What Does Yahweh Mean?

Graphic featuring a black and white drawing of Moses and the burning bush along with the Hebrew letters "YHWH"

God has a name, and it’s not “God.” However, God’s proper name has come to us “damaged”—linguistically damaged. Sadly, we have inherited this name with consonants, but not vowels. I consider the loss of these vowels as one of the sociological and religious wonders of the ancient world! 1 The most accurate way to render the divine name in English in light of this loss is “YHWH.” What then of the forms “Yahweh” or “Jehovah”? These are educated guesses, and no one can prove them conclusively from the available historical evidence.2 Asking, for example, “Does Yahweh mean Jehovah?” already assumes that we’ve recovered the vowels of the name, and we haven’t.

As for the meaning of YHWH, it may shock you to discover that the name does not mean “I am,” “He is,” or “He causes to be,” as interpreters commonly argue from Exodus 3:14. Rather, we find the meaning of the name YHWH in Exodus 34:6–7:

YHWH, YHWH, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.3

The meaning of the name YHWH also does not derive from its etymology. Etymology is a tool we reach for when we have no others left. But given the clarity of Exodus 34:6–7, we don’t need etymology. We make a misstep if we extract the supposed verbal root HYH (or HWH, both of which mean “to be”) from this word and then ascribe that idea to YHWH’s character. This approach can work when parsing verbs, but biblical names don’t act like verbs. The meaning of the name YHWH derives from how the biblical narrative defines it. God himself made very clear ascriptions to this name in the book of Exodus, and they follow a three-stage progressive revelation that leads to the climax of Exodus 34:6–7.

Stage 1: The Divine Name Given (Exod 3:13–15)

The first stage occurred at Sinai. On that mountaintop, Moses heard God speak from a burning bush. Eventually Moses had the wits to ask God, somewhat indirectly, “What is your name?” The Lord responded in Exodus 3:13 by saying, “I will be whoever I will be.” Now, most translations render this phrase “I am who I am,” but I believe such a rendering doesn’t capture the correct tense of the verb.4 The phrase אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה (ehyeh asher ehyeh) must be translated into the future tense, since the verb ehyeh is used elsewhere in the Old Testament with a future meaning.5 To quote Rudiger Bartelmus, who dedicated a monograph to the topic, “it seems impossible to understand the sentence in any other way than future.”6 Hebrew, like all Semitic languages, simply doesn’t use a being verb to express a present-tense idea. For example, the phrases “I am” and “I am he” that are found in Isaiah 47:8 and 48:12, respectively, don’t contain any being verbs, just personal pronouns. In other words, if the meaning of Exodus 3:14 were “I am who I am,” then we’d expect a Hebrew construction other than ehyeh asher ehyeh.7

We’ve missed the point if we think this phrase teaches us about God’s being or self-existence. It’s true that the Hebrew phrase ehyeh asher ehyeh has a similar sound to the name YHWH. This wordplay of sound has tempted many to interpret the relationship between ehyeh and YHWH grammatically or etymologically, as if YHWH must be a parseable form of the being verb hayah (for example, “Yahweh” means “he causes to be”). However, very few biblical names correspond exactly to verbal forms. Furthermore, the wordplay of Exodus 3:13–15 is one of eighty-two naming wordplays occurring in the Old Testament (forty-three of which occur in Genesis). These naming wordplays provide us with a common literary pattern, occurring in the near context, by which we can interpret the enigmatic exchange between YHWH and Moses in Exodus 3:13–15.

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All explicit naming wordplays that occur throughout the Old Testament correlate a proper name with another word that sounds like it. Unfortunately, the sound connections that are quite obvious in Hebrew are often lost in translation. After Eve gave birth to her son, she uttered the first naming wordplay: Eve had “gotten” (קָנִיתִי [qaniti], in Hebrew) a man, and his name was Cain (קַיִן [qayin], Gen 4:1). Also, the name Isaac (יִצְחָק [itzhaq]) closely resembles the Hebrew verb “he laughs” (יִצְחַק [itzhaq], Gen 21:6). Joseph named his son Manasseh (מְנַשֶּׁה [menashe]) because God allowed him to “forget” (נַשַּׁנִי [nashani], in Hebrew, Gen 41:51) the hardships of his past.

But just because the words sound alike doesn’t mean that the naming wordplay was made to describe the child’s character. As a general rule, when a past tense verb occurs in a given instance of wordplay, the naming is memorializing an event from the perspective of the name-giver. For example, the name “Simeon” sounds like the Hebrew verb meaning “hear,” but this doesn’t mean that Simeon could hear well (Gen 29:33). Instead, it meant that God heard (past tense) the affliction of his mother, Leah. The name “Manasseh” relates to “forgetting,” but the point of the naming isn’t that Manasseh was forgetful, but that God allowed Joseph to forget his hardships in Egypt through Manasseh’s birth.

