Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

The proper name of God in the Old Testament ; hence the Jews called it the name by excellence, the great name, the only name, the glorious and terrible name, the hidden and mysterious name, the name of the substance, the proper name, and most frequently shem hammephorash , i.e. the explicit or the separated name, though the precise meaning of this last expression is a matter of discussion (cf. Buxtorf, "Lexicon", Basle, 1639, col. 2432 sqq.).

Jehovah occurs more frequently than any other Divine name. The Concordances of Furst ("Vet. Test. Concordantiae", Leipzig, 1840) and Mandelkern ("Vet. Test. Concordantiae", Leipzig, 1896) do not exactly agree as to the number of its occurrences; but in round numbers it is found in the Old Testament 6000 times, either alone or in conjunction with another Divine name. The Septuagint and the Vulgate render the name generally by "Lord" ( Kyrios, Dominus ), a translation of Adonai — usually substituted for Jehovah in reading.

I. PRONUNCIATION OF JEHOVAH

The Fathers and the Rabbinic writers agree in representing Jehovah as an ineffable name. As to the Fathers, we only need draw attention to the following expressions: onoma arreton, aphraston, alekton, aphthegkton, anekphoneton, aporreton kai hrethenai me dynamenon, mystikon . Leusden could not induce a certain Jew, in spite of his poverty, to pronounce the real name of God, though he held out the most alluring promises. The Jew's compliance with Leusden's wishes would not indeed have been of any real advantage to the latter; for the modern Jews are as uncertain of the real pronunciation of the Sacred name as their Christian contemporaries. According to a Rabbinic tradition the real pronunciation of Jehovah ceased to be used at the time of Simeon the Just, who was, according to Maimonides, a contemporary of Alexander the Great. At any rate, it appears that the name was no longer pronounced after the destruction of the Temple. The Mishna refers to our question more than once: Berachoth, ix, 5, allows the use of the Divine name by way of salutation; in Sanhedrin, x, 1, Abba Shaul refuses any share in the future world to those who pronounce it as it is written; according to Thamid, vii, 2, the priests in the Temple (or perhaps in Jerusalem ) might employ the true Divine name, while the priests in the country (outside Jerusalem ) had to be contented with the name Adonai ; according to Maimonides ("More Neb.", i, 61, and "Yad chasaka", xiv, 10) the true Divine name was used only by the priests in the sanctuary who imparted the blessing, and by the high-priest on the Day of Atonement. Phil ["De mut. nom.", n. 2 (ed. Marg., i, 580); "Vita Mos.", iii, 25 (ii, 166)] seems to maintain that even on these occasions the priests had to speak in a low voice. Thus far we have followed the post-Christian Jewish tradition concerning the attitude of the Jews before Simeon the Just.

As to the earlier tradition, Josephus (Antiq., II, xii, 4) declares that he is not allowed to treat of the Divine name; in another place (Antiq., XII, v, 5) he says that the Samaritans erected on Mt. Garizim an anonymon ieron . This extreme veneration for the Divine name must have generally prevailed at the time when the Septuagint version was made, for the translators always substitute Kyrios (Lord) for Jehovah. Ecclesiasticus 23:10 , appears to prohibit only a wanton use of the Divine name, though it cannot be denied that Jehovah is not employed as frequently in the more recent canonical books of the Old Testament as in the older books.

It would be hard to determine at what time this reverence for the Divine name originated among the Hebrews. Rabbinic writers derive the prohibition of pronouncing the Tetragrammaton , as the name of Jehovah is called, from Leviticus 24:16 : "And he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, dying let him die". The Hebrew participle noqedh , here rendered "blasphemeth", is translated honomazon in the Septuagint, and appears to have the meaning "to determine", "to denote" (by means of its proper vowels) in Genesis 30:28 ; Numbers 1:17 ; Isaiah 62:2 . Still, the context of Leviticus 24:16 (cf. verses 11 and 15 ), favours the meaning "to blaspheme". Rabbinic exegetes derive the prohibition also from Exodus 3:15 ; but this argument cannot stand the test of the laws of sober hermeneutics (cf. Drusius, "Tetragrammaton", 8-10, in "Critici Sacri", Amsterdam, 1698, I, p. ii, col. 339-42; "De nomine divino", ibid., 512-16; Drach, "Harmonic entre l'Eglise et la Synagogue", I, Paris, 1844, pp. 350-53, and Note 30, pp. 512-16).

