Should Christians avoid pronouncing the name “Yahweh” out of deference to the Jews, as the Vatican has declared?
It’s a good thing Rev. Dunn is Baptist, because if he were Roman Catholic he would no longer be allowed to say “Yahweh,” at least during the liturgy. U.S. bishops recently sent a letter to local dioceses informing them of a new Vatican directive banning the use of “Yahweh” in worship.
Unfortunately most U.S. versions of the 2009 Missal, a liturgy guide for Catholics, had already been printed — complete with seven hymns that include the word “Yahweh.” Local leaders were instructed to download revised versions of the hymn and substitute the sanitized versions.
The bishops’ concern, apparently, is that continued Catholic use of the name Yahweh could be offensive to Jewish folk, who consider the name too sacred to be pronounced. Early Hebrews had no such compunction, of course, as the divine name is replete in the Hebrew Bible, where it is spelled with the Hebrew letters that English speakers transliterate as YHWH. The Book of Exodus declares YHWH as the personal name by which Israel is to address God: “This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations,” according to Exodus 3:15.
The name YHWH is closely associated with the previous verse, in which God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM” (‘ehyeh ‘asher ‘ehyeh), so scholars have often posited that YHWH should be understood as a causative form of the same verbal root (hyh), suggesting that YHWH is the root cause of all being, “the One who causes to be.”
Moses, Samuel, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah and other luminaries of Hebrew history gladly spoke of and called upon God as YHWH. At some point in Israel’s later history, however, the rabbis concluded that God’s personal name was too transcendent for humans to pronounce. When reading from the Hebrew Bible — which was written without vowels — they would substitute “Adonai” (a generic term that means “Lord”) for YHWH. In time, the original pronunciation of the divine name was lost. The most common guess as to the correct pronunciation is “Yahweh,” but others have suggested options like “Yahu” or “Yahuwa.”
When the Masoretes got around to adding vowel points to the Hebrew text in the ninth and tenth centuries A.D., they kept the consonants YHWH, but put the vowels for “Adonai” around it. Thus, Jewish readers would see YHWH, but say “Adonai.”
That, by the way, is how the awkward word “Jehovah” came about. In the German language, the divine name would be transliterated JHVH rather than YHWH. When early German translators tried to render JHVH with the vowel points for Adonai, it came out “Jehovah,” an unfortunate hybrid moniker that was carried over into early English translations.
But, back to the initial issue — should Christians avoid pronouncing the name “Yahweh” out of deference to the Jews, as the Vatican has declared?
In my view, it makes no logical sense to ban the use of “Yahweh” for fear of offending our Jewish kin, in part because modern Jews have taken reverence for YHWH a step farther and also avoid saying or writing any name for God. Instead, they intentionally spell “God” as “G-d” to avoid writing it, and they refer to the deity with euphemisms like “HaShem” (“the Name”) or “the Holy One, blessed be he.” Should Christians also avoid saying “God,” “Lord” or any other name for God that the Jewish community avoids?
Our Jewish friends don’t pray in Christ’s name, either. Should we also put a ban on that? I have several Jewish friends, and none of them has ever indicated that they took offense at sincere worship vocabulary within Christian churches. My guess is that this hyper-concern with political correctness did not originate in the Jewish community, but with a bunch of bishops who must not have enough to do.
If God said, “This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations,” I would assume God revealed the name for a purpose, with the idea that worshipers would use it. When I say “Yahweh,” I may not be pronouncing it as originally intended, but pronounce it I will.
Tony Cartledge is associate professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School and contributing editor to Baptists Today. This column appeared previously on his Baptists Today blog.