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The Incomprehensible Name of God: YHWH

By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.
February 21st, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The next word in this series we will explore is, without doubt, the most ponderous we shall ever address in this series Tres Linguae Sacrae.  In fact, it is not really a word; it is a name, but not any ordinary name.  It is the very name of God: YHWH (יהוה), which translated means something along the lines of "He who is," Eis qui est. 

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - The next word in this series we will explore is, without doubt, the most ponderous we shall ever address in this series Tres Linguae Sacrae.  In fact, it is not really a word; it is a name, but not any ordinary name.

It is the nomen ineffabile, the ineffable name. 
It is the nomen incommunicabile, the incommunicable name.
It is the nomen terribile, the terrible name.  (Ps. 99[98]:3)
It is the nomen sanctum, the holy name. (Ps. 111[110]:9)

It is the very name of God: YHWH (יהוה), which translated means something along the lines of "He who is," Eis qui est. 

The Jews call it "the Name," or Hashem (Lev. 24:11, 16; Deut. 28:58), and indeed the unutterable name, Shem Hameforash

St. Thomas Aquinas agrees with the traditional Jew.  In his Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas says this name is the most suitable name for God--more suitable than its translation "He who is," and more suitable than the word God itself--since it signifies "the substance of God itself," and is "incommunicable, and, if one make so speak, singular," incommunicabilem, et, ut sic liceat loqui, singularem. (ST Ia q. 13 a. 11, ad. 1).

It is a wonderful patrimony that Christians have inherited from the revelation of God to Moses and for which we ought to be forever grateful: "The God of our faith has revealed himself as HE WHO IS," YHWH, the One with the ineffable, incommunicable, terrible, and holy name.  CCC 231.

The word YHWH comes to us from Hebrew, and is composed of four Hebrew letters.  Yod, He, Waw, and He.  For this reason, it is called the Tetragrammaton, a word that comes from Greek meaning "four letters."  In his Stromata (V.6), St. Clement of Alexandria calls it the "mystic name of four letters," to tetragrammon honoma to mystikon.

Because Hebrew originally did not have vowels, there is some uncertainty and therefore dispute among scholars as to how the name is actually pronounced: Yahweh or Yawveh are the most likely possible alternatives.  It is exceedingly unlikely that the popular Jehovah is the correct pronunciation.

The name of God--YHWH--is found over 6,800 times in the Old Testament.  It appears approximately 650 times in the Psalms alone.  It first appears in Genesis 2:4.  The only books of the Old Testament in which the unutterable name does not appear are Ecclesiastes, the Book of Esther, and Song of Songs.

God revealed Himself in this manner when He revealed Himself to Moses on Mount Horeb in the theophany of the Burning Bush (Ex. 3:1-22).  In response to Moses' question as to what he should tell the oppressed Israelites when they ask him the name of the God who had appeared to Him, God responded.

"I am who am." 
Ehyeh asher Ehyeh
Ego sum qui sum (Vulgate)
Εγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν (LXX)

"This is what you shall tell the Israelites," God continues.  "I AM sent me to you. . .  . this is my name for ever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations."  (Ex. 3:14-15)  "I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob," God tells Moses, "but my name, YHWH, I did not make known to them."  (Ex. 6:3) 

So it is that the first person "I am," EHYEH (אֶהְיֶה) becomes the third person YHWH (יהוה), which translated means something along the lines of "HE WHO IS," Eis qui est. 

What is the significance of God having a name? 

In his book Introduction to Christianity, before he was Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger broached the issue of the revelation of the name of God, Yahweh, and what "specifically new element was expressed" by that name.  The various answers that might be given to this question Ratzinger said are many.   The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts forth the most common:

God reveals his name to Moses to show that he is a personal God that wishes to make Himself known to mankind.  "God has a name; he is not an anonymous force.  To disclose one's name is to make oneself known to others."  CCC 203.

God's name is an expression of his faithfulness.  "The divine name, 'I Am' or 'He is,' expresses God's faithfulness."  CCC 211.

God's name suggests that he is unchangeable and unchanging, is subject to "no variation or shadow due to change," which--when coupled with his fidelity--means that he is "ever faithful to Himself and to his promises," and is "abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness." CCC 212, 214 (Cf. Jas. 1:7; Ex. 34:6)

God's name expresses his uniqueness--He is the one and only God.  One of the "riches contained in the revelation of the divine name" is that "God is unique; there are no other gods beside him."  CCC 212 (Is. 44:6)

God's name suggests that he is transcendent, that, as creator of heaven and earth, "He transcends the world and history."  CCC 212.

