Seminary 101: God
“Alright class, take out your pencils and a sheet of paper. Take good notes, because there may be a quiz on this later . . .”
I’m taking Hebrews exegesis this semester, which is a fancy seminary term that means we are translating the Hebrew Bible into English. I know how to read and write Hebrew, and I’ve noticed that my professor has an odd pronunciation for the word “God” in the Old Testament. In fact, he was pronouncing it totally wrong as far as phonetics goes. So this lowly Hebrew student decided to do a little research before he openly corrected his Hebrew professor (which, mind you, has a Ph.D. in Biblical Hebrew). What I found out has a significant meaning for the words we say today.
The first word that is used for God in the Old Testament is “Elohim” (El-o-heem). It is used in the first chapter of Genesis to describe God. However, if you study the grammar behind this term, you’ll notice that Elohim is plural. Now, I’m not a pluralist (belief in more than one God), but I do believe that this usage of the word is plural on purpose. Scholars believe this proves the idea of the Trinity. God is a triune God, and this plural verb form proves it. He was not alone. He was in the presence of the Trinity. Elohim appears in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) over 2,500 times.
Things change when Elohim creates Adam. Elohim means “Creator God,” and once man was created, the creation process was unofficially over. From Adam to Moses, Elohim phases out and YHWH becomes the name for God. YHWH symbolizes a more personal relationship with man, but translates as “God of Israel.” If you’ll notice, YHWH does not have any vowels. In order to help the pronunciation, translators have inserted vowels to make it possible to pronounce: YaHWeH (pronounced Yah-way). The Hebrew letter W is sometimes pronounced as a V, which explains how YAHWEH is sometimes pronounced YAHVAH, which ultimately led to another term for God - Jehovah. Yet, there is a reason why the people of Israel did not have vowels in the name YHWH; it is because they did not ever vocally say YHWH.
After the Ten Commandments, the Israelites looked very seriously upon the sin of taking the Lord God’s name in vain. In fact, they didn’t even want to come CLOSE to saying it in the wrong way. Scholars tell us that facial expressions were a large part of the Hebrew language, and even saying YHWH with a smirk or unholy look on your face was considered blasphemous! The punishment for doing so was 30-60 days of fasting, and the inability to participate in ritualistic ceremonies, which was the main avenue to God in Moses’ day. So how do you avoid using God’s name in vain? Don’t ever pronounce it.
What the Israelites did is take the basic Hebrew letters that made up YHWH, and added different vowels in different places, which phonetically translates to Adonai (ad-o-nie). They pronounced God’s name as Adonai, but this still wasn’t good enough for writing the name of God. When used in writings, Ha-Shem was written out as the word for God, which literally translates as “the name.”
I know this is a lot of information, and it’s pretty tedious, but here is the reason I share this with you: the Israelites considered God so Holy and powerful and were so reliant on Him that they didn’t even feel worthy to say his name. They were afraid they wouldn’t say it right, and that for some reason God would not approve of them. With “Oh My God” and the insertion of “Oh Lord” into regular speech today, it is a huge contrast between the viewpoint of God then and now.
So what is your viewpoint of God? In the time of Moses, that question would be answered by the way you used His name. Do you consider Him holy, loving, and worthy of our praise? If so, then stop and consider what you are really doing when you say His name. Call out to God with a sense of reverence, humbleness, and brokenness; because without this approach, we are not even worthy of saying His name, much less calling out to Him for help.
"You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that takes his name in vain." -Exodus 20:7