How YHWH became Jehovah
There is a famous movie scene in which the world’s most notorious archaeologist, Indiana Jones, must pass a series of harrowing trials in order to reach the Holy Grail. In one of these trials, Indy must traverse a particularly deadly trap by only stepping on the stones marked with the letters that make up the name of God. Indy does so and then everyone gets to learn that in Latin the name “Jehovah” starts with the letter I—after Indy almost dies by stepping on the letter J.
In reality, Indy would have fallen to his doom anyway because the name Jehovah did not appear until the 16th century when William Tyndale introduced it to the world in his translation of the Book of Exodus. Indeed, the Crusaders who, at least in Steven Spielberg’s film, built the booby-trapped temple of the Grail would have simply used “Dominus,” the word used for the name of God in the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible. Likewise, if the trials had been devised by a Judean of the Second Temple period, like Joseph of Arimathea—the keeper of the Holy Grail according to medieval legend—Indy would have only had to walk on four letters—YHWH—known to many as the Tetragrammaton.
It is this four-letter Hebrew word that William Tyndale would eventually translate into the name Jehovah. Unfortunately, Tyndale was unfamiliar with the word’s history. Because of the perceived holiness of God’s name, many observent Jews never uttered it aloud. Instead, they say haShem (“the name”) or Adonai (“my Lord”), a tradition that dated back to at least the Hellenistic period (c. 332–37 BCE). This was so important that when the Hebrew vowel system was invented in the Middle Ages, the rabbis that penned the scriptures chose to add the vowels for Adonai onto the Tetragrammaton as a reminder not to say God’s true name out loud. It was these Hebrew texts that Tyndale used to make his translations, which ultimately became the basis for the Old Testament of the King James Version of the Bible in 1611. And the rest is history.
The true pronunciation of YHWH can never be truly known because of the nature of the language, but clues do exist, including theophoric personal names known from the Bible and archaeology that reference YHWH—names such as Elijah, Adonijah, and Jeremiah. This led to the most commonly accepted pronunciation, “Yahweh,” but even this is still debated. Because of this uncertainty, many simply just use YHWH for the name.
Like the pronunciation, virtually everything about the name YHWH is debated—its origins, its significance, etc.—as is every aspect of the religion of the god who bears the name. In the article “Yahweh’s Desert Origins,” published in the Fall 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, scholar Juan Manuel Tebes discusses the ongoing debate surrounding the origins of Yahweh and the evidence that the deity may have been first worshiped by nomadic tribes living east of Sinai—people known to the Egyptians as the Shasu.
Regardless of the origins of Yahweh worship, it is clear that by the United Monarchy (c. tenth century BCE), Yahweh had become a very important deity to the people of Israel and Judah. It is at this time that personal names honoring YHWH become prevalent, replacing those of earlier Canaanite deities in popularity. By the mid-ninth century, when Mesha, king of Moab, erected his famous victory stela at his capital in Dibon, YHWH had become the national deity of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, officially recognized by their neighbors and enemies. And since then, the name YHWH has been firmly cemented in history.
To further explore the historical origins of Yahweh and how he came to be the patron deity of Israel and Judah, read Juan Manuel Tebes’s article “Yahweh’s Desert Origins,” published in the Fall 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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