There has been much made of late about the importance of relationships in the context of good theology and active biblical faith. From the doctrine of the Trinity, the image of God, and extending to the broader interpretation of the second great commandment, relationship plays a focal role. In the Bible the topic of relationship is often bound to the significance of ‘names’. The Israelites saw naming as extremely important and this is evidenced in the naming of John the Baptist and Jesus in the New Testament (Matthew 1:21; Luke 1:31).
As a newly converted Christian at the age of 15, I found it intriguing to realize that in the Old Testament God had revealed His special name to His people. So, every time I read the capitalized LORD, I had to understand that it represented this special name. Over time, as I engaged in formal studies in Theology and the Bible, I gave serious consideration to the special name of God as it is used in the Old Testament.
The importance of considering God’s name is particularly relevant today since in many churches we sing about, and confess the name of God and we don’t stop and think exactly what that means. Unlike the Bible’s emphasis on names, we have moved away from associating names with character and relationship. In our modern world we often see names as signifiers of items, brands or commodities. As Christians, therefore, it is beneficial to give careful consideration to the name of God.
God’s Revealed Name in the Old Testament
From the commencement of the Old Testament, God’s personal name is used by the author of Genesis (Genesis 2: 4).[iii] This name is specifically presented in the book of Exodus when God revealed Himself to Moses by this particular name. This was the identifying covenant name given to Moses by which the Israelites were to know that Moses was commissioned by the living and true God, the God of their fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob:
13 Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel 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?” 14 God said to Moses, LORD (“I am who I am”). And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” 15 God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The LORD (YHWH), the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name for ever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations. Exodus 3:13-15, (ESV)
This personal name for God is based on what is known as the ‘tetragrammaton,’[iv] the four Hebrew consonants which, when transliterated into English, are YHWH = Yahweh.[v] As explained by God to Moses, the meaning of His personal name is ‘I am who I am’. The depth of God’s revealed personal name is immense. This name encapsulates something of His absolute uniqueness – His immutability and eternal nature.
Besides God’s personal name revealing something of His glorious nature, it was presented as the name for God’s people to have as part of the special covenantal relationship that exists between them and their God. It is this dimension that is lost when the name of God is replaced by the title ‘LORD’. The name Yahweh is the primary name used for God in the Old Testament. Of the various names and titles used for God in the the Old Testament, Yahweh is used 6828 times. This far exceeds ‘God’ (Hebrew, Elohim) used just over 2000 times and ‘Lord’ (Hebrew, Adonai) which appears 432 times.
Why the Change from Yahweh to LORD?
It is believed that the disuse of the name ‘Yahweh’ commenced with the Babylonian captivity (597 BCE) when the people of God went into an ‘unclean’ land.[vi]
Others argue that the prohibition was in full force by the time of the completion of the Hebrew Old Testament.[vii] According to Gerard Gertoux,[viii] the prohibition came into force between 130 – 160 CE with Rabbi Abba Saul warning, ‘that those transgressing this command (saying the tetragrammaton) would forfeit their portion in the world to come (Talmud, Sanhedrin 101a 10:1).’[ix]
As to the exact origin of the prohibition, it is clear that, along with Rabbinical Judaism, Jews would not pronounce the sacred name during the Christian era. Accordingly, Jews under the Oral Law, (this is also known as rabbinical law or as Jesus pronounced “the traditions of men”), were forbidden to pronounce the tetragrammaton, (see Babylonian Talmud (TB) Kiddushin 71a, Pesahim 50a; cf. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews ii.12.4).[x] This tradition was taken up by the Christian Church and has largely continued to this present day, as can be seen by the lack of use of the tetragrammaton in most of the popular English bible translations, including the KJV, INV, NKJV, ESV, NASB, NLT and NRSV. The main exception is the Roman Catholic New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) which uses the tetragrammaton in nearly all occurrences. The only other popular translation that uses the tetragrammaton is the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) which uses ‘Yahweh’ 484 times (8% of its actual use in the Old Testament).
