Why We Call God YHWH 9-10-17

Genesis 2:4b-22 “At the time when [pause, G-D] YHWH made the heavens and the earth, there was still no wild bush on the earth nor had any wild plant sprung up, for [pause, LORD] YHWH had not yet sent rain to the earth, and there was no human being to till the soil. Instead, a flow of water would well up from the ground and irrigate the soil. So  [pause, Adonai] YHWH fashioned an earth creature out of the clay of the earth, and blew in its nostrils the breath of life. And the earth creature became a living being.  [pause, Jehovah] YHWH planted a garden to the east, in Eden—“Land of Pleasure”—and placed in it the earth creature that had been made.  Then  [pause, Shhhh] YHWH caused every kind of tree, enticing to look at and good to eat, to spring from the soil.  In the center of the garden was the Tree of Life, and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” … Then  [pause, YHWH] YHWH took the earth creature and settled it in the garden of Eden so that it might cultivate and care for the land  [pause, the LORD] YHWH commanded the earth creature, “You may eat as much as you like from any of the trees of the garden— except the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  You must not eat from that tree, for on the day you eat from that tree, that is the day you will die—yes, die.” Then  [pause, the great I AM] YHWH said, “It is not good for the earth creature to be alone.  I will make a fitting companion for it.” So from the soil  [pause, the Creator] YHWH formed all the various wild beasts and all the birds of the air, and brought them to the earth creature to be named.  Whatever the earth creature called each one, that became its name. The earth creature gave names to all the cattle, all the birds of the air, and all the wild animals. But none of them proved to be a fitting companion, so,[pause,  the Breath of God] YHWH made the earth creature fall into a deep sleep, and while it slept, God divided the earth creature in two, then closed u the flesh from its side. [pause,  the LORD God] YHWH then fashioned the two halves into male and female, and presented them to one another.

I thank Bob Jeffcoat for the question that led to this morning’s sermon. Bob is one of our newest members. When he was liturgist this summer, he wondered why we use the four letter word YHWH in our first reading many weeks. It’s an important question, and I could talk about it for more than one sermon. But I won’t. I hope today’s will begin to answer the question.

Acts 17:22-28  Then Paul stood up before the council of the Areopagus and delivered this address:  “Citizens of Athens, I note that in every respect you are scrupulously religious. As I walked about looking at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, “To an Unknown God.”  Now what you are worshiping in ignorance I intend to make known to you. For the God who made the world and all that is in it, the Sovereign of heaven and earth, doesn’t live in sanctuaries made by human hands, and it isn’t served by humans, as if in need of anything.  No!  God is the One who gives everyone life, breath—everything. From one person God created all of humankind to inhabit the entire earth, and set the time for each nation to exist and the exact place where each nation should dwell. God did this so that human beings would seek, reach out for, and perhaps find the One who is not really far from any of us—.the One in whom we live and move and have our being.  As one of your poets has put it, ‘We too are God’s children.’

Let’s reflect on our God who is known and God who is unknown, as children of God.

September 10, 2017

Why We Call God YHWH 

You may very well wonder why we would take time to talk about the name of God today, on our first Sunday back after the vacation, with so many big concerns in the world – dangerous hurricanes hitting and threatening so many people, concerns for young immigrants, and plenty to talk about in relation to God the Creator of the Land.

Moreover, you might think that using the four letter word for God, YHWH, is kind of silly, or pretentious, or a mystery. Why make things more confusing than they already are? Why not just read the Bible the way it was written, by good ol’ King James?

Well, of course the King James version of the Bible is just the most revered and earliest widely available English translation of the Bible. They had to make a decision about how to translate the Hebrew word YHWH, and they chose the word “LORD.” They kept it in capital letters so it has the advantage of being another 4 letter word, and encouraging reverence and even submission to God.

YHWH was the ancient word used as the personal name for God by the Hebrew people. The name was kind of proprietary. And we can see arguments in the Bible about whose God was greater and whose God was real, with the Hebrew people insisting that their God was the only one and true God of the everyone and everything.

The word was written without vowels – which is the case with most Hebrew words, but this word was never printed with vowels and never spoken aloud, so we don’t really know how to say it. Jews will use a different word and never try to pronounce it. If they ever did put vowels into the word, they would use vowels for the word Adonai, which means lord or master, and would be said in place of YHWH.

Biblical scholars think that the Hebrew word most likely was pronounced ‘Yahweh’ in ancient times, or something like that. Jehovah was also a popular way to say the word, starting in the 16th century, and it is still used in some Bibles and in some hymns, as we will sing later in the service.

The Bible we started to use in our service a year or two ago, is the Inclusive Language Bible, which tries to shift some of the translations of Hebrew words to more gender neutral language. So the Hebrew word sometimes translated “mankind” instead gets translated “humankind.” God is not called ‘he’ or ‘him,’ but understood as not being human and relating equally to men and to women.

When it came to YHWH, the translators decided to use the original Hebrew rather than to try to translate it. The word Lord, they felt was a hierarchical and masculine word that didn’t adequately portray what the original Hebrew conveys. When we read it out loud as Yahweh, we don’t convey the word adequately either of course. We could, as we did today, say Lord, or Adonai, or Creator God, and do just as well. But leaving the four letters, an unpronounceable word, portrays the mystery and the awesome character of the divine.

The word recalls what God wants to be called. Moses on the mountain asks God what name he should use, who he should say spoke to him. and God tells Moses to use the name, “I AM who I am.” Richard Rohr says that if you read it without the vowels, it would sound most like a human breath.  YHWH. He reflects on it, saying that this name of God is the first sound that a human child ever makes, and the last sound that a human makes before he or she dies. YHWH.


In the end, using the four letter word YHWH may indeed remind us that we are being pretentious when we say the name of God, when we approach the divine and imagine that we know God’s name. The word encourages imagination and awe in our approach to God, rather than familiarity or submission.

In my personal prayers, I most often use the word God rather than YHWH. (There’s another Hebrew word translated God – Elohim, which we could talk about another time.) There are lots of other names for God, and our liturgists may decide to use some of them rather than to try to pronounce the unpronounceable. After all, Jewish and Catholic leaders both discourage their people from trying to pronounce YHWH.

Still, in my own prayers, my personal meditation, when I do think of God through the unpronounceable word, I feel myself grounded in mystery, grounded in my own breath. When I find myself distressed by Hurricane Irma destroying the childhood home of my new tenant, Ivy Dafoe, I find it comforting to breath and to know God’s name in my breath. When I pray to this God of mystery and creativity, I feel myself grounded in the one in whom I live and move and have my being. When we pray to God as the unpronounceable breath, we are hearing the God of our True Self, our deepest ground of being, who we are and who we always have been, the True Self at the core of our being, who we are and who we are becoming.  We already are what we are seeking, and we hear that when we connect with this true name of God, the deep truth of God who is Love, who casts out all fear. When we pray to God as Creator of the land, Creator of the water, Creator of humanity, we feel a holy connection in that name, and feel ourselves standing on holy ground.

Responsive hymn: We are Standing on Holy Ground