YHWH


The Story Behind the Name

YHWH. Four consonants – and we are only guessing when we try to pronounce it. But we start here because it is the name God gave to us when Moses asked Him to tell us what his name is. It is the name of God that is recorded more than any other in the Hebrew Scriptures and there is not even a close second.

A given name, especially in Jewish history, meant something. More than a unique arrangement of letters that felt good when it rolled off your tongue, a name may have been given to commemorate an event or a character snapshot at a baby’s birth, or to represent a dream or hope for the child’s future. Somehow in the Old Testament that naming system really synched up most of the time – A name very often captured something about the essence of a person.

So when God gave us this name, YHWH, it was more than just a set of letters that sounded like the name of a deity. It was a description of His character. It said something about who He was in relationship to His people. It says something about who He is in relationship to us.

The story behind this name begins in Exodus 3, but first the background story.

As Exodus 3 opens, the people of Israel were not quite yet what could be defined as a nation. There were a lot of people, but they did not possess land to call their own. They did not have an organized set of laws by which they ordered themselves. They were more of a nationality than an independent self-governing entity. The unifying piece of their history – the one thing that connected them - was that they all had descended from a man named Abraham. It was a culture rich in story and one of the stories that was told again and again was of Abraham, their long ago ancestor, who had left his home and his community and his known world to set out on a life long adventure because there was a God who promised to multiply his offspring until they became a nation so numerous that they would not be able to be counted. There was land in the promise too. God took Abraham to the place this nation would one day live. Abraham lived the rest of his life believing that God was telling the truth.

Everyone must have loved the stories:

Baby Isaac who was born to Abraham and his wife Sarah when they were so old that is was impossible to have a baby unless it was a miracle from God.
Isaac and Rebekah’s son Jacob – the sneaky conniving manipulator whose name was changed to Israel by the very same God that had spoken to Abraham.
And Jacob’s twelve sons – who through a horrible case of sibling rivalry and deceit and meanness had by divine intervention landed in Egypt.

The stories carried the promise of hope – but there had not been a sequel to the story for a very long time. It had been 400 years since Jacob’s family of 70 people had moved to Egypt. As the 3rd chapter of Exodus begins, Jacob’s twelve sons and their descendants, the children of Israel, had grown to over 2 million people.

These children of Israel, the Israelites, were certainly big enough to be a nation. But they were trapped as slaves in Egypt. They didn’t live in their own land. They didn’t live by their own laws. They didn’t have their own leader – at least they didn’t know Him very well. They knew of the God of their ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but the stories were old. Looking around, it was hard to tell if God even remembered them.

I wonder if the stories were starting to seem more like a legend than a promise.

There was the older generation – men and women in their 80’s and 90’s who remembered a time when the Israelites hope for a future was stirred. Their parents had told them the stories of God-fearing midwives who defied Pharaoh’s law in the years some of them were born. The law ordered the midwives to kill the Hebrew baby boys at birth, but the midwives let the baby boys live. Those baby boys – grown men by now - believed that they were alive because the God those midwives believed in, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, had protected them. The big story of their generation was about the little Levite baby who was rescued from a basket in the Nile River by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised in the palace. I wonder if there was speculation that this kid Moses might grow up to be the one to lead Israel out of Egypt. But he had gotten into trouble killing an Egyptian and had fled to the desert for safety. By the time Exodus 3 rolled around, Moses hadn’t been heard from in 40 years. It seemed that story had turned out to be a dead end.

There was another piece of the ancient story - a piece that could have kept a sliver of hope alive during those eternal days of tedious and impossible brick making and sun scorched labor. Did the Israelite sons and daughters lie in bed at night, waiting for a breeze, asking to hear the story again? Did moms and dads, struggling to hang on to belief, find a convincing voice to retell it?

“Then the LORD said to him (Abraham), ‘Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions…In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here (to the land God had promised)….”
Genesis 15:13-16.

Before sleep came, desperately wanting to believe the story, were there were more questions from the thin floor mats in the corner?

“Dad, has it been 400 years yet?”

“Will God remember His promise?”

“Mom, are we the fourth generation? What does that mean? Will it be soon?”

“How do you think He will punish them? I hope it hurts.”

The curtain on the stage of Exodus 3 is about to open.

More than 2 million Israelites are despondent under the crushing load of work required by the Egyptian taskmasters. They are crying out for help.

Moses meanwhile, has settled into life in the desert of Midian with his wife Zipporah and their two sons. He tends the sheep of his father-in-law Jehtro, the priest of Midian. He is far away from Egypt and it seems like he is ok with that.

Israel may think that God has forgotten them, but He has not.

Moses might be thinking that God is done with him, but He is not.

God is about to bring the pieces of His story together in a way that will determine the trajectory of history. He is going to move a few million oppressed slaves out of one of the most powerful nations in the known world through the leadership of a reluctant 80 year old shepherd who has gone into hiding.