What has been said explains the so-called qeri perpetuum , according to which the consonants of Jehovah are always accompanied in the Hebrew text by the vowels of Adonai except in the cases in which Adonai stands in apposition to Jehovah: in these cases the vowels of Elohim are substituted. The use of a simple shewa in the first syllable of Jehovah, instead of the compound shewa in the corresponding syllable of Adonai and Elohim, is required by the rules of Hebrew grammar governing the use of shewa. Hence the question: What are the true vowels of the word Jehovah?

It has been maintained by some recent scholars that the word Jehovah dates only from the year 1520 (cf. Hastings, "Dictionary of the Bible", II, 1899, p. 199: Gesenius-Buhl, "Handwörterbuch", 13th ed., 1899, p. 311). Drusius (loc. cit., 344) represents Peter Galatinus as the inventor of the word Jehovah, and Fagius as it propagator in the world of scholars and commentators. But the writers of the sixteenth century, Catholic and Protestant (e.g. Cajetan and Théodore de Bèze), are perfectly familiar with the word. Galatinus himself ("Areana cathol. veritatis", I, Bari, 1516, a, p. 77) represents the form as known and received in his time. Besides, Drusius (loc. cit., 351) discovered it in Porchetus, a theologian of the fourteenth century. Finally, the word is found even in the "Pugio fidei" of Raymund Martin, a work written about 1270 (ed. Paris, 1651, pt. III, dist. ii, cap. iii, p. 448, and Note, p. 745). Probably the introduction of the name Jehovah antedates even R. Martin.

No wonder then that this form has been regarded as the true pronunciation of the Divine name by such scholars as Michaelis ("Supplementa ad lexica hebraica", I, 1792, p. 524), Drach (loc. cit., I, 469-98), Stier (Lehrgebäude der hebr. Sprache, 327), and others.

  • Jehovah is composed of the abbreviated forms of the imperfect, the participle, and the perfect of the Hebrew verb "to be" ( ye=yehi; ho=howeh; wa=hawah ). According to this explanation, the meaning of Jehovah would be "he who will be, is, and has been". But such a word-formation has no analogy in the Hebrew language.
  • The abbreviated form Jeho supposes the full form Jehovah. But the form Jehovah cannot account for the abbreviations Jahu and Jah , while the abbreviation Jeho may be derived from another word.
  • The Divine name is said to be paraphrased in Apocalypse 1:4 , and 4:8 , by the expression ho on kai ho en kai ho erchomenos , in which ho erchomenos is regard as equivalent to ho eromenos , "the one that will be"; but it really means "the coming one", so that after the coming of the Lord, Apocalypse 11:17 , retains only ho on kai ho en .
  • the comparison of Jehovah with the Latin Jupiter, Jovis . But it wholly neglects the fuller forms of the Latin names Diespiter, Diovis . Any connection of Jehovah with the Egyptian Divine name consisting of the seven Greek vowels has been rejected by Hengstenberg (Beitrage zur Einleiung ins Alte Testament, II, 204 sqq.) and Tholuck (Vermischte Schriften, I, 349 sqq.).

