Hello, My Name Is YHWH

By Kenneth Way Mar. 8, 2011 8:50 a.m. Biblical Exposition, Old Testament

I recently read an article by a renowned scholar in an obscure publication that really got me thinking.  The article was by the prolific Jewish commentator, Jacob Milgrom (“The Desecration of YHWH’s Name: Its Parameters and Significance” in Birkat Shalom: Studies in the Bible, Ancient Near Eastern Literature…Presented to Shalom M. Paul, eds., C. Cohen, et al., 69-81. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2008).  Towards the end of the article Milgrom makes some compelling suggestions about the meaning of the name YHWH based on the testimony of God himself in the account of the burning bush (Exodus 3:9-15).

Basically, Milgrom suggests that the significance of the name Yahweh revealed here is not so much about God as the Existent One (“I AM”) or as the Creator (the “One Who Causes to Be” [this was D. N. Freedman’s interpretation published in Journal of Biblical Literature in 1960]).  Rather, the significance of the name YHWH which is revealed in this passage for the first time is that God is the Present One (“I AM PRESENT”). 

God’s presence is, of course, a major emphasis in the context.  In Exodus 3:12, God affirms his presence to Moses (“I am with you” - ’Ehyeh ‘immakh), and in v. 14b God affirms his presence for the nation of Israel ("Say this to the people of Israel, '’Ehyeh has sent me to you'"). The connections between God’s ’Ehyeh (“I AM”) statements and God’s presence have been well-noted by previous scholars (e.g., see C. D. Isbell, “The Divine Name ’Ehyeh as a Symbol of Presence in Israelite Tradition” Hebrew Annual Review 2 [1978]: 101-118) and are readily apparent in passages such as the commissioning of Joshua, Gideon and David (Deut 31:23; Josh 1:5; 3:7; Judg 6:16; 2 Sam 7:9 // 2 Chron 17:8).  Furthermore, Exodus 3:14-15 explicitly makes a semantic connection between the meaning of ’Ehyeh and the meaning of the name YHWH.

Thus Milgrom suggests that the contextual meaning of “I am who I am” (’ehyeh ’asher ’ehyeh) may be more precisely rendered “I am present where/when I am present” (see Milgrom 2008:80).  Additionally he suggests that the name YHWH is a verbal form, specifically a third person Qal Imperfect, meaning “He is present” (see Milgrom 2008:80-81).  Such would be in keeping with the syntax of proper names in Semitic languages, and it is possible that yhwh is short for yahweh’el, “God is present.”

The message in Exodus 3:9-15 is that God’s personal presence is revealed and assured for God’s people as they cry out in distress!  The Present One is God’s very identity!  He desires to be present, to dwell with his people.  Of course, this concept should not strike us as anything new.  Jesus is Immanuel (“God is with us;” Matt 1:23) and he repeatedly claimed to be the “I am (present)” (passim in the Gospel of John).  I would dare say that this attribute of God is (one of) the most pervasive theme(s) in the biblical drama (see G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004).  God’s presence is idyllically depicted in Eden (Gen 2), jeopardized by sin (Gen 3-11), reaffirmed to the patriarchs (Gen 12-50; note especially ’Ehyeh ‘immakh in Gen 26:3; 31:3), tangibly experienced by his people in the Tabernacle and Temple (Exodus and ff.), intensified by the incarnation (Immanuel/Jesus) and Pentecost (Holy Spirit), and fully restored in the New Jerusalem (Rev 21).  The “Present One” is what/who Genesis-through-Revelation is all about!  God deeply desires to be in harmonious relationship with his creation.  And as his people we have the privilege of serving as his priests in his holy presence.  Priesthood is indeed our purpose as we practice the presence of God in our lives. 

Wow.  All this from an obscure article buried in a festschrift.  Countless scholars have wrestled with the meaning of God’s name for millennia, but I think this non-Christian Jew may have just hit the nail on its head!  Yahweh is the Present One! 

Comments

  • Jean Way Koenig Mar. 8, 2011 at 9:49 AM

    What a comforting reminder that He is ever present and is always just a prayer away! How he loves us!

  • Ken Berding Mar. 8, 2011 at 11:00 AM

    That is certainly thought-provoking, Ken. It fits the context of Exodus and carries a lot of explanatory power. You got me re-thinking through a very important biblical passage. Thanks for bringing it to our attention!

  • Turk Mar. 8, 2011 at 11:39 AM

    I am so glad that I read this article because it shows that we still have a lot to learn about God.

  • Andrew Faris Mar. 8, 2011 at 12:08 PM

    Ken,

    Great stuff. Thanks for passing it along. That makes extraordinary sense of the context- certainly, in my view, more than the other options, though I can't speak to the linguistics so much.

    Thanks again.

    Andrew Faris
    <a href="http://www.someonetellmethestory.com">Someone Tell Me the Story</a>

  • Jonathan Keck Mar. 8, 2011 at 8:04 PM

    In a time in which the tribes of Israel no doubt felt abandoned by God, this "name" or identity marker is all the more profound. For generations the tribes were calling out to God to save them from the cruel whips of the Egyptians. "Where was the promised redeemer? Where is God? Will He not dwell among us and rescue us as He did our fathers?"

