YHWH is a group of four Hebrew consonants referred to as the Tetragrammaton and it is used in the Bible to denote God’s name. This is one of God’s most commonly used names in the Bible as it was used more than 6,823 times. It was used to expressly refer to the true God as opposed to other gods. Even though YHWH is the original form of the word, vowels were added to aid the pronunciation and that resulted in the more popular form of the word – Yahweh.
YHWH is derived from the verb “to be” and it is something like “he will be” or “he is.” This is the name that God used when he revealed himself to Moses. It was the name that was given to Moses that Israel henceforth used to refer to God.
Origin of the name YHWH
As we have seen, the name YHWH was given by God to Moses. This was after Moses asked what he would tell the Israelites if they asked him who had sent home. Here is what God told Moses:
God said to Moses, “I am who I am (Or I will be what I will be). This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation. Exodus 3:14-15
The Hebrew word that was substituted for the word The Lord in the verse above is actually YHWH. We can also infer from the two verses above that the names I AM WHO I AM and YHWH are either similar or are at least closely related. The first name describes how God talks about himself while the second describes how the Hebrew people were to refer to God.
Even though the word YHWH has been used thousands of times in the Bible, this is the only scripture where the meaning of the name is given explicitly. In other mentions, the focus is not on the meaning of the name but rather on the identity of YHWH.
Throughout the Old Testament, the word YHWH is used when referring to the God of Israel while Elohim is used when referring to the abstract idea of deity. YHWH therefore denotes a personal God while Elohim refers to the transcendent nature of God.
It is worth noting that the name YHWH is not regarded as a common noun. This is where the scripture rarely uses phrases like “our Yahweh.” Yahweh often appears independently of any modifier. This is unlike Elohim which is mostly used as a common noun and it is therefore the name used when referring to “Our God” or “the God of Israel.” In fact, in most Old Testament books, Elohim does not appear alone but is described by some other phrases. However, Yahweh is also modified by phrases that are meant to distinguish the gods of other nations from the God of Israel. For instance, Yahweh may be described as the Elohim of Israel.
For the Old Testament People, Yahweh was the name of their God. As such, this is the primary meaning of the name Yahweh. If we look at the name Yahweh in the context of Exodus 3:15, we can infer that the name Yahweh refers to the God of Israel.
There are several names that have been used as translations for the name Yahweh. These include the Lord, Jehovah, and God. Let us take a closer look at each of these possible translations of the name Yahweh.
Yahweh translated as Lord
There are some Bible translations that replace the word Yahweh with Lord. This translation is however misleading because it would lose the original meaning of the name Yahweh (the God of Israel) but it would also introduce a new meaning of the name that is not accurate. The name Adonai is the one that would fit in the translation Lord. Since most English translations also translate Yahweh as Lord, they try to differentiate Adonai from Yahweh by using Lord (small caps) to refer to Adonai and LORD (all caps) to refer to Yahweh. The reader is therefore meant to make a mental note of these differences and know which name is being referenced. Needless to say, this is ineffective as it almost always leads to misrepresentation or misinterpretation of the text.
Yahweh translated as God
Both Yahweh and Elohim have one central theme – God. Elohim refers to a supreme or mighty God while Yahweh refers to the God of Israel. Since both names refer to God, they are often translated as God. However, it would be more appropriate to translate Elohim as God and not Yahweh because Yahweh doesn’t just mean God – it means the God of Israel. It however depends on the context. For instance, in Genesis 6:8, the Bible says that Noah found grace in God’s site. In this instance, both Elohim and Yahweh would make sense without losing meaning. However, in scriptures where the meaning of the God of Israel needs to come out, translating the name as God may be misleading. A good example is Micah 4:5 which seeks to emphasize the fact that the God of Israel of different from the God of other nations. In this context, the translation of Yahweh as God will lose meaning.
Yahweh translated as Jehovah
The name Jehovah is a transliteration of the name Yahweh. As we have already established, the original didn’t have vowels and it read YHWH. Reading this was hard which resulted in the introduction of vowels. Originally, the vowels introduced made the name “YeHoWah.” The consonant Y makes the sound J while the consonant W makes the sound V. As such, YHWH was originally transliterated as Jehovah. As such, the name Jehovah may be the best translation of the name Yahweh because it doesn’t affect the original meaning, unlike the other two translations. The only limitation is that it is a transliteration so it may also not carry the meaning of the original name.
In summary, the name Yahweh is the name God gave to Moses when Moses asked for God’s name. The name is used as a way of distinguishing the God of Israel (the true God) from the other gods worshipped by their neighbors.