It’s tempting to talk about election results this morning, but candidates on every side have decried “pundits” to such an extent that I’d just as soon not act like one and add to their consternation. On the subject of elections, I’ll just say “Hallelujah! No more negative ads!” — until the next election, at least.
Speaking of “Hallelujah” — that word is really a compound Hebrew term meaning “Praise Yahweh,” in which “Yahweh” has been abbreviated as “jah.” Last week I posted a note commenting on the Vatican’s decision to ban the use of “Yahweh” in Catholic worship — I wonder if they’ll also have to cut their “Hallelujahs” to “Hallelu’s.”
On that subject, I recently read a delightful article that suggests an alternate way of understanding the divine name. In The Jews Invent Vowels, Joel Hoffman discusses how the writers of early Hebrew — which was originally written without vowels — began to employ three consonants to do double duty as both consonants and vowels. The letter we would transliterate as “Y,” in certain cirumstances, could represent an “i” or “e” sound. The letter we would render as “H” could be used as an “ah” sound, and the letter we represent as “W” could indicate the sound of an “o” or “u.”
Those happen to be the very same letters in the divine name revealed in Exodus 3:15, YHWH. YHWH is sometimes refered to as the “tetragrammaton” (four letters), since no one knows for sure how to pronounce it. Hoffman takes note of this, and says
The tetragrammaton is unique in ancient Hebrew, in that its pronunciation seems divorced from its spelling. It also seems to lack any plausible etymology, and is unattested in similar ancient languages. Now we know why. The Hebrews paid homage to the vowel letters that made it possible to spread the Word of God by using those letters to refer to God.
I have to disagree with Hoffmon on that point, if for no other reason than that the abundant usage of “yah” in personal names seems to attest that the “Y” was considered to be a consonant. If Hoffman is correct in saying that all four letters of the divine name are intended to be vowels rather than consonants, however, the divine name might be pronounced as something like “Ee-ah-oo-ah,” or “Eh-ah-oh-ah.”
Maybe we should all try praising “Ee-ah-oo-ah” this Sunday — and see what it feels like to speak in tongues.
[The top graphic is a tattoo of the tetragrammaton in paleo-Hebrew script. The lower graphic represents the divine name in standard block Hebrew letters.]