Why I may stop saying Yahweh at Church

When I was revising a manuscript a few months ago I realized that, in an academic mode, I used “Yahweh” to refer to the God interacting with particular Old Testament prophets, as well as the God interacting with the early Mormons. I realized at the time that I had started using Yahweh in place of “Jehovah” or “THE LORD” in less formal settings as well. Other than being pedantic, I think I decided that I should stop using Yahweh except in my written scholarship.For people who aren’t hopeless geeks, one important Hebrew tradition held that the name of the God of Israel was YHWH (those consonants are called the tetragrammaton, essentially “four-letter word” in Greek). In English importation of German transliteration (and relying on a now-outdated vocalization), this became Jehovah. The Hebrews themselves said “Adonai” (Lord) when they saw YHWH in a text, and the KJV translators followed suit, using “LORD” to translate many of the occurrences of YHWH. In Bible and Mesopotamian studies, a scholarly consensus (though there are still some holdouts) has settled around Yahweh as the name of this Hebrew national God, and in scholarly writing on religion, it is common to use the name Yahweh. I personally like the idea of a name of God and, a linguistics major in college, am always curious to get names as close to the original as they can come. I think that, coupled with the natural assumption of the linguistic standards of a scholarly community, is why I began to use Yahweh in less formal settings a few years ago.

I think I’ve been wrong here, and let me explain and then hear your disputations. If I am being a cultural purist, why would I not just spell YHWH and read “adonai” (Tom Wright uses YHWH in his recent Simply Jesus when he’s citing the Hebrew Bible but calls him “God” in his own prose)? If I am using the Hebrew name of God out of respect for ancient Hebrew culture, why not actually respect that culture by refusing to vocalize the name? I respect our LDS taboos about detailed discussions of the temple endowment liturgy, why would I not respect ancient Hebrew taboos about the power of the divine name?

More importantly, though, I think my use of Yahweh is a way to not talk about God. When I say Yahweh I think I am implicitly suggesting that the Old Testament is (divinely inspired) Hebrew tribal lore while declaring my allegiance to the community of scholars of religion. While that is probably the right answer for my scholarship, it strikes me as less than complete in my own devotional life. Yahweh is the God of the ancient Hebrews, not the God of my own life.

It is not that I believe that God cannot speak to me through the history of Mesopotamia, however complex and human it was. In fact, divinely inspired Hebrew tribal stories may well be a right way to include at least portions of the Hebrew Bible in our devotions, at least for many of us who have not been poputchiki with Protestant fundamentalism.

Research for my new project on language and sacred translation has me paying more attention to the meaning of names. Sacred names of course draw on traditions about the mystical power of language and theurgic[1] control of the ‘daimons‘ or demi-gods that once populated the upper recesses of the Chain of Being. They also though emphasize community. Reading the incredibly syncretistic[2] documents of late Antique Helleno-Egypto-Roman religion (and the odd mimetic ramifications of this religion through later Western history, to the present day) have brought strongly to my mind the ways that names for divinity represented communities. Reading the almost alphabet soup of national deities whose identities were held to be capable of merger (that old and misleading saw taught us in grade school that Greek and Roman deities were just different names for the same gods is a remnant of that very syncretism[3]) can be a bit vertiginous, even for someone accustomed to reading strange religious documents. In many of these documents, the myriad goddesses and gods of different cultures are taken to be the same gods, just by different names. There is a sense in which a specific god is taken to be a given culture group’s name for the same underlying deity. That may well be true, in the final accounting, and this kind of variant of the broader prisca theologia/philosophia perennis tradition has been very important to us Latter-day Saints over the years.

But life is lived in details, and religious devotion occurs within actual communities, social networks of real, marvelously specific people. And those cultures will acquire particular ways of referring to deity that bind them. It is easy to believe, particularly now, that the question of the name of God is no grander than the famous shibboleth of ancient Semitic cultural linguistics[4]. But when we use a particular name for God we make public declaration of our affection for and allegiance to a particular community. We read the Bible, and we worship together. There is something emergent about the worship of God in a community that I think captures the marvelous specificity of life and relationship, and using the same name for God allows that shared deity to emerge.

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APOLOGIES FOR THE PLAYFULNESS: FASTING MAKES ME A LITTLE PUNCH DRUNK SOMETIMES.[i]
[1] Theurgy, “working the gods,” basically means using certain rituals or language to gain control over a suprahuman entity, and it often bears with it the sense of the equivalence of humans and suprahuman entities that, mutatis mutandis[a], characterizes Joseph Smith’s divine anthropology. [a]Something about mutants
[2] When you encounter actual syncretism, you become a bit less likely to use the term to describe moderately eclectic visionaries like Joseph Smith. Read some Hellenized Egyptian folk religion documents, and you’ll have a sense for true syncretism.
[3] I grew up certain that Athena _was_ Minerva and Diana _was_ Artemis and Mercury _was_ Hermes, and Zeus _was_ Jupiter. But were they really? Not consistently.
[4] Judges 12:5-6. Basically, mutatis mutandis[1][a], the public homophony of ‘heal’ and ‘hill’ was a capital offense. Ditto ‘feel’ and ‘fill.’

[i] There’s actually a whole literature on deprivation mysticism/ecstasis[z], and it figured prominently in the Kirtland holy season, so I’m at least in good company.
[z]Read Holy Feast, Holy Fast. It’s a great book. Bynum is one of the best historians of Christianity alive today.

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    When I took Biblical Hebrew with the late Keith Meservy at BYU in 1980, when we finally got to the point of being able to do some reading in the text, we started to come to instances of the divine tetragrammaton. Keith said he didn’t really care how we handled it, so we took a class vote between vocalizing Yahweh or vocalizing Adonai. Adonai won. So to this day when I read Hebrew and see the tetragrammaton, in my head I think “Adonai.”

  2. I have been using Yahweh in non-scholarly settings, I think in part as a signal that the text of the Hebrew Bible is not a product of our culture. I think we sometimes have the tendency to compress sacred history into one eternal now, when even the Restoration has enough granularity to complicate it.,

  3. I’m sympathetic, J. I’m talking mostly about sacred moments when appropriation of that distancing name would erect a barrier among saints during their devotions. I’ve had the same idea as you in the past. I’m in a bit of doubt about it, especially in devotional settings.

  4. When I was at the Hebrew U of Jerusalem, we read “ha-Shem” (“the name”). One Evangelical lady on the summer course read “Yahweh” and it was like nails on a chalkboard. For that and her refusal to stop talking about Yeshua Meshiakh in class meant she was asked to leave.

    So, anyway, given the HU’s perfect blend of Jewish and academic credentials, it’s always seemed reasonable to me to avoid vocalising the Name. Within reason.

  5. I think it’s probably a good idea not to use language that alienates your religious community, so I’m with you there.

    On the other hand, several thoughts come to mind:
    1) how we pronounce the name of the main god of the OT gets into very difficult and undecided theological issues of scriptural canon and authority. That is, certain interpretations of the name Yahweh have the potential of unwittingly/uncarefully sacrilizing texts that may not deserve such sacrilization (I’m all in favor of the LDS developing a hermeneutic for distinguishing among OT texts).

    2) along with the first point, YHWH in the OT is a divine personage very different from LDS Jehovah, and yet he has certain continuities. How do we recognize the distinction while attempting to appropriate the OT as sacred literature?

    3) the taboo on vocalizing the name YHWH was most likely a very late development in terms of Israelite/Jewish tradition. For most of the deity’s history in the land of Palestine, his name was vocalized. For me, this suggests that proper articulation of the name need not be seen as inimical to piety.

    4) Use of some form of the name YHWH is also theologically helpful in the sense that it reminds us that he was not the only god worshiped in ancient Israel. El was an adon=lord in the cult, and so was YHWH. By calling YHWH God or the adonay, we may simply be reinscribing the monotheistic ideology of the biblical redactors and authors.

    That said, I personally have no problem with using the name Jehovah in devotional contexts for certain instances of the name YHWH. Names need to mean something (this is partially why the taboo on vocalizing YHWH and its replacement with other appellatives really got going; the name simply did not make sense). I would simply like the church’s scriptural interpretation and discourse to more accurately reflect the texts and the traditions behind them.

  6. Stephen M ( says:

    But Baal is Thor …. and not. I have, of all things enjoyed the YA Percy Jackson approach.

  7. Sam, how did you like Simply Jesus?

  8. “It is not that I believe that God cannot speak to me through the history of Mesopotamia, however complex and human it was. In fact, divinely inspired Hebrew tribal stories may well be a right way to include at least portions of the Hebrew Bible in our devotions” – I would love to see a post discussing this concept in greater detail.

  9. Loved Simply Jesus. Sometimes a bit coy, but illuminating good fun.
    Good idea, Tayman. I defer to one of our Hebraists, though I’m sure a mainline Protestant theologian has written a book on this.

  10. I’m in the last chapter as we speak. NTW is fun to read.

  11. Tayman, look at Han Frei.

  12. Sigh. Hans Frei. Hans.

    some sort of joke about shooting first seems appropriate.

  13. I took Biblical Hebrew with Don Parry at BYU, and I remember talking about ways to read the tetragrammation, but I don’t recall what our class policy was (or even if there was one). I do remember, however, talking about how Jehovah, despite being an anglicization based on an incorrect understanding of the vowels in the Masoretic Text, was apparently deemed acceptable by the Lord in the Doctrine & Covenants. His take was that YHWH/Jehovah is actually more of a title than a name (“HE IS” as a possible meaning), the same way that “Eternal” and “Endless” are called his names in the scriptures. Same with El/Elohim. His thought was that Ahman was the actual name of God (per the Doctrine & Covenants).

  14. JT: If Ahman is *the* actual name of God, then how did he explain the meaning of Adam-Ondi-Ahman? Is the Father going to come to that gathering as well? Ahman could also be “Man of Holiness” in another tongue.

    Studying divine names can get a little mind boggling. I suspect what many call names are actually titles.

  15. matt b:
    Any particular Hans Frei title you’d suggest I begin with? Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, perhaps?

  16. Mike H: Just reporting what Dr. Parry’s opinion was. I’m afraid I can’t answer for him.

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