Musings Of A Spiritual Atheist
What’s In A Name

Presuming for the moment that we are talking about the Bible God, when the question is posed, “What is God’s name,” the answer is often “God” or “Lord” or “Jesus”. In fact, none of those are actually correct, although a case could be made for “Jesus” since it is the personal name of the “God the Son” aspect of the trinity. The other two, God and Lord, are actually titles rather than names, and describe either the type of life form he is (a spirit entity, a God) or his status (a lord, a ruler). We use “he”, because the bible clearly states that God is male and always uses masculine pronouns when referring to him, including in his personal name.

The Bible identifies the Jewish God as having the name written in Hebrew letters as יהןה and is often referred to as the tetragrammaton, which means ”the four letters”. This is read right to left and is transliterated as “YHWH” in the English alphabet and spelled out as “yod hay waw hay”. It contains no indication as to what vowel sounds should be used, which was the way Hebrew was originally written, since a reader would presumably understand what was meant and insert the correct vowels as he read.

In the Latin alphabet, the sound now represented by the letter Y was represented by I or J, and the consonant represented by W or U was represented by V. For that reason, numerous variations in spelling may be found in texts based on the Roman alphabet, and many more in languages using other alphabets. The use of different letters with slight differences in tonal value has also led to variations in the pronunciation, compounded by different languages being more or less consistent with the sounds of Latin. In addition, the sound represented by the H is silent and, depending on the particular transliteration used, they may be missing.

Because it is God’s personal name, Jews eventually stopped pronouncing it as a sign of respect. However, this caused a problem in Bible reading whenever the name appeared in the text. To get around this it was the practice to substitute other words for the name. These were “adonai” (Lord) and “elohim” (God). As an indication to specify which was substituted on a given occasion the vowel sounds for those two words were indicated in the Bible text itself. These were most commonly a-a or e-i, but sometimes a-o-a or e-o-i were used if the common -o- vowel was included. These gave rise to God’s name being represented by Yahowah for Lord and Yehowih for God. Note, however, that neither of these are actual Hebrew words. They are flags to indicate to a Hebrew reader that they should substitute another word, and what that word should be. Over time these vowels came to be used in the name itself, sometimes mixing vowels from both, and giving rise to “Jehovah”, “Jehova”, “Iehoua”, “Jave”, “Iave”, “Iabe” and many more. The most well known is probably “Jehovah”, from the King James Translation.

So what is the correct, original pronunciation? Unfortunately, the answer is that nobody knows for sure. At least, nobody will admit to knowing, and if someone did know why would they tell anyone else if they believe that simply pronouncing the name was an act of complete disrespect? However, scholars and academics generally accept “Yahweh” as most probably the closest to the original pronunciation. Note that the two aitches are silent. The acceptance of this pronunciation is based on the derivation of the name from its root word in ancient Hebrew according to grammatical rules. However, do keep in mind that the original vowel sounds were not designated in the original text and that changing the vowel sounds in a Hebrew word changes the meaning.

The root verbs are HYH, which means “to be”, “to exist”, “to become” and related senses, and HWH, which has the same meanings. However, when two words appear to be synonyms there is often some slight differences in what is conveyed.

The Hebrew letter aleph is the first person, future tense prefix and this is found in Exodus 3:14 where God explains his name using the expression ehyeh asher ehyeh, which translates as “I will be what I will be”, “I will become what I will become”, although often translated simply as “I am what I am”. Some translators are of the opinion that the expression is in the causative form of the verb and has the meaning of “I will cause to become what I will cause to become”. The inference of this is presumably that God is not static but remains active. God then tells Moses to say to the Israelites that ehyeh has sent him, using the verb “HYH” and the first person pronoun (aleph, a glottal stop) as a name, i.e. ’ehyeh. God then explicitly gives his personal name. This uses the second verb HWH prefixed with yod which is the masculine third person pronoun. The masculine, third person, imperfect form of the verb would therefore be YHWH and would translate as “he will become” or something similar. If it is in the causative form of the verb, then God’s personal name would signify “he will cause to become”, that is, an ongoing creator and event manipulator. The point is that God’s names are given as being derived from two different verbs with, presumably, two different inferences, although what that could be is not now known.

When explaining the significance of God’s name it should be noted that both yod and waw are half vowels in Hebrew, and are subject to change in pronunciation as the verb forms are modified to give different meanings, so the difference in the root used may merely be a reflection of that. A short form is also sometimes used and this is YH or Yah, commonly in names.

As an alternative explanation, it has been suggested that the YHWH form derives from the Canaanite God YM or Yam whose name was written as YW or Yaw in at least one document in which the Canaanite supreme God El changes Yam’s name to Yaw. Yam was the ancient Canaanite God of the primordial chaos, the abyss, that is, the world as it was described in the opening verses of Genesis. The contention is that this God, Yaw, eventually became the national God of the community which gave rise to Israel by conflation with Yahweh, the storm God of Edom and Midian. In the process, the meaning behind the name changed from “sea” to “become”. Compare the pronunciation of the short form Yah with the pronunciation of Yaw or Ya’a. They sound almost the same and it would not be surprising if they were confused over time, especially when we consider that the ancient Levantines all spoke dialects of the same language and they may well have influenced each others’ pronunciation. Indeed, the writer of Exodus may have deliberately expressed it this way to suggest conflation between Yaw and Yah.