To take up the ancient writers:

  • Diodorus Siculus writes Jao (I, 94);
  • Irenaeus ("Adv. Haer.", II, xxxv, 3, in P. G., VII, col. 840), Jaoth ;
  • the Valentinian heretics (Irenaeus, "Adv. Haer.", I, iv, 1, in P.G., VII, col. 481), Jao ;
  • Clement of Alexandria ("Strom.", V, 6, in P.G., IX, col. 60), Jaou ;
  • Origen ("in Joh.", II, 1, in P.G., XIV, col. 105), Jao ;
  • Porphyry (Eusebius, "Praep. evang", I, ix, in P.G., XXI, col. 72), Jeuo ;
  • Epiphanius ("Adv. Haer.", I, iii, 40, in P.G., XLI, col. 685), Ja or Jabe;
  • Pseudo-Jerome ("Breviarium in Pss.", in P.L., XXVI, 828), Jaho ;
  • the Samaritans (Theodoret, in "Ex. quaest.", xv, in P.G., LXXX, col. 244), Jabe ;
  • James of Edessa (cf. Lamy, "La science catholique", 1891, p. 196), Jehjeh ;
  • Jerome ("Ep. xxv ad Marcell.", in P. L., XXII, col. 429) speaks of certain ignorant Greek writers who transcribed the Hebrew Divine name II I II I.
The judicious reader will perceive that the Samaritan pronunciation Jabe probably approaches the real sound of the Divine name closest; the other early writers transmit only abbreviations or corruptions of the sacred name. Inserting the vowels of Jabe into the original Hebrew consonant text, we obtain the form Jahveh ( Yahweh ), which has been generally accepted by modern scholars as the true pronunciation of the Divine name. It is not merely closely connected with the pronunciation of the ancient synagogue by means of the Samaritan tradition, but it also allows the legitimate derivation of all the abbreviations of the sacred name in the Old Testament.

II. MEANING OF THE DIVINE NAME

Jahveh (Yahweh) is one of the archaic Hebrew nouns, such as Jacob, Joseph, Israel, etc. (cf. Ewald, "Lehrbuch der hebr. Sprache", 7th ed., 1863, p. 664), derived from the third person imperfect in such a way as to attribute to a person or a thing the action of the quality expressed by the verb after the manner of a verbal adjective or a participle. Furst has collected most of these nouns, and calls the form forma participialis imperfectiva. As the Divine name is an imperfect form of the archaic Hebrew verb "to be", Jahveh means "He Who is", Whose characteristic note consists in being, or The Being simply.

Here we are confronted with the question, whether Jahveh is the imperfect hiphil or the imperfect qal . Calmet and Le Clere believe that the Divine name is a hiphil form; hence it signifies, according to Schrader (Die Keilinschriften und das Alte Testament, 2nd ed., p. 25), He Who brings into existence, the Creator; and according to Lagarde (Psalterium Hieronymi, 153), He Who causes to arrive, Who realizes His promises, the God of xxyyyk.htm">Providence. But this opinion is not in keeping with Exodus 3:14 , nor is there any trace in Hebrew of a hiphil form of the verb meaning "to be"; moreover, this hiphil form is supplied in the cognate languages by the pi'el form, except in Syriac where the hiphil is rare and of late occurrence.

On the other hand, Jehveh may be an imperfect qal from a grammatical point of view, and the traditional exegesis of Exodus 3:6-16 , seems to necessitate the form Jahveh. Moses asks God : "If they should say to me: What is his [ God's ] name? What shall I say to them?" In reply, God returns three times to the determination of His name.

First, He uses the first person imperfect of the Hebrew verb "to be"; here the Vulgate, the Septuagint, Aquila, Theodotion, and the Arabic version suppose that God uses the imperfect qal ; only the Targums of Jonathan and of Jerusalem imply the imperfect hiphil . Hence we have the renderings: "I am who am" ( Vulgate ), "I am who is" (Septuagint), "I shall be {who] shall be" (Aquila, Theodotion), "the Eternal who does not cease" (Ar.); only the above-mentioned Targums see any reference to the creation of the world.

