Outlook Issue 22 Winter 2016
News and Views from St. Mary's Woodbridge
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A personal God
A personal God – and the stats prove it! While doing some research for an article in a reference book, I came across a surprising statistic: the seventh most frequent word in the Hebrew of the Old Testament is God’s special name YHWH. To put this into perspective, the most frequent Hebrew word is ve meaning ‘and’, followed by the word meaning ‘the’. Next comes le which means ‘to’ and ‘belonging to’, followed by be meaning ‘in, by, for the price of’. The next most common word is eth which marks the direct object of a verb, while the sixth most common is min, ‘from’. Then comes the special personal name YHWH, occurring more frequently than a number of common prepositions, and much more frequently than any verb or noun. Even the word for God occurs only 2,600 times, far fewer than the name YHWH, which comes over 6,800 times. In the prophetic books there is a marked tendency to avoid the word ‘God’ in favour of YHWH, because the word ‘God’ is not sufficiently specific. The exact pronunciation of YHWH is unknown. The name came to be regarded as so sacred in Ancient Israel that to pronounce it was to commit an offence, punishable by death. In Jewish tradition, where this name occurs in the Bible in Hebrew, a reader will substitute the word adonai, meaning ‘Lord’. This tradition was continued in the Christian Church, and in English translations of the Bible the special name YHWH is represented by the word LORD in small capital letters. Scholars believe that the name was pronounced ‘Yahveh’ and that it was etymologically connected with the verb ‘to be’, as indicated in Exodus 3.14, ‘I AM WHO I AM’. In several Old Testament passages the name YHWH is given a kind of explanation – for example, at Exodus 33.19, where it is explained as ‘I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy’. In many parts of the Old Testament YHWH is described as the God who brought his people out of slavery in Egypt. God has revealed his personal name … We give names to our pets and sometimes to our cars! Personal names establish bonds between us and, in some cases, objects. There are only two ways of finding out someone’s personal name: either they tell us themselves, or we ask someone who knows them. In God’s case, he has revealed his personal name. This should give us much food for thought! John Rogerson Emeritus Professor of Biblical Studies, University of Sheffield