The Origin of the Name “Jehovah”

There are a few ways that the Old Testament text refers to the Almighty God. First, the title of “God” (in Hebrew: Elohiym), is given (Genesis 1:1). Another title, “LORD” (Hebrew: Adonai) is popularly used throughout the Old Testament. Finally, the name, not title, given to God: YHWH, commonly pronounced as Yahweh. But wait! What about that ancient word “Jehovah?” Where does it fall in line with the above? Honestly, it doesn’t. In fact, the ancient word “Jehovah” isn’t really all that ancient at all, but is a product of a series of mistakes made by men throughout the years. The word “Jehovah” as we see it today, is not even as old as the original King James Version! Can you believe it? The Encyclopedia Britannica calls the word “Jehovah” an “artificial name,” and a Hebrew professor of Tel Aviv University, Anson F. Rainey, calls it a “ghost word.” So then, let’s get down to the truth of the matter, and explore the true origins of “Jehovah.” The story seems to start in the days between the Old Testament and the New Testament writings, when the Jewish people came up with the idea that they should no longer say the name of God (“YHWH”) anymore, except at very special times, for it was too sacred for a man to say. So they began to replace God’s name, YHWH, with either the word “Adonai,” which means “our Lord,” or the word “Hashem” which simply means “the name.” This tradition of the Jews to replace the name of God with an alternative word became as a law to the Jews and it continued through time. In fact, it still continues today among those claiming to be Jews. At this point of the story, we might wonder how this is the story of the history of “Jehovah,” because all we are seeing, historically, is “YHWH,” “Adonai,” and “Hashem,” none of which look anything like the word “Jehovah.” Confusion is understandable, and it’s concerning to me that the name “Jehovah” is not used in the days of the Old Testament or New Testament, because it is much newer than those days.

Continuing the story, nothing changes until we reach the years from 1200 to 1300, during the Middle Ages. This is the time frame when the Massorites, a special group of very honorable and scrupulous Hebrew scribes, set out to add a vowel system to the original Hebrew text. If your unfamiliar with the Hebrew language, it is an interesting language, in that, it does not contain vowels in its written word, only consonants. Generally speaking, words without vowels are impossible to properly pronounce. The Hebrews knew how to pronounce their language through oral tradition. The trouble is, what happens to the language if something happens to the chain of people passing down how to pronounce each word in the Hebrew language? The Massorites foresaw that that this could become a huge problem that would have destroyed the Hebrew language forever, therefore, they set out to provide to all future generations a means of properly pronouncing the Hebrew words in the Old Testament text. To do this, they scrupulously rewrote the Old Testament Hebrew text on parchment, consonant by consonant, not changing a thing. Then, above each Hebrew word they notated vowels that make the sound of the pronunciation of each word. This vowel system that they implemented is a great resource even to this day. But again, even in the days of the Massorites, the Jews did not say the name “YHWH” but “Adonai” (our Lord). So, interestingly, the Massorites, when adding the vowel notations, did not notate the vowels above God’s name, “YHWH,” but chose instead to add the vowels of the word “Adonai” above the name “YHWH” each time it is used in the Old Testament text (all 6,824 times). So it would have looked like this:

Now those who looked closely at the diagram may have an objection, because the vowels the Massorites placed above the name of God are not exactly the vowels in the word “Adonai.” It should be “A, O, A, I,” not “E, O, A.” Why they left out the vowel “I” at the end I do not know for sure, but I do know why they changed the “A” to an “E” at the beginning. This was to keep one from pronouncing the name of God, because if they read the “Y” at the beginning, and added the vowel “A,” then they might mistakenly say the name of God, as “YHWH” is pronounced “Yahweh.” So, in order to keep someone from slipping their tongue, the Massorites changed the vowels from “A” to “E.” The issue does not neccessary lie with the Massorites, the issue lies centuries later when people started to translate the great Hebrew manuscripts of the Massorites into other languages, such as English. What happened was translators were simply taking the vowels above and dropping them right down into the consonants of the Hebrew words. This is perfectly acceptable for any other word. However, what happens to the name of God, “YHWH,” when hanging above it are the vowels to a completely different word, “Adonai?” This is what happens:

The result is a new word, a word that looks similar to the word “Jehovah.” The rest of the story lands upon the English language. When transliterating this artificial word “Yehowah,” English translators saw it fit to change the “Y” to an “I.” Once the letter “v” was invented, words with “w” that people thought should sound more like a “v” were changed. Thus, “Iehowah” became “Iehovah.” This is how the name of God looked when the King James Version was first published in 1611, if you have the first publication, you will see this word “Iehovah” (see Exodus 6:3). It wasn’t until later that century that the letter “J” was fully introduced to English, and the King James Version was revised, choosing to change the “I” to a “J.” And finally, the word “Jehovah” is fully formed. The question that remains is are we comfortable with using the word “Jehovah” as the name of God? I’ll leave the answer to you, but I will say this for you to think about, if we are to consider ourselves people of the Book, and people who “call Bible things by Bible names,” and say “where the Bible speaks we speak, where the Bible is silent we are silent,” then that would place us in a position to leave aside any name of God that is not given in the Bible.