He has a promise to keep and He has not forgotten.

One more question. What was the big deal with a nation? Why didn’t God just choose a nation that already existed instead of taking hundreds of years to grow one up from scratch?

More than anything, God wants us to know Him. His wants us to do life with Him. He wanted to make Himself known again. Not just to a nation, but to the whole world.

He had made Himself known before, to Adam and Eve at creation, to Noah and his family after the flood, but people kept forgetting Him. Everyone wanted to have gods to believe in but they stopped paying attention to the God who created them. Ignoring the One true God, nations created hundreds of gods of their own.

And the rest of the world knew of these make-believe gods by the nation each one was associated with.

The Bible doesn’t specifically say, but maybe that is why God chose to raise up a nation. Everyone knew the gods of the Egyptians and the gods of the Philistines and the gods of the Canaanites. Maybe the best way during that period of history for God make Himself known in a big way was to attach His name to a specific nation. It was tangible. People knew how to think about a god who was attached to a group of people.

It would have be a nation that had never in its history worshipped or revered any God other than the One True God. The slightest chance that any other god could be given credit for the things God was about to do had to be impossible. The whole saga of spending 400 years as slaves in Egypt makes a ton of sense. It took that much time to grow from 70 people into millions. As oppressed slaves the Israelites did not worship the gods of Egypt. There was no incentive to do that. The Israelites remained a distinct people group held together by the stories and the God of their ancestors.

Finally, it was time. Everything was in place.

God was ready to lead this weary broken assembly of brick makers out of Egypt. And they were really ready to get out of there. It was time to birth a nation. God would deliver them from the bondage of Egypt. He would redeem Israel as His own. He would give them a law. He would go with them to their promised land.

They would know him by His name.

And then the world could know that YHWH, the God of Israel, is the God of all the earth.

And so: Exodus chapter three.

You can read the account in
Exodus 3:1-15.

It started one ordinary day when Moses was minding his own business, tending his father-in-laws sheep “and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.” (
Ex. 3:1)

In the Bible, Mount Horeb is sometimes called the mountain of God. It is also known as Mt. Sinai.

When Flavius Josephus, a first century historian, wrote about this story in The Antiquties of the Jews, he said that Mount Sinai was lush for grazing. Shepherds were afraid to take their flocks to this pastureland though, because the prevailing opinion of the day was that God dwelt there. I wonder if Moses had ever heard anything like that. Was he looking for God? Or just good pasture? Did he have any idea that he was about to find both?

I suppose that a brush fire out in the open field is not all that unusual – especially if it is part desert. A vigilant shepherd would certainly stay alert to potential dangers to his flock. Wild fires can spread quickly. The slightest hint of a fire would draw the attention of a good shepherd right away. But this particular fire was not normal. It didn’t make sense. It was weird. Not only were the flames not spreading to nearby shrubs, they were not even burning up the bush they were in. The flame was in the bush but the bush was not on fire.

Moses was compelled to investigate. God absolutely had his attention. What was going on? Were his sheep in danger? Was it just a mirage? Was this bush really not burning up?

And if Moses thought the flames were a mystery, when a voice from inside the bush called his name his heart must have stopped. And then jumped to his throat and gotten stuck there beating a jillion times a minute.

“Moses! Moses!”

And Moses said, ‘Here I am.’ (
Exodus 3:4)

Whoever it was that spoke his name was from beyond Moses’ tangible reality. He had been educated with princes in the palaces of Egypt but he had not been taught about fire that did not consume bushes or gods who had conversations with men. So when the voice instructed Moses to stop where he was and to take off his sandals, I think that is exactly what he did.

Reverence. Humility. Honor.

He was standing on Holy ground. He was standing in the presence of God.

God introduced Himself to Moses with words that were familiar to him. I love that when God is about to teach us something new, he often starts with what we know:

“I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” (from
Exodus 3:6)

The old stories. Moses knew them. The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob was the God of the promise and the land and the hope. God was remembering his people. And for a purpose beyond Moses’ wildest imagination, God was talking to him.

When Moses realized that the voice was God’s, he immediately hid his face. It was instinct. He didn’t have to think about what to do. He didn’t stand there trying to remember proper protocol for standing before God. Because in those moments when a human being realizes he or she is in the presence of God something extraordinary happens. Sidewalks and kitchen chairs and grazing areas for sheep become sacred spaces. And we bow. We hide our faces because God is holy and we are not. Later in Exodus there is a story where God says, “No one can see my face and live.” That hadn’t been written down yet. Moses didn’t need it to be.

God had more to say to Moses: He had seen the misery of the Israelites in Egypt. He heard their cries for help. He had come down to rescue them from slavery. He was ready to take them to the land He had promised so long ago to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. It was time to get His people out of Egypt.

