by Dr. Ilil Arbel, Ph.D.
Note: This article is not intended as a religious discussion. It relates only to the mythological and historical aspects of the use and development of the name of God. No attempt will be made to discuss the values and strengths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the three great religions that hold God as their core. Such an attempt will be well above the scope of one article; the interested reader is encouraged to pursue the wealth of material available to everyone.
The name YHVH or YHWH is written with four consonants only; it is the holy Tetragrammaton, or in Hebrew, Shem Hameforash. Hebrew has no vowels. In ancient times, it didn't even have vowel points. These were added much later, and at that time pronouncing the name was already forbidden for generations. So no one knows how the most ancient name of God was pronounced. The vowel points make it sound like Yehova, and later it was anglicized to Jehovah. The reader may not say it. He or she must say instead the name Adonai, which means "My Lord." The name occurs about seven thousand times in the Bible.
Every taboo has a reason. In ancient times, names had power. If you knew the real name of an entity, you had power over it. Often, an entity had two names, one widely-known and one secret. It is quite possible that in the very early stages, Yahweh was God's secret name and was used to influence or even control Him. Later use of the Shem Hameforash in the Kabbalistic tradition points to this direction, and will be discussed later in the article.
This practice is close to magic and idol worship, so as monotheism developed and broadened, the magical use of God's name was objected to. So while the name Yahweh remains written in Jewish liturgy, Jews felt that an invisible, omnipresent, omniscient part of reality cannot have a name. Only titles are allowed: God, Most High, Holy one, etc. Today, among the Jews, Yahweh or Jehovah is never used.
To understand the relationship of the name to the entity, one must pay attention to the historic and mythic development of the concept of God, and particularly to the development of monotheism in Judaism. The most important document for such a review is the Bible. It is the core, the major source of Judaic mythology. It covers a period in the development of Judaism which was transitional between Polytheism and monotheism. The Bible is full of demigods, monsters, giants, and larger than life heroes. Animals talk and angels roam the earth, discoursing with common people. God is supreme - there is no argument that He is the Almighty, but he is not alone. This is not only part of Genesis, where creation myths would allow it, but even in the books of the prophets and in the poetry. Nor did the myths stay there. They went on into the two Talmuds, completed around 400 and 500 CE, and on to the midrashic literature and the mystical literature, all the way to the thirteenth century. These later traditions actually allow more latitude than Genesis, being considered less sacred. In Genesis, God creates the entire world by speaking. In the later literature, he commits heroic deeds and battles with such evil entities as "The Prince of Darkness," "The Prince of the Sea," and various monsters that actively object to His Creation. He either kills or imprisons them, thus sealing His supremacy as the fiercest warrior God; he is not, however, the only one.
The opening act in the great epic drama of the Jews as a separate nation was the original encounter between Abraham and Yahweh. A covenant was declared. Abraham and his descendants would follow Yahweh's instructions and obey His commandments. The only commandments requested at this stage were the circumcision of all males, and the taboo on human sacrifice, as later expressed by the significant story of the Binding of Isaac. More divine demands would come later, eventually leading to the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai. Yahweh would treat Abraham's descendants as his Chosen People — not better than any other nation, but certainly different. This difference is the intangible reward. The tangible reward would be the eternal possession of land of Canaan, later named the land of Israel, after Abraham's grandson, Jacob.
It was understood that other nations worshiped various gods. Idols often existed even in the households of the patriarchs, though generally ignored by them and worshiped only by other members of the household. Eventually, Yahweh won over all other gods, and became first among them, but they didn't really go away. He issued the command that He would be the only God - but the struggle with other gods and their priests and priestesses continued not only in the early and the desert years, but even later, with the Jews settled again in the land of Israel, long after Exodus. The Bible mentions them often - Asherah, Baal, Anath, El, Dagon, and many others; their temples existed side by side with the worship of Yahweh. Some even had special relationships with Him.
When Moses took the Israelites out of Egypt, each tribe was gathered under its own banner — illustrated with an image of a god. A lion was depicted on the banner of Judah, probably looking much like the Egyptian Sphinx. A serpent, named Nechushtan, was depicted on the banner of the tribe of Dan. Later, a bronze image of Nechushtan was placed in Solomons temple — and stayed there until much later, when King Hezekiah melted the bronze from which the idol was made. It is possible that the tribes adopted these gods during the hundreds of years they spent in Egypt. Or perhaps the tribes were never part of the descendants of Abraham that accepted Yahweh during the covenant, and only joined this loose alliance of tribes later. Possibly, the covenant never happened and was only a later myth, added to the cycle of origin stories in the Bible. No one really knows. But the images on the banners were there, showing the tribes' alliances to other gods.