The Babylonian God Ea may also have a connection to Yah. Ea (Aya, Ayya) was the Akkadian name for the Sumerian God Enki (Lord of the Earth), who was identified as being the same personage as the Canaanite God El, who himself is stated in the Bible to be the same personage as Yahweh. The Babylonians were the dominant political and religious power in the area in ancient times so just about everyone in the area would have been familiar with the God under those names.

The pronunciation of the name “Ea” is extremely similar to that of “ehyeh” as the name of God, although Ea may have been derived from the west semitic root YYH, meaning “life”, rather than from HYH meaning “be”. Compare ’Ea with ’Ehyeh to see how close the words are. Ea was a creator God and a God of primordial chaos and the watery deep as referenced in the opening verses of Genesis. In Ebla in the northern Levant, the God Ea was also known as Ia, which is very similar to Yah and who was also a God of primordial waters. It is very difficult to pronounce Ea without inserting a half vowel between the “E” and the “A” and causing it to sound like “Eya”. It may be that all the Gods that had names which were variations of those sounds were the same God, but with dialectic variations of how the name was pronounced and spelled, during a time when spelling must have been quite variable. It would be easy for speakers of different, but related, semitic languages to assign meaning to those sounds based on words already existing in their language and then unconsciously modify the sounds to make the assigned meaning more obvious.

Names of God
HYH HWH YYH
Hayah Hawah Yayah
Aleph Yod AlephYod
’Ehyeh Yahweh ’Ehyey Yehyey
I will become He will become I live He lives

The writer of Exodus may have been using a complex word play of homophonic verbs to name the Israelite God. The expression “’ehyeh asher ’ehyeh”, could be understood phonetically as being a play on “Ea asher ’ehyeh” that is, “Ea is whom I will prove to be”, identifying the Israelite God with the supreme God of the Babylonians. Later on “’Ehyeh” was pointedly identified with the Canaanite supreme God El Shaddai who was the Canaanite equivalent of the Babylonian Ea. The God El had a favourite son, Yaw, whose name could easily be confused with “Yah”. Perhaps it was, “’ehyey asher ’ehyeh” or “life is what I will cause to be.” Perhaps it was the intention to imply all of these, with the reader fully understanding the inferences.

If word play or misinterpretation was what took place, then Exodus chapter 3, verses 14-15 could be understood to mean:–

“And God said to Moses: ‘Ea is whom I will prove to be’” and he said, ”You will say this to the children of Israel, ‘Ea has sent me to you.’” And God also said to Moses: “You shall say this to the children of Israel, ‘Yahweh, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’”

If this is what should have been written it would explain the answer God gave Moses when asked for his name. In the traditional explanation, God gives an interpretation of his name and only later specifies the name itself. If, instead, it is understood this way, God answers Moses’ question directly. When asked, “What shall I say your name is?”, the answer is, “Ea is who I am!”, But including the understanding of “Life is what I will bring.”

Keep in mind that Abraham originally lived in the Babylonian controlled Ur of the Chaldees and his God would therefore likely have been a Babylonian God, probably Ea. This may well be the God he was intending to sacrifice his son to. At the very least, living as he is said to have done in Ur, he would have been familiar with Ea as the supreme creator God. Thus it might be that the intention of the writer was to identify a single deity under similar names and titles, culminating in the Hebrew deity, Yahweh, being seen as the same deity as the supreme Gods of both Babylon (Ea) and Canaan (El) and replacing them.

The beneficent storm God of Canaan was Baal Hadad (Lord of Thunder), usually referred to in the bible simply as Baal and worshipped under one name or another all throughout the middle East at the time. Canaanite mythology held that Yaw was the son of El, the Canaanite supreme God and that there was intense hatred and rivalry between him and Baal Hadad. If Yahweh were seen as the same God as Yaw it would explain the intense animosity between worshippers of Baal Hadad and worshippers of Yahweh. At the same time, Yahweh was being identified with El, who Canaanite mythology says gave rulership of the Gods to Yaw instead of Baal Hadad. Yaw is opposed by Baal Hadad, leading to a war in which Yaw is defeated and killed. Baal Hadad then rules with El, replacing Yaw. As an aside, both El and Baal Hadad were sometimes represented as a bull, so the image the Israelites built just after leaving Egypt may have represented one of these Gods, possibly El, rather than an Egyptian entity, which is usually assumed to be the case. That would explain why the reaction by those promoting Yahweh took such offence, since Baal Hadad and Yaw were enemies. This account may be another example of revisionist history based on a dispute between different factions in the mixed Levantine nation that was forming, some wanting to worship a syncretised Ea/El/Yahweh, some wanting to worship El/Hadad.