Case for the use of the Tetragrammaton
The most obvious reason for the use of the tetragrammaton is the command from the Scriptures. As mentioned above, God revealed Himself to Moses with His covenant/personal name (YHWH) in Exodus 3:13-15, and there it concludes with this emphatic divine declaration: ‘This is my name for ever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.’ One cannot escape the divine intentionality in God’s revelation of His personal name. The implications deserve careful consideration.
First, this name is the initiative of God and constitutes an important point of divine revelation. Fretheim insightfully explains:
It is God who gives the name; God is not named by others, unlike people or other gods. Though not fully revealing, the name gives some insight into God; the giving of the name is thus a revelatory act. Naming entails distinctiveness; it sets one off from others who have names, including gods.[xiv]
Second, knowledge of name means one is part of a named historic community. God chose to be joined to an historical community – Israel. Thus, God identified Himself with that community and committed Himself to part of that people’s history. ‘The God who goes by this name will participate in their story forever (see Exodus 33:19; 34:6).’[xv] Also, and of key importance, God’s giving His name to a people is an act of relationship. God is personally and intimately relational. It brings with it a closeness that cannot be achieved without a personal name. This brings God not only into community relationship but also into one-on-one relationship as is evidenced throughout the Old Testament.
Further, naming brings with it access and communication:
Naming makes true encounter and communication possible. Naming entails availability. By giving the name, God becomes accessible to people. God and people can now meet one another and there can be address on the part of both parties.[xvi]
The extraordinary number of times Yahweh is used throughout the Old Testament is an overwhelming testimony that God is both personal and relational. The hermeneutical principle of lietwort, the repetition of a word in relative close proximity in Hebrew biblical prose, is an indicator that the repeated word is highlighting something of note.[xvii] On a grand scale this principle must apply to the use of the tetragrammaton in the Old Testament.
Finally, Fretheim makes a noteworthy point which deserves thoughtful consideration on both a theological and pastoral level:
Naming entails vulnerability. In becoming so available to the world, God is to some degree at the disposal of those who can name the name. God’s name may be misused or honoured. For God to give the name is to open himself up to hurt. Naming entails the likelihood of divine suffering, and so this act of name-giving is decisively continuous with Exodus 3:7: “I know their suffering.” This shows why there is a commandment regarding the name of God (see Exodus 20:7; 6: 2-3).[xviii]
The Theological Significance of the Tetragrammaton
An appreciation of the use of the tetragrammaton throughout the Old Testament includes theological implications. The first and possibly foremost implication is that God’s personal name highlights His immanence. With only the title ‘LORD’ substituted for the tetragrammaton God is presented as largely transcendent – at a distance. When His personal name is employed God appears to be overwhelmingly immanent – close at hand. We can easily lose sight of God’s personal and relational nature when we divest Him of His self-revealed name.
The second theological implication is in the tetragrammaton’s covenantal connotation. The revelation of God’s personal name came in the context of covenant. The story of Israel from exodus, wilderness and then to the possession of the promised land, is one of covenant relationship with Yahweh. The giving of the Torah came with the primacy of the the name of God – Yahweh. Both the ‘Decalogue’ (the Ten Commandments) and the ‘Shema’ (Duet. 6:4-5, a daily declaration made by pious Jews) testify to the centrality of the tetragrammaton. The third commandment of the Decalogue should read:
You must not misuse the name of Yahweh your God, for Yahweh will not leave unpunished anyone who uses his name for what is false.
Deuteronomy 5:11, (NJB)
The Shema should read:
Listen Israel: Yahweh our God is the one only Yahweh. You must love Yahweh your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength.
Deuteronomy 6: 4, 5, (NJB)
The continuity of God’s covenant of Grace between the Old and New Testaments is bound to the one and only name whereby we are to be saved. In the Old Testament that name comes from God’s self-revelation of His personal name Yahweh. In the New Testament the divine name by which we are to be saved comes from God’s self-revelation in the person and name of Jesus (Acts 4: 10-2) – which in the Hebrew means ‘Yahweh the Saviour’. This supports the glorious doctrine of the incarnation which directly connects Yahweh with Jesus as both God and human.
