You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
– Exodus 20:7 (NRSV)
When you’re in the preacher biz, you quickly find that people have a lot of different names that they use to talk about God: Jesus, Lord, Father, Mother, Creator, Redeemer, Higher Power, Comforter, Advocate, Friend… The list goes on and on. I find the rich array of names for the divine to be beautiful, but I’ve never been comfortable with “Jehovah.”
“Jehovah” is a strange term with a rather unusual history. The ancient Hebrew scriptures were written without vowels, so a name like “David” would be written something like “DVD.” About six to eight hundred years after the time of Jesus, a group of Jewish scholars called the Masoretes decided to make things easier for readers by adding vowels to the text of the Hebrew Bible. They did this by writing in vowel “points” under the existing consonants so that the original text would remain intact and unchanged. It was still clear which were the original letters and which were the new vowel points, but something like “DaViD” is a lot easier to read than “DVD.”
Even with vowel points, there are still some important tricks to reading Biblical Hebrew. For example, the name of God is written numerous times in the Hebrew scriptures, but Jewish tradition holds this name to be so holy that it is inappropriate to say it out loud, even during times of prayer and worship. Instead, a respectful Hebrew reader will substitute the words “Adonai” or “Elohim” when the name of God is written in the text. In observance of this practice, when the Masoretes added the vowel points to the Hebrew scriptures, the vowels that they added for the proper name of God are based on those of Adonai or Elohim.
Somewhere around four hundred years ago, some Christians found that if they read the consonants from the name of God, “YHVH” with the vowels from “Adonai,” they’d get something like “YaHoVaH.” Thus the term “Jehovah” was born. I suppose I could get all persnickety about how this isn’t a proper Hebrew pronunciation, but that’s not what really bothers me about the term.
Throughout the last two thousand years, Christian Biblical scholars have turned again and again to our Jewish brothers and sisters for help in reading and translating the Hebrew scriptures. As a Christian Biblical scholar, I know that my understanding of the Hebrew Bible is richer and deeper because of this ongoing dialogue between Christians and Jews. The Hebrew texts that are the basis for almost all modern Bible translations were developed by the Masoretes hundreds of years after the beginning of the Christian tradition. Indeed, if our Jewish brothers and sisters had not been willing to share the new editions of their holy writings that the Masoretes had developed, the erroneous reading that led to “Jehovah” would not even have been possible.
So it’s not just that “Jehovah” is an incorrect reading of the Hebrew name of God. It’s that seeking to pronounce this Hebrew name shows disrespect for the faithful Jewish people who were willing to share their traditions and their holy writings with their Christian brothers and sisters. When I hear the term “Jehovah,” it translates in my mind as, “We’re disrespectful, arrogant and ungrateful, and we don’t know how to read Hebrew.”
Now I do realize that modern Christians who use the term “Jehovah” are not trying to be disrespectful. Indeed, the opposite is the case. The people who worship “Jehovah” are devout, caring people who are using familiar language to express their love and respect for God. Modern Christians didn’t make up this word, we inherited it. But the fact is that what we’ve inherited was never ours to begin with. We borrowed it from another language and another tradition without showing it the respect it was accorded by those who shared it with us.
It may not be easy to give up something that feels so familiar, but our modern Christian churches need to be doing more than just repeating the comfortable mistakes of the past.
This reflection was written by Rev. Michael Patrick Ellard, former Senior Pastor of MCCSJ. It was originally published as part of MCC San Jose’s weekly reflection series. Please click the following link for more information about MCC San Jose’s weekly reflections.