The Meaning of YHVH

The Meaning of YHVH

God reveals himself to Moses as “I am who I am”. Related to this revelation of “I am” is the special covenant Name by which he is intimately known to Israel, God’s personal Name: YHVH. It is four letters in Hebrew, yod-hay-vav-hay, or Y-H-V-H in English letters, known to scholars as the Tetragrammaton, which means “four-letter”.

In earlier times the English version of the four-letter Name was “Jehovah”, but in our translations of the Old Testament, the Name YHVH is usually translated “the LORD”, with capital letters, or sometimes “Yahweh”.

Traditionally, it was a sacred Name, too sacred to take in everyday use, only pronounced once a year by the High Priest on the Day of Atonement. Over the years the Jews forgot how to pronounce it. Today, the Jews often read YHVH as “ha-Shem” which means “the Name”. They also, more intimately, pronounce the Name “adonai”, which means “my Lord”; but pious Jews reserve this for prayer and worship.

The Name is redolent with the whole history of God and his people Israel. Think of everything Israel went through with God, Egypt, the Desert, Sinai, Canaan; and later, the dramas of the judges, kings and prophets, Elijah at Carmel, invasion by the Assyrians and the Babylonians, the trauma of Exile. We consider the intimacy of Hosea, the majesty of Isaiah, God’s fire in the breathless visions of Nahum, and the wild love confided in the apocalyptic of Daniel. All the tumult of this ongoing love-relationship, with its break-ups and make-ups, is remembered in the Name YHVH.

It is significant that the Song of Songs is the only Old Testament book, apart from Esther, that doesn’t mention the Name of God. It is as if the Song of Songs is what the rest of the Bible is about – a love affair amounting to a marriage between God and his people, secured in Jesus Christ.

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