The tribe of the Levites, with whom Moses was associated, was another matter altogether. They worshiped a thundering, fierce god, whose location was either Mount Horeb, or Mount Sinai. Very likely the two mountains are one and the same — there is no proof either way. Was this god the same Yahweh, the God of Abraham? Very possibly. If not, the two entities, Yahweh of Abraham and the warrior god of the Levites were combined into one impressive entity that Moses, very likely a full-blooded Levite himself, had adopted as his own God. That is proven by the fact that later, only the Levites acted as priests to Yahweh in the various Temples.
The Israelites had to physically leave Egypt to worship Yahweh. They could not, under any circumstances, worship Him in Egypt, because they could not even see him there. Exodus is very specific as to what they had to see: "They took their journey from Succoth and encamped at Etham, in the edge of the wilderness. The Lord Yahweh went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night (Ex. 13:21)." This is a clear and simple description of an active volcano- - smoke by day, fire by night.
Then, to fully prove this assumption, they gathered around this mountain, and were told that they were never to climb or touch it, on danger of death. "Take heed to yourselves, that ye go not up into the mount, or touch the border of it: whosoever touchesth the mount shall be surely put to death" (Ex. 19:12). The mountain must have been dangerously hot to the touch. The passage continues: "And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the Lord Yahweh descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly." Another clear description of an active volcano. And at this emotionally impressive location Moses gave the Israelites a Code of Law, and reforged a covenant which was to become the basis for the development of monotheism.
Time passed. Judges, kings and prophets presided over the Israelites. Yahweh continued side by side with the other gods. The first attempt to create pure monotheism, one God without an image, was conceived by the prophet Isaiah. Philosophically inclined, Isaiah was extremely advanced in his views about monotheism, well ahead of his time. His vision could not tolerate other gods next to the one, universal God. He prompted King Hezekiah to remove the image of the serpent, Nechushtan, out of the Temple, and melt it down. They also removed all the lion-shaped idols, gods of the tribe of Judas, and shattered them to pieces. The Temple lost all the images and remained empty of anything but the invisible and all pervasive presence of Yahweh. Isaiah even claimed that although Yahweh preferred his Chosen People, the Israelites, He must be also the God of all other nations, because other gods simply could not exist.
Two other prophets continued to develop the concept. Habakkuk claimed that Yahweh was a righteous, loving God, not the fierce volcano God of fire and war, and the God of all men. There was no war between Yahweh and other gods, because no other gods could exist.
Jeremiah went even further with that philosophy, reemphasizing the covenant and denouncing war. He saw God as a loving entity, more concerned about justice and peace among men than with burnt offerings — a new and advanced concept at that time. Jeremiah went as far as to beg the Israelites to refrain from fighting the Babylonians, who were also God's children. He did not succeed in his peace mission. The Israelites rebelled, and Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king, conquered Jerusalem. He did not waste time killing the entire population, as is sometimes assumed. He destroyed the walls instead, and from the population, estimated to be about a quarter of a million, took approximately 35,000 captives straight to Babylon. The people taken were the aristocracy, including teachers, physicians, and very significantly — priests. The tribe of the Levites must have constituted a large part of the people who went into the Babylon exile. In Israel, Nebuchadnezzar left the peasants to fend for themselves.
What happened in the seventy years of the Babylonian diaspora shaped the change in Yahweh. Until then, the Israelites, like all other nations, believed that each god had a locality. A god belonged to a country, a city, a mountain, a river. He or she dwelled in a temple built in this special location. Any captive, merchant, immigrant, or traveling physician worshiped in the town or village where he now lived, because his former gods were simply out of touch. The Israelites, who were treated quite well in Babylon, were invited to worship any Babylonian god they wished, as was the custom. But the Israelites could not do that. Perhaps if the peasants, and other simple people were driven to Babylon they would have willingly changed — but not the Levites. They simply could not give up their connection to the God they so loved, were so connected to, identified themselves with. It was unthinkable.
Instead, an equally unthinkable, unprecedented religious revolution took place. The Jews transformed God. They made him omnipresent, liberated Him from His location, and made him a universal God. They no longer really needed a temple, though eventually a new temple would be built, as a national symbol. Instead, they built synagogues, where people could congregate and pray together to a God that was omniscient, omnipresent, had no location, no shape or form, and no rivals. As a result, the Jews had to accept the fact that He must be the God of every other person on Earth. The Jews were still God's chosen people — but only chosen to spread His word and suffer for the sake of the rest of the nations so that the world can be redeemed, an honor and a burden given to them by God. With such immense presence, He also had to mature psychologically. Obviously, he was no longer a warrior God, a fierce volcano God, fighting for his chosen people. The vision of Isaiah, Habakkuk and Jeremiah took the final stride toward a merciful, righteous God, whose love permeated the entire universe.
