How to Pronounce the Divine Name…Maybe
THE DIVINE NAME IN OTHER TONGUES
Rabbinical Judaism forbids pronunciation of the Name; others feel obligated to proclaim it to all the nations. One might appreciate the sincerity and passion on both sides of this controversy, yet still not want in on the fray. There are always those who condescendingly peer down from some supposed neutral high ground in any real dispute between good and evil. Here, however, while not condemning either side and hopefully without condescension I will opt for neutrality.
Should one dispute the rationale of those passionate for pronouncing the Name, one quickly finds that—generally speaking—there is no dissuasion. But then why should there be? Why not opt for liberty and freedom of conscience? And so in what follows please note that it is not my purpose to demean or discredit anyone.
What’s in a Name?
What’s the most important aspect of a name? Is it the sound—the pronunciation? Or is it the reputation implied by that name? I should think the latter, as when God said to Moses (Ex 3:15), “Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, the LORD God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath sent me unto you: this is my name for ever, and this is my memorial unto all generations.” Here the word “LORD” in the KJV represents the Hebrew name YHWH. But I would suggest that the most important point here is what that name represents, which is that God is the God of the patriarchs and will be faithful to the promises made to them.
Thus the Third Commandment in Exodus and in Deuteronomy:
- Exodus 20:7—“Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.”
- Deuteronomy 5:11—“Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain: for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.”
Can one take the name of YHWH in vain without pronouncing it? I should think so. Whether or not one actually pronounces the name, if one makes reference to God in an oath that he breaks, or if one blasphemes the God of Israel by whatever name, or in some way defames his reputation—that, I should think, is taking God’s name in vain.
The name and reputation of God has been proclaimed in the entire world through the distribution of Bibles and in the spread of Christianity. The result has been both positive and negative. Many, on the negative side, have chosen to reject that God, to impugn his reputation, to curse his name. Has hiding the pronunciation of that name been beneficial in that regard? Perhaps. At least they don’t use his Hebrew name.
Did God even speak to the patriarchs using his Hebrew name? It would seem so (Gen 13:4; 21:33; 26:25), but then what about Exodus 6:2-4?
And God spake unto Moses, and said unto him, I am the LORD: And I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, by the name of God Almighty, but by my name JEHOVAH was I not known to them. And I have also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their pilgrimage, wherein they were strangers.
Note that God may have made his promises to the patriarchs without using his Hebrew name. What about in the future? What about Zephaniah 3:9? “For then will I turn to the people a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the LORD, to serve him with one consent.”
Is this “pure language” (שָׂפָה בְרוּרָה ‘pure lip’) a language—as in “the language of Canaan” (שְׂפַת כְּנַעַן ‘the lip of Canaan’) in Isaiah 19:18? Or is it a pure manner of speech—as in, “The lip of truth” (שְׂפַת־אֱמֶת) in Proverbs 12:19? You be the judge. Still I do not see how that one language can be more pure than another. One can lie and curse in any language—including Hebrew. And one can speak the truth and praise God in any language—including English.
In Other Words
God’s name—at least in Hebrew—is the Tetragrammaton. Did the Hebrews proclaim this name in other languages? The one example that comes to mind is Abraham’s encounter with Melchizedek.
And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God. And he blessed him, and said, Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth: And blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand. And he gave him tithes of all. And the king of Sodom said unto Abram, Give me the persons, and take the goods to thyself. And Abram said to the king of Sodom, I have lift up mine hand unto the LORD, the most high God, the possessor of heaven and earth… (Genesis 14:18-22)
Melchizedek calls God אֵל עֶלְיוֹן ’ēl ‘elyôn, yet when Abram speaks to the king of Sodom he blesses God with the same name but prefaced with the Tetragrammaton. Yet later God says to Moses (Exodus 6:2-3), “And God spake unto Moses, and said unto him, I am the LORD: And I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, by the name ofGod Almighty [אֵל שַׁדָּי ’ēl šaddāy], but by my name JEHOVAH was I not known to them.”
