Monday, August 28, 2023

Shem, Onoma, and God's "Name," YHWH/Jehovah

Nincsnevem: First of all, God's "name" is not a personal name in the sense of human names (Karl, Jennifer, etc.). In Hebrew, the concept of "name" (shem) referred not only to addressing or labeling (as in Exodus 3:16) but also replaced the abstract concept of the person, which did not exist in Hebrew. Therefore, Jews still refer to God as ha-Shem, "The Name", or "He."

EF: It's clear that Jews consider/have considered YHWH as a nomen proprium. I notice the qualification you make above because I guess you know that YHWH is a proper name (nomen proprium) as multiple sources acknowledge. Rabbi Maimonides used such language to describe the Tetragrammaton and even Aquinas spoke in similar terms.


But you claim that shem/onoma replaced the abstract concept of person which did not exist in Hebrew. While I acknowledge that shem/onoma could be employed as you posit, I still spot fallacies and inaccuracies in your claim. First, as James Barr noted in his famed study of biblical semantics, one cannot infer that just because ancient Hebrew did not have a word for "person" that it had no abstract concept of person; to reason that way would be to confuse Wort with Begriffe. Second, the Jews did have a way of indicating persons by using adam or ishah. Third, there are places in the Hebrew Bible where to understand "name" as person does not seem tenable: see Exodus 23:20-21; Isaiah 42:8; Psalm 83:18; Jeremiah 23:27. Lastly, the Tetragrammaton appears in the Hebrew Bible almost 7,000 times, and we're to believe that God just wanted us to know his person without knowing his nomen proprium? In other words, according to you, what's important is the person behind the name and not the name per se. The facts of the Tanakh belie the claim that God's "name" (proper name) should take an utter backseat to the concept of person. On the other hand, God's name encompasses his person and one scholar said that the divine name and person are so closely linked that they're virtually indistinguishable. Maybe "virtually" but neither in toto nor ex toto.

Try as you may to subsume "name" almost completely under the rubric of "person," you can't legitimately do it, in the case of the peerless and inestimable YHWH.

Maimonides writes:
 "Observe how clearly the author states that all these appellatives employed as names of God came into existence after the Creation. This is true; for they all refer to actions manifested in the Universe. If, however, you consider His essence as separate and as abstracted from all actions, you will not describe it by an appellative, but by a proper noun, which exclusively indicates that essence. Every other name of God is a derivative, only the Tetragrammaton is a real nomen proprium, and must not be considered from any other point of view."

For more on Aquinas and the name of God, see also


Nincsnevem said...

My own notes regarding this issue:

See also:

Nincsnevem said...

The point is that the divine name YHWH was primarily important in the theological environment of the Old Testament era, including primarily in the First Temple era, for Hebrew-speaking Israelites.
Since it practically means "He Is", it was actually a permanent reminder to the Israelites that there is only him, the so-called gods of other peoples do not exist.
In the first place, for an ancient pastoral people, the concept that "god" did not mean that it is for us, but kind of a being with superpower. If I went back in time and set off fireworks, the ancients would call me a "god". But this cocept of "god" is not the Christian concept of God, the absolute transcendental timeless "actus purus", but only a powerful being capable of performing "miracles" that are incomprehensible to them. (Since the translation of the Judeo-Christian monotheistic concept of God into other languages is often difficult, there was a serious theological debate about how God should be called in Chinese.)
So this is not an abstract concept of God, the ancient Israelites could not handle this, and even according to religious historians, the early Jews were actually not monotheistic, but henotheistic, which practically means that they believed in the existence of other gods, but since they were ordered not to worship them, that's why they simply didn't.
When God in the Bible emphatically declared, that "I am Yahweh", He essentially said, "understand that I alone am the existing God, no other god exists beside me". Therefore, this Name had a pedagogical aim and role, somewhat like telling a small child that the "name" of the plug is "Don'tStickYourFingerInIt". It is perfectly clear that this "name" is not a name in the sense of, say, Carl, but serves the purpose of reminding the person, when recalling this "name", of the most important thing they should think of first in relation to this matter. So the purpose of the name Yahweh was to remind Jews in a fundamentally polytheistic environment that their God is the only existing God, while the many "gods" of other peoples do not actually exist.
Then this function later became unnecessary, and just as if this post of mine were translated into a non-English language, the example "name" of "Don'tStickYourFingerInIt" would lose its meaning as well. And the mother tongue of the Jews later became Aramaic instead of Hebrew.
Therefore, those who insist on "using" the name Yahweh / Jehovah today are actually practicing a theological anachronism, because on the one hand, this approach ignores that this is not a series of letters, but a revelation of content of faith, and on the other hand it is simply completely foreign to the theological environment of the Pauline Christianity.
What about Jesus? There is no mention in any line of the Gospels that Jesus would have dealt with this issue at all, it turns out that in this regard, together with the apostles, they took note of the already established practice of the Jews.
The JWs do refer to John 17:6 ("I have revealed your name"), but this obviously does not refer to the Tetragrammaton, since it was not Jesus who revealed it to the people, but Moses, and the Jews obviously already knew this, and heard from the mouth of the high priest on Yom Kippur.

