Ctime464 YHWH and Moses on Horeb : the name of God

Fr Francis Marsden

Backed by billionaire trust funds and rich western governments, the United Nations Family Planning Association (UNFPA) and IPPF (International Planned Parenthood Federation), today wage a population control war against the poor peoples of the earth – just as Pharaoh waged a population war against the Hebrew slaves, who were multiplying too quickly for his liking. 

UNFPA’s weapons are abortions and sterilisations, sex-ed propaganda, pills and coils. Pharaoh, in a less technological age, simply ordered the slaying of the male children born to the Hebrews. From 1500 BC to the present day the wealthy of the world have not altered much in their desire to hold down the number of the poor.

Moses’ Jewish mother hid him in the bullrushes. Discovered by one of Pharaoh’s daughters, since he looked a bonny lad, she raised him as her son, as an Egyptian.

One day Moses saw an Egyptian attacking a Hebrew. Blood is thicker than the patina of culture. Instinctively Moses went to the defence of his own kith and kin, killing the Egyptian. However, news of the crime leaked out. Moses escaped into Sinai where he pastured the flock of Jethro.

This brings us to the day when Moses, grazing Jethro’s flock on Mount Horeb, comes across the unusual phenomenon of a burning bush which is not consumed by the fire (Exodus 3). God calls from the middle of the bush to this fugitive killer from a slave-race: “Moses, Moses. . . Come no nearer. Take off your shoes, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.” Some Byzantine communities long celebrated the Liturgy barefoot. The Muslim remove their shoes before entering a mosque.

“I am the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Moses’ knowledge of the God of the Hebrews, who had called Abraham some 400 years earlier, is probably patchy.

God promises to free the Israelites from their slavery: “I have seen their miserable state, I have heard their appeal . .. . I will deliver them . . I send you to Pharaoh to bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt.”

Moses balks at this. He is mightily perturbed at his being volunteered: “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?” But God promises, “I shall be with you”  – the first appearance of this phrase in Scripture. It is an assurance that many of the prophets will later receive. It is Jesus’ parting farewell to his apostles in Matt 28:20: “Lo I will be with you until the end of the age.”

Moses was reared in a polytheistic world. He is probably wondering, what can this Hebrew god do, compared with the host of powerful Egyptian deities? The Egyptians are crushing us, so presumably their gods are stronger than our god.  What is there in this god’s reputation or fame – in short, his “name” - which will achieve this promise? So Moses asks this god his name.

In Semitic thought, the knowledge of a name implies power over the thing or person named. Recall how Adam named the animals in Eden. To know a god’s name meant being able to call upon him, sure of a hearing.

However, the one true God is the slave of no man. He responds: Ehyeh asher ehyeh: “I Am What I Am.” In the third person singular this gives us the name Yahweh, He Who Is, from an archaic form of the verb hawah, to be (in Arabic - to breathe). Scholars have debated the many nuances of God’s mysterious answer:

1. I am Who I am: My being is unutterable and mysterious. I am He whom you cannot know, the unnameable one. This is a statement of the Divine Will - free choice and unhindered power. God cannot be controlled by any man.

2. I am because I am: I contain the sole reason for my own existence: I am absolute, not contingent being. God exists per se, not by the creation of another.

3. I am the Existing One: I am the Be-ing [Is-ing] One. This version is found in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew scriptures, compiled by Alexandrian Jews – Ego eimi ho ōn, and in the Latin Vulgate: Ego sum qui sum. This version suits the context best, because God goes on to say: therefore I am to be called: He Who Is (Yahweh).  God Is in a far more intense degree than anything else is. He is the fount of all being, the ground and fullness of all existence.

4. If Yahweh is a causative form of the Hebrew verb hawah, then God is revealing Himself as “He who causes things to be.” "He Brings Into Existence whatever comes into existence" (Yahweh-asher-yihweh).

5.  I am being that I am being” – the One Who always Is. This present continuous form of the verb suggests active being, activity, rather than abstract being.  “He who is present and active” more than “He who is” (existence as an abstract concept).

6.  “I will be what I will be.” God promises Moses “I will be with you”, so Yahweh is God of the future. He has already told Moses: “I am the God of your Fathers” i.e. the God of your history as a people.

 “The divine name is mysterious just as God is mystery. It is at once a name and something like the refusal of a name, and hence it better expresses God as what he is – infinitely above everything we can understand or say: He is the hidden God, His name is ineffable and he is the God who makes Himself close to me.” (CCC 206)

In 1 Samuel, God is called Yahweh Sabaoth, possibly signifying: "He Brings the Hosts Into Existence." The hosts are the angels, the stars, the heavenly powers, the cosmic forces, and secondarily the armies of Israel.

The four Hebrew consonants YHWH in the name Yahweh comprise the Sacred Tetragrammaton. After the exile (6th century BC), the Jews ceased to use the Name for two reasons.

Judaism became a universal religion through its proselytizing in the Greco-Roman world. The more common noun Elohim meaning "gods" – a reverential plural - tended to replace Yahweh to demonstrate the universal sovereignty of Israel's God over all others. “There is no god like our God!” “The gods of the heathens are naught.”

By the C4 BC the divine name was increasingly regarded as too sacred to be uttered. Out of respect for the Divine Holiness, the people of Israel still do not pronounce His name. In the synagogue ritual it is vocally replaced by the Hebrew word Adonai ("My Lord").

The version of the divine name “Jehovah” is an error. From the 6th to the 10th century rabbis known as the Massoretes (Hb massorah = tradition) worked to reproduce the original text of the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew scriptures were written in consonants only. A Jew reading the Torah would know which vowels to put between the consonants, either from the context or from the oral tradition. However spoken Hebrew can vary between different dialects. Moreover, ambiguities arise when a word of three consonants can take several different meanings, according to whichever vowel combinations are inserted.

The Masoretes wanted to produce an unambiguous “pointed” text with all the vowels noted as dots and dashes above or below the line of letters. When they came to the name YHWH, they were unsure of pronunciation (since Jews never uttered the Holy Name) so they decided to insert the vowel signs of the Hebrew words Adonai or Elohim. Thus, the artificial name Jehovah (YeHoWaH) came into being.

Some Protestant Bibles took up this form of Jehovah for YHWH, as did sectarians like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Many Bibles inserted THE LORD, following the Greek Septuagint Kyrios, wherever the name YHWH appeared in the Hebrew.

In recent years biblical scholars returned to the original form Yahweh, as in the Jerusalem Bible. Early Christian writers, such as Clement of Alexandria in the 2nd century, had used a form like Yahweh, and this pronunciation was never totally lost.

The name of Jesus – Yehoshua in Hebrew – means “Yahweh saves.” May we revere this Holy Name as profoundly as the Jews revere the name of Yahweh.