Perhaps the appearance of the Tetragrammaton throughout Genesis is an anachronism, such as in Gen 4:26 where it was begun to call upon the name of YHWH; as in Gen 12:8 where Abraham called upon the name of YHWH; and as in Gen 26:25 where Isaac called upon the name of YHWH. So perhaps the word is put into Abram’s mouth in Genesis 14 to show that his God was the true God. All these names (’ēl, ‘elyôn, šaddāy) are names of God or pagan deities in Northwest Semitic, even as they also reference the God of Israel in the Bible.
Close to 10 chapters in the Tanakh appear in Aramaic (Daniel 2:4b-7:28; Ezra 4:8-6:18 & 7:12-26; Laban’s version of a place-name in Gen 31:47; and a statement in Jer 10:11). And so in some 250 verses in Aramaic, do we have any example of the Tetragrammaton? We do not.
Instead we have the Aramaic generic word for God in the absolute (אֱלָהָא) and construct (אֱלָהּ שְׁמַיָּא ‘the God of heaven’; אֱלָהּ יִשְׂרָאֵל ‘the God of Israel’; אֱלָהּ יְרוּשְׁלֶם ‘the God of Jerusalem’; אֱלָהּ אֱלָהִין ‘the God of gods’; etc.). Israel’s God is called אֱלָהָא חַיָּא ‘the living God’; מָרֵא־שְׁמַיָּא ‘the Lord of heaven’; מָרֵא מַלְכִין ‘the Lord of kings’; מֶלֶךְ שְׁמַיָּא ‘the King of heaven’; עַתִּיק יוֹמַיָּא ‘the Ancient of days’; עֶלְיוֹנִין ‘the Most High’; אֱלָהָא עליא (עִלָּאָה) ‘God Most High’. The temple is repeatedly referred to as בֵּית אֱלָהָא ‘the house of God’. There are references to the name of God (שְׁמֵהּ דִּי־אֱלָהָא ‘the name of God’ – Dan 2:20; כְּשֻׁם אֱלָהִי ‘according to the name of my god’ – Dan 4:5; בְּשֻׁם אֱלָהּ יִשְׂרָאֵל ‘in the name of the God of Israel’ – Ezra 5:1) but no actual pronunciation of that name.
I count 86 references to the Deity in these 120 verses all with no mention of the Tetragrammaton. Artaxerxes’ letter in regard to building the temple in Jerusalem is found in Ezra 7:12-26. The Persian king—though sympathetic to Judah—nevertheless does not use the Tetragrammaton. Yet in the two verses that envelop the letter Ezra does use God’s Hebrew name.
- Ezra 7:11 Now this is the copy of the letter that the king Artaxerxes gave unto Ezra the priest, the scribe, even a scribe of the words of the commandments of the LORD [YHWH], and of his statutes to Israel.
- Ezra 7:27 Blessed be the LORD God of our fathers, which hath put such a thing as this in the king’s heart, to beautify the house of the LORD [YHWH] which is in Jerusalem…
Also in the 3rd verse after the first Aramaic section in Ezra (Ezra 4:8–6:18) there is reference to YHWH (“to seek the LORD God of Israel” – verse 21).
The Aramaic section of Daniel chronicles five accounts in which the God of Israel is revealed to the Gentile king (Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, Nebuchadnezzar’s image, Nebuchadnezzar’s insanity, the handwriting on the wall, Daniel in the lion’s den). There is also Daniel’s vision of the four beasts. I should think that this revelation to Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar & Darius foreshadowed God’s ultimate revelation of himself to the whole world. There is no mention of the Tetragrammaton anywhere in those Aramaic chapters of which the intent is to reveal the God of Israel to the Gentile powers.
- Daniel 2:47 The king answered unto Daniel, and said, Of a truth it is, that your God is a God of gods, and a Lord of kings, and a revealer of secrets, seeing thou couldest reveal this secret.
- Daniel 3:28 Then Nebuchadnezzar spake, and said, Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who hath sent his angel, and delivered his servants that trusted in him, and have changed the king’s word, and yielded their bodies, that they might not serve nor worship any god, except their own God.
