about this extensively, so I won’t go through the whole thing here. A good place to start is a short popular article I wrote on the topic for the Jerusalem Post. I go into more detail in Chapter 4 of my NYU Press publication, In The Beginning.)

The name yahweh is a fairly modern (and, in my opinion, flawed) attempt to pronounce the tetragrammaton. As it happens, “Jehovah” also stems from such an attempt. The Masoretes who recorded the official pronunciation of Hebrew some 1,100 years ago put the diacritic marks of the word adonai under the tetragrammaton just as a way of reminding readers how the four letters are to be pronounced. A naive reading of those letters and diacritic marks would be yehovah, or, in languages that use the letter “J” for /y/, jehovah. And that, in fact, is where the English “Jehovah” comes from: it’s a double mistake, first of reading the tetragrammaton with its diacritic marks too literally, and then of misunderstanding the letter “J.”

Another popular account connects the tetragrammaton to Exodus 3. There, Moses plans for the day when the people of Israel ask him what God’s name is. “What should I tell them?” Moses wants to know (Exodus 3:13).

God’s cryptic answer (in 3:14) is: “ehyeh asher ehyeh… [tell them] ‘ehyeh sent me.'” The word ehyeh means either “I will be” or “I am,” and the word asher conveys “that which.” So the NRSV translates God’s name here as “I AM WHO I AM” (in all caps) with two alternative versions in a footnote: “I AM WHAT I AM” and “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE.”

The word ehyeh bears some resemblance to the tetragrammaton. Both are four letter words with two hehs, in second and fourth position; and both have the letter yud somewhere. So this passage is often — wrongly, in my opinion — introduced to explain the tetragrammaton, and, therefore, the name of God.

But these similarities are hardly enough to justify equating the two. In the tetragrammaton, the yud starts the word, while in ehyeh it’s in third position. Ehyeh starts with an aleph while that letter is lacking in the tetragrammaton. The vav from the tetragrammaton is missing in ehyeh. English representations of the two make the differences clear: AHYH versus YHWH.

Furthermore, the next verse (3:15) adds: God further told Moses, “…[tell the Israelites,] ‘YHWH sent me. That is my name.'” In other words, a careful look at the text shows that God’s name in Exodus 3 is YHWH, not ehyeh.

So I don’t think Exodus 3 is an explanation of the tetragrammaton. I think it’s more likely that what we see is a purposeful play on words.

[UPDATE: Dr. Claude Mariottini has some interesting thoughts about YHWH here.]

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February 21, 2010 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , , | 24 Comments