    The reassurance to the Hebrews reveals the heart of a loving God. "Who shall I say has sent me?" "The one who is with you." I AM WITH YOU. Powerful.

  • Gary Manning Mar. 14, 2011 at 9:42 AM

    Fascinating, Ken! Especially important for OT studies, but I can't help notice the impact on NT studies as well. As you know, Johannine scholars debate the extent to which Jesus' "I Am" saying should be connected to the "I Am" of Exodus. And the "I am with you" theme of the gospels, derived from the prophets, also resonates with this material.

  • Debbie Gault Mar. 14, 2011 at 7:31 PM

    Thank you, Dr. Way -- what a timely reminder three days after the Sendai quake, tsunami, and nuclear threat. God is good because He is present, and willingly enters our suffering, providing relief, transformation, and more. This deeper meaning of YHWH is hugely significant -- He is not a far off deity, but the Present One who desires and provides a deep connection with us.

    Scripture tells us the worst punishment is to be separated from His presence. Is a similar concept/term used for His presence in Ps. 51:11, and then comparable to the Greek in 2 Thess. 1:9?

  • Ken Way Mar. 17, 2011 at 9:19 AM

    Debbie, thanks for mentioning those passages in Psalm 51 and 2 Thessalonians. Yes, both of these are addressing God's presence, but I think Psalm 51:11 speaks of the degree to which his people experience/enjoy His presence vis a vis the level of sin in their lives. 2 Thessalonians 1:9 speaks to an even greater separation that non-believers will experience at the final judgment. What these two passages have in common is the reality that sin separates people from God's presence. While the non-believer will eventually experience eternal separation, the believer may experience only partial/temporary separation which can be rectified as the believer repents. Perhaps it is important to note that WE (not God) are the ones who jeopardize access to the presence of God. God, on the other hand, continually offers himself to us. That is essentially the story of Scripture.

  • Debbie Gault Mar. 17, 2011 at 2:49 PM

    Thank you, Dr. Way,
    All of this ties in beautifully with my thesis on how our souls are formed by suffering. The Comfort and Presence we as believers have available to us is unmeasured and amazing!

  • Anita Regehr Mar. 17, 2011 at 6:37 PM

    I very much appreciate this article as well as our chat today regarding the presence of God. I'm going to encourage the women to read it when I speak at Talbot Wives in a couple of weeks. Thanks so much for your scholarship, your influence in the Talbot family, and your love for the OT. You've influenced this receptionist to get back into the left side of my Bible and it has been awesome.

  • Kenneth Way Mar. 18, 2011 at 4:19 PM

    Anita: Ah, yes. The "Left" side of the Bible... I prefer to call it the beginning, the starting point, the first three quarters. Or perhaps we should call it the bulk of the Bible, just before that final quarter which is next to the maps!

  • Eddie J Apr. 15, 2011 at 6:52 PM

    Isn't it a bit hard to say more than "I Am" when there are no vowels? Especially when claiming YHWH is 3rd person singular?

    I think we need to be careful in drawing implications from a non-trinitarian Jew who wants to make God singular. Elohim is perfect for expressing the Trinity, as is "I Am" without vowels. Especially in the midst of a pantheon of gods in Egypt who are all created and not self existent (but are "present" in their idol forms).

  • Mike Sanborn Apr. 23, 2011 at 9:10 PM

    Eddie J, I don't think we need to be afraid of insights from a non-trinitarian Jew since all Jews in the Old Testament were unaware of the trinitarian nature of God until it was revealed through Christ. Nor do we need to be afraid of this particular meaning for YHWH since it can also communicate the omnipresence of God, one the core great-making attributes of the one true God.

    The contextual arguments for this rendering of YHWH are very compelling. Thanks, Ken!

  • Eddie J Apr. 27, 2011 at 9:12 AM

    Mike, I strongly disagree. The Jews in the OT were very much Trinitarian as they worshipped the same God we do. Did David not mention multiple persons in Psalm 110:1 (Which Jesus quotes in Luke 20:42-43 about Himself!)? Does not the word Elohim mean "God" but is also plural in form? Did Jacob not wrestle the same God who Moses (who wrote the account) could not look upon?

    Modern Jews are actively suppressing the truth of Christianity in their unrighteousness (Rom. 1), just as they did in Jesus' day. We need to remember that! Jesus quoted the Old Testament to prove what He was saying about Himself and the Trinity was the truth!

  • Mike Sanborn May. 3, 2011 at 12:03 AM

    Hi Eddie J, I agree that there are hints of the trinitarian nature of God in the Old Testament, but that does not mean that the Jews had a grasp of this. The Bible is a story of God revealing Himself to humanity, and being a story, it takes time. He did not reveal everything at the beginning. This is why Paul speaks of the "mystery" of Christ that was revealed in the first century: Ephesians 3:4-5: "When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit." (cf. Eph 1:9-10). I have two young children, and I am slowly teaching them about what God is like, giving them whatever they can handle at this time. I have even tried to explain the trinity a bit, but their minds just can't handle this at this time. Similarly, Paul referred to the OT Law as a "tutor" or "school teacher" that was intended to prepare the Jews for Christ. In other words, the OT can be likened to the childhood period of humanity in relationship to God. Humanity was not ready for Christ until the time was right (Eph 1:10; Mark 1:15). God gives humanity what we can handle at each stage of development.

