A Whimsical Dictionary: Y is for Yahweh

A Whimsical Dictionary: Y is for Yahweh

A Whimsical Dictionary of Surprising Influences.

Y is for Yahweh – 

“So Moses said to God, ‘Indeed, when I go to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I tell them?’ Then God said to Moses, “I AM the Existing One.’ God also said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the children of Israel: ‘The Existing One sent me to you.’ Moreover, God said to Moses again, ‘Thus you shall say to the children of Israel: ‘The Lord God of your fathers – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob – sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and my memorial to all generations.'” (Exodus 3: 13-15 the Septuagint version).

When God created that sacred space on Mt. Horeb and presented Himself to Moses at the burning bush, Moses didn’t exactly know how to respond. Moses wanted to know God’s name for one thing, so that he would know how to properly address Him, and call out to Him, and refer to Him. God seemed reluctant to share His most personal eternal Name, so He gave Moses a name that wasn’t even a word. Was this purposely mysterious, or even evasive? Perhaps God’s Name was too “wonderful” to even understand or take in at the human level (Judges 13:18). Or, maybe God’s name here was deliberately unclear because, similar to God’s face that couldn’t be seen, His Name could not be heard by mere mortals? Who’s to say? It’s clear that the precise pronunciation and spelling have been lost through time.

God gave to Moses His name of Yahweh, which is about as close to a personal name of God as we’re going to get. Scholars have been lining up to solve this puzzle of a name for centuries, and have been unsuccessful. It is obviously an archaic use of letters, because Yahweh is the “to be” verb in the future tense. There is no “am” in the Hebrew language, which lead many to claim that Yahweh means, “I will be what I will be.” But many others say that God was using that non-word in the poetic sense with “I AM,” because He is trying to communicate that He is outside of time, so must always speak int the present tense. So now we can try to read Yahweh as, “I AM He who is,” “I AM the One who exists,” or “I AM the Existing One.

In Scripture, every time the reader sees LORD in all caps, that signifies Yahweh. This Name is used about 6,800 times in the Hebrew Bible, and 700 times in Psalms alone. The first time we seen Yahweh in the Bible is in Genesis 2:4 = “In the day that Yahweh-Elohim made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up – for Yahweh-Elohim had not caused it to rain upon the earth…”  The shortened form of Yahweh is Yah, or Jah, which is found over 40 times in the Psalms, including “Hallelujah,” which literally means “Praise Yah.”

To repeat, the non-word Yahweh is connected with the Hebrew verb “hayah,” to be, to become, to happen. Martin Buber thinks the verb could also partly mean “to be actively present.” So Buber, and many other Jewish scholars, think the Name could mean something like, “I will be there as I will be there,” or “I will be what I will be.” In other words, “I live an uncreated existence, and yet I will be ready, willing, able to be present in whatever situation you are in.” Rabbi Jonathon Sacks believes that early Christian translations omitted that future tense altogether. He says that in this Name, the LORD claims to be “the God of the future tense.” In this important future tense, Sacks believes that He is a God of surprises, that we will have to learn to trust Him, and that we will only know Him through His moral commitments and His acts, not just His abstract essence.

“What is the Name’s mystery? First, it has no vowels. Without vowels it is impossible to pronounce a word. But YHWH also has no real consonants! Y, H and W really are blowing sounds, rushings of air through the mouth. The point is one of elusiveness or abstraction. The Name of God is so subtle it could slip away from you. YHWH is not a God you can grab hold of and be sure you’ve got it in your mental grasp.” (Rabbi Arthur Green, These Are the Words: A Vocabulary of Jewish Spiritual Life).

The seventy Greek-speaking Jewish scholars who translated the original Hebrew into Greek around 150 BC, produced an authoritative version of the Hebrew Bible called the Septuagint. This Greek version of Scripture was determined to be divinely inspired long before Jesus, and copies were spread around the Greek-speaking world. This version of the Scripture then, was the Bible that was used during the 1st Century, and thus by Jesus and His early followers. Whenever Jesus quoted His Bible (the Old Testament) in the Gospels, He is quoting directly from the Septuagint. That was the commonly used Bible during Christ’s time, in Jewish life and worship and study. The Septuagint translated Yahweh as “I AM the Existing One,” so that would be the most familiar way of referring to Yahweh. All Bible-reading Jews would have thought of Yahweh when hearing the phrase “I AM.” In the minds of the Jews, I AM would have been completed with “the Existing One” since that was what they were most familiar with. So Jews would have been thinking of their God as the Existent One, the only Being who is self-existent and truly independent. Only Yahweh God is the Essence of Being, the Ground of Being. Put another way, they would have thought of Yahweh as, “I AM Being.” One of God’s titles that has lasted through the centuries, “the Existing One,” is drawn directly from the Greek Bible’s version of Yahweh, the sacred Name that cannot be uttered. In the Orthodox Chruch, the Existing One is addressed every day in prayers and worship.

When Jesus started speaking about being “I AM,” the listeners would have understood that He is referring to divinity, to the Great I AM. They would have been flabbergasted to realize that by saying “I AM,” Jesus was in fact claiming to be on the same footing as the great Yahweh.

YHWH, or Yahweh, so basic, so mysterious, so elusive. A personal Name, yet somehow impersonal. It is God’s self-revealed Name, alluding to His uncreated existence, His eternal Personhood, His quality of Being, His basic self-sufficiency and self-existence. It is perhaps somehow a spiritual version of an “act of being” verb. Yahweh, intimately relational, a keeper of covenants, unchangeably complete, infinite and everlasting. God is the LORD, He will not give His glory to another. Yahweh, set apart from everything else in His holiness. As one scholar put it, “The whole content of biblical history is a commentary on the meaning of this Name.” 

The Great I AM revelation seems to leave a lot of blanks. I AM… what, exactly? If there was any doubt as to His character and self-description when using that Name, God certainly cleared a lot of that up in His amazing self-revelation in Exodus 34“And Yahweh descended in a cloud, and stood with Moses and pronounced the Name Yahweh. Then Yahweh passed before Moses and called out, ‘Yahweh, Yahweh, God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in faithful love and constancy, maintaining His mercy to thousands, forgiving fault, crime and sin…” (Exodus 34:5-7, NJB).

But what does Yahweh look like in daily, practical terms? Sure enough, here comes Jesus to the rescue, filling in some of the details. He loved to explain some of the holy Name with easily understood metaphors: I AM the Bread of Life; I AM the Good Shepherd; I AM the Light of the World; I AM the Gate for the Sheep; I AM the Resurrection and the Life; I AM the Way, the Truth and the Life; I AM the True Vine. Perhaps that is one good way to unpack something as expansive and mysterious as YHWH. Another way is to flesh it out, to fill in the blanks of Yahweh by showing us the very nature of the Great I AM in daily practice. And Jesus did just that. Now we know more of what I AM means, through the Person of Christ.