Furthermore, when a present/future tense verb occurs in the wordplay, the naming is anticipating a wish for the future from the perspective of the name-giver. For example, through a wordplay with the name “Noah,” Lamech anticipates that his child will bring (future tense, see Gen 5:29) comfort to the ground that YHWH cursed. Leah connected the name “Levi” to her anticipation that Jacob would love her (future tense, see Gen 29:34) now that she bore him a third son. In these naming reports, the name is used to express the name-giver’s anticipations or predictions about the future (see also Gen 22:8, 14; 30:24; 31:49). A naming wordplay does not usually describe the person being named. Rather, it solidifies the memories or wishes generated by the name-giver.8

Through the wordplay between ehyeh asher ehyeh and YHWH, God makes an anticipatory statement about his name’s meaning. Assuming that ehyeh asher ehyeh best translates as “I will be whoever I will be,” we can conclude that the Lord was delaying the revelation of the meaning of “YHWH” for a later time.9

Stage 2: The Divine Name Recognized (Exod 6:2–8 and afterward)

We don’t have to wait long to learn about this meaning, because God’s first major ascription to his name “YHWH” occurs in the plagues narrative (Exod 6–14). This narrative constitutes the second stage in the progressive revelation of the divine name. Here the Lord makes very clear within the report of each plague that he is intervening for his people “so that you may know that I am YHWH” (see the chart below).

Plague

Ascription to the Name YHWH

Preamble (Exod 6:7)

“and you shall know that I am YHWH your God”

Preamble (Exod 7:5)

“The Egyptians shall know that I am YHWH”

Water Turned to Blood (Exod 7:17)

“By this you shall know that I am YHWH”

Frogs (Exod 8:10)

“so that you may know that there is no one like YHWH our God.”

Flies (Exod 8:22)

“that you may know that I am YHWH in the midst of the earth.”

Hail (Exod 9:14–16)

“For this purpose I have raised you [Pharaoh] up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.”

Hail (Exod 9:29)

“so that you may know that the earth is YHWH’s.”

Locusts (Exod 10:2)

“that you may know that I am YHWH.”

Death of the Firstborn (Exod 11:7)

“that you may know that YHWH makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.”

At the Red Sea (Exod 14:4 and 18)

“and the Egyptians shall know that I am YHWH.”

At the Exodus, for the first time in salvation history, God intervened powerfully for his people in opposition to a world power. The Lord was clear and insistent that all those involved—Israelites, Egyptians, and anyone watching—would know without a doubt that he who performed these awful and terrible acts was named YHWH. The long reach of the plagues also meant that YHWH’s reputation would reach far. This is the first layer of meaning that the biblical narrative gives to the name. I paraphrase it as follows: “YHWH is the powerful God who owns the earth, who caused these devastating plagues, and who protects his covenant people.”

But associating only power and devastation with the name “YHWH” doesn’t provide an adequate picture of God’s character. The third and final stage of the name’s revelation came in response to the heinous sin of the covenant people, when they worshipped the golden calf and declared it to be their god. According to what they knew of God’s name at that time, they should have expected severe punishment from their God, perhaps even total rejection. After all, he made himself known as “the powerful God who caused those devastating plagues.” Only Moses’s bold and risky intercessions compelled the Lord to desist and to fill in the still-inadequate meaning of the name “YHWH.” The Lord agreed to call upon the name “YHWH” in response to Moses’s previous request: “Please show me now your ways, that I may know you” (Exod 33:13). The result is Exodus 34:6–7, which I consider to be, quite literally, the meaning of the name “YHWH.”

Stage 3: The Divine Name Defined (Exod 34:6–7)

The Lord proclaims to Moses:

YHWH, YHWH, a God10 merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation. (Exod 34:6–7)

The Lord begins this “definition” by repeating the name YHWH. Also, God uses the third person in these verses (i.e. “YHWH is”), not the first-person (i.e., “I am”). This suggests that he is giving a name-definition formula for the people of God to cherish and to repeat. Now the people of God can know that the Lord is merciful and gracious, not just powerful. God’s mercy is great (notice how many descriptions relate to his care for us), yet God’s punishing actions against sin and sinners display a balance in the divine character. According to this revelation, the Lord accepted Moses’s intercession, he spared his covenant people, and he graciously renewed the covenant with them.

