The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH -- By: Charles R. Gianotti

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 142:565 (Jan 1985)
Article: The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH
Author: Charles R. Gianotti


The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH

Charles R. Gianotti

[Charles R. Gianotti, Pastor, Hillside Bible Chapel, Orillia, Ontario, Canada]

Without doubt, the tetragrammaton, YHWH,1 is the most significant name in the Old Testament. As one writer observed, “no single word in Hebrew has ever evoked such a torrent of discussion as…YHWH, the personal name of the Hebrew god [sic].”2 In distilling the vast amount of literature on the subject, five popular views rise to the surface. But before discussing these, certain observations should be made.3

For the biblicist, the divine name YHWH was known as early as the time of Enosh (Gen 4:26) and was used not infrequently during the patriarchal period (cf. Gen 12:1, 4; 13:4, etc.). Yet Exodus 6:2–3 seems to indicate that the name was not known until the time of Moses hundreds of years later: “God spoke further to Moses and said to him, I am the Lord and I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as God Almighty [ל שַׁדָּי], but by My name, Lord [יְהוָה or YHWH], I did not make Myself known to them.”

But this tension is resolved by a correct understanding of the passage. Motyer offers an excellent exegesis translating it as follows: “And God spoke to Moses, and said to him: I am Yahweh. And I showed myself to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob in the character of El Shaddai, but in the character expressed by my name Yahweh I did not make myself known to them….”4 He concludes that “it was the character expressed by the name that was withheld from the patriarchs and not the name itself….to know by name means

to have come into intimate and personal acquaintance with a person.”5 Mowinckel concurs in reference to the burning bush incident that:

Exodus 3 does not support the theory that the name of Yahweh was not known to the Israelites before Moses…. A name may have deeper meaning than the one discernible at first glance and recognizable to everybody…a man who knows the “real” deeper meaning of the name of a god, really “knows the god” in question.6

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