The second time, God uses again the first person imperfect of the Hebrew verb "to be"; here the Syriac, the Samaritan, the Persian versions, and the Targums of Onkelos and Jerusalem retain the Hebrew, so that one cannot tell whether they regard the imperfect as a qal or a hiphil form; the Arabic version omits the whole clause; but the Septuagint, the Vulgate, and the Targum of Jonathan suppose here the imperfect qal : "He Who Is, hath sent me to you" instead of "I Am, hath sent me to you: ( Vulgate ); " ho on sent me to you" (Septuagint); "I am who am, and who shall be, hath sent me to you" (Targ. Jon.).

Finally, the third time, God uses the third person of the imperfect, or the form of the sacred name itself; here the Samaritan version and the Targum of Onkelos retain the Hebrew form; the Septuagint, the Vulgate, and the Syriac version render "Lord", though, according to the analogy of the former two passages, they should have translated, "He Is, the God of your fathers, . . . hath sent me to you"; the Arabic version substitutes " God ". Classical exegesis, therefore, regards Jahveh as the imperfect qal of the Hebrew verb "to be".

Here another question presents itself: Is the being predicated of God in His name, the metaphysical being denoting nothing but existence itself, or is it an historical being, a passing manifestation of God in time ?

Most Protestant writers regard the being implied in the name Jahveh as an historical one, though some do not wholly exclude such metaphysical ideas as God's independence, absolute constancy, and fidelity to His promises, and immutability in His plans (cf. Driver, "Hebrew Tenses", 1892, p. 17). The following are the reasons alleged for the historical meaning of the "being" implied in the Divine name:

  • The metaphysical sense of being was too abstruse a concept for the primitive times. Still, some of the Egyptian speculations of the early times are almost as abstruse; besides, it was not necessary that the Jews of the time of Moses should fully understand the meaning implied in God's name. The scientific development of its sense might be left to the future Christian theologians.
  • The Hebrew verb hayah means rather "to become" than "to be" permanently. But good authorities deny that the Hebrew verb denotes being in motion rather than being in a permanent condition. It is true that the participle would have expressed a permanent state more clearly; but then, the participle of the verb hayah is found only in Exodus 9:3 , and few proper names in Hebrew are derived from the participle.
  • The imperfect mainly expresses the action of one who enters anew on the scene. But this is not always the case; the Hebrew imperfect is a true aorist, prescinding from time and, therefore, best adapted for general principles (Driver, p. 38).
  • "I am who am" appears to refer to "I will be with thee" of verse 12 ; both texts seems to be alluded to in Hosea 1:9 , "I will not be yours". But if this be true, "I am who am" must be considered as an ellipse: "I am who am with you", or "I am who am faithful to my promises". This is harsh enough; but it becomes quite inadmissible in the clause, "I am who am, hath sent me".

Since then the Hebrew imperfect is admittedly not to be considered as a future, and since the nature of the language does not force us to see in it the expression of transition or of becoming, and since, moreover, early tradition is quite fixed and the absolute character of the verb hayah has induced even the most ardent patrons of its historical sense to admit in the texts a description of God's nature , the rules of hermeneutics urge us to take the expressions in Exodus 3:13-15 , for what they are worth. Jahveh is He Who Is, i.e., His nature is best characterized by Being, if indeed it must be designated by a personal proper name distinct from the term God (Revue biblique, 1893, p. 338). The scholastic theories as to the depth of meaning latent in Yahveh (Yahweh) rest, therefore, on a solid foundation. Finite beings are defined by their essence : God can be defined only by being, pure and simple, nothing less and nothing more; not be abstract being common to everything, and characteristic of nothing in particular, but by concrete being, absolute being, the ocean of all substantial being, independent of any cause, incapable of change, exceeding all duration, because He is infinite : "Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, . . . who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty" ( Revelation 1:8 ). Cf. St. Thomas, I, qu. xiii, a. 14; Franzelin, "De Deo Uno" (3rd ed., 1883, thesis XXIII, pp. 279-86.

