The Unutterable Name of God


I have been asked about a statement from Rome about hymns that include the word ‘Yahweh’.
This is a reference to a letter sent by the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments on June 29