Yet if you ask an Orthodox Jew which god he serves he will most likely answer HaShem (Hebrew for "The Name"). If you ask a Christian who his god is, he may say the "Holy Father", "the God of the Bible", "Jehovah", or maybe even "the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob". But, considering this, we are left with no proper noun as a name for the Creator. The Scriptures record His many titles and attributes but His name is not found anywhere. At least nowhere we can read it.
Important! Please note that this is not one of those "sacred name" articles. I am not going to tell you what you should or should not do. The concern here is with the Creator's proper name, its application, and its importance. It's up to you to decide what to do. As you read this article, I urge you to check each passage for yourself and pray for wisdom.
The Unspeakable Name?
The God I am talking about is the One the Scriptures declare as the Creator. While the psalms speak of the glory of His name and urge us to declare His name, His name is never given, at least not in most translations. The name has been, in effect, hidden from the reader, using a title instead. Let's look at Psalms 83.19/83.18 in a few popular versions:
- "May they know that Your name, Yours alone, is the Lord, supreme over all the earth." (Tanakh)
- "That men may know that thou, whose name alone is jehovah, art the most high over all the earth. (KJV)
- "That they may know that You alone, whose name is the Lord, are the Most High over all the earth." (NASB)
- "Let them know that you, whose name is the LORD — that you alone are the Most High over all the earth." (NIV)
- "May they know that you alone — whose name is the Lord are the Most High over the whole earth." (CSB)
And the list goes on. But take a good look at these verses. Who is this "Lord" referred to in this verse? And why is it printed in all caps? How could a stranger possibly read these verses and have any idea who "the Lord" refers to? And how is the word defined? Just by the way it's printed? But what if the verse is read aloud? And why is a title used instead of an actual name, especially since the verse speaks of knowing the name? (In the case of the KJV, the name is translated as jehovah, which is actually an error.) The only way of knowing who "the Lord" mentioned here refers to is to check the original Hebrew. In their introductions, most manuscripts will give some sort of explanation. It usually goes something like:
"In regards to the divine name YHWH, commonly referred to as the Tetragrammaton, the translators adopted the device used in most English versions of rendering that name as "Lord" in capital letters to distinguish it from Adonai, another Hebrew word rendered "Lord" for which small letters are used." (The International Inductive Study Bible, NIV, ©1995 Precept Ministries [Emphasis added])
"A device?" That's how they describe the Creator's holy name? Why couldn't they just use His proper name? According to the translation notes [pdf] of the Christian Standard Bible (CSB) Translation Oversight Committee (which replaced the HCSB version), "[they] chose to come into alignment with other English translations ... because full consistency [i.e., translating all instances of Lord to the actual Hebrew word, Yahweh] would be overwhelming to the reader. Yet feedback from readers also showed that the unfamiliarity of 'Yahweh' was an obstacle to reading the HCSB [Emphasis added]."
Is the actual proper name of God really an obstacle? Is it really that overwhelming to call upon the name of our God? People have no problem with repeating Lord over and over and over. Why not just use the actual name of the Holy One? This is the Creator of heaven and earth and most people can't (or won't) speak His name! If He does have a proper name what is it? And why is it not clearly stated in most Bible translations?
An excellent example of the problems that can arise from using just the word "god" is in the Declaration of Independence of the United States. Because it uses the universal term "god", many Christians have come to automatically assume that it means the God of the Bible, and thereby declare the United States a "Christian nation". However, given that many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (including the ones who wrote them) were Deists, as were many other outspoken leaders and participators in the Revolutionary War, this is not necessarily true.
Using "Lord" as a substitute, no matter how you write it, still leaves many options of who it refers to:
- God, Jesus, Ishtar, Ra, Isis, Osiris;
- one having power and authority over others;
- a man of rank or high position;
- used as a British title; or
- a person chosen to preside over a festival.
The title "God", "Lord", or "Lord God" can be applied to any diety, pagan or otherwise. If you tell someone who believes in a pagan diety that you believe in God, he will answer that he does too. However, he will always give a name for his god. What wouldn't you give one for yours so He may be distinguished from all the pagan gods?
An excellent example of how using "Lord" can lead to confusion is Joel 3.5/2.32:
"But everyone who invokes the name of the Lord shall escape; for there shall be a remnant on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, as the Lord promised. Anyone who invokes the Lord will be among the survivors."
Many Christians interpret "the Lord" as being Jesus but let's see what the Hebrew actually says:
"But everyone who invokes the name of Yahweh shall escape; for there shall be a remnant on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, as Yahweh promised. Anyone who invokes Yahweh will be among the survivors."
Quite a bit different! And there is no question to who it is referring.
Using a "device" to appease readers who have had incorrect teaching does nothing good at all except cause confusion, not to mention the commandment against changing the words of Scripture (Deuteronomy 4.2; 13.1; Joshua 1.7; Proverbs 30.5-6).
