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What Is the Tetragrammaton? Meaning and Usage

The Tetragrammaton is the combination of four Hebrew letters to form the ancient Hebrew name of God, YHWH. This name demonstrates God’s self-existence and self-sufficiency and is linked to how God described himself to Moses.
Alyssa Roat
What Is the Tetragrammaton? Meaning and Usage

Throughout history, the Bible has been translated into dozens of languages. As a result, God has acquired a number of names: Dios, Apajui, God, Enkai, Dieu, Gott, and so on. However, the Torah, written in Hebrew, did have a specific name for God. This name, YHWH, is known as the Tetragrammaton.  

Tetragrammaton in the Torah and the Bible

Though it is uncertain whether this name of God was used previously, most scholars point to YHWH first appearing in the Bible when God manifests Himself to Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3).

In Exodus 3:14, “God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: “I AM has sent me to you.”’”

This I AM is understood to be YHWH, and couldalternatively be translated as something along the lines of “He Who Is” or “He who brings being into being.”

“YHWH” is formed from the four Hebrew letters yodh/yud, he/hey, waw/vav, and he/hey. It is called the Tetragrammaton, literally meaning “four letters,” because of this.

Tetragrammaton Pronunciation

In written form, ancient Hebrew was a consonant-only language without any vowels, thus leading to the name of God being spelled “YHWH.” Because of this, the word itself gives no indication of actual pronunciation.

This issue is compounded because of a Jewish taboo on speaking God’s name. Instead, the name HaShem (literally, “the Name”), would be used, or names such as Adonai (Lord) or Elohim (supreme one). The origin of the taboo is uncertain, perhaps stemming from fear of taking His name in vain, but as a result, the pronunciation was lost, and neither Jewish nor Christian scholars are sure how it was pronounced, or even how many syllables it had.

The most likely pronunciation is Yahweh, pronounced “YAH-way” or “YAH-weh.”

History of Tetragrammaton Usage

Though the pronunciation of YHWH would have originally been known, after the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century B.C., the Jews began to use the name Elohim more than YHWH. This is potentially for two reasons, one being that Elohim was a more universal name as Judaism spread, and the other being that the divine name was increasingly considered too sacred to be uttered. It was replaced vocally in synagogues as Adonai.

In the 6th through 10th centuries, the Masoretes, who worked to reproduce the original Hebrew text of the Bible, inserted the vowels from Adonai or Elohim into YHWH to get YeHoWeh or YeHoWaH. However, “Y” doesn’t exist in Latin, so Latin-speaking Christian scholars replaced the “Y” with “I” or “J” to get “JeHoWaH,” which became “Jehovah” as it spread throughout medieval Europe.

Christian scholars continued to refer to the Tetragrammaton as Jehovah until 19th and 20th century scholars returned to “Yahweh,” a form of which dated back to early Christian writers such as the 2nd century Clement of Alexandria.

YHWH Translations in English

In English translations of the Bible, the Tetragrammaton is usually rendered LORD, with the word “Lord” in small capital letters, though it is sometimes rendered “Yahweh” or “Jehovah,” leading some to believe that Jehovah is the Divine Name revealed to the Israelites and thus is the correct or true name of God. This is not the case, as has been shown, as Jehovah evolved from a continued mixing of words, alphabets, and languages, not emerginguntil around the 16th century.

Tetragrammaton Meaning

YHWH can be interpreted in multiple ways, from “He who will be, is, and has been” to “He Who Is” to “He Brings into Existence Whatever Exists” to simply “I Am.”

It is perhaps this multiplicity yet cohesion of meanings that most powerfully points to who God is. God is the unchanging, everlasting, all-powerful, undefinable Creator of all. We have so many names for Him, from the Almighty, to Father, to the Lord of Hosts, but none can truly sum Him up. Thus, when asked to name Himself, God simply replies, “YHWH”—“I Am.”

Alyssa Roat is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E., a professional writing major at Taylor University, and a freelance editor with Sherpa Editing ServicesHer passions for Biblical study and creativity collide in her writing. More than a hundred of her works have been featured in publications ranging from The Christian Communicator to Keys for Kids.Find out more about her hereand on social media @alyssawrote.

Photo Credit: Unsplash/Tanner Mardis
Design Credit: Emily Hall


Originally published September 06, 2019.