By John Goldingay
A couple of people have asked me about a theory concerning the name of Yahweh that has been circulating on social media. The theory is that the real name of Yahweh is simply Yhwh without any vowels, and that this is important because pronouncing the name is then like breathing. I have no problem with a devotional use of the name of God along these lines, but the theory presents itself as a historical understanding of the name. In this sense it can hardly be right. It seems to be based on a misunderstanding about Hebrew.
The theory says that the name God gave Moses was Yhwh without any vowels.But all written Hebrew lacked vowels, like other Semitic languages (and many modern text messages!). When someone spoke the Hebrew words as opposed to writing them, however, the words would have vowels (like text messages if one read them out). That would apply to the name Yahweh as it applied to every other word.
In other words, Israelites could manage fine with a system whereby written words comprised only consonants, but when they said the words out loud, they could work out how to say them with vowels. The system worked fine for people who spoke Hebrew as their everyday language. It works for Israelis today. But when Hebrew was no longer the everyday language for many Jews in late Second Temple times, it was harder for people to know how to pronounce the words, and systems of dots and dashes were devised so that they could see how to pronounce the words.
But an odd thing then happened with the name Yahweh. By the time of the development of the systems of dots and dashes, people had stopped actually saying out loud the name of Yahweh (for instance, when reading from the Scriptures). Instead they replaced it by the Hebrew word for Lord (which is why you get LORD instead of Yahweh in translations of the Bible). One reason they stopped pronouncing the name may have been a concern not to take Yahweh’s name in vain. Another may have been that the name makes Yahweh sound like a strange Israelite tribal god rather than the one real God.
As a consequence, it was somewhat later that the vowels got added to the written form of the name Yhwh. That didn’t mean people were thinking up vowels where there had been none before. It meant they were putting on record the pronunciation of the name Yahweh that people had always used and that they assumed Moses would have used. The vowels in the name Yahweh were not added arbitrarily by someone at this point, then. They were designed to indicate the way the name had always been pronounced.
(Another question I am sometimes asked is whether it is disrespectful to Jews to use the name Yahweh as they do not use it. One or two Jews have reassured me that they do not think this. Not pronouncing the name is part of the spiritual discipline to which they believe God has called them, like keeping kosher, but they do not assume that God has called everyone to it.)