  • Mike Sanborn May. 3, 2011 at 12:15 AM

    The Law as "tutor" reference is Galatians 3:24.

  • Eddie J May. 16, 2011 at 10:07 PM

    Mike, you forgot Eph. 3:6, which explains what the mystery is. It is the mystery "that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel." That is very different than your assertion that the mystery has to do with God's triune nature.

    The OT was types and shadows, but not foreign. That's how Christ could be a fulfillment of it!

  • Daniel Christensen May. 27, 2011 at 10:45 AM

    Thank you for the interesting article. It helps one see how this God is different from other deities in the ancient world, and also is the relational God of his special people.

  • Alice C. Linsley Jun. 16, 2011 at 4:23 PM

    A first-millenium B.C. altar found on the Horn of Africa in 2008 is exactly like those found in Sheba/Dedan and it bears the name Yeha. The root YH is the likely original with the W being a suffix, probably indicating "people." So YHW is God is present with the people, which is the meaning of Emmanuel. The YH root is found in the Hebrew "yasuah" = salvation. It is likely that Jthe name "Jesus" name is related to YH, as He is God with us!

  • Jesus D Zeus Jun. 29, 2011 at 2:54 AM

    From Website http://jesusdzeus.com pertaining to the Name Jhwh and its various versions.

    Read articles B-2 for a scientific explanation of the Name and B-3 for historical/biblical references.

    A third article, A-11 (Cosmogony), is about Creation and gives both the name of the Universal Father, the head of the non-personal and non-authoritative Trinity, (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), as well as the name of our Heavenly Father, Creator of the coordinated System of which we are a part.

    They are the only authentic, reliable and conclusive scientific and historical/biblical sources pertaining to the subject.

    The article on the scientific explanation of the Name, includes, from page 3 onward, Jesus' personal account of his last Passover, as given by him in 2004, to those very close to him.

    Jesus D Zeus

  • Harlan Carpenter Feb. 26, 2012 at 4:46 PM

    Only one problem with the YHWH thing. The Hebrew alpahbet (ancient and modern) has no letter equivalent to English "w". They have a letter they call "vahv", which is equivalent to our English "v" in sound, but there is no letter sounding like "w". So their word for God would have to be YHVH, not YHWH. From that perspective, the Jehovah's Witness are closer to the proper name for God in Hebrew than are the proponents of YHWH. So why don't we starighten that out and call him YHVH...? YHWH is definitely incorrect...!

  • Ken Way Mar. 21, 2012 at 9:28 AM

    Actually, the classical vocalization of the vav letter probably sounded like our w. You can read about this in any major grammar of classical (biblical) Hebrew. So it is not incorrect to write God's name as YHWH; in fact, it is the most archaic way to write it. Now, modern Hebrew vocalizes the vav with our v sound, and for this reason, some prefer to write God's name as YHVH. The question is not which spelling of the divine name is correct; they are BOTH correct just for different reasons. The problem here is not how God's name is really spelled, the problem is how to transliterate the name into English characters, and there is no standardization on such matters.

  • Harlan Apr. 14, 2012 at 12:12 PM

    Ken: Do you actually speak or read any Hebrew--or are you just blowing smoke...? I got my information from a native speaker, so I think I'll take her word...!

  • earl geonanga Nov. 8, 2012 at 5:45 AM

    Good day

    May you know now the real name of God in the Bible as revealed by Maestro Erano M. Evangelista in the website :www.thename.ph

    And also during this time of great disaster and suffering. Our religious pastors and priests advise us to call on the name of Jesus for protection and salvation. But as we call on Jesus’ name, the more the calamities and conflicts are getting worse and more people are dying and suffering.

    Why does this happen?

    In the Bible we can read that before Jesus died, he cried out :
    … “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Matt.27:46 NKJV
    Why did Jesus cry out he was forsaken by God? If God forsook Jesus, how much more us who only call on Jesus?

    Are we suffering because we are making God angry by calling on a false god in the name of Jesus whom He has forsaken and not on His TRUE NAME and disobeying His commandments?

    It’s time we discover who Jesus in the Bible really is and learn God's true decree about Jesus -- was he forsaken by God to be punished by the rod of men for our sins OR for his OWN iniquity?

    I would like to share with you a link about a Bible exposition by my teacher, Maestro Evangelista. May you read it with an open mind.

    http://www.thename.ph/thename/revelations/greatestdeception-en.htm

  • Jesus D Zeus Jan. 28, 2013 at 7:44 PM

    The Site of Jesus D Zeus cited above, concerning the Name of God, has changed its URL from www.jesusdzeus.com to www.the-divine-word.com

    Jesus' words on his last passover now appear in a separate article in the same section of free downloads.

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