Titles and Attributes as Opposed to Proper Names
Many people believe that "God" is the Creator's actual proper name. (If they do use a proper name, it's generally Jehovah, which doesn't appear anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures. See "Jehovah" A Christian Misunderstanding.) It's important to understand that God is not a proper name; it's a title that can refer to beings other than the Creator. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary gives the following definition of God:
- capitalized: the supreme or ultimate reality [which may change depending on a person's beliefs];
- a being or object believed to have more than natural attributes and powers and to require human worship; specifically: one controlling a particular aspect or part of reality;
- a person or thing of supreme value;
- a powerful ruler.
Using those definitions, it's easy to see the word "god" could be referring to different beings or entities: (1) the Creator of the universe or a pagan god; (2) a demon, or an inanimate object; (3) a human being who is highly cherished; or (4) a king, a president, or a prime minister.
What many people believe are the names of God are actually titles and attributes. Words like "Almighty", "Ancient of Days", "Majestic", "Creator", "Shepherd of Israel", "The Lord Our Righteousness", "The Lord is My Banner", "Holy One of Israel", "God of Hosts", "Eternal King", and many others, describe who He is and what He does.
Besides, why would the Creator need more than one name? Wouldn't that be a bit confusing?
The Proper Name of the Creator
The one true name of the God of the Scriptures — the Creator of all things — is Yahweh (יהוה). Associated with the root ehyeh, it means, "to be", or "to exist", or "self-existence". The Tanakh lists the name 7,207 times in 6,071 verses and the NASB lists it 6,828 times in 5,790 verses. And many times it's Yahweh Himself declaring His name (e.g., Exodus 34.6-7). Many rabbis have said the name Yahweh was implied and not spoken out loud in the situations given in Scripture. For instance:
"Considering the awe with which we are meant to approach G‑d and His names, the verses in the Prophets which speak of making G‑d’s name known are not referring to His actual name. Rather, the prophet is saying that the Jewish people should let the world know about G‑d’s existence, how He is Creator of the world and constantly supervising and recreating every living thing. Similarly, when the Psalmist regularly refers to praising G‑d’s name, he refers to praising G‑d’s wondrous deeds. ("Why Don’t Jews Say G‑d’s Name? On the Use of the Word 'Hashem'")
Of course we should treat the name of the Holy One with awe and respect and reverence but how do you "let the world know about G‑d’s existence" without telling them which god you are referring to? Elijah had no problem calling upon the name of Yahweh to show the prophets of Baal who the real God is (1 Kings 18.20-46). Even Pharaoh spoke His name (i.e., Exodus 5.2; 10.8,16). How would he have known it if Moses hadn't spoken it out loud? And if we're not to speak it out loud how is it possible to swear by His name (i.e., Deuteronomy 6.13)?
The name Yahweh is usually associated with the God of the people of Israel but it was originally made known to all of His creation from the beginning. Genesis 4.26 states: "It was then that men began to invoke Yahweh by name."
The Hebrew word, qara, translated here as "invoke", simply means "to call, proclaim, read". There is nothing to show the name was implied and not spoken out loud.
'Knowing' the Name of God
Yahweh told Moses that He "appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name Yahweh" (Exodus 6.3). With a casual reading it would seem as if Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had never heard the name Yahweh before but the Scriptures clearly show otherwise. They and others had not only heard the name but also used it many times, e.g., Genesis 12.8; 14.22; 15.1-2; 16.2; 21.33; 24.7; 24.27; 26.25,28; 29.33; 32.10/9; 49.18, etc. So then what does Yahweh mean when He says, "I did not make Myself known to them by My name Yahweh"?
The key here is in understanding the Hebrew word yada, translated as "known" in this instance. Yada means "to know"; not to know of but to know intimately. In Genesis 4.1 it says, "Now the man knew his wife Eve ...". Here the word yada refers to an intimate situation between a man and a woman. While it can take on a different meaning given the situation, it has as its basic meaning a deeper understanding or intimacy of the subject but not necessarily in the sexual sense. Many times, as in this passage in Exodus, it denotes a close relationship, a type of intimacy. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines "intimacy" as "1) the state of being intimate, familiarity; 2) something of a personal or private nature".
In the passage discussed above (Exodus 6.3) the Israelites had not acquired knowledge (yada) of the character of the name 'Yahweh'. An excellent example of this is given in Exodus 10.1-2:
"Then Yahweh said to Moses, 'Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and of your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them — in order that you may know [yada] that I am Yahweh.'"
In this verse the Hebrew word yada means to experience what Yahweh is doing. This would let Moses and the other Israelites tell their sons and grandsons about the greatness and the awesomeness of Yahweh. The relationship of Yahweh to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was, as stated above, "God Almighty", El Shaddai. But they didn't have this deeper understanding.
