12 October 2015

The Name of God

The name of the Israelite deity worshipped by Jews and Samaritans, as well as Karaites (who are a subset of Jews), Christians, Muslims, Bahai, and Rastafarians is Ya-hu-weh, or Yahuweh, accent on the last syllable, and pronounced correctly it can sound like “Yahweh” if you are not listening closely.  Or at least that is the correct pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton, the four letters of the Hebrew alphabet said to represent the name represented by English letters YHVH.

Evangelicals in America are fond of pronouncing the “Jehovah” as they find it in their King James Abridged Version ("abridged" because almost no copy today contains the Apocrypha, which those who translated the Authorized Version included), incorrectly using the modern “J” and modern “v” sound for what in the early seventeenth century sounded like “Y” and “w”.  Yet even if they were pronouncing it “Yehowah”, they  would still be getting it incorrectly along with giving their deity a verbal sex change; in Hebrew the “wah” ending denotes the feminine.

Until the first century, use of the name in prayers and readings from the Torah and other works using the Tetragrammaton were the norm, at least among Jews.  Even the Septuagint, otherwise entirely in Greek, originally inserted the Hebrew letters into the Greek text, rather than using the euphemism ‘Kyrios’ as later copies did. 

A few factors led to the abandonment and subsequent abolition of use of the name.

Initially, much of the influence in the direction of abandoning the use of “The Name” was a universalism among Jews, the desire to present their deity as the God of all rather than just the God of the few, which is part of what led to the substitution of Elohim (literally, ‘the gods’, but in this usage more like the royal “we”) for Yahuweh during Hellenistic times.

Another factor was the fear of saying the divine name which was an extension of the prohibition against using the name of earthly sovereigns; this can be found in Isaiah 45:3-4, where Yahuweh is telling Cyrus the Great who it is that dares to use his name.  This passage, by the way, helps place Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) in the immediate post-Exile period.

Fear of accidentally using “The Name” in a way which would violate the Third Statement (too often mistakenly referred to as a “commandment”, courtesy of the Calvinist mistranslators of the Geneva Bible) came into play.  What that Statement actually says is ‘You shall not carry the name of Yahuweh your God superficially’, rather than how Christians, and Jews for that matter, usually mistranslate it.

It must be said that the Samaritans abandoned the practice decades or even centuries before the Jews, ragging on their Israelite cousins for continuing to use it rather than a euphemism.

The late Hellenistic and early Roman eras of Palestine coincided with the spread among the Gentiles around the Mediterranean world of a movement in many quarters toward a worship of a single deity, or at least of one over and above all the rest.  Among the Hellenistic philosophers, this was especially the case of the Platonists, the Stoics, and the Pythagoreans. 

From another direction came the worship of Theos Hypsistos (the Most High God) in the East and of Deus Aeternus (the Eternal God) in the West.  Evidence from the West is sparse, but in the East, inscriptions to Theos Hypsistos have been found in at least some cases which almost certainly point to a Diaspora Jewish setting, though others are clearly of Gentile origin.  This represents a resurgence of the universalism among Jews which took a hit during the Hasmonean ascendancy in Judea, at least in its early stages.

Finally, the Patriarchate in Palestine, by that time seated in Galilee, abolished liturgical use of “The Name” even in reading the Tanakh around 200 CE.  This was done not in the name of universalism, certainly not by the ideological heirs of the separatist Pharisees, but in order to assist a Jew in maintaining purity and, some might say, sanctimony.  This, however, did not extend to excising the Tetragrammaton from the Torah, the Psalms, or the Prophets.

So, how, you may ask, did we get ‘Jehovah’?  From the Masorete scholars in Palestine and Mesopotamia, the scholars from the Jewish sect called the Karaites, which does not accept the Mishna or the Talmud, only the Tanakh.  From the seventh through much of the tenth centuries, these scholars translated the Israelites scriptures into a definitive official text, one which is still used by Orthodox Jews and Karaites today.

Besides editing out certain embarrassments, as do all translators of any scriptures across every religion on Earth, the Masoretes gave their texts pointing for vowels and diacritical marking to guide pronunciation.  In a sign that their separation from Rabbanate Judaism cam later than is often claimed, in order to prevent a reader from accidentally pronouncing “The Name” when called up to read, the Masoretes substituted the vowels for the word ‘Adonai’, the Hebrew equivalent of ‘Kyrios’, or ‘Lord’.

Today, most devout Jews used ‘Adonai’, literally ‘my Lords’ but signifying ‘my Lord’, or ‘Ha-Shem’, literally ‘The Name’.

One of the times I endured enforced chapel at the mission by reading through the Bible rather than suffering through actually listening to whoever was ranting from the pulpit at the time, I came across the following: “And it shall be at that day, saith Yahuweh, that thou shalt call me Ishi; and shalt call me no more Baali”. 

This rather interesting verse is found at Hosea 2:6.  I say “interesting” because although the first literally translates as ‘my Beloved’, most mistranslate it as ‘my husband’, counterposed against the translation of Baali as ‘my Lord’ (more literally, ‘my Master’).  In fact, both were modes of address of a wife to a husband, the two different modes of address signifying relationships of widely differing intimacy.

Besides the rather interesting indication that Israelites may have at one time referred to their national deity as “Baal Yahuweh”, that brings up this question: if their God told the Jews to call him “Beloved” instead of “Lord”, why don’t they?  Why don’t Christians or Muslims?

This is not about the actual name of an actual deity, but rather about the correct pronunciation of the name given to a particular deity, the deity of the Tanakh.  If there were/is an actual One True God beyond the (currently) 13.8 billion year old, 213 duovingintillion cubic kilometer spacetime of the (current) Cosmos, the actual name would probably be beyond human pronunciation.  Of course, it could also be something as simple as “Fred”, or, as the CW show Supernatural suggested, “Chuck”.

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