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Yahweh vs. Jehovah

By: David Deschesne

A tradition has developed over the past few centuries that pronounces the Almighty’s name as “Jehovah” when the original Biblical Hebrew does not support that either historically or grammatically.

The Lord’s name first appears in Genesis 2:4 as יהוה, Yahweh. Hebrew words are written from right to left so, the following letters apply:

Hebrew Name English

י yod “Y”

ה hay “H”

ו vav “V”

ה hay “H”

 

It is clear to see the first letter in יהוה is a י , “Y” not a J. In fact, the entire Hebrew alphabet does not even contain a “J” or a letter with its sound. The letter “J” and its unique sound are a relatively modern creation and enjoyed no existence in the days the original Hebrew Bible was written. “[J] was not differentiated from I until comparatively modern times. It was the custom in mediaeval mss.. to lengthen the letter I when it was in a prominent position, notably when it was initial. As initial I usually had consonantal force, the lengthened form came definitely to be regarded as representing the consonant and the shortened form the vowel in whatever position they occurred. The process of differentiation began about the 14th century but was not complete until the 17th. For certain purposes, an alphabetical series for example, the letters I and J are not even yet regarded as distinct, the enumeration passing generally from I to K. The original consonantal sound represented by the letter was the semivowel or spirant i (the sound of y in the word yacht). This was to dy and later into the sound dz which the letter represents today.”1

The reason YHVH became translated as Jehovah is due to a mistranslation of vowel points in the Hebrew.

In the Jewish religion, which still uses the Hebrew language, there is so much respect for the Almighty’s name that it is never pronounced except by the High Priest. Jews also abbreviate L-rd and G-d out of respect for the Divine’s name. It is the positioning of the vowel points in YHVH that has led to the confusion leading to Jehovah.

The original Hebrew alphabet of the Bible is comprised of consonants only. There are no vowels, such as a, e, i, o, or u - as are present in the English and other languages. In an effort to create clarity, a system of vowel points has been developed that are appended under or over the letters to cue the reader what vowel sound should be pronounced when speaking the word.

A more commonly used name the Jews use for the Lord God is אדני, Adonai, which can be pronounced in day-to-day use. In Adonai, the vowel points are added to the consonants, ‘-DNY like this (remember Hebrew reads right to left):

Those vowel points are then added on to the tetragrammaton, YHVH to remind the reader not to pronounce the Divine name, but rather, Adonai:

“The original pronunciation was most likely Yahveh, but since Jewish tradition permitted the name to be voiced only by the High Priest it became customary, after the destruction of the Second Temple, to substitute the word Adonai (meaning “my Lord”) when reading יהוה. The Masoretes who vocalized the Hebrew texts therefore took the vowels from the word Adonai and put them with Yahveh to remind the reader not to read Yahveh but Adonai...A Christian writer of the sixteenth century who was unaware of this substitution transcribed Yahveh as he saw it, namely, as Jehovah, and this has since entered many Christian Bible translations.”2

“The Lord is actually a translation of ’adonai’ (lit. ‘my Lord’) because that is what Jews now pronounce whenever the consonants YHVH appear. YHVH was probably originally pronounced Yahweh, but in Second Temple times, as an expression of reverence, Jews began to avoid uttering it, substituting “adonai” and other surrogates. (As a reminder to do so, in printed Hebrew Bibles the consonants are accompanied by the vowels of the surrogate words, leading to such hybrid English forms as Jehovah [i.e. Yehovah” or the consonants Y-H-V-H with the vowels from “adonai”]3

“In Biblical times, Vav was pronounced with a w sound, like water or west. Some time later, however, the w changed to v because w is a weak sound and loses its impact in many words. (When we look at Hebrew grammar later, you will learn that this fact explains why verbs with the Hebrew letter Vav act differently from other verbs and form a separate group - the so-called Hollow verbs). Thus, Vav would at one stage have been pronounced as waw, a bit like the English word wow! In Modern Hebrew, however, the letter Vav is pronounced with a v sound, like the words Vashti or vineyard... Vav sometimes acts as a vowel instead of a consonant, in which case it is not pronounced as v but instead takes the sound of its vowel. If there is a dot inside the Vav, it is pronounced oo like the words pool or fool. If the dot is at the top left of the letter, it is pronounced o like the words pot or dot.”4

“How the Name was originally vocalized is no longer certain...Overwhelming scholarly opinion holds that was in Moses’ time pronounced Yahveh. Three is also a shorter form of the Name, Yah

(יהּ) which may represent the original from which Yahveh was expanded or may, contrariwise, be a contraction of the longer ascription. Yah occurs sometimes alone (as in Exodus 15:2; 17:16), but more usually in conjunction with proper names like Elijah (Eliyah in Hebrew) and in the doxology, Halleluyah (“Praise the Lord”).”5

“The most widely accepted explanation of YHVH connects the Name with the word (hayah, to be), a causative form of which could be Yahveh, “He who causes to be”. Another form could be Yahuah, meaning “He who indeed will (show himself to be”, or “He who proves himself.” A different theory denies the connection of YHVH with the word Hayah, and also that it was ever pronounced Yahveh. Rather, so this theory holds, the name was read Yahuh, this being a version of Yehu, a form which occurs several times independently in the Bible (as יהוּא) and frequently as a prefix or suffix to proper names.”6

“The tetragrammaton YHWH is not ordinarily written with its appropriate Hebrew vowels. But that the original pronunciation was YaHWeH seems probable, both from the corresponding verbal form, the imperfect of hāwâ, anciently yahweh, and from later representation of YHWH in Greek iaue or iabe.”7

Therefore, it appears the letter J has no business being used in the name of the Almighty and the pronunciation, ‘Jehovah’ is merely a mistranslation of the correct Yahveh, or Yahweh.

 

Notes:

1. Encyclopedia Britannica, ©1958 ed. Vol. 12, p. 848

2. The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ©1981 Union of American Hebrew Congregations, W. Gunther Plaut, ed., p. 31

3. Jewish Study Bible, ©2004 Oxford University Press, Inc. p. 112.

4. http://allthingshebrew.com/hebrewletters-vav.php

5. The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 425-426.

6. op. cit.

7. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, ©1980 Moody’s Bible Institute, Vol 1, p. 210