In an earlier instance (before the meeting in Exodus 17), Yahweh declared His actual name to Moses:
"Moses said to God, "When I come to the Israelites and say to them ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?" And God said to Moses, "Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh", He continued, "Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh sent me to you.'" And God said further to Moses, 'Thus shall you speak to the Israelites: Yahweh, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you: This shall be My name forever, this My appellation for all eternity. Go and assemble the elders of Israel and say to them: Yahweh, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, has appeared to me ..." (Exodus 3.13-16)
Generally, names used in Scripture have a special meaning. This is what Moses was addressing here — the people were going to want to know the name of who sent him, what is He about, what is the character of His name? In the beginning of this passage it seems Yahweh is telling Moses His name is Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh but this is actually the meaning (character) of Yahweh's name. The meaning is "I am" or "I will be" or, more concretely, "I am He who lives," the abstract conception of pure existence being foreign to Hebrew thought. (The verb ehyeh means "to be" or "to become".) The verse could have been better translated as, "And God said to Moses, I will be what I will be.... Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘He Who Will Be sent me to you." The Hebrew language is much more dynamic than modern language, being based on action, e.g., after what a thing does, not what it looks like. The verb "to be" indicates an action that intimately reveals the nature of the one who is doing the acting.
Many people assume, when translated as "I Am That I Am", that God's name is "I Am" but that's not a name. Yahweh stated His name twice to show the emphasis, that this was His name, "Yahweh, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob ... This shall be My name forever .... Go and assemble the elders of Israel and say to them: Yahweh, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, has appeared to me"
Replacing Yahweh's NameContrary to popular belief, Torah does not prohibit the pronunciation or writing of God's proper name, Yahweh. The custom of replacing Yahweh's name with Lord or God (or written, L-rd and G-d) is based on Jewish rabbinical tradition which began in the second or third-century bce.
Some people believe that the Jewish prohibition came about because of the commandment against taking the name of God (Yahweh) in vain (Exodus 20.7). However, that commandment is generally interpreted as meaning in reference to the taking of oaths, such as swearing by God's name falsely. The Hebrew word translated as "vain" is shav, meaning desolation, destroy. The use of the name of Yahweh in false vows would be destroying His name, causing it to be desolate. The prohibition against pronouncing or writing the name is a rabbinical ruling, not a commandment from Yahweh. The purpose is to keep the name of Yahweh holy. However, what it ultimately did was to hide His name from His creation.
I can appreciate the desire to preserve His holy name but erasing it from memory or from holy books was never His idea.
I'm sure there will be questions regarding other texts but, for the most part, my writings rely on what the Hebrew Scriptures say. Anything else only serves to amplify and deepen the study. There are far too many 'scriptural studies' that rely on sources other than the Scriptures, taking away from or adding unscriptural information.
We have taken a look at some of the titles and attributes used in addressing and describing Yahweh. We have also determined the difference between them and the actual name of God. As I said in the beginning, I am not going to tell you what you should or should not do in this case. I am also not going to condemn those that do differently than I do. This is your life and it's your relationship with Yahweh. No one can tell you how it should go. My only purpose is to provide an insight into what the Scriptures say, free of any extra-scriptural doctrine or teaching.
I hope this study has been educational and instructive for you. I would like to suggest that as you read the Scriptures, try using the proper name of God — Yahweh — instead of "Lord" or "God". See if it doesn't begin to give you a deeper understanding of Him and the Scriptures.
If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.
Footnotes1. In this article, all mentions of "the Scriptures" will refer to the Hebrew Scriptures. Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture is taken from Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, Copyright © 1985 by The Jewish Publication Society. (Changes to allow for the proper use of the name of the Holy One — Yahweh — are done by the author.) [return]
2. When the passage in the Christian Bible is different from that in the Tanakh, the second number will refer to the verse in the Christian Bible. [return]
3. The Christian Standard Bible (CSB) has replaced the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), eliminating the use of 'Yahweh' and replacing it with the standard Lord. According to the translation notes [pdf], "The CSB Translation Oversight Committee chose to come into alignment with other English translations, departing from the HCSB practice of utilizing "Yahweh" in the text. The HCSB was inconsistent, rendering YHWH as "Yahweh" in only 656 of 6,000+ occurrences of YHWH, because full consistency would be overwhelming to the reader. Yet feedback from readers also showed that the unfamiliarity of "Yahweh" was an obstacle to reading the HCSB. In addition, when quoting Old Testament [sic] texts that include an occurrence of YHWH, the New Testament [sic] renders YHWH with the word kurios, which is a title (Lord) rather than a personal name. This supports the direction of bringing the CSB is in line with most English translations, rendering YHWH as LORD." Yet, according to the introduction to the HCSB, "Yahweh is used more often in the Holman CSB than in most Bible translations because the word Lord in English is a title of God and does not accurately convey to modern readers the emphasis on God's name in the original Hebrew." [Emphasis added] [return]
4. Despite the deliberate attempt to change the passage in Leviticus 24.16 of the 1985 version of the Tanakh to say that it does. [return]