The Importance of His Name
Have you ever stopped to consider that the eternal God of the universe thinks names are important? When He spoke creation into existence, He named each part of His creation. The Genesis 1 account tells us He named the light Day, the darkness Night, the firmament Heaven, the dry land Earth, and the waters Seas. After He created Adam, God told him to name the animals. Psalm 147 tells us God calls all the stars by their names! Revelation 2 tells us that the overcomers will be given a new name written on a white stone that only the one receiving it will know. Many of the Israelites had names with the divine name in them. Most importantly, God caused His own personal name to be placed in the Hebrew Scriptures 6828 times!
In Part 2, we will wade deeper into God’s name, its importance in the lives of the Israelites, why God chose to reveal His name to His people (including us), and how we are to honor it.
The Shem HaMeforash:
Shem Ha Meforash is a Hebrew term usually translated into English as the ineffable or unspeakable name, but it actually means the “explicit” or “unequivocal” name. Ancient Jewish sources would refer to God’s actual name (YHVH – יהוה) as the Shem HaMeforash so it could be easily distinguished from His many titles, such as Lord (Adonai), Most High (El Elyon), God Almighty (El Shaddai), etc.
Jewish rabbinical teaching says that YHVH – יהוה is too holy to use in common speech and prayer, so they systematically replace it with one of His titles, usually Adonai, which we translate as LORD. But even the Rabbis knew, with regard to the Priestly Blessing at least, that the priests were to place the Shem HaMeforash, YHVH – יהוה, upon the people. The Talmud (200-500 AD) discusses this, and Ibn Ezra wrote about it in the 12th century AD as well.
Below are quotes from the Mishnah (Sotah, Sanhedrin, and Berurah) which explain the rabbinical teaching on the use of the Name by the priests and the people.
“How is the Priestly Blessing performed? …In the Temple they say the name the way it is written and outside the Temple they use a title.”
“The following have no portion in the world to come, Abba Saul says: Also one who pronounces the divine name as it is written.”
Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1
“It is forbidden to read the glorious and terrible name as it is written, as the sages said, ‘He that pronounces the name as it is written has no portion in the world to come.’ Therefore it must be read as if it were written Adonai.”
Mishnah Berurah 5:2
It is important to note that the rabbinical writings did not originate until well after the Babylonian captivity. In fact, none were written prior to 100 B.C. More were written between 200-500 A.D. The purpose of the writings was to record the Oral Tradition and to give the interpretations of Torah according to the rabbis.
The rabbis themselves did not seem to know where this practice of not speaking the Name originated or why they believed that God’s name could only be spoken in the Temple. But, after the 2nd Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, there was no longer any place for them to speak the Tetragrammaton. No Temple, no Tetragrammaton. It is easy to see why the Jewish people would never say the divine name, since they were taught that to pronounce it prevented them from entering the Messianic kingdom!
The question for us to consider is this: Do the Scriptures actually prohibit speaking the Tetragrammaton outside the Temple or teach that it can only be spoken by the priests in the Priestly Blessing?
The short answer is NO!
A brief look at Jewish history during the intertestamental period may help to shed some light on the matter.
First Prohibition against Speaking the Name
In the time of the Maccabees, around 168 BC, the Greeks (under Antiochus Epiphanes, the 8th ruler of the Seleucid Empire) began to stamp out the Jewish faith.
“The Greeks made decrees to eradicate Israel, ordering them to deny the kingdom of heaven, to declare that they have no portion with the God of Israel, and not to mention the heavenly name on their lips.”
Scholion on Megilat Ta’anit
The Greeks wanted all of the many religions in the region to unite under the culture of the Greeks and wanted all to worship Zeus and change the names of their various gods to Zeus. All of these religious groups were willing to comply with the desire of the Greek rulers, except for the Jews in Judea. The king got many of the Jews in other parts of his empire to follow his policies and agree to his terms. He then sent them to win over their Judean brothers and sisters. This eventually led to the five-year revolt led by the family of Matthias and his five sons. Ultimately, the Greeks were defeated and the Temple liberated, and the Jews enjoyed an eighty-year period of independence.