- Dan 4:17 This matter is by the decree of the watchers, and the demand by the word of the holy ones: to the intent that the living may know that the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will, and setteth up over it the basest of men.
- Dan 4:25 That they shall drive thee from men, and thy dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field, and they shall make thee to eat grass as oxen, and they shall wet thee with the dew of heaven, and seven times shall pass over thee, till thou know that the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will.
- Daniel 4:32 And they shall drive thee from men, and thy dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field: they shall make thee to eat grass as oxen, and seven times shall pass over thee, until thou know that the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will.
- Dan 5:21 And he was driven from the sons of men; and his heart was made like the beasts, and his dwelling was with the wild asses: they fed him with grass like oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven; till he knew that the most high God ruled in the kingdom of men, and that he appointeth over it whomsoever he will.
- Daniel 6:25-26 Then king Darius wrote unto all people, nations, and languages, that dwell in all the earth; Peace be multiplied unto you. I make a decree, That in every dominion of my kingdom men tremble and fear before the God of Daniel: for he is the living God, and stedfast for ever, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed, and his dominion shall be even unto the end.
Some older manuscript fragments of the Septuagint have the Tetragrammaton in ancient Hebrew letters. The majority of surviving manuscripts, however, have κύριος ‘Lord’ instead. The same is true of other Greek texts of Jewish origin (Philo, Josephus, Apocrypha, Pseudoepigrapha, the New Testament). No Greek New Testament manuscript contains the Tetragrammaton. The Aramaic Peshitta has ܡܳܪܝܳܐ Māryâ ‘lord Yah’ for the divine name.
It appears that the Tanakh itself set the pattern, for in its Aramaic portions it never uses God’s four letter Hebrew name. Generic terms for God seem to be just fine.
There is no necessary connection between the sounds of a word and what that word signifies. This primary principle, called l’arbitraire du signe (the arbitrariness of the sign), we associate with Ferdinand de Saussure. God already knew this and thus his curiosity in having Adam name the creatures “to see what he would call them” (Gen 2:19). Pagans, however, have tended to believe in the magic of the sounds—thus their abracadabras, incantations, mumbo-jumbos, and mindless mantras. There are no instructions or admonitions on how to pronounce words in the Bible.
|Some Indo-European words for the Deity
|*bʰago ‘Provider’||Russian Бог, Polish Bóg, Czech Bůh, etc. Cognate or borrowed from Persian (Old Persian baga ‘god’). Cf. Sanskrit भग bhága ‘dispenser, gracious lord, patron’ (an epithet often applied to gods); Greek φαγεῖν ‘to eat’.|
|English God, German Gott, Old Norse Guð, etc. A participle of *ǵʰeu- ‘pour, libate’ (cf. Greek χυτός [χυτή, χυτόν] ‘poured’ [χέω ‘pour’]; Sanskrit होतृ hótṛ ‘offerer of an oblation or burnt-offering’; etc.) or *ǵʰaw-/*ǵʰew- ‘call, invoke’ (Greek καυχάομaι ‘praise oneself, boast’; Old Irish guth ‘voice’; etc.).|
|Latin Deus, Spanish Dios, French Dieu, etc. Cf. also Welsh duw, Lithuanian diẽvas, also Persian دیو div ‘demon’. PIE o-stem ultimately derived from *dei- ‘shine’.|
|Greek Θεός, cognate to Phyrigian deōs ‘to the gods’ and likely Old Armenian դիք dikʿ ‘pagan gods’ as also Latin fēriae ‘festival days’, fānum ‘temple’, and fēstus‘festive’. Alternatively Θεός is from *dʰewḥ- ‘rise in smoke’ (cf. Greek θυμός; Sanskrit धूम dhūmá; Latin fūmus; Russian дым, all ‘smoke, vapor’).|
For the pagans, however, pronunciation is important. One of the greatest treatises ever written on phonetics (and grammar) is the Aṣṭādhyāyī (अष्टाध्यायी) of the Hindu Pāṇini (पाणिनि) that was composed in the 6th century bc in India. It was important that the Vedas be chanted correctly. One sees no such concern among Israel’s prophets of the same period. Their concern was not sounds but meaning—and behavior based on the meaning of the Torah.
