The Trouble With Saying God’s Name

Jews, Christians and Muslims are religious siblings who claim to believe in the same God. But do they really? The Quran makes it clear that Allah is God in Islam, but what about the biblical God? What is God’s name there? Nobody knows. There are several reasons why no one can state with absolute certainty what the name of the biblical God is. Here are two:

There were no vowels written in ancient Hebrew. As a result, though it appears more than 6,800 times in the Bible, there was no clear pronunciation guide for God’s four-letter name: YHWH (or YHVH). Most scholars think the sacred name may have been pronounced similar to Yahweh — for example, the truncated version of the name (“Yah”) appears in “hallelujah” — but again, no one can say for sure.

A second reason for not knowing the exact pronunciation of the biblical God’s name can be traced to blasphemy laws. Misusing God’s name was punishable by death, as it violated notions of what was deemed sacred. The term “sacred” is Latin-derived, and means “to set apart.” God is above and beyond everything else. God is therefore one — not simply in terms of quantity, but in quality, as well. In short, nothing compares to God. This explains the prohibition of images of God in Judaism and Islam, for how can the infinite (God) be contained in the finite (clay, paint, wood, stone, etc.)? How can what is created hold the Creator? The Creator is set apart from creation. To violate the line of separation between God and creation is to commit blasphemy. Hence addressing God by his personal name violates this line.

This explains why Jesus never addressed God by his personal name. Jesus was a Jew. He substituted a title — Abba (Father) — instead. The practice of substituting a title for a personal name is familiar to us. We don’t address our parents or heads of state by their personal names, but with titles. The same principle applies to God, for if we use a title of respect to address a human being, how much more so should we use a reverential one to address the Supreme Being? What title was used for God?

Since it was considered blasphemy to pronounce YHWH, a substitute title was used. Adonai (vowels were added later to Hebrew), meaning “LORD,” was written in the margins of the text to indicate this word was to be substituted for YHWH whenever the personal name of God appeared in the Bible. Jesus was a Jew, who attracted followers who were Jews, and they prayed to the God of the Jews and observed the teachings and practices of the Jews, including the practice of not pronouncing God’s personal name. Centuries later, however, the majority of Jesus’ followers were no longer Jews, which meant they no longer observed Jewish practices. They did not keep the Sabbath holy (Saturday is the seventh day of the week; not Sunday), nor did they keep God’s name sacred. Today, some Christians are quite happy to say God’s personal name out loud, even when it’s wrong.

Because no one knew how to pronounce YHWH, and because adonai was clearly associated with God’s name, Christians took the vowels from adonai and inserted them into God’s personal name. YHWH thus became Yahowah or Yahovah, which later became Jehovah. Jehovah is a mistranslation of God’s sacred name. It is a misuse of the sacred name and violates one of the 10 Commandments. This may or may not explain why some prayers go unanswered.

What is more, when Christians proclaim, “Jesus is LORD,” they are asserting that Jesus is adonai, meaning Jesus is God. For Jews and Muslims, this is unacceptable. God the Creator is separate from the created. The declaration “Jesus is LORD” violates the sacred line of demarcation: It claims that the Created is the Creator. Thus, Jews and Muslims reject the belief that Jesus is God. For Christians, of course, this belief is central to their faith.

Names have the power to establish identity and regulate relationships. Names also can unite or divide. When it comes to the three religious siblings, it is clear which of the two occurs in the name of God.