Oh and Moses – one more thing:

“I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” (from
Exodus 3:10)

Wait. What? But God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

Moses – I am going with you. You’re asking who are you? That you should go to Pharaoh? You are the guy who has Me. I am your God and I am in this with you. We are going to do this together.

I am the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, but I am also the God of you. I am the God of your history, but I am also the God of your present, as uncertain as it may seem to you right now.

And just so you know that I am telling the truth: When you have brought the Israelites out of Egypt, you will come back to this mountain to worship me. We are all coming back to Mt. Sinai, Moses. Because I am also the God who knows the future. You are going to see that you can trust me on this.

Moses, still uncertain about the plan, said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” (
Exodus 3:13)

Considering his upbringing, why do you think Moses wanted to know God’s name?

God was calling Moses to go back to Egypt – the land where he had grown up in the palace of Pharaoh. Moses knew the culture of the Egyptians and the influence of the religious structure on that civilization. Egypt was extremely polytheistic – there were gods for everything. The gods were known by name and each one had authority over a specific realm. Egypt honored Ra, the god of the sun; Isis, the god of magic; Hathor, the god of music; Geb, the earth god; Nut, the sky god; Osiris, the god of the dead; and even Bastet, the god of cats. There may have been over 2000 gods in ancient Egypt.

It is against this backdrop that Moses asks the question.

In essence Moses is saying, Look, God, the Israelites have heard about the promises you made to their ancestors, but they don’t see a connection between You and their day to day existence. Back in Egypt the gods are each known by a name. Each one is identified by their specific name and by the one thing that they have jurisdiction over. So – if I go back there to do what you’ve asked me to – I need a name for you. What can I say you are the God of? What is your name?

“God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ” (
Exodus 3:14)

What does that mean? It seems like kind of a vague answer, don’t you think? Anyone can say “I am.” How is that a name?

In Hebrew, the word that has been translated into “I am” is “hayah.” When we say “I am” in English it means one thing. It is present tense. It describes right now. Hayah has a much broader meaning. The Hebrew verb tense in this statement by God does not refer to one given moment.

In Exodus 3:14 “hayah” is in the imperfect tense.

The Hebrew language has two basic tenses. The perfect tense is a complete action. The imperfect tense expresses an action, process or condition, which is incomplete. The imperfect tense may have started in the past and/or it may be an action that will continue into the future.

Sometimes God’s reply is translated into English as’ “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE.”

In contrast to the many gods of the Egyptians, where the jurisdiction of each god was limited to one entity, God said to Moses, I am the God of eternity: what was, what is, and what is to come. I have jurisdiction over everything you can think of and everything that you haven’t even thought of yet. I was God before you were born, I am God now, and I will be God forever. If anyone wants to know my name, say that I AM. I am the eternally existing One.

God’s answer was not elusive or spoken in a secret code.

God wanted Israel to know that He was the God in the stories of their ancestors, He was the God who was hearing their cries and seeing their oppression in Egypt, and He would also be the God who would continue to reveal Himself to them in their unknown future.

And then, God took the root word “hayah” and added a prefix to give us the name He is to be known by: YHWH.

God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’ “This is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation. (
Exodus 3:15)

Do you see where LORD is written in all capital letters? That is the way YHWH is written in many English translations of the Bible. (Other words like Adonai are translated Lord with lowercase letters.) Some older versions of the Bible translated YHWH as Jehovah. The root word of YHWH is hayah. God took this simple root word, a verb that is used frequently in Hebrew to convey a state of being, and added a letter in front to give us His name.

My friend Ben is fluent in Hebrew. He grew up in Israel and even though he lives and works in the US, he reads Hebrew every day so that he will not forget it. He is not a Christ follower but he is a student of the Hebrew Scriptures and has a copy of the Old Testament written in Hebrew in his office at the university where he teaches. I asked him about the meaning of YHWH. He told me that Hebrew words originate with a root word. Prefixes and suffixes are added to form new words. He believes that the prefix in front of hayah changes “I AM” to ‘The One who causes all things to be.” Other Hebrew scholars have interpreted the name this way as well. When God is speaking of Himself, He says "I AM” in first person. When He speaks the name as we would address Him, He says, “The One who causes all things to be.” He is the ever-existing One who is the source of everything that has being.

Moses asked for something that would fit on a nametag. But in this burning bush conversation God said, “Don’t put me into a box. I cannot be limited by the neat finite categories that humans have designed to explain their gods. I am infinitely beyond that kind of definition. My name is hayah, I AM.”

Every time I read that I pause. I breathe more deeply. It settles me somehow. I love that God has known all along of our need to walk through life with a God whose name does not fit on a nametag.

HE WAS.
HE IS.
HE CONTINUES TO BE.

I am so thankful that when Moses asked God what His name is, He said, “I AM.”

Next:
YHWH - Going Deeper