Wednesday, August 24, 2022

The Truth About God's Divine Name

[Originally written August 11, 2022.]

One of the most notable beliefs of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is that God’s true name is “Jehovah”. This entry will explain why they believe that God’s name is Jehovah, followed by my response to each of the arguments made in favor of said belief.

According to the JW website:

“Jehovah is God’s unique name as revealed in the Bible. (Exodus 3:15; Psalm 83:18) It comes from a Hebrew verb that means ‘to become,’ and a number of scholars suggest that the name means ‘He Causes to Become.’ This definition well fits Jehovah’s role as the Creator and Fulfiller of his purpose. (Isaiah 55:10, 11)”


“Jehovah” is the way the Jehovah’s Witnesses translate the Hebrew word for God. The specific word is referred to as the Tetragrammaton, composed of four Hebrew letters (written above). These Hebrew letters can be transliterated as “YHWH”. Ancient Hebrew (which the Old Testament was primarily written in) does not have any vowels. Obviously, Hebrew has the sounds for vowels, but those sounds are never expressed in writing. The way that people would work around the lack of vowels in written Hebrew was by giving certain letters additional meanings (similar to how “th” is not pronounced as “tuh-huh”). Most of the time, however, the vowels would be supplied by the reader of the text. For example, an English speaker could read, “rd ppl” and, with some thinking, deduce that the meaning is “red apple”. The issue is that some could read that same phrase and come away with “rud eppli”, “rad ipple", or some other incorrect interpretation. Note that nobody would come away with something such as “rxd dpplz”, as English speakers are well aware that such a phrase could not be pronounced, as there is no way (in English, at least) to pronounce those letters, written in that order. Remember that last example, as it will be used again in a bit.

So, with the vowels in ancient Hebrew being inferred by the one reading the text, the word “YHWH” could be interpreted in several ways. The JW website concedes that “the exact pronunciation of the divine name in ancient Hebrew is not known”, yet they assert that the correct pronunciation is “Jehovah”, citing the “long history” of that pronunciation. The origin of the pronunciation that the JW’s use comes from (according to the JW website) the Bible translation that William Tyndale produced in 1530. Tyndale did not make the same mistake that the Jehovah’s Witnesses make, and the JWs specifically mention how Tyndale translated the Tetragrammaton as “Iehouah”, but, as English changed, “the spelling of the divine name was modernized.” The translation of the Tetragrammaton that the JWs use hinges on the revised version of a translation of Psalms by a man named Henry Ainsworth. Ainsworth originally used “Iehovah” when he released his 1612 translation of the book of Psalms, but he modified the translation to “Jehovah” for his 1639 revision of his translation. The JWs also cite the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible as supporting their belief about the correct pronunciation of the “divine name”. The ASV was published in 1901, and it used “Jehovah”, rather than “Iehovah”.

The JW website explains that, after the Old Testament was written, “some Jews adopted the superstitious belief that it was wrong to utter God’s personal name”. This statement is worth mentioning for two reasons:

  1. The word “superstitious” is derogatory and condescending. Merriam-Webster defines “superstition” as “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or change, or a false conception of causation”, or “a notion maintained despite evidence to the contrary”. By describing the aforementioned belief as “superstitious”, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are attempting to elevate their understanding of the Bible above the understanding of the Jewish people.

  2. The refusal to pronounce the name of God was not based on fear (in the modern sense of the word) as much as it was based on a deep respect and admiration for God. There are many different explanations for why the Jews refused to pronounce the name of God, but the most compelling explanation (in my opinion) is that the Jewish people believed that saying the name of God would be in violation of the Third Commandment (“thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain”).

The JWs continue by describing how, as “this superstition spread”, the “ancient pronunciation was eventually lost”. I would ask the reader to refer to the previous portion of this entry, which explains how the Jews did not pronounce God’s name, therefore there would be no “ancient pronunciation”. The JW website explains the way the name of God has been transliterated as “Yahweh”, “Iao”, “Iae”, and so on. A notable exception to the list of transliterated forms of the “divine name”: Jehovah.

Before we go into the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ arguments in favor of their understanding of the name of God, I would like to make something very clear: there is no “J” sound in ancient Hebrew.

The pronunciation of the divine name could not be “Jehovah”, just as my example of “rd ppl” could not be pronounced as “rxd dpplz”. This is not a matter of interpretation, it is a matter of right and wrong. There could not be a word with a “J” sound, as there is no such sound in ancient Hebrew. “Jehovah” is an objectively, and verifiably, incorrect translation of the ancient Hebrew word for God.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ arguments:

  1. “Translations that use ‘Jehovah’ have added this name.”

This statement is responded to by the Jehovah’s Witnesses describing the “fact” (in bold lettering) that the Tetragrammaton appears “some 7,000 times in the Bible”. The conclusion that the JWs draw from the Tetragrammaton appearing “some 7,000 times” is that “most translations arbitrarily remove God’s name and replace it with a title such as ‘Lord’”.

  1. “Almighty God does not need a unique name.”

