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The Name of God

Hebrew may be God's mother tongue, but it's an earthy language. As we have seen, it uses the mundane to express the spiritual. It employs all five senses when writing or reading or speaking or hearing. Here is an example.

The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. (Psalm 103:8)

Looking at this passage in Hebrew, the word translated as anger is aph. This literally means nose, or nostrils and the sense taken is that when one is angry the nostrils flare! So the literal translation is "slow to nose", but a picture is drawn, using a common everyday fact, of anger being expressed.

Let's now see what else Biblical Hebrew can teach us in terms of our understanding of God Himself.

Remember when we learned earlier that religious Jews refuse to refer directly to God's name, but use the term HaShem, "The Name", instead? This is reverence for almighty God, but also tinged with fear because of the dire consequences associated in Jewish tradition for uttering the actual name of God, something that only the High Priest in the Temple in Jerusalem could utter. As he is no more, the name remains unuttered.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, which, as you know, is all consonants, whenever God is referred to in a personal manner, a word of four letters is used, YHWH. This is known as the Tetragrammaton, a Greek word meaning ... four letters. This word appears well over six thousand times in the Old Testament, in every book except for Esther, Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes.

Now, what can a religious Jew do when he's reading from the Hebrew Scriptures and comes across this word - he can hardly avoid one of the thousands of times that it appears, after all. He has to say something, whether it's in his own mind or out aloud. What he does is substitute it for another word, Adonai, which means "Lord", usually written "LORD". The Masoretes, the Jewish scholars who added the vowels to the Hebrew Scriptures, actually added the vowels of the word Adonai to the consonants of the word YHWH, to remind the reader not to use the unutterable name, but to say Adonai instead.

So, in common speech, when a religious Jew wants to refer to God, he uses HaShem, but when reading the Bible or sacred literature, he uses Adonai. This is respect and reverence.

Christians generally have no such reverence for God's name and when they see the Tetragrammaton, YHWH, they prefer to have a go at pronouncing the word. So what did they do? They looked at the Hebrew text with vowels as produced by the Masoretes and noticed that YHWH had vowels. Not realizing that these were not the actual vowels of God's name, but just a memory aid, they decided to pronounce what they saw. This is the origin of the word Jehovah. It's not God's name, it's a word created by man. In fact the man in question was Peter Galatin, Pope Leo X's confessor, in the sixteenth century.

The next time the Jehovah's Witnesses come a-knocking ask them who they are witnessing for, because it's not a God that is written about in the Bible! That should rile them. Others have used the word Yahweh, which is also wrong for the same reason. It's a lot safer and more respectful to use the word LORD, but at least if we use the word "God", as in these articles, we know who we are talking about!

Although YHWH is God's sacred personal name, it's not the only way He is referred to in the Old Testament. The first time we meet Him in the Bible, a different name is used.

Bereshit bara Elohim et hashamayim ve'et ha'arets In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

The word here is Elohim, which appears well over 2,000 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. This is not His personal name, it's just the word, "God" and is a plural word, which is quite intriguing, alluding to the Trinity of course. The singular word for this is Eloah, which also appears in Scripture, mainly in the Book of Job. There's another word that's even smaller than this, El. This word is also used around 250 times in the Old Testament and is associated with power, might and strength. It is most often used in constructs, either as the start of a word or as the end of a word.

Steve Maltz
January 2013

(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book How the Church Lost the Way: And How it Can Find it Again)

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