Edgar Foster said...

Okay Nincsnevem, what you write above just does not fit the historical facts. Scholars tend to argue that the Tetragrammaton stopped being pronounced around 300 BCE, which is well after the First Temple era. Moreover, just because it stopped being pronounced did not mean that YHWH stopped being written. We have further evidence of how Jews viewed the sacred name by considering the DSS.

You act as though the use of YHWH was temporary but see Exodus 3:14-15; Zechariah 14:9.

The meaning of the name is likewise harder to discern than your comments above imply. The exact meaning of YHWH is uncertain, but "He Is" almost certainly i not what the name means.

The concept of God that you posit is one view of the Judeo-Christian deity, but not the only one. The Bible does not articulate a timeless God nor does it delineate one who is "actus purus." That is a creation of philosophers: as Pascal eloquently said, The god of the philosophers is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Plato and Aristotle may have conceived of God in such terms but biblical writers did not.

Lastly, you claim that Jesus did not "reveal" or make known the Tetragrammaton to his fellow Jews. The truth is that Moses was not the only one to disclose God's name: Jesus as the Son of God was uniquely qualified to disclose God's name in a way that Moses could not.

Nincsnevem said...

I did not claim that its pronunciation disappeared *immediately* after the Babylonian captivity, but it is noteworthy that even Daniel sometimes replaced the word God with the word "heavens" (just like Matthew in his Gospel), and that the Book of Esther, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs do not contain the Tetragrammaton either.

The advice Ben Sirach, who lived in Jerusalem at the beginning of the 2nd century BC, which we read in Ecclesiasticus 23:9, points to this: "Do not accustom your mouth to oaths nor habitually utter the name of the Holy One".

I think the disappearance of the pronunciation was related to that
- the mother tongue of the Jews of the Second Temple period changed from Hebrew to Aramaic
- their monotheism was consolidated, the danger of returning to the Canaanite gods disappeared
- the Hellenistic Jewish sector also appeared, which also did not speak Hebrew
- some pagans also began to convert to the faith of Israel

So it is about the function of the original and the context of the original (theology) having passed away.

"Moreover, just because it stopped being pronounced did not mean that YHWH stopped being written."

Yes, it naturally survived in the Hebrew copies of the Hebrew Bible and never wanted to be removed from there. However, it is noteworthy that the Tetragrammaton was still written in paleo-Hebrew letters for a long time, when the text was already written in Aramaic cubic letters.

Let me recommend this article to your attention:

"We have further evidence of how Jews viewed the sacred name by considering the DSS."

The Qumran community was not the seat of mainstream Judaism, but of a school of thought that was considered heterodox by the Jews associated with the Jerusalem Temple.

You are referring to:
"This is my name forever" (Exodus 3:15)

However, it was also declared about the old covenant that it will last "forever" (cf. Psalm 105:8-10), and in relation to Micah 5:2, the JWs used to argue that the Hebrew word 'olam' does not necessarily mean eternity, but can mean an indeterminable long time as well.