This was the first prohibition against speaking the Tetragrammaton. It came by the decree of the Greek government. Once they were defeated, the Jewish people again spoke YHVH – יהוה.
Second Prohibition against Speaking the Name
Later, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, in the early 2nd century AD, a second prohibition against speaking the Tetragrammaton in public was made. Hadrian patterned his anti-Jewish decrees after the Greeks during the time of the Maccabees. Between 130-138 AD, Hadrian executed Jewish Rabbi Hanina ben Teradion for speaking YHVH – יהוה publicly. According to the Babylonian Talmud, the Romans asked Rabbi Hanina why he engaged in the study of the Torah. He answered, “As the Lord my God commanded me.” (Avodah Zarah 17b) This was a quote from Deuteronomy 4:5 when Moses says: “Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as the LORD my God commanded me, that ye should do so in the land whither ye go to possess it.” According to the Talmud, Hanina was sentenced to be burned because “…he would pronounce the ineffable name of God with all of its letters, i.e., as it is spelled.” (Avodah Zarah 18a) From this we can know that at least some of the Jews during the late 1st and early 2nd centuries AD still knew and spoke the Tetragrammaton outside the Temple, because the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD. Another rabbinical source, the Midrash Psalms, provides corroboration that it was common practice for the Jewish people to pronounce YHVH – יהוה during the Hadrianic persecutions (Midrash Psalms on Psalms 36:7). Because of the martyrdom of Hanina for speaking the name in public, a tachanot was written that directed the Jews to insert a different word—Adonai (Lord)—until Messiah comes and restores it. (Tachanot – man-made rules and regulations and traditions of men written by the Pharisees. Their purpose was often to protect the Jews from the persecutions of their conquerors.)
“This world is not like the world to come. In this world the name is written Yeho[vah] and read Ado[nai] but in the world to come it will be one, written Yeho[vah] and read Yeho[vah].”
Talmud, Pesachim 50a
This explanation is based on a verse in Zechariah:
“And the LORD (Yehovah) shall be king over all the earth: in that day shall there be one LORD (Yehovah), and his name one.”
The ancient rabbis who instituted the tachanot to ban the name from being spoken never intended the tradition of substituting YHVH – יהוה with Adonai to be permanent! The Jews understood that the world to come was the earthly kingdom of the Messiah, when it would not only be Israel speaking the name Yehovah, but all mankind. It is of note that the ban on speaking the divine name of God by the Jewish people was not instituted until well after the first coming of the Messiah had been unrecognized by them and at least 60 years after the destruction of the Temple.
Jesus (Yehoshua) said in His prayer to the Father before He went to the cross,
“I have declared unto them Thy name, and will declare it…”
Jesus was fulfilling Psalm 22,
“I will declare Thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise Thee.”
Since Jesus declared His Father’s name to His disciples, Christians today can speak His name, too. When He taught the disciples how to pray He said, “… hallowed be Thy name…” Certainly, we call Him Abba, Father, Lord, and all the other titles that exemplify who He is. We must add to that, now that we know it, His Shem HaMeforash, His unique, explicit, unequivocal name – YEHOVAH – יהוה. Hallelujah, praise Yah!
Keep practicing replacing LORD with Yehovah as you read the Scriptures.
Do you find that you are noticing the occurrences of LORD more easily? Have you been surprised by how often you encounter it in the Old Testament?
Pay particular attention to who is speaking the Name. Is it Yehovah, Himself, as He so often does in the prophets and elsewhere? Is it the writer of the book? Is it a character in the story, such as Moses, or Samuel, or David? As you take notice of who is speaking, you will begin to see that His Name was often on the lips of His people.
Should His name be on your lips, as well? Why or why not?
Join me next week for the next chapter, Part 2-B, as we go deeper and discover how God’s name was spoken among the Israelites.
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Feature Image background by titoOns via CanvaPro; Scripture photography by Lisa Urbani; Hebrew calligraphy by Melody Cash.