Guarding the Name

One reader of this blog, Andy Doerksin, asked a question in the “About the Author” page that I thought deserved it’s own post:

Hmm, why do you say “G-d” and “L-RD” when Yahweh has clearly invited us to call Him by name? Why do you cut off intimacy with Him when that’s specifically what He’s called us to?

There are actually two elements to this question that I need to handle separately.

The practice of deliberately misspelling references to God comes from an interpretation of Deuteronomy 12:2-4 (here in the ESV):

You shall surely destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess served their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. You shall tear down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and burn their Asherim with fire. You shall chop down the carved images of their gods and destroy their name out of that place.

You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way.

The last verse, rendered literally, is, “You shall not do like to the LORD your God.” Since the preceding passage is focused on the destruction of the names of the pagan gods from the land of Israel, the rabbis understand this to mean that one should not do anything to cause the Name of God to be destroyed. Therefore, the practice developed of using deliberate substitutions for writing not only the Tetragrammaton, but the other Hebrew names of God as well. For example, if you look at the blessing on the back of a talit, you will find it reads ד’ אלקינו, the dalet and apostrophe (‘ד) indicating the number 4 for the Tetragrammaton (lit. the “four letter name”) and eloqeinu instead of the proper spelling of Eloheinu (“our God”). This is so that if the talit were marred or destroyed, the Name would not be.


It is common in Orthodox Judaism, though far from universal and not actually required by Jewish law, to extend the practice to writing the English equivalents by leaving out the vowels, e.g., “G-d” and “L-rd.” This became the practice of my former synagogue in order to avoid the possibility of an unnecessary offence to anyone in the broader Jewish community, and I adopted it in my own writings. I’ve since come to the conclusion that this is going too far and leads to more confusion, so I’ve stopped. I’ve not, however, attempted to go back and edit all of my old posts.

RL-Allan-WM-010The second part of the question is whether it is appropriate to speak aloud or write down in a non-Hebrew alphabet the Tetragrammaton, God’s Holiest Name. Very obviously, I do not think that it is, and my reasoning is very simple and has nothing to do with the rulings of the rabbis:

I cannot find a single instance of anyone speaking or writing God’s Holiest Name in the New Testament. Not one.

Think about it for a moment: One of the problems we face in speaking or writing the Divine Name is that we don’t actually know for certain how it was pronounced. Based on the Hebrew letters, it may have two syllables, but it could also have three. The vav could be a “v” or a “w” sound. We have no idea what the vowel sounds were.

Every single one of those problems would be resolved if any of the apostles had seen fit to write down the Divine Name in Greek letters. None of them did. What does that tell you about their practice when it came to writing down the Name?

Furthermore, we have no actual evidence that Yeshua himself actually pronounced the name! Oh, some will claim that he used it whenever he said, “I am,” but that makes no sense if you actually know Hebrew. The Name comes from a third-person verb and either means either, “He Is,” i.e., “The Self-Existent One,” or “He Causes to Be.” I’ve seen Jewish translations that render it, “The Eternal One.” I would use “The Eternal Creator” to give both meanings of the Name, but you get the point:

“Who are you looking for?”

“Yeshua of Nazareth.”

“He exists!”

That wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense of the conversation, would it.

“Ah, but Michael, Yeshua used the first person form, ehyeh, that God used in the burning bush.”

That’s possible, but unlikely. Ehyeh is indeed first-person, but it’s in the imperfect form of the word. In Hebrew, the imperfect tense usually indicates the future tense, though sometimes it can refer to past completed action. (It is also used as a narrative device, but that obviously doesn’t apply in normal conversation.) It would end up sounding like this:

“Who are you looking for?”

“Yeshua of Nazareth.”

“I will be!” (Or, “I once was!”)

The Greek phrase translated “I am he” is ego eimi, and is the usual way of referring to one’s self: “And they were sorrowful and began to say to him one after another, ‘Is it I (ego eimi), Lord?'” (Mat. 26:22). I’m pretty sure that none of them was asking, “Am I Hashem?”

The correct way to render ego eimi into Hebrew is ani hu or anokhi hu, both of which mean, simply, “I am he.”

jesus-and-disciplesNow, if I can’t find where Yeshua himself, the Unique Son of God and the Word of God made flesh, pronounced the Tetragrammaton openly, I’m sure as heck not going to!

And indeed, the evidence is that using the usual circumlocutions like “Lord” (Gr. kurios) was the nominal practice of the Ekklesia from the very beginning. Paul even notes that when he wanted to put the Nazarines to death, he “tried to make them blaspheme” (Acts 26:10-11). The only blasphemy that Jewish law nominally recognized as worthy of the death penalty was one in which one actually pronounced the Divine Name (Mishneh Sanhedrin 7:5). If the earliest disciples of the Messiah suddenly felt that they were free to use the Divine Name in common practice, they would have had to explain and defend that position. The fact that we have no record of them doing so tells us that they followed Jewish norms in this case.

(Funnily enough, even in the Dead Sea Scrolls you see a reluctance to update the spelling of the Divine Name from the old Phoenician script to the Aramaic script that Hebrew commonly uses today.)

“But Michael, don’t you realize that by not using the Name, you’re effectively destroying it? After all, Deuteronomy 32:3 tells us to ‘publish the name of the Lord!'”

While I’ve done my own study and have the way I suspect that the Tetragrammaton was pronounced, there’s no consensus on this among scholars. Even if the point of the command is to make known the correct syllables, I don’t have the ability to do so for certain. Neither do you. Supposedly the correct pronunciation is a secret passed down from rabbi to student, but even if that’s true, I can guarantee that no one in the Hebrew Roots movement has ever received it. Moreover, if that’s the point of that verse, why didn’t Yeshua instruct his disciples in the correct pronunciation and tell them to pass it on?

But that’s not really what Moses meant anyway. In Hebrew, the shem or name didn’t just mean pronouncing a bunch of syllables, but referred to the reputation, honor, and authority of the person. Ergo, our primary concern is telling the world about the reputation, honor, and authority that God has given to his Son because Yeshua redeemed us with his own blood.

I do believe that the day is soon coming when we will once again speak God’s Divine Name: Yeshua promises that the overcomer will receive “a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it” (Rev. 2:17) and that “I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name” (3:12). The word translated “new,” kainos, can also mean “renewed, made fresh” (as can its Hebrew equivalent, chadash). Therefore, I believe that Yeshua himself will restore the true Divine Name to the lips of his brethren, but that he has clearly not done so yet.

Those who insist on using the Name casually, whether in the Hebrew Roots movement or in scholarly circles, are in my opinion jumping the gun and going beyond our Master’s command and example.


6 Replies to “Guarding the Name”

  1. Love this explanation. Thank you.

    I tend to do both, depending upon the reader. For me, it is partly a conversation starter. People ask why and I get to share some things about my faith and understanding of the scriptures with them. Also, in a world that believes in many “gods” and lifts up false “gods” as the G-d, by using the dash/hyphen, I am making it clear that when I refer to God it is not just any “god”. It is the G-d of the bible! Plus, there are many who do know of the way many Jews write it and it will alert them to whom I am referring.

    But mandated? No! I have had people call me out on that, thinking that I am under some sort of bondage to tradition. But once I explain myself, they understand.


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