This is one of the issues that Jehovah’s Witnesses make a big deal out of. The response to this “misconception” is that God inspired the authors of the Bible to “use his name thousands of times”, and that God has instructed us to worship Him by His Name. The verses that the JWs cite are Isaiah 42:8 (“I am the LORD; that is my name” [ESV]), Joel 2:32 (“everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved” [ESV]), Malachi 3:16 (“a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the LORD and esteemed his name” [ESV]), and Romans 10:13 (“everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” [ESV]). Every single verse is cited out of context. The connotation is often more important than the denotation, which is why we cannot read a dictionary and find some kind of story. It is the context that gives words their meaning, with the denotation serving as the way of ensuring that there is some kind of order to how we use words. This removal of context is not an isolated incident, it is what the Jehovah’s Witnesses use to support their core beliefs. In order to show how the Jehovah’s Witnesses have misunderstood the meaning of the verses they cite, here is a more detailed explanation of each verse:

Isaiah 42:8:

“I am Jehovah. That is my name; I give my glory to no one else, Nor my praise to graven images.” [NWT]

This verse, if the first half is the only part used, seems to support the claims of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. After all, God says that His Name is Jehovah, right? In nearly every translation (aside from the NWT and the ASV, as well as a few obscure translations), the first half of this verse is translated to something like, “I am the Lord; that is my name”. This verse does not end with “that is my name”, however. It continues, “I give my glory to no one else, nor my praise to graven images”. I have referenced the NWT translation for a reason: it is the version produced by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In their own translation, when read in context, this verse means something much different than what they claim it means. This verse is basically God saying, “I am God, there is no other god. I should get the glory, not your idols”. God is saying that He is the only God, and that all praise should be to Him. God is not introducing Himself (“Hello, I am Jehovah. What is your name?”), He is declaring that He is the one true God.

Joel 2:32

“And everyone who calls on the name of Jehovah will be saved.” [NWT]

It is worth pointing out the grammatical implications of the NWT of this verse. It does not say that anybody who “calls in the name of Jehovah” will be saved, it says that anybody “who calls on the name of Jehovah” will be saved. There is a difference between the name Jehovah, and the name of Jehovah. Therefore, Joel 2:32 is telling us that we must call on the name of Jehovah, not in the name of Jehovah. On and in are two different words. The logical follow-up question would be, “well, what is the name of Jehovah?”

In addition to the aforementioned implication of the text, it is also worth noting how the Jehovah’s Witnesses remove the context of this verse. The point of this verse is not that we should use God’s name, but that if we follow God, He will save us.

Malachi 3:16

“At that time those who fear Jehovah spoke with one another, each one with his companion, and Jehovah kept paying attention and listening. And a book of remembrance was written before him for those fearing Jehovah and for those meditating on his name.” [NWT]

First, the context has been removed. At the time of what, exactly? If we follow what this verse describes (at least, inasmuch as the name “Jehovah” is concerned), we will have a book of remembrance, written before “him” (presumably, Jehovah), if we fear Jehovah, and we meditate “on his name”. If we want to take this passage literally, we must think about the name “Jehovah”, and we will receive the aforementioned “book of remembrance”. The context shapes the meaning of this verse, but without the context, the meaning is entirely up to the person providing the context.

Romans 10:13

“For ‘everyone who calls the name of Jehovah will be saved.’”

I could go into the way this verse is yet another example of the context being removed, but I would rather just explain what this verse is doing. The second set of quotation marks is from the text, meaning that Paul (who authored the book of Romans) is quoting something. He is quoting Joel 2:32, which is one the verses that the JWs have already cited. This verse does not count, and by excluding it, I am showing grace. This verse does not help their argument.

  1. “Following the tradition of the Jews, God’s name should be removed from the Bible.”

The argument against this “misconception” begins with the Jehovah’s Witnesses describing how “some Jewish scribes refused to pronounce the divine name”, but the scribes did not remove it from the Bible. Why, if the Jewish scribes revered the name of God as much as they did, would they want to remove it? The scribes revered the Name of God, they did not seek to rid the Scripture of It. Thankfully, the JW website continues with “in any case”, meaning, “but that doesn’t matter”. The final component of this argument is the “God does not want us to follow human traditions that deviate from his commandments”, citing Matthew 15:1-3. The verses that the JW cite is from an exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees, where Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for (in the NWT) “overstep[ping] the commandment[s] of God because of your [the Pharisees’] tradition”. There could be an entire discussion about this verse, but the most glaring issue in this argument is that, in their words, “God does not want”, but they cite Matthew, which is about Jesus. If there is any doubt as to the issue in this argument, let me make it clear: in order to use this argument, one must equate God with Jesus, which is a belief that the Jehovah’s Witnesses openly reject.

  1. “The divine name should not be used in the Bible because it is not known exactly how to pronounce it in Hebrew.”

This “misconception” is rather strange. The belief that the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been trying to share is that God has a name, and that we should address Him by His Name. However, the response to this “misconception” is that the translation of  God’s Name does not matter. The JW website explains, “far more important than the exact pronunciation chosen is that God’s name be given its rightful place in the Bible”. This argument is a red-herring, as nobody is trying to remove all mentions of God because there is no way to know how to pronounce God’s Name properly. Some translations do use the letters, “YHWH”, while most use the word “LORD”. With the latter example, Jehovah’s Witnesses should have no objection. After all, their website tells us that it does not matter how we translate the name of God, as long as the name of God is used. Whenever God is referred to as “LORD”, we can know that the original text used the Tetragrammaton, which would effectively serve as an alternate translation of the divine name.

Why do the Jehovah’s Witnesses defend this belief so vehemently? There are many ideas as to why this belief is so important to the JWs, but none of them come from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, themselves. I believe that God’s Name is made into a big issue for the same reason that the “torture-stake” is made into a big issue: the Jehovah’s Witnesses have to set themselves apart from Christians and Jews in order to feed the narrative that the JWs are being persecuted, that God’s Name has been intentionally removed from the Bible, and that the only faithful translation of the Bible is the one produced by the Witnesses.


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