Jesus and the Tetragrammaton
An understandable question to be asked is: ‘Did Jesus use the tetragrammaton?’ Gertoux in his book, Did Jesus Know God’s Name Y-H-W-H,[xxxix] spends time arguing a strong case that Jesus knew and used God’s personal name in both its Hebrew and Aramaic form – Yahweh in Hebrew and MarYa (from mar = Lord and Ya = Yahweh, thus Lord Yahweh) in Aramaic. This applies to Jesus’ many quotes and readings from the Old Testament throughout the duration of His ministry (Luke 4:16-21).[xl]
An additional argument comes from Jesus’ focus on glorifying the Father’s name (John 12:28; 17:1-6). Likewise, when Jesus gives the model prayer He mentions ‘Our Father in heaven hallowed by your name’ (Matt 6: 9; Luke 11:2). Further, the Gospels emphasise that Jesus comes in the name of the Lord, (Matt 10:41; 12: 21; 21:9; 23:39; Mk 11: 9, 10; Luke1:49; 13:35; 19:38; John 12: 13) – What name is that? It cannot be ‘Lord’ or ‘Father’ since these are titles. The answer can only be found in the real word represented by ‘Lord’ which would have either been ‘YHWH’ in Hebrew or ‘MarYa’ in Aramaic. Therefore, it needs to be specifically affirmed that Jesus came in the name of Yahweh!
The Tetragrammaton in the New Testament
It is important to realise that when the New Testament quotes the Old Testament, nearly all the references to ‘the Lord’ read as ‘YHWH’ in the Hebrew and (as mentioned previously) the equivalent in the Aramaic Targum, ‘MarYa’. If the Old Testament quote used in the New Testament was from an early version of the Greek Septuagint, (this includes all manuscripts of the Septuagint dated up to 150 CE), then it also contains the tetragrammaton in Hebrew amidst the Greek text.[xli] In relation to these quotes from the Old Testament in the New Testament, Mundhenk states, there are ‘many places in the New Testament where the OT passage using the Tetragrammaton (YHWH) is applied to Jesus.’[xlii]
In the Aramaic Peshitta, (the believed earliest version of the New Testament) the tetragrammaton appears in the form of MarYa (Lord Yahweh). MarYa appears 239 times in the Peshitta New Testament. Of the numerous occurrences of the divine name there are 50 instances where MarYa is used specifically in relation to Jesus. Thereby the divinity of Jesus is blatantly presented in the Aramaic New Testament. One example of the many is 1 Corinthians 12:3 which reads:
‘Because of this I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, Jesus is a curse. And no one is able to say Jesus is MarYa (Lord Yahweh), except by the Holy Spirit.’
This raises a significant observation that can be made when one notes the use of the tetragrammaton in the Gospels. There is an apparent transition from the Old Testament focus on the divine name of Yahweh to the New Testament with the name of Jesus. In the Old Testament there are numerous references to: ‘the name of YHWH (LORD)’, ‘in the name of YHWH (LORD)’ and ‘in my name (YHWH speaking)’. In the New Testament these are replaced with equivalent expressions: ‘in the name of Jesus’, ‘in the name of the Lord Jesus’ and ‘in my name (Jesus speaking)’. This is the replacement of one divine name for another. Both were divinely revealed and both names make the same exclusive claims. It may be even better to say that the name of Jesus does not supersede, but rather, is incorporated in the divine name, as is demonstrated in the trinitarian formula of the great commission, (Matt 28:18-20), which reveals the tri-personhood of Yahweh.
Some might want to argue that the content of this article is technical and has little relevance to everyday Christian living. The worth of an appreciation of the personal name of God is that with such a realisation, the Bible (including both the Old and New Testament) comes to life in ways previously not realised or experienced. God is understood to be closer to us in the Old Testament and Jesus is seen to be unquestionably divine as well as truly human in the New Testament.
‘What is in a name?’ In Yahweh & Jesus – Everything!
