Yah, Yahweh — Lord

Ann Spangler
Ann Spangler

The name Yahweh occurs more than 6,800 times in the Old Testament. It appears in every book but Esther, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. As the sacred, personal name of Israel’s God, it was eventually spoken aloud only by priests worshiping in the Jerusalem temple. After the destruction of the temple in A.D.70, the name was not pronounced. Instead, Adonay was substituted for Yahweh whenever it appeared in the biblical text. Because of this, the correct pronunciation was eventually lost. English editions of the Bible usually translate Adonay as “Lord” and Yahweh as “LORD.”

Afraid of profaning this covenant name of God, various rabbinical writers spoke of it as “The Name,” “The Great and Terrible Name,” “The Unutterable Name,” “The Ineffable Name,” “The Holy Name,” and “The Distinguished Name.” Also known as the Tetragrammaton, because it is formed by the four Hebrew consonants YHWH (JHVH in German), it was first rendered Jehovah in the Middle Ages and enshrined as such in the King James Version of the Bible (Exodus 6:3; Psalm 83:18; Isaiah 12:2; 26:4). This mispronunciation arose in the tenth-century when Jewish scholars began supplying vowels to Hebrew words, which had formerly been written without them. Since Adonay was always substituted for Yahweh (pronounced yah-WEH, as scholars now think) in the biblical text, the Hebrew vowels for Adonay were inserted into the four letters of the Tetragrammaton: YaHoWaH.

Unfortunately, the translation “LORD,” which is a title rather than a name, obscures the personal nature of this name for God. Though the meaning of Yahweh is disputed, the mysterious self-description in Exodus 3:14, “I Am Who I Am,” may convey the sense not only that God is self-existent but that he is always present with his people. Yahweh is not a God who is remote or aloof but One who is always near and who at times intervenes in history on behalf of his people. The ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the manna in the desert—all these and more—were powerful acts that revealed him as a God of great faithfulness, holiness, compassion, and power.

Praying to Yahweh

Sometimes we long for a God who is less complicated than the God of the Bible, someone who comports with our own middle class values and attitudes—a nice god who always acts with great kindness and tenderness, foreswearing judgment in favor of mercy.  But such a god would never have gotten his people out of Egypt. They would never have made it across the Red Sea, through the desert, and into the promised land. They would have remained enslaved in their misery.

Life in the desert is hard. There’s not enough food, very little water. Barely two months after the Israelites left Egypt they had already forgotten about the wonders God had performed on their behalf. Some of them complained, stating their preference for slavery in Egypt over wandering in the wasteland. Then came the worst insult of all—they chose other gods to lead them, forging an idol to worship. We know what happened. The punishment was swift and severe. God killed the unfaithful, eliminating those who were trying to convince his people to turn back to Egypt, repeating the lie that slavery is better than freedom.

So these actions also define who Yahweh is—a holy God with a holy purpose for his people. He wants to set them free not only from Egypt but from sin and death, from their temptation to live as slaves. We see a similar line played out later in Exodus, this time in the story of Joseph, who is sold by his brothers into slavery. Still, in the midst of disgrace and unjust imprisonment, Yahweh, the Lord, is with Joseph. Listen to what Genesis 39:2, says: “The Lord was with Joseph, so he became a successful man.” God used the tragic elements of Joseph’s story to protect the lives of his chosen people.

It’s the same for us. Our bondage takes many forms—greed, gluttony, lust, envy, pride—all a poison to our souls. And our temptation is to react just like the Israelites did when they wandered in the desert. “It’s too hard. You’re going to kill me. I want to go another way.” But God is faithful. He doesn’t give up. Instead, he stays with us, leading us into greater freedom as we trust him. Let us trust him.


Originally published April 13, 2021.