The musical My Fair Lady features Henry Higgins, a kind of caricature of the British phonetician Daniel Jones (1881 –1967). Pronunciation was important to the British—why? Because British society featured a class system in which dialect was a primary marker of one’s position, and thus the great phoneticians (David Abercrombie, Alfred Gimson, Peter Ladefoged, Ian Catford, etc.) were British. American linguistics, on the other hand, has been predominately Jewish (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Jewish_American_linguists) and much more preoccupied with syntax and semantics.
One might point out that the rote prayers and Torah reading in the synagogue are typically recited with little thought to the meaning—but this is not how it is supposed to be. And there is no rigorous tradition of pronunciation, more typically the sounds are slaughtered and nobody really cares.
Now, aside from the word magic of the pagans, we see another linguistic travesty—one initiated by the Marxists—and that is political correctness. Everything needs renaming—that which is evil by words with connotations of “caring” and that which is good by smears of racism, sexism, and all the rest of the Left’s list of cardinal sins.
Shall I say México just the way the Mexicans do, or might I pronounce the word as in English? Doing the former might be a vain demonstration of my superior knowledge, or it could stem from a self-righteous more in solidarity with the oppressed than thou attitude. Remember back during the Cold War when the Communists had taken over Nicaragua and our Leftists were falling all over themselves trying to pronounce Nicaragua more Spanish than thou?
Could the same foible motivate some who aspire to pronounce the Name?
Linguists also see in language two primary social dimensions: power and solidarity. There is the king’s English, the speech of the ruling class, dialects that the people recognize as that of their betters. This dimension is somewhat less overt in American English than in many languages. The other dimension—solidarity—we see a lot. Cowboys talk cowboy talk, professors talk professor talk, hippies talk hippy talk. Blacks will lapse into a particular vernacular to affirm their blackness, American Indians now sport a “pow-wow” lingo, and Jews will sprinkle in Yiddish or Hebrew terms when around other Jews. And there is now also a Messianic Movement, typically differing little or none at all from Evangelical or Pentecostal Christianity, except that they say Yeshua instead of Jesus, Kefa instead of Peter, Shabat instead Sabbath, etc. Is there anything wrong with this? I surely do not judge, except to say that it can’t hurt to know what we are doing. We are affirming solidarity with a particular group—though not necessarily getting any closer to God.
If yod-he-vav-he translates as “the Eternal” or “the Ever-Living” then might it also be just as good to use that in our translations of the Scripture?
God’s four letter name is most likely a Hebrew name with a Hebrew etymology. If so, then does that mean that the God of eternity, the God of the vastness of time and space, speaks Hebrew even on the other side of Andromeda? We may want to disagree here, because I, as one who has studied languages and their history, am convinced that Hebrew was the language of Canaan, of the Canaanites, and that the patriarchs and their children learned to speak it in the land of Canaan. We may have to agree to disagree on this.
Nevertheless let me emphasize that the Torah is not sanctified by the Hebrew, rather the Hebrew is sanctified by the Torah.
God speaks to man in man’s languages. If or when God speaks to the Gentiles, does he use his Hebrew name? Not so much in the past, no, but who knows about the future.
Brown, Roger, & Albert Gilman. 1960. The pronouns of power and solidarity. In Sebeok, T. A. (ed.), Style in Language, 253-76. Cambridge: MIT press.
Labov, William. 1966. The Social Stratification of English in New York City. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.
Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1916. Cours de linguistique générale (Course in General Linguistics). Compiled by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye from notes taken from Ferdinand de Saussure’s lectures at the University of Geneva between the years 1906 and 1911. There are various English editions, such as that translated by Roy Harris. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1983.