About the author: Damon Adams originally trained as a Presbyterian minister in the 1980’s and was later ordained as a Pentecostal minister. Damon served as Chaplain at Elizabeth College, Hobart and has experience in church planting. He has been involved in lecturing in Theology, Biblical Studies and Church History at John Knox Theological College, Sydney, Tabor College, Tasmania and more recently at Alphacrucis Hobart. Damon holds a PhD in Theology.
[ii] In the Old Testament the use of God’s personal is used more than any other appellation including ‘God’ and ‘Lord’.
It is when the focus of God’s creation is on humanity that God is presented with the use of His relational covenant name combined with the use of Elohim (Hebrew word for God).
[iv] For a detailed study on the tetragrammaton see, Robert J. Wilkinson, Tetragrammaton: Western Christians and the Hebrew Name of God, (Leiden: Brill, 2015).
[v] There has been some dispute about the vowels within the letters of the tetragrammaton. The general consensus is that they are a, e, producing ‘YaHWeH’.
[vi] ‘According to Dalman, the Rabbis forbade the utterance of the Tetragrammaton, to guard against desecration of the Sacred Name; . . . that the Divine Name was not pronounced lest it should be desecrated by the heathen.’Crawford Howard Toy and Ludwig Blau, Jewish Encyclopaedia: ‘Tetragrammaton,’ (1906), http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/14346-tetragrammaton.
[vii] This seems to carry more weight of evidence since the post-exilic prophets and writers continued to use Yahweh. This is seen in the extent of the use of Yahweh in each of the post-exilic books: Ezra-Nehemiah, 31 times; Haggai, 34; Joel, 30; Obadiah, 7; Zechariah, 52; Malachi, 24.
[viii] Gerard Gertoux of the University of Lyon, has specialised on the Tetragrammaton. His works are recommended reading for a detailed study on the topic of the Tetragrammaton. See Gerard Gertoux, The Name of God YHWH Which is Pronounced as it is Written, (University Press of America, 2015); “Sanctified be your Name” – Did Jesus “Je[HoVaH]-Salvation” Know God’s Name – Y-H-W-H? (University Press of America, 2017).
[ix] Gerard Gertoux, ‘The Use of the Name (YHWH) by Early Christians’, paper delivered at the International Meeting Society of Biblical Literature, 2 available http://areopage.net/blog/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Gertoux_UseNameEarlyChristians.pdf
[x] Clifford Hubert Durousseau, “Yah: A Name of God” Jewish Bible Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 1, 2014, 24.
[xiv] Terence E. Fretheim, Interpretation: Exodus (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 64.
[xv] Ibid, 65.
[xvii] The term lietwort was coined by Martin Buber, philosopher and Old Testament scholar.
[xviii] Terence E. Fretheim, Interpretation: Exodus (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 65.
[xxxix] Gerard Gertoux, “Sanctified be your Name” – Did Jesus “Je[HoVaH]-Salvation” Know God’s Name – Y-H-W-H? (University Press of America, 2017).
[xl] Ibid, 16.
[xli] According to Gertoux, ‘Jewish copyists carried on the use of writing God’s name in Hebrew until around 300 CE. For example, the tetragram was written in paleo-Hebrew in a
copy of the Septuagint of Symmachus (c. 300 CE) . . .’ “Sanctified be your Name” – Did Jesus “Je[HoVaH]-Salvation” Know God’s Name – Y-H-W-H? 58. For photographic examples of an early manuscript of the Septuagint see Gerard Gertoux, ‘The Use of the Name (YHWH) by Early Christians’, paper delivered at the International Meeting Society of Biblical Literature, 7.
[xlii] Norm Mundhenk, ‘Jesus is Lord: The Tetragrammaton in Bible Translation’,
The Bible Translator (BT) Vol. 61, Issue 2 (April 2010), 55. Mundhenk provides a good example of this from Mark 1:2-3 which quotes Isaiah 40:3 and applies this specific reference to YHWH directly to Jesus. Highlighting that the Gospel of Mark begins with a declaration of the divinity of Jesus as the Christ, Mundhenk, ‘Jesus is Lord: The Tetragrammaton in Bible Translation’, 55.