And indeed, the Hebrew word 'olam', usually translated 'forever' clearly doesn't always mean literal future infinity—although in some places it can have that sense. It is used in places to describe the past; events of a long time ago, but not events that happened an 'infinitely long time' ago. It describes the time of a previous generation (Deut. 32:7, Job 22:15); to the time just before the exile of Judah (Is. 58:12, 61:4, Mic. 7:14, Mal. 3:4) to the time of the Exodus (1 Sam. 27:8, Is. 51:9, 63:9) to the time just before the flood (Gen. 6:4).

Edgar Foster said...

Writers who see an allusion to the Tetragrammaton in John 17:6:

Robert Wilkinson in his book about the Tetragrammaton, page 108.


Edgar Foster said...


In everyday English parlance, God’s name is simply “God.” In the Hebrew Bible, however, the God of Israel has a personal proper name, similar to “Susan” or “Teddy”: the four-lettered name YHWH, also known as the Tetragrammaton (Greek for “four letters”). This name is by far the most common designation for God in the Hebrew Bible. Four texts within this body of literature give special attention to God’s disclosure of the divine name to humankind: in Gen 4:25–26 shortly after the creation of the first humans; and in Exod 3, Exod 6, and Ezek 20 at the time of God’s emancipation of the Israelites from their enslavement in Egypt. English translations obscure the prominence of God’s name by replacing Hebrew YHWH with the common noun “LORD,” written in small caps. As it turns out, this practice has an ancient pedigree: already in the Second Temple era, spoken recitations of the Hebrew Bible replaced Hebrew YHWH with the Hebrew word for “Lord,” adonay, and written manuscripts marked the name YHWH with special orthography.

Edgar Foster said...

Interesting source:

Nincsnevem said...

See also Genesis 17:7, 17:13, 1 Chronicles 16:15, 2 Chronicles 13:5, Psalm 89:29, Isaiah 59:21, Jeremiah 50:5. So if the name YHWH is "eternal", so is the old covenant, the obligation to observe the Sabbath, etc.

"The exact meaning of YHWH is uncertain, but "He Is" almost certainly i not what the name means."

In Exodus 3:14, the text itself interprets the name YHWH: "I AM WHO I AM", or in short: "the 'I AM'". So the text connects the name YHWH with the Hebrew verb 'hayah' (to be), this refers back to his existence, to the fact that "HE IS", therefore HE IS THE ONE WHO EXISTS, He is the absolute being himself, while there the other gods do not exist.
So it is a Hebrew name that only makes sense in Hebrew, and the eternal God cannot literally have a Hebrew name, since his existence precedes the creation of all human languages.

The "names" of God, therefore, are not designations that would express His inner essence. For the people of the Bible, a name usually expresses essence, and even God Himself identified with His name. That's why He forbade His name to be defiled with blasphemy or false oaths (Ex 20:7; Lev 22:32; Ez 36:23). The first request of the Lord's Prayer asks for the sanctification of God's name, Jesus himself also prays like this: "Father, glorify your name!" (Jn 12:28). However, this connection between name and essence does not mean that the biblical names for God are precise expressions of the divine nature. We have already seen concerning the name Yahweh that its primary and essential message is soteriological in nature. The same applies to God's other names: each wants to reveal from a different angle what the chosen people should see in God in a particular historical situation, how He wants to appear to them, e.g. the Most High, the Holy One, the Majestic, the Lord (Adonai) etc.

"The Bible does not articulate a timeless God nor does it delineate one who is "actus purus.""

The immutability of God is clearly stated in the Bible: Numbers 23:19, 1 Sam 15:29, Malachi 3:6, Psalms 102:26-28, James 1:17.
And since the concept of time is the measure of change, its timelessness also follows from immutability.

"That is a creation of philosophers: as Pascal eloquently said, The god of the philosophers is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob."

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did not even know the name of Yahweh:
"I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El-Shaddai—'God Almighty'—but I did not reveal my name, Yahweh, to them." (Exodus 6:3)
So why should we get stuck with the patriarchs' concept of God?

"Plato and Aristotle may have conceived of God in such terms but biblical writers did not."

The biblical writers made many statements that lead us to the same conclusions that Aristotle reached based on pure reason. I note that the strongest argument from God, the argument of the Unmoved Mover and of the First Cause, also originates from this. So that 1. there is God, 2. there can only be one God, 3. he is immutable, we could realize these even without revelation, just by logical deduction.