In Genesis Edom is said to have been established by Esau, brother to Jacob and son of Isaac, and the grandson of Abraham. Edom was close to Midian, which is said to have been established by a son of Abraham through his wife Keturah, named, unsurprisingly, Midian. Both are to the south east of Canaan. According to the bible, after Moses originally left Egypt he married a Midianite woman whose father, Jethro, was a priest who worshipped Yahweh. The account is well known as the story of the burning bush. Obviously, then, Yahweh was closely associated with both Midian and Edom according to the bible. How much of these accounts are historical, partly historical or religious fiction is unknown, but it is clearly apparent that the bible says Yahweh was being worshipped in Midian before it refers to the Israelites as a nation, i.e. when they are described as leaving Egypt in the exodus. It is Moses, you will recall, who identifies their God to them as Yahweh. This migration of Yahweh from Edom and Midian to Israel may explain the meaning behind Judges, chapter 5, verses 4-5, which say in the New Heart English version (NHE), “YHWH, when you went forth out of Seir, when you marched out of the field of Edom, the earth trembled, the sky also dropped. Yes, the clouds dropped water. The mountains quaked at the presence of YHWH, even Sinai, at the presence of YHWH, the God of Israel.”

All of this would explain why the Israelites did not know Yahweh by his personal name, but did recognise him by the name El Shaddai. El Shaddai was the chief God of Canaan, the area where the Hyksos rulers of Egypt may have originated and who already worshipped El in various forms. Moses, with a Midianite wife and father-in-law, who also happened to be a priest of the Midianite storm God Yahweh, then tells them that El Shaddai and Yahweh are the same God. Exodus chapter 6, verses 2-3 (NHE) says, “God spoke to Moses, and said to him, "I am YHWH; and I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as El Shaddai; but by my name YHWH I was not known to them.”

They already worshipped him as El Shaddai, but now they were told his real name was Yahweh. This may be the point at which Yahweh becomes the God of the new nation of Israel, founded on a group of displaced people of Canaanite and Hebrew ancestry who wanted to return home to Canaan. These events in the book of Exodus may be a self aggrandising account of the expulsion of the Hyksos rulers who had controlled the Nile delta area for some time and who are now believed to have originated from the Levant. If that were so, it would explain why Joseph was accepted so readily by the pharaoh involved when his descendants entered Egypt. The Pharaoh would have been a Canaanite ruler of a kingdom in the Delta and would have been familiar with Joseph’s God and culture. Eventually, the Hyksos were expelled from Egypt when an Egyptian pharaoh of Upper and Lower Egypt regained control.

Among the ancients it was very common for events to be recorded so as to describe history differently from how it actually occurred, often presenting defeats in a conflict as victories. Thus expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt becomes a voluntary exodus at God’s command. After all, there were no news media to give the facts, and Egyptians themselves did much the same. During this event Yahweh is stated to have protected them with a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire during the night, appropriate for a storm God: clouds and lightning.

What pronunciation of God’s personal name should be used? Do keep in mind that I am an atheist and reject the existence of all ethereal beings, including this one, so my opinion would not have much relevance to a believer. The fact is that any pronunciation is as equally valid as any other for a nonexistent entity so, as far as I am concerned, it really doesn’t matter. When a pronunciation is necessary, perhaps Yahweh should be the first choice as it is the pronunciation accepted by the majority of scholars as being closest to what the original probably was. However, keep in mind that some religious people have strong feelings on the subject and it may be appropriate to substitute another word if offence is to be avoided.

Many Hebrew names incorporate a short form of God’s name. “Jesus”, for instance, is a transliteration of Yahshua, itself a contracted form for Yahoshua (often translated “Joshuah”), the Ya or Yah being the first syllable of the tetragrammaton, and the name having the meaning “Yahweh is salvation”. Other names may incorporate Yah, Ya, Yo, Yahu, Je, Ja, Jo, Jehu and other variants. The word Hallelujah includes it as its last syllable, for instance. Even Christian Bible writers in the New Testament used a variation of the name’s short form when the transliteration for Yahshua became ’Iesous (He-ay-soos) or Jesus. Obviously, early Christian writers did not believe the actual form of names was restrictively important if they used such a loose transliteration of the name for one component of the Godhead that included the first syllable of another component. On the other hand, since the tetragrammaton does not appear in references to the Old Testament by New Testament writers, even though it appeared in the original text, it may be that they followed the tradition of substituting another word for God’s name. Whether this was because they considered it to be too sacred to pronounce or simply wanted to avoid offence to Jews, who were still a primary target for proselytising, is unknown. Some people, a minority, contend that they initially included the name Yahweh where the original references used it, but that these were removed by copyists over time and other words substituted, thus following the Jewish tradition of not pronouncing God’s personal name but doing so more explicitly. There is very little evidence to support this.

The significance of all this is that it emphasises that the bible God is a syncretic God. He is an amalgamation of many Levantine, Sumerian and Akkadian deities, El, Ayya, Yam, Yaw, Yahweh and likely many others, all being absorbed under the name Yahweh. The early bible record uses some of the myths of these Gods in varying mixes, retelling them with a distinct emphasis to make the new nation of Israel a cohesive whole, as was done in many states at the time. They were the people of Yahweh, and it was understood by them that he was the most important God beside which all other Gods paled.


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