Yakubovich, Ilya. 2010. West Semitic god El in Anatolian Hieroglyphic transmission. Pages 385-398 in Pax Hethitica: Studies on the Hittites and their Neighbours in Honour of Itamar Singer, edited byYoram Cohen, Amir Gilan,and Jared L. Miller. Studien zu den Boğazköy-Texten, Herausgegeben von der Kommission für den Alten Orientder Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur, Mainz, Band 51. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag. http://oxford.academia.edu/IlyaYakubovich/Papers/503802/West_Semitic_god_El_in_Anatolian_Hieroglyphic_transmission
 ‘Elyôn (עֶלְיוֹן) for the high God as possessor/creator of heaven and earth was a Northwest Semitic expression. The term ‘lyn is found in the Ugaritic documents, and there is even in the Hittite texts an epithet dKu–ni–ir–ša believed to reflect the NW Semitic qōnē ’arṣ ‘possessor/creator of earth’ (much as קֹנֵה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ ‘possessor of heaven and earth’ in Gen 14). See Yakubovich (2010). The LXX translates עֶלְיוֹןwith ὕψιστος ‘highest’, thus reflecting the root עלי ‘go up, ascend’, and this term also occurs in the New Testament (Mat 21:9; Mark 5:7; 11:10; Luke 1:32, 35, 76; 2:14; 6:35; 8:28; 19:38; Acts 7:48; 16:17 Heb 7:1). ‘Elyôn appears as Ἐλιοῦμ, the top Phoenician deity, in Eusebius’ Praeparatio Evangelica (Εὑαγγελικὴ Προπαρασκευή) 1.10.
|κατὰ τούτους γίνεταί τις Ἐλιοῦμ, καλούμενος Ὕψιστος, καὶ θήλεια, λεγομένη Βηρούθ· οἳ καὶ κατῴκουν περὶ Βύβλον. ἐξ ὧν γεννᾶται Ἐπίγειος Αὐτόχθων, ὃν ὕστερον ἐκάλεσαν Οὐρανόν· ὡς ἀπ’ αὐτοῦ καὶ τὸ ὑπὲρ ἡμᾶς στοιχεῖον δι’ ὑπερβολὴν τοῦ κάλλους ὀνομάζειν οὐρανόν. γεννᾶται δὲ τούτῳ ἀδελφὴ ἐκ τῶν προειρημένων, ἣ καὶ ἐκλήθη Γῆ. καὶ διὰ τὸ κάλλος ἀπ’ αὐτῆς φησίν ἐκάλεσαν τὴν ὁμώνυμον γῆν. ὁ δὲ τούτων πατὴρ ὁ Ὕψιστος ἐν συμβολῇ θηρίων τελευτήσας ἀφιερώθη, ᾧ χοὰς καὶ θυσίας οἱ παῖδες ἐτέλεσαν.||In their time is born a certain Elioun called “the Most High,” and a female named Beruth, and these dwelt in the neighbourhood of Byblos. And from them is born Epigeius or Autochthon, whom they afterwards called Sky; so that from him they named the element above us Sky because of the excellence of its beauty. And he has a sister born of the aforesaid parents, who was called Earth, and from her, he says, because of her beauty, they called the earth by the same name. And their father, the Most High, died in an encounter with wild beasts, and was deified, and his children offered to him libations and sacrifices.|
 You can see several examples of this at http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/rak/lxxjewpap/tetragram.jpg.
 See Saussure (1916).
 There is, of course, the word שִׁבֹּלֶת šibbōlet which served to distinguish the Ephraimites who couldn’t pronounce the /ʃ/ (sh as in shoe)—rather they pronounced the word סִבֹּלֶת sibbōlet—interestingly not שִׂבֹּלֶת with the voiceless lateral fricative /ɬ/ that שׂ reflects from that time. But this was no instruction on how a word should be pronounced—rather it was a test to distinguish a particular dialect. The KJV has “for he could not frame to pronounce it right” for וְלֹא יָכִין לְדַבֵּר כֵּן in Judges 12:6, but כֵּן kēn need not mean ‘right’ (as opposed to ‘wrong’) but rather ‘so’ or ‘likewise’ just as the interrogator had pronounced it.
 For seminal studies, see Brown & Gilman (1960) and Labov (1966).