When Moses first encountered the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the desert God revealed his name to Moses. The account is recorded in Exodus 3. Moses had fled Egypt because he had killed an Egyptian while defending a Hebrew slave. He was now living with his father-in-law, a priest of Midian called Jethro, and tending to his flocks in the wilderness. When Moses arrived at a place called Horeb he saw the strange site of a bush that was burning and yet not consumed. God spoke to Moses out of the bush, telling him that he had heard the cry of the Israelite slaves in Egypt and that he would deliver them from their oppressors.
Listen to Exodus 3
In verses 13-15, Moses asked God what his name was. God replied “I AM WHO I AM.” This can also be translated as “I AM WHAT I AM” or “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE.”
Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘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, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.
The name “I AM WHO I AM” reveals a truth about God. God always has been, God is, and God always will be. Everything else is described in relation to God. The Book of Exodus was originally written in Hebrew, the language of the Israelites. The text in Hebrew is יהוה which when transliterated into English becomes YHWH (or sometimes YHVH). This is referred to as the Tetragrammaton, a Greek word that means ‘word of four letters.’ The Hebrew text originally only contained the consonants and the reader would add the vowels when reading aloud. The context would make this possible for someone who knew Hebrew well. Consider the following sentence with vowels removed.
Th qck brwn fx jmps vr th lzy dg.
The third of the Ten Commandments states: “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Ex. 20:7). In fact, anyone who blasphemed the Name of God would be subject to the death penalty (Lev. 24:16). For fear of breaking this commandment the name YHWH would not be spoken except by the High Priest on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Instead it was referred to simply as ‘the Name’ – Hashem. Even today, many observant Jews will not write the word God, writing instead G-d.
When reading aloud from Scripture the word Adonai would be substituted for יהוה (YHWH). Adonai means ‘my Lord’ and so is used as a title which shows respect for God’s name. When vowel markings were later added to the Hebrew script the vowels for Adonai were added to YHWH to indicate that Adonai should be pronounced rather than the Name. These vowels, ‘a,’ ‘o’ and ‘a,’ were later incorrectly placed within the letters YHWH to make YaHoWah, which via Latin and German became the name Jehovah. This was how the translators of the Authorised Version, or King James Version (KJV) translated the Name into English.
The actual pronunciation of YHWH has been lost, although the suggested pronunciation of modern scholars is Yahweh or Yarveh. Modern English translations of the Bible usually use the capitalised words ‘the LORD’ to indicate the name YHWH. The LORD is therefore not a translation of the word YHWH, but is instead a title given to show respect to the name.
In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, known as the Septuagint (LXX), written in the two or three centuries before Jesus, so called because according to tradition it was written by seventy Jewish scholars, YHWH is translated using the Greek word Kyrios (κύριος) which also means ‘Lord’ or ‘Master.’ This is also the word used by the writers of the New Testament when they state that Jesus is Lord. Thus, the New Testament writers reveal that Jesus is YHWH. The origin of the name Jesus is for another post.