There’s no doubt that the different names of God give us crucial insights into his character. So what do you know about one of the most important names of God in the Bible? This video from the Bible Project explains some of the history behind the word, “Yahweh,” which appears in Deuteronomy 6:4-5:
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”
The Significance of “Yahweh”
Note that the word “LORD” in the above passage is written in all capital letters. Whenever English readers see the word, “LORD,” says the Bible Project, they can know it is referring to the Hebrew word, “Yahweh.” And whenever they see the word, “Lord,” not written in all capital letters, they can know it is referring to the Hebrew word, “Adonay.”
The name, “Yahweh,” which the Bible Project describes as the “personal name of Israel’s God,” occurs over 6,500 times in the Old Testament. It first appears in Exodus 3 in the account where God manifests himself to Moses in the burning bush. At this time, God gives Moses his commission to lead the Israelites out of their slavery to the Egyptians. One of the questions Moses asks God about his task is what he should say when the Israelites ask who has sent him. Verses 13-14 read,
Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”
According to the Bible Project, the first Hebrew word God gives Moses here is “ehyeh,” which means “I will be.” But because it would sound odd for Moses to tell Israel “I will be” has sent him, God then instructs Moses to say that “yahweh,” or “he will be,” has sent him.
Honoring Yahweh, a Holy God
Israelites throughout the centuries wanted to honor this holy name when they read the Bible aloud, so they decided not to actually speak the word “Yahweh.” Instead, they developed a practice of saying, “Adonay” (the Hebrew word for “lord”), whenever they came to the word, “Yahweh,” in writing. Later English Bible translators mimicked this habit by translating “Yahweh” as “LORD” instead writing out the Hebrew word.
Another step Jewish scribes took to ensure that no one dishonored God by saying “Yahweh” aloud was to take the word’s four consonents, “YWHW,” and combine them with the vowels from “Adonay,” in order to create a new name, “Yahowah.” The word “Yahowah” was not actually a term the Israelites used for God, but was simply a reminder to them to say “Adonay” instead of “Yahweh.” Later in history, however, Christian scribes saw the word “Yahowah,” and did not know its purpose as a reminder. The result was that the word, “Yahowah,” eventually became the name “Jehovah” in English Bible translations.
Knowing this history behind the word “Yahweh” helps us to read our Bibles with greater understanding, but it also gives us insight into who God is. So what does the name “Yahweh” reveal to us about God’s nature? “It refers to the one who was, who is, and who forever will be,” says The Bible Project. “God’s existence doesn’t depend on anyone or anything else. This God simply is.”