III. ORIGIN OF THE NAME JAHVEH (YAHWEH)

The opinion that the name Jahveh was adopted by the Jews from the Chanaanites, has been defended by von Bohlen (Genesis, 1835, p. civ), Von der Alm (Theol. Briefe, I, 1862, pp. 524-27), Colenso (The Pentateuch, V, 1865, pp. 269-84), Goldziher (Der Mythus bei den Hebräern, 1867, p. 327), but has been rejected by Kuenen ("De Godsdienst van Israel", I, Haarlem, 1869, pp. 379-401) and Baudissin (Studien, I, pp. 213-18). It is antecedently improbable that Jahveh, the irreconcilable enemy of the Chanaanites, should be originally a Chanaanite god.

It has been said by Vatke (Die Religion des Alten Test., 1835, p. 672) and J.G. Müller (Die Semiten in ihrem Verhältniss zu Chamiten und Japhetiten, 1872, p. 163) that the name Jahveh is of Indo-European origin. But the transition of the Sanscrit root, div —the Latin Jupiter-Jovis ( Diovis ), the Greek Zeus-Dios , the Indo-European Dyaus into the Hebrew form Jahveh has never been satisfactorily explained. Hitzig's contention (Vorlesungen über bibl. Theol., p. 38) that the Indo-Europeans furnished at least the idea contained in the name Jahveh, even if they did not originate the name itself, is without any value.

The theory that Jahveh is of Egyptian origin may have a certain amount of a priori probability, as Moses was educated in Egypt. Still, the proofs are not convincing:

  • Röth (Die Aegypt. und die Zoroastr. Glaubenslehre, 1846, p. 175) derives the Hebrew name from the ancient moon-god Ih or Ioh . But there is no connection between the Hebrew Jahveh and the moon (cf. Pierret, "Vocabul. Hiérogl.", 1875, p. 44).
  • Plutarch (De Iside, 9) tells us that a statue of Athene (Neith) in Sais bore the inscription: "I am all that has been, is, and will be". But Tholuck (op. cit., 1867, pp. 189-205) shows that the meaning of this inscription is wholly different from that of the name Jahveh.
  • The patrons of the Egyptian origin of the sacred name appeal to the common Egyptian formula, Nuk pu nuk but though its literal signification is "I am I", its real meaning is "It is I who" (cf. Le Page Renouf, "Hibbert Lectures for 1879", p. 244).

As to the theory that Jahveh has a Chaldean or an Accadian origin, its foundation is not very solid:

  • Jahveh is said to be a merely artificial form introduced to put meaning into the name of the national god (Delitzsch, "Wo lag das Paradies", 1881, pp. 158-64); the common and popular name of God is said to have been Yahu or Yah , the letter I being the essential Divine element in the name. The contention, if true, does not prove the Chaldean or Accadian origin of the Hebrew Divine name; besides the form Yah is rare and exclusively poetic; Yahu never appears in the Bible , while the ordinary full form of the Divine name is found even in the inscription of Mesa (line 18) dating from the ninth century B.C.
  • Yahu and Yah were known outside Israel ; the forms enter into the composition of foreign proper names; besides, the variation of the name of a certain King of Hammath shows that Ilu is equivalent to Yau , and that Yau is the name of a god (Schrader, "Bibl. Bl.", II, p. 42, 56; Sargon, "Cylinder", xxv; Keil, "Fastes", I. 33). But foreign proper names containing Yah or Yahu are extremely rare and doubtful, and may be explained without admitting gods in foreign nations, bearing the sacred name. Again, the Babylonian pantheon is fairly well known at present, but the god Yau does not appear in it.
  • Among the pre-Semitic Babylonians, I is a synonym of Ilu , the supreme god; now I with the Assyrian nominative ending added becomes Yau (cf. Delitzsch, "Lesestücke", 3rd ed., 1885, p. 42, Syllab. A, col. I, 13-16). Hommel (Altisrael. Ueberlieferung, 1897, pp. 144, 225) feels sure that he has discovered this Chaldean god Yau. It is the god who is represented ideographically ( ilu ) A-a , but ordinarily pronounced Malik , though the expression should be read Ai or Ia ( Ya ). The patriarchal family employed this name, and Moses borrowed and transformed it. But Lagrange points out that the Jews did not believe that they offered their children to Jahveh, when they sacrificed them to Malik (Religion semitique, 1905, pp. 100 sqq.). Jeremiah 32:35 , and Zephaniah 1:5 , distinguish between Malik and the Hebrew God.