The name of YHWH and the name of Jesus

And yet, for all glory of this definition, it has been attached to a name without vowels. The Jewish people had already “lost” the vowels of the divine name before the coming of Christ. Around that time, they had developed a far-reaching religious practice meant to safeguard the sanctity of the divine name. They trained every Hebrew Bible reader to pronounce a substitute word in place of the written word “YHWH.” Thus they avoided any attempt to pronounce the holy name of God.

The substitute word they chose was Adonai, which is the biblical Hebrew word for “lord” or “master.” The Hebrew reader was trained to see the proper name of God written, but to pronounce the substitute word Adonai over the name. However, the situation changed in translation. The Jewish people first translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek, before the time of Christ, and they translated Adonai with the Greek noun kurios (meaning “master” or “lord”).

This was a significant translation decision. The result was a one-word translation for a two-word phenomenon. Readers of the Hebrew Bible saw the proper name “YHWH” written down, but they pronounced the word adonai; readers of the Greek Bible saw and pronounced one word only. Notice that kurios translates the pronounced, substitute word—the translators did not provide any Greek equivalent for the written name “YHWH.”11 This a translation of the substitute word rather than a transliteration of the proper name. The Greek Old Testament allowed a person who did not know Hebrew to access God’s word, but he could only name the God of Israel through the Greek noun kurios. In effect, God remained unnamed to the Gentile world.

Before the time of Christ, Gentiles did not come to know God personally by the proper name YHWH that referred only and always to the God of Israel. Instead, they read or heard of him through the title kurios, which carries with it the undeniable meaning of “master” or “lord.” (This is why our English Bibles render “YHWH” as “the LORD.”) I believe that this switch from a proper name to a title began to change devout Gentiles’ conception of God before the coming of Christ. Although “the LORD” can be clearly understood as a sort of surrogate for the proper name YHWH, this substitute word (being a common noun and not a proper name) always denotes the idea of lordship along with its reference to YHWH. The name YHWH is gloriously “defined” in Exodus 34:6–7, but could the Gentile worshipper adequately understand this definition when the title “the LORD” naturally adds its primary definition to this name?

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The preceding situation appears to be very negative and lamentable for the Gentile world. However, the coming of Jesus and the writing of the New Testament brought about a sort of fulfillment or redemption of this situation. In other words, rather than lamenting that we have inherited the title “the LORD” in place of “YHWH,” we can rejoice in what the New Testament teaches about the identity of Jesus Christ and his relationship to the name-title “the LORD.”

We can summarize early Christian belief in the short phrase, kurios Iesous, or “Jesus is Lord.” This summary occurs in three New Testament texts. In Romans 10:9, Paul claims that any person who proclaims Jesus as Lord and believes that God raised him from the dead will be saved. According to 1 Corinthians 12:3, a human being can only proclaim Jesus as Lord by the power of the Holy Spirit. In Philippians 2:9–11, we learn that God honored his obedient Son by giving him “the name above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow … , and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (emphasis mine).

This Christian confession is very powerful, even if we understand it to mean merely that “Jesus is the master.” However, I think it means much more than that, given what I’ve said above. Early Christians did not just confess Jesus as their master as if he were an employer or governor par excellence. No—they identified Jesus with YHWH himself. Jesus is not just Lord, he is the LORD of the Old Testament. Jesus is the God of Israel!12

Jewish tradition effectively replaced the name “YHWH” with “the LORD” for us Gentiles. However, God has redeemed this tradition in a way that displays a powerful unity between the Old and New Testaments. Had the name “YHWH” remained written as such, we would have inherited a Bible where one named “YHWH” (whatever that means) was acting and speaking in the Old Testament, while one named “Jesus” was acting and speaking in the New. Yet precisely because of the Jewish tradition, we now read of one Lord: the Old Testament LORD acting and speaking, and the New Testament Lord acting and speaking in tandem. So, do we read about Jesus in the Old Testament? Of course we do, because we read about the LORD in the Old Testament!

There is a fundamental continuity in the character of God that did not change when Jesus became flesh and dwelt among us. The name-title “the LORD” that occurs throughout the Old and New Testament supports this continuity. And what a marvel of God’s grace and sovereignty that he sent his Son bearing the proper name “Jesus” at the time when his people had lost the vowels of the name he had revealed to Moses. God’s people have never been without a divine proper name! Jesus Christ bears the name above all names, and yet when mankind recognizes that, God the Father gets the glory! While I don’t understand the depths of this glorious trinitarian reality, it does lead me to conclude reverently with the words of the psalmist:

Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness! (Ps 115:1)

