Texts and contexts

The name ‘Yhwh’, vocalized, normally, ‘Yahweh’, occurs some 6,877 times in the Hebrew Bible in 5,815 verses (in Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, the standard edition of the Bible used by scholars). The four Hebrew letters Yhwh are commonly referred to as the Tetragrammaton (Greek for ‘having four letters’); some members of faith communities refuse to pronounce the name, substituting instead a euphemism such as Adonai (‘Lord’), or HaShem (‘the name’). It seems to be a noun based on the Hebrew verb ‘hayah’, to be, to exist.  In its nominal form (as a noun) it is normally understood to be a word that means ‘the one who is’ or ‘the one who exists’ or even ‘the existing one’. Many, if not most scholars take this line of approach given the existence of Exod 3:14 and its definition of Yahweh as follows:

God said to Moses, ‘I am he who is.’ And he said, ‘This is what you are to say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you”.’ (Exod 3:14 NJB=New Jerusalem Bible)

The Hebrew phrase central to this verse, and the way in which Yhwh is meant to be understood according to the author of the text, is ‎אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה . In transliteration, this phrase is ‘ehyeh asher ehyeh’ and literally means ‘I am that which I am’.  And just as that sentence is ambiguous in English, so it is in Hebrew.

Interestingly, the name Yahweh occurs as soon as Gen 2:4 in the Torah, and is found in every book of the Hebrew Bible except Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Esther.

Yhwh is not the only name of God in the Hebrew Bible. Also found are, among others, El, Elyon, Adonai, El Shaddai, and Elohim. Each of these names or descriptors originally applied to individual deities worshipped by discrete communities and tribes but over time they were all ‘absorbed’ by Israel and became, essentially, synonyms for Yhwh. Expressions related to Yhwh are: the LORD of (the) hosts (Hos 12:5 [Hebrew text 12:6]); the LORD of hosts (Mal 2:15), the spirit of the Lord God (Isa 61:1), the terrible Day of the LORD (Joel 2:31 [Hebrew text 3:3]), etc.

A history of research summarized

Israel’s understanding of its national God took generations to evolve. It began with the simple enough notion that Yhwh was the God who brought Israel through the wilderness and was a sort of ‘desert dwelling god’ which the people worshipped whilst dwelling in the Sinai and travelling to the land of Canaan. As Exodus notes:

As Aaron was speaking to the whole community of Israelites, they turned towards the desert, and there the glory of Yahweh appeared in the cloud. (Exod 16:10 NJB)

Yhwh, the desert God, summons the Israelites to worship him at his sanctuary in the desert. The dwelling place of Yhwh is that secluded locale. Once, though, in Canaan, many Israelites adopted the gods of that land, the Baals.

They deserted Yahweh, God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt, and they followed other gods, from those of the surrounding peoples. They bowed down to these; they provoked Yahweh; they deserted Yahweh to serve Baal and Astartes. (Judg 2:12-13 NJB)

As Israel’s theology developed, Yhwh was seen as a deity who occupied not only the desert, but the land of Canaan as well. This ‘expansion’ of the dominance of Yhwh took place during the early years of the occupation of Canaan and continued through the period of the monarchy. Yhwh, the national God of Israel, was but one of many gods worshipped by many peoples. As the Psalmist puts it:

Yahweh, hear my prayer, listen to the sound of my pleading. In my day of distress I call upon you, because you answer me, Lord; among the gods there is none to compare with you, no great deeds to compare with yours. (Ps 86:6-8 NJB)

The exilic period brought a radical change to Israel’s understanding of its god. Yhwh began to take the shape of a god of international power and international dominion. Deutero-Isaiah seems to be the primary source for this refined belief in Israel’s God. Deutero-Isaiah’s Yhwh is an international God, indeed, a universal God. As Isaiah has it:

Coasts and islands, fall silent before me, and let the peoples renew their strength, let them come forward and speak; let us assemble for judgement. ‘Who has raised from the east him whom saving justice summons in its train, him to whom Yahweh delivers up the nations and subjects kings, him who reduces them to dust with his sword, and to driven stubble with his bow, him who pursues them and advances unhindered, his feet scarcely touching the road?  Who has acted thus, who has done this? He who calls each generation from the beginning: I, Yahweh, who am the first and till the last I shall still be there.’ (Isa 41:1-4 NJB)

From desert god and tribal god to national God to universal God: the trail of Israel’s understanding of its deity is one from general obscurity to all-embracing power.

Further reading

The literature on Yahweh is enormous. Below is a mere fragment of suggestions for further reading:

Brueggemann, Walter. An Unsettling God: the Heart of the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009.

Clines, David J. A., ed. The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press; Sheffield Phoenix Press, 1993–2011.

Klippenstein, Rachel. ‘Names of God in the Old Testament.’ Edited by John D. Barry, et al. The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016. (electronic resource)

Knauf, Ernst Axel. ‘YHWH.’ In Religion Past and Present (Leiden: Brill, 2011). (electronic resource: http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1877-5888_rpp_SIM_10665)

Macdonald, Nathan. “Listening to Abraham—Listening to Yhwh: Divine Justice and Mercy in Genesis 18:16-33.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 66/1 (2004): 25-43.

Römer, Thomas. The Invention of God. Trans. Raymond Geuss. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Snearly, Michael. ‘Kenites.’ Edited by John D. Barry, et al. The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016. (electronic resource)

Stokes, Ryan E. ‘Satan, Yhwh’s Executioner.’  Journal of Biblical Literature, 133/2 (2014): 251-270.

Vance, Burt. ‘YHWH.’ A Dictionary of Abbreviations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. (electronic resource)