Thinking back on it, I’m wondering if our Sunday school teacher, Bob, had a little dyslexia going on.
He was a layman teaching a class of young adults – about a fourth of whom were seminary students. Me among them.
Bob wanted to use the Hebrew word for God, which is Yahweh, pronounced YAH-way.
Bob is the reason I started putting phonetic pronunciations in most of my Bible study books. He was a wonderful public speaker, enthusiastic and inspiring. He intended to pay God a high compliment. Voice raised, arms in the air, he described the Lord our God as the “Great Yahoo.”
There was an embarrassing pause.
Then came the first wave of laughter. Then the second, after someone kindly corrected him.
Bob handled it fine. He had a good sense of humor; he’s cheering up the souls in heaven now. I hope.
Years later I decided to check again on the pronunciation of God’s name. I sent an email to Dr. Joseph Colson, a prof at Nazarene Theological Seminary and an expert in the ancient Hebrew language. I wanted to know if it’s possible that Bob may have been right.
On ancient Hebrew scrolls, God’s name is missing the vowels. His name shows up only as YHWH.
Bible experts have to guess at what vowels were used and how the ancients pronounced the word. I asked Dr. Colson if there could have been just two vowels: A and O, as in YAH-who.
Dr. Colson put it this way: “While it could be fun, no Semitic language ever would allow all three root letters – here the HWH – to occur in succession together, in any form of any root, without vowels to break them up.”
In other words, no. God’s name could not have been YAH-who.
So, what does Yahweh mean? The first time YHWH shows up in the Bible, God was introducing himself to Moses as, “I AM” (Exodus 3:14 ɴᴄᴠ). Throughout the rest of the Bible – we’ll read this name nearly 7,000 times – scholars usually translate it as “the Lᴏʀᴅ.” So when you see Lᴏʀᴅ in all capital letters, that’s translated YHWH.
Whatever name we use for God, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Exodus 20:7, ɴᴋᴊᴠ).
Many Bible experts say they don’t know what that means. Phrasing of that law in the original Hebrew language is vague.
Theories: “Don’t cuss.” “Don’t say ‘Oh God!’ as a casual expression of shock or joy.” “Don’t lie under oath when you swear on God’s name to tell the truth.”
One theory popular today is much broader: “Don’t misrepresent God’s name by claiming to be one of his own when you act like the devil.”
According to that theory, the commandment isn’t about protecting God. It’s about protecting us from the likes of:
- Crooked preacher-types out to make a buck by telling us God will make us rich if we give our money to their ministry.
- Holier-than-thou hardliners who insist we believe what they believe about the Bible.
- Angry church folks who hammer hurting people with Bible verses that hurt them all the more.
- Violence-loving spiritual leaders who send young souls into a crowd to blow themselves up while screaming their last words: “God is great!”
The Bible teaches that God is greater than that.
Bob got one thing right, though. He may have mispronounced God’s name. But he didn’t misrepresent God – not in the way he lived or what he taught.
For more information, see “God Is Not the Great Yahoo” in Strange and Mysterious Stuff from the Bible, pages 120-121.
Stephen M. Miller is the bestselling author of Who’s Who and Where’s Where in the Bible (Retailer’s Choice Award for best nonfiction book of the year), The Complete Guide to the Bible (400,000 copies sold), and many other books, which have sold over a million copies. He and his wife, Linda, live in Kansas and have two adult children.
For more fun facts about the Bible, check out Tony Evans's post, The Names of God: What's in a Name?