In Babylon, the Jews put together all their lore and laws and codes into a book — The Torah, knitting together all the preexisting narratives. An incredibly significant point of that book is that the word Elohim, which once meant the "other gods" became one of Yahweh's many titles. In other words, any other divinity was nothing but an aspect of this unseen presence of Yahweh. The transformation was complete.
But God's ancient name, now taboo, was not forgotten. For a group of people so strongly wrapped up in their religion, it was not likely to happen. So when Jewish Mysticism came into being, a whole new body of myth followed it. The mystics believed that God's name reflected the hidden meaning and totality of all existence. Through the Shem Hameforash, everything acquired its existence. A specific sub-discipline was created, called Hokhmat-ha-Tseruf, meaning The Science of the Combining Letters. It was a guide to a form of meditation, with the use of the letters in Yahweh's name and their many configurations. The method is extremely complicated. Some compare it to music, because of its approach to the power of sound. Others compare it to modern physics because of a major system it employed for moving from one concept to another. The term is "dilug and kefitza," which mean "jump and leap," bringing the idea of quantum leaps to mind.
The Jewish mystics, however, strongly objected to the frivolous use of God's name, and believed that only under some circumstances the power gained by using it properly was justified. Mostly it was accepted as a means to save lives. An interesting paragraph taken from a major work bears witness to all that was discussed in this article. This is copied from a book written by Rabbi Joseph Gikatilla, a famous thirteenth-century Kabbalistic philosopher in Spain. Rabbi Joseph's work is considered one of the most systematic approaches to Jewish mysticism:
"It is within the parameters of our historical covenant, however, that those who want their needs fulfilled by employing the Holy Names should try with all their strength to comprehend the meaning of each Name of God as they are recorded in the Torah, names such as EHYE, YH, ADoNaY, EL, ELOH, ELoHIM, SHADAY, TZVAOT. One should be aware that all the names mentioned in the Torah are the keys for anything a person needs in the world. When one contemplates these Names one will understand that all the Torah and the Commandments are dependent upon them. Then when he knows the purpose of every Name he will realize the greatness of "He who spoke and thus the world came into being." He will be fearful before Him and he will yearn to cleave to Him through His blessed Names. Then he will be close to God and his petitions will be accepted, as it is written: 'I will keep him safe, for he knows My Name. When he calls on Me I will answer him.' The verse does not promise safety by merely mentioning His Name but by knowing His Name. It is the knowing that is most significant. Only after the knowledge does the verse present the petition, '...when he calls on me I will answer.' This means that when the time comes he should know the Name that is intrinsically tied to what he needs, then when he calls, 'I will answer.'...Know that all the Holy Names in the Torah are intrinsically tied to the Tetragrammaton, which is YHVH. If you would contend, however, that the name EHYEH is the ultimate source, realize that the Tetragrammaton is like the trunk of the tree from which the branches grow and the Name EHYEH is like the root from which grow the other roots. It is the trunk of the tree that nurtures the branches which are the other Names of God, and each one of these branches bears a different fruit. Know too that all the words in the Torah are connected to one of the unerasable Divine Names just as the other cognomens [for the different Names of God] are intrinsically tied to a specific Name... Just as EL, EloHIM and the Tetragrammaton have Cognomens, their Cognomens also have Cognomens until one finds that all the words of the Torah are intrinsically woven into the tapestry of God's Cognomens with are tied to God's Names which, in turn, are tied to the ineffable Tetragrammaton, YHVH, to which all the Torah's words are inextricably linked. Thus, all the Torah is woven with all the strands of YHVH and it is for this reason it is stated: "The Torah of YHVH is complete (Psalm 19:8)"
- Dimont, Max I. (1962). Jews, God and History. New York: New American Library, Times Mirror.
- Fast, Howard. (1992). The Jews, Story of a People. New York: Bantam, Doubleday, Dell Publishing.
- Gikatilla, Rabbi Joseph. (1994). Gates of Light (Sha'are Orah). San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers.
- Patai, Raphael. (1983). On Jewish Folklore. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
- Scholem, Gershom. (1972). Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. New York: Schocken Books.