Do Names Matter?


What’s in a Name?

You might remember that I told you that ancient Hebrew did not have vowels (this seems to have been a thing with ancient languages—not sure why). The vowel signs were written later, a few in the 6th century BC, and then more in about the 9th century AD, when Hebrew was not spoken outside of the religious text and people were worried that everyone would forget how words should properly be pronounced. A group of scholars (the Masoretes) added little symbols below the letters, to show where the vowel sounds should be made.

The personal name of God was considered very special. I have no idea why Christians don’t also consider God’s name to be special, but we don’t tend to limit how/when we use it. If the Queen came to visit, we would refer to her as “Ma’am” or “Your Majesty” and only a person with no respect for the monarchy would talk about “Elizabeth coming to visit,” far less, “I’m going to see Liz.” The Jews give this same respect to God’s name, and they avoid saying it.

Now, here’s the interesting bit. When they added the vowels to the personal name of God, they used the vowels that actually corresponded to one of the titles for God, not his actual name. This reminded people not to read the name, but instead say ‘Adonai’ which is a title. The term for this would translate in English to ‘written-read’ because although something is written you read something different.

If we were to do this with the Queen, we would take the vowels from Majesty: a e and add them to the consonants of her personal name: LaZBeTH. LaZBeTH is not an actual name, people reading it would see the oddly-placed vowels, and remember to read: “Majesty.”

As I said, Christians don’t seem to have this same form of respect for God’s name. (Though to be fair, when God’s name appears in the Bible, it has been translated as LORD all in capitals.) Christians today mostly are not aware of this. In fact, they even have songs that combine both the personal name, and the ‘made-up’ name (Jehovah) and they sing them—sometimes I suspect thoughtlessly—without even being aware that the term ‘Jehovah’ is a sort of non-word created by the Jews to avoid saying God’s personal name. The J at the beginning of Jehovah is because that is how a ‘y’ sound was translated in the original German, and the word first appeared during the time of the Protestant Reformation and simply shows that they didn’t understand much Hebrew. ‘Jehovah’ is not a word.

I wonder what a Jew, listening to Christians being so casual with the name of God, would think about that. I wonder what God thinks about that.

What do you think about that? I’m sure that some people would say that God is more concerned with how we show our respect for him through what we say and do, than how we address him, and perhaps that is correct. But I’m not so sure. As I am learning Hebrew, and listening to my lecturer and various scholars online, I am noticing that most of them avoid using the personal name of God, and when they reached the word יְהוָה they tend to read ‘Adonai.’ I don’t know whether this is a sign of respect to the Jews whose language is being spoken, or to God. Perhaps the two reasons are the same.

Thank you for reading.

Anne E. Thompson
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