"Jesus as the Son of God was uniquely qualified to disclose God's name in a way that Moses could not."

You don't want to say that Jesus' mission was to reveal the name YHWH, do you?

Nincsnevem said...

The fact that Jesus did not deal with the issue of the Tetragrammaton, its pronounceability, or its need to be pronounced, is evident from the fact that when he was arrested, many charges were brought against him, but none of them was that he had broken the then effective Jewish law that the name Yahweh can only be pronounced by the high priest on Yom Kippur.
In the Pauline epistles, the question that believers should call God Yahweh does not appear in any way. There is no sign that the apostles taught the name Yahweh to the gentiles who converted to Christianity. If the apostles had taught anyone the correct pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton, why would it have been lost after the destruction of the Second Temple?
That is why I say that this whole issue is contrived and alien to the environment of the New Testament, Pauline Christianity theology.

Nincsnevem said...

I think John interprets the meaning of the name Yahweh in the Book of Revelation: "who was, and is, and is to come", it is described as the one who encompasses the past, present, and future in eternity. his word means the one whose essential property is existence not confined within the bounds of time, i.e., the existent, the self-existent one who exists necessarily and independently, therefore eternal and unchanging, and consequently faithful to his promises, etc.
The names formed in this way usually designate individuals whose main characteristic is expressed by the root of the formed word. Therefore, with the name Yahweh, one can call the one whose essential property is existence, and whose essence is existence. Since existence itself is not confined to any time limit and is inherently eternal in God.

Nincsnevem said...

"English translations obscure the prominence of God’s name"

We are free to consistently write out the name YHYH as Yahweh or Jehovah in our translations (like J. N. Darby), and the mainstream churches don't bite the head off of anyone who might circumlocute the Name out of excessive fear due to the "do not take in vain" commandment or for some other reason (e.g. because they don't want to pronounce it incorrectly). Therefore, we have freedom: the (non)pronunciation, the (non)translation of the name YHWH is not a matter of faith for us. Moreover, newer translations also distinguish between Lord (Adonai) and LORD (YHWH), so anyone who wishes can reconstruct the original for themselves by looking through the usual substitution. This is what many Bible translations do.
Since this is not an issue of salvation, it is not a heresy, so the fact that the translation of the Old Testament says Yahweh, or LORD, has no cardinal significance.

Nincsnevem said...

Regarding the Tetragrammaton, we must consider that God does not have one Hebrew name, as He transcends all languages and, in fact, He does not need a name, or more precisely, He cannot have one, because He is Everything, the Alpha and the Omega. So what are we talking about? Hebrew names were primarily not used as nominal emblems to distinguish someone from others, or to define, identify someone (as in the modern age), but in every case they expressed a certain description, characterization of the person's essence, attributes, etc. (like in the case of Native Ameircan names: "Swift Arrow", "Rising Sun", "Big Bear"). God revealed His name in this sense, which stands the same in every language: His name is YHWH, i.e., "He Who Is", "Who Exists", "Who Is Existence". He revealed Himself to the Jews, so it became YHWH, however, if He had done the same to the Greeks, His name would be "Ho Estin" (if to the English, then "He Who Is"). The parallel to this can be found in the New Testament in the 'egó eimi' (i.e., "I Am") declarations of Jesus. This is most visible in Jn 18:5-6, where when Jesus says "I Am", they retreat and fall to the ground. But see also Jn 8:24-28 (cf. also Mt 14:27; Mk 6:50; 13:6; 14:62; Lk 22:70; Jn 4:26; 6:20; 13:19).

The Holy Tetragrammaton is both a revelation and a rejection of the Name. The essence of God, His existence, is fundamentally different from this world, so we cannot "essentially" know God - we can only say, "what is not He".

From this it follows that the name Yahweh fulfilled its role when monotheism was still on weak legs - even among Jews! - , when the religious development of the Israelite people was not high. God, therefore, in this matter as well, gradually led the people carrying the revelation to a higher religious standpoint. He did not anticipate the normal intellectual development as a Deus ex machina, but involved his revelations in its individual phases. Therefore, the naming of God as Yahweh is an early stage of the development of monotheism.