Cheyne (Traditions and Beliefs of Ancient Israel, 1907, pp. 63 sqq.) connects the origin of Jahveh with his Yerahme'el theory; but even the most advanced critics regard Cheyne's theory as a discredit to modern criticism. Other singular opinions as to the origin of the sacred name may be safely omitted. The view that Jahveh is of Hebrew origin is the most satisfactory. Arguing from Exodus 6:2-8 , such commentators as Nicholas of Lyra, Tostatus, Cajetan, Bonfrère, etc., maintain that the name was revealed for the first time to Moses on Mount Horeb. God declares in this vision that he "appeared to Abraham. . . by the name of God Almighty ; and my name Adonai [Jahveh] I did not shew them". But the phrase "to appear by a name" does not necessarily imply the first revelation of that name; it rather signifies the explanation of the name, or a manner of acting conformable to the meaning of the name (cf. Robion in "la Science cathol.", 1888, pp. 618-24; Delattre, ibid., 1892, pp. 673-87; van Kasteren, ibid., 1894, pp. 296-315; Robert in "Revue biblique", 1894, pp. 161-81). On Mt. Horeb God told Moses that He had not acted with the Patriarchs as the God of the Covenant, Jahveh, but as God Almighty .

Perhaps it is preferable to say that the sacred name, though perhaps in a somewhat modified form, had been in use in the patriarchal family before the time of Moses. On Mt. HorebGod revealed and explained the accurate form of His name, Jahveh.

  • The sacred name occurs in Genesis about 156 times; this frequent occurrence can hardly be a mere prolepsis.
  • Genesis 4:26 , states that Enos "began to call upon the name of the Lord [Jahveh]", or as the Hebrew text suggests, "began to call himself after the name of Jahveh".
  • Jochabed, the mother of Moses, has in her name an abbreviated form Jo (Yo) of Jahveh. The pre-Mosaic existence of the Divine name among the Hebrews accounts for this fact more easily than the supposition that the Divine element was introduced after the revelation of the name.
  • Among the 163 proper names which bear an element of the sacred name in their composition, 48 have yeho or yo at the beginning, and 115 have yahu or yah and the end, while the form Jahveh never occurs in any such composition. Perhaps it might be assumed that these shortened forms yeho, yo, yahu, yah , represent the Divine name as it existed among the Israelites before the full name Jahveh was revealed on Mt. Horeb. On the other hand, Driver (Studia biblica, I, 5) has shown that these short forms are the regular abbreviations of the full name. At any rate, while it is not certain that God revealed His sacred name to Moses for the first time, He surely revealed on Mt. Horeb that Jahveh is His incommunicable name, and explained its meaning.

More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed in fifteen hardcopy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online

Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Ephesians 4:7-16
7 On each one of us God's favour has been bestowed in ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 122:1-2, 3-4, 4-5
1 [Song of Ascents Of David] I rejoiced that they ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 13:1-9
1 It was just about this time that some people ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for October 25th, 2014 Image

St. Daria
October 25: There is very little known about them. Chrysanthus was an ... Read More

Inform, Inspire & Ignite Logo

Find Catholic Online on Facebook and get updates right in your live feed.

Become a fan of Catholic Online on Facebook


Follow Catholic Online on Twitter and get News and Product updates.

Follow us on Twitter