traditions regarding tetragrammaton?

Charles David Isbell cisbell at
Mon Aug 27 08:39:00 EDT 2001

Dear Rolf,
I have enjoyed the exchanges about the Tetragrammaton.  But are you not
taking at least a short leap to conclude from Exod 3:15 and Mal 3:16 that
YHWH should be USED in the sense of PRONOUNCED?  There was never any doubt
among the rabbis, even of a later period when the pronunciation of the name
was no longer in vogue, that YHWH was in fact THE name.  The issue is
whether it ought to be pronounced or "taken up" in a particular way or in a
general context, or whether it should be reserved for one specific context.
Specifically in Malachi, the reference is to those who should "respect
YHWH", but who have in fact spoken improperly of Him, non?  Could this not
be taken as a reflection of the custom already of caution urged in
PRONOUNCING the name in an inappropriate context?
Perhaps my lack of understanding of the needs of Christian theology shuts me
out here, but I fail to see the importance of the distinction you are
attempting to draw.  Is there some reason why a Christian should feel
compelled to PRONOUNCE the name in contradistinction to the Jewish practice
of substituting 'Adonai as a sign of respect?  In other words, would a Jew
who PRONOUNCED the name thereby identify himself as a Christian?  Is there
some theological significance here that I am missing?
Trying to follow your argument, I sense that a simpler explanation is at
hand.  If the PRONUNCIATION of the name, as opposed to the continued WRITING
of it consonantally, had been curtailed by the time of the NT, would it not
follow that their use of kyrios merely reflected the majority usage current
among Jews of the day? In a private note to Dan, I pointed out that since
the four letters are not PRONOUNCED in Jewish liturgy or daily life, young
children studying for their b'nei mitzvah simply never hear it.  They would
have NO IDEA of how to vocalize these consonants because when their eyes see
Yud He Vav He, the signal sent automatically to the brain is "pronounced
'Adonai."  If you were to ask a twelve year old Jewish child to identify
Yahweh, I am sure you would get a blank look in return.  Similarly, even in
the siddurim, often Yud Yud will be written for the Yud He Vav He, and again
the child learns to PRONOUNCE `Adonai automatically.  I believe even many
adults in a typical shul would be hard pressed to tell you, if they heard
you PRONOUNCE "Yahweh," what it meant.  You would have to explain, something
like "this is how Yud-He-Vav-He is vocalized," in order for them to make the
connection--"Oh yeah, he means 'Adonai." [I'm referring to Moshe six-pack
here, of course, not those who may have spent time studying Bible in an
academic context.]  Again, I do not believe anything needs to be read into
this fact on the ground.  One's respect for God, it seems to me, is
reflected in the way one lives rather than in the way a particular name is
or is not pronounced in the custom of a worshipping community.  Without
stepping on toes, I would say that I find no reason to be impressed when a
Christian uses "Jesus" in a particular way.  While anyone can easily SAY
"Jeeeezus," living or DOING Jesus like acts is a different matter.  So too
in Malachi 3, it might have been easy for a bored priest to SAY "Yahweh,"
but to paraphrase Malachi, "his actions in dealing with sacred things spoke
so loudly God could not hear what he was SAYING."
There is one exception, however, that may be of some interest.  In the
reading aloud of a biblical passage [as in the chanting of a Torah parashah
or even a prophetic haftarah], when the consonants Alef-Dalet-Nun-Yud occur
followed by YHWH, the traditional pronunciation is "'Adonai 'Elohim."
Again, I doubt that my young students even think about this after only a
short while.  It too becomes automatic.
Charles David Isbell

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