101 ways of dodging the use of God’s name
by John Wijngaards, Mission Today, Autumn 1996
ONE of the ten commandments concerns God’s name. It says: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Deuteronomy 5:11). In Old Testament times magical power
was ascribed to the name of a god and the Jews were forbidden to use God’s name for any “vain” purpose – superstition, commercial bargaining, imposing curses or swearing light-hearted oaths. All such practices implied great disrespect for God himself. In Jesus’ time most Jews had begun an even more vigorous interpretation of the commandment. They avoided pronouncing the name of God at all times. Not only would they never mention God by name in daily life, they would also substitute his name by other expressions in prayer and worship.
God’s special name was “Yahweh”, which scripture translates as “I am who am” (Exodus 3:14). This name is still found abbreviated in “Allelu-yah” and in names such as
“Isa-yah”, “Zechara-yah”, and so on. It was God’s own personal name which he had revealed to Moses and which distinguished him clearly from the gods and goddesses
believed in by other nations. As I said, pious Jews in Jesus’ time would never pronounce the name of Yahweh. Instead, whenever his name occurred in daily prayers or in scripture readings,
they would substitute it with Adonai which means “Lord”. And in order to remember to make this change they adopted the custom of writing the name Yahweh in a peculiar form.
Here I must digress on the Jewish way of writing.
The main letters of the jewish Alphabet are its consonants. The Name of Yahweh has four: y-h-w-h. It is known as the tetragrammaton, the sacred four-letter word.
Vowel signs were normally written underneath or above the consonants, but in case of the word Yahweh, the Jews wrote the vowels of the word Adonai, Lord: a-o-a. This explains
why in Hebrew bibles the word is written as “Yahowah” – Jehovah, as we know it in English. Of course, in biblical times no one would ever pronounce it as “Jehovah”. Jehovah as
a name simply never existed – until people came along who never understood the old Jewish custom. That is why you will not find the name “Jehovah” in any competent, modern
Bible translation. Scholars will either use the original name “Yahweh” or respect the Jewish custom by substituting the word “Lord”.
The avoidance of God’s name also had other consequences, traces of which we find in Jesus’ own ways of speaking. Some examples from the Gospel may illustrate the point.
Often the Jews would say “heaven” where we would say “God”. When the Pharisees asked Jesus to show them a sign “from heaven” (Matthew 16:1) they meant “show us a sign
from God”. When Jesus implied that John’s baptism was “from heaven and not just from human beings” (21:25) he meant it had God’s own sanction. The “kingdom of heaven”
is nothing else than another expression for the “kingdom of God”.
Other indirect ways of speaking about God are found in phrases such as, “the Son of man will be seated at the right hand of the power” (Matthew 26:64), “the Son of man will come in his glory”(25:31) and “hosanna in the highest” (21:9). Heaven, power, glory, the highest, the name, all these were different ways of referring to God himself.
In blessings the name of God was often avoided by using the passive tense. Instead of saying to a young couple: “May God give you children”, a pious Jew would say:
“may you be given children”. It was understood that God would be the giver. This, too, we often find in the Gospels. In the beatitudes, for example we read: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Comforted by whom? By God! Knowing that God is directly intended makes a difference to the meaning. When Jesus says: “Judge not that you may not be judged” (Matthew 7:1) he does not warn us to refrain from rash judgement in order to escape a similar rash judgement by other people; he warns us that God will judge us as severely as we judge other people. And when Jesus promises: “Seek first his kingdom and his holiness and all other things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33) he assures us that God
will not forget our minor needs if we set our heart on his main priorities.
We Christians so easily take God’s name on our tongue, and this is not necessarily a bad thing if it expresses our deep trust in him as a loving friend and father. But are we not in danger at the same time of forgetting his transcendence and infinity? “The beginning of wisdom lies in respect for God” (Sirach 1:14)