"The revelation of the ineffable name "I AM WHO AM" contains then the truth that God alone IS.  . . . .  God is the fullness of Being and of every perfection, without origin and without end.  All creatures receive all that they are and have from him; but he alone is his very being, and he is of himself everything that he is."  CCC 213.

As a theologian, Joseph Ratzinger suggests that we go beyond these truths, without denying them in any sense, and discover something even more marvelous.  Is YHWH even properly speaking a name?  "This question may at first seem nonsensical, for it is indisputable that Israel knew the word Yahweh as a name for God," as, of course, does the Catechism.

What Ratzinger suggests is that the revelation by God that his name is YWHW is really a "rebuff" or a "refusal to give a name than the announcement of a name."  God's name may be that he is nameless because His real essence, as God, is unknowable.  As Meister Eckhart puts it "God is nameless, for no man can know or say anything of Him." 

Ratzinger suggests perhaps even the implication of a divine displeasure--I would have suggested coyness--at Moses' importunity at asking God a question which is unanswerable to men:  "I am just who I am." 

(God, it seems, cannot be known by name until he became incarnate and received the human name of Jesus.  There is no problem in naming a person who has a human nature.)

Ratzinger compares the Mosaic theophany with a similar event in Judges 13:18 where Manoah asks the God he meets for his name.  "Why do you ask my name, seeing it is a secret?" (or "wonderful") Through this deft question, God avoids having to reveal his name to Manoah perhaps because Manoah is incapable of comprehending it.

Something similar happens to Jacob in Genesis 32:29, the great wrestling match of Jacob with God.  After his lengthy wrestling with God, Jacob asks this stranger his name, only to receive a deflection, a "gesture of repulse": "Why is it that you ask my name?"  Since God's substance--his name--is incomprehensible, there is no good reason for asking such a question because even if God answered it, man has no capacity for it.

Ratzinger suggest that the reason that God avoids giving his name in any ordinary sense is to distinguish Himself from the gods of the nations all about Israel.  The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob does not have the same kind of name as the many gods of the nations round about Israel. 

"The God of the burning bush will not put himself on a level with them."  A name comprehends, restrains, allows control over a god, and the God will not--cannot--be comprehended by a creature. 

At best, God's name--YHWH--is only a name in an analogical sense.  God's name is similar to the names we give people and places and with which we are familiar.  But there is an infinite difference or dissimilarity between God's name and those names, common and proper, with which we are familiar.

God's response to Moses and His revelation of the name YHWH, suggests Ratzinger, "serves as a kind of negative theology."  It is a name that is not an ordinary name, as it "cancels out the significance of the name as a name; it effects a sort of withdrawal from the only too well known, which the name seems to be, into the unknown, the hidden."  It is a name infinitely above any other name that we know while pilgrims on this earth.  It is beyond our experience.

So the name-which-is-not-a-name with which God responds to Moses, "dissolves the name into mystery, so that the familiarity and unfamiliarity of God, concealment and revelation, are indicated simultaneously.  The name, a sign of acquaintance, becomes the cipher for the perpetually unknown and unnamed quality of God.  Contrary to the view that God can here be grasped, so to speak, the persistence of an infinite distance is in this way made quite clear."

"To this extent it was in the last analysis a legitimate development that led people in Israel more and more to avoid pronouncing this name, to use some sort of periphrasis, so that in the Greek Bible it no longer occurs at all but is simply replaced by the word "Lord."  This development shows in many ways a more accurate understanding of the mystery of the burning bush than multifarious learned philological explanations do."

In our next article, we will address this last issue, i.e., the Jewish practice of avoid pronouncing the name of God, and the use of some sort of periphrasis--usually the use of the word Adonai (in Hebrew, meaning Lord), though the name YHWH remained in the Hebrew text. 

In the Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures which occurred in the 2nd century B.C. under Jewish auspices, the Septuagint, the name YHWH was replaced in the text with Kyrios (the Greek word for "Lord).  Therefore, referring to YHWH as "Lord" was a custom which was carried over by the Christians, who did not use the Tetragrammaton YWHW, but used the Septuagint where it had been replaced with Kyrios ("Lord" in Greek). 

In the Latin translations of the Old Testament, the practice was carried over with the use of Dominus ("Lord" in Latin).  It is a custom followed by the Catholic Church in her official translations of the Scriptures, and in her liturgy, where the divine name--YHWH--is replaced by the word Lord (in capital letters to indicate that it is in stead of the divine name). 

We shall see in the next article that this practice has tremendous implications in our understanding of Jesus--His name, and Who He claimed to be--and in the way we worship God in the liturgy.

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Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at agreenwell@harris-greenwell.com.

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