From this it follows clearly that later, when monotheism was already strong, the oneness of God had largely become evident to the Jews, there was no longer a need for this "crutch" for God. Just as the side wheels are only needed on a bicycle until the child is too small to balance on two wheels, after which there is no longer a need for them. We will not perceive the removal of the side wheels as a negative or a lack, on the contrary. The same was true here.

This is confirmed by the fact that the name Yahweh fell out of common use. We all know that God punished the Jewish people by sending them into Babylonian captivity. Well, this punishment was quite effective, as we all know how effective a religious reform Ezra carried out among the Israelites who returned to their land. His basic act was regular Torah study, so the "theological" knowledge of the average people also increased a lot. Monotheism was no longer questionable, other kinds of "dangers" (such as those later condemned by Jesus among the hair-splitting, Pharisaic interpretations of the Torah) were of course threatening, but that is another story.

There was no longer a need for the name Yahweh to maintain monotheism, so when God providentially led his people to a new level, there was not only no longer a need for any nominator, but it was specifically a hindrance - just as the side wheels used to learn to ride a child's bike can later function as a hindrance. God's Providence is ultimately behind the Name's exclusion from common use.

Nincsnevem said...

The ancient gods could be invoked at any time by their names. Hence, the knowledge of a god's name in some sense encompassed the belief that a human could possess its power, or in some sense rule over it. In this sense, the Name became a kind of speakable magic spell. Traces of this can be found in certain Semitic, Arab legends, where to use the power of the djinn, one must know its name. Although in the Bible the use of the Name YHWH is free from such misuse, nevertheless – if we tie God to a specific "Name" this in some sense carries the danger of the emergence of this phenomenon (even if it is not consciously functioning).

What are we talking about? The Name becomes objectified, which is treated as a kind of property. Like the medieval mystical Jewish rabbis who used the Tetragrammaton as a kind of magic spell. They wrote it on the golem, and it came to life. They can essentially misuse it as magical automatism and as a guarantee of salvation. Indeed, the use, the utterance of the word "Jehovah" does not guide anyone, and it does not cause any additional salvation, because the Bible does not aim for us to "use" the Tetragrammaton, a Hebrew word, zealously for salvation, like some magic key, but to know the person of God, to love him, and to become His children.

The Old Testament Jews gradually understood that there is no name, word, or phrase in human language that could describe the essence of God. "The divine is unnameable", says Theologian St. Gregory. "Not only does reason show this, but so do the oldest and wisest Jews. Those who respected the Divine by writing His name with special signs, and did not allow God's name and creatures to be written with the same letters... could they ever have dared to pronounce the Name of the indestructible and unique nature in a fleeting voice? Just as no one could ever take in all the air, so reason could not fully embrace, and words could not encompass the essence of God."

By not pronouncing the name of God, the old Jews showed that contact with God is possible not so much through words and expressions, but rather through devotion and humble silence. So the real reason is that this is a mystery, not because it's taboo. The point is to understand and believe the content of the Holy Tetragrammaton, not to "use" it. This is the same thing that Jesus spoke about, "this is eternal life, that they may know You.."

Edgar Foster said...


Okay, you've told your side of the story. I'm going to close this thread because I don't find it productive, but for the record, I disagree with basically everything you've written. Even in matters like the meaning of God's name and whether the patriarchs knew God's name, I disagree. Do further research on the Tetragrammaton: you will find that the meaning of YHWH is in serious dispute among Hebrew Bible scholars. Additionally, Exodus 6:3 doesn't have to mean that the patriarchs did not know God's nomen. Finally, olam has to be understood contextually like many other words. Other verses also support the idea that YHWH was not a temporary name.

Edgar Foster said...

I have to say one other thing: Jehovah's Witnesses don't believe in "using" God's name like it's some kind of amulet: if you believe that, you've completely misunderstood what we mean by using the name. I use my wife and son's name when talking to them or about them. That doesn't mean I'm viewing their nomina as magical tokens or amulets. It's the same with Jehovah's nomen proprium.