The name that must not be said out loud

By | January 20, 2009

Ancient Hebrews were forbidden to take God’s name lightly. And they — as do devout Jews to this day — took that very seriously. Not only did they call it the “ineffable name” and the “unutterable name,” the Book of the Law says “whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall be put to death (by stoning)” (Lev 24:16).As Pope Benedict XVI notes in his book, “Jesus of Nazareth,” the answer to Moses “is a name and a non-name at one and the same time. The Israelites where perfectly right in refusing to utter this self-designation of God, expressed in the word YHWH, so as to avoid degrading it to the level of names of pagan deities.”

While the Tetragrammaton was not pronounced — except in a religious context — it occurs often in Hebrew scriptures. Scholars differ on how many times the name appears, since it shows up in various forms, but they agree that it is found well over 6,000 times in the Old Testament. Other words were substituted to be spoken aloud whenever YHWH appears in the writings. These included Elohim and Adonai. “Yah” also represents God’s name, since it is the first consonant of the Tetragrammaton. “Yah” appears most often in the Psalms, especially as Halle-lu-yah, or “Praise to you, YHWH.”

Biblical scholars say that, as the scriptural traditions developed, the Tetragrammaton in any form, was used less often and was replaced by the substitutes like Adonai and Elohim. (Both are titles and not names.) It seems that the titles substituted for the Tetragrammaton became very common after the destruction of the Temple and the Babylonian Exile in the sixth century B.C.

By the time of Jesus, the name “Yahweh” was never used by the average Jewish person in any settings and so filled with sacred power that is was spoken aloud only once a year. On the Day of Atonement, inside the Temple in the presence of the Holy of Holies, the High Priest would invoke the name and sprinkle blood upon the mercy seat to atone for sins.

When the Hebrew scriptures were first written down — in Greek in the third to the first centuries B.C. — the substitution titles were used. Thus the Hebrew Adonai became the Greek Kyrios. This habit continued when the Gospels were first written — again in Greek. When the Scriptures were translated into Latin in the fifth century, Kyrios became Dominus. In English, we use “Lord.”

Next: Yahweh among Catholics

Sources:; Catholic News Service, The Catholic Encyclopedia;; Catechism of the Catholic Church; The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia; Reading the Old Testament; The New Dictionary of Theology; and The New Jerome Biblical Commentary.


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