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  1. A recent dissertation has explored the sociological, religious, and linguistic factors behind the loss of the name. See Anthony Meyer, Naming God in Early Judaism: Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek, Studies in the Cultural Context of the Bible 2 (Schöningh: Brill, 2022).
  2. For support of the form “Yehovah,” see the videos of Nehemia Gordon. For an erudite rebuttal of Gordon’s views, see the work of Piet Van Rensburg. In either case, I believe neither of these parties have in fact recovered the original pronunciation of the name “YHWH,” since the earliest Hebrew manuscripts do not have vowel points and because we do not have voice recordings from that time period! For an extended discussion of the issue, especially that the form “Yahweh” is unlikely to be original, see Austin Surls, Making Sense of the Divine Name in Exodus: From Etymology to Literary Onomastics, Bulletin for Biblical Research Supplement Series 17 (Winona Lake, IN, Eisenbrauns, 2016), 57–78.
  3. I will be using the ESV text throughout. However, I have replaced “the LORD” with “YHWH” where applicable.
  4. It is possible that English Bibles have mostly relied on the original Septuagint translation of this verse ego eimi ho on (“I am the One who is”) and thus opted for the present tense. However, Aquila and Theodotion, later Jewish translators of the Torah, rendered Exodus 3:13 as esomai hos esomai (“I will be who I will be”). As will be shown below, this latter translation is more literal than the original rendering “I am the One who is.”
  5. For example, ehyeh is translated “I will be” in Exodus 3:12; 4:12; Joshua 1:5; and Judges 11:9. Ehyeh is translated “as though I had not been” in Job 10:19 and as “I should be” in 1 Samuel 18:18. It even translates as “I was” in Psalm 50:21! Ruth 2:13 may be an exception to this rule, though notice ehyeh is translated in a negative and modal context: “though I am not …”
  6. Translation from the German original “erschient es unmöglich, den Satz anders als futurisch zu verstehen.” See Rüdiger Bartelmus, HYH: Bedeutung und Funktion eines hebräischen “Allerweltswortes” (St. Ottilien: EOS, 1982), 228.
  7. Two possible ways to express “I am who I am” in Hebrew are ani asher ani (אֲנִי אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי) or yeshni asher yeshni (יֶשְׁנִי אֲשֶׁר יֶשְׁנִי).
  8. It is true that the Lord is both name-giver and name-bearer in Exodus 3:13–15. However, the Lord’s use of the naming wordplay pattern shows that he is naming himself with the goal of anticipating a future event.
  9. Other scholars who adopt a future-tense translation are Christopher Seitz, “The Call of Moses and the ‘Revelation’ of the Divine Name: Source-Critical Logic and Its Legacy,” in Theological Exegesis: Essays in Honor of Brevard S. Childs, eds. Christopher Seitz and Kathryn Greene-McCreight (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 156; R. Abba, “The Divine Name Yahweh,” JBL 80 (1961): 324; and Jill Middlemas, “Exodus 3 and the Call of Moses: Rereading the Signs,” in The Centre and the Periphery: A European Tribute to Walter Brueggemann, eds. Jill Middlemas, David J. A. Clines, and Else Kragelund Holt, HBM 27 (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2010), 141.
  10. Notice that “YHWH” is described as “God.” What is the difference between “Yahweh” and “God”? At the level of words, the proper name “YHWH” communicates more powerfully than the generic title “God” because of the specific ascriptions made of the proper name in Exodus 34:6–7. At the level of theology, we should say that YHWH is God, meaning that the properly named being YHWH belongs to the category of “God.”
  11. Yet there are exceptions. Recently, archaeologists and scholars have found ancient writings that contain the word IAO instead of kurios for YHWH. Most likely, the form IAO (pronounced as “Yaho”?) indicates how a minority of Jews pronounced the divine name YHWH late in Old Testament history. However, the vast majority of Greek texts have the form kurios. It seems that the minority use of “Yaho” died out over time.
  12. There is no linguistic equivalence between the name “YHWH” and the name “Jesus.” Yes, the name “Jesus” is built from a shortened form of “YHWH” and the Hebrew root for “salvation” (a fact which was clear to people in Jesus’s day; see Matt 1:21); but my point is that we should not identify Jesus with YHWH on the level of identical proper names. That is, “YHWH” does not mean “Jesus” in Hebrew. The identification of Jesus with YHWH does not come through etymologizing these names, but through seeing how the New Testament confesses Jesus to be kurios—the LORD. Interestingly, Jesus is identified with YHWH via the name “YHWH,” but via the surrogate adonai/kurios/the LORD. For a look into the misguided attempt to link “Jesus” with “YHWH” at the level of these proper names, see the Wikipedia article on “Yahshuah.”
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Written by
Austin Surls

Austin Surls is the Associate Professor of Old Testament at Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary in Amman, Jordan. He wrote a dissertation on the three-stage revelation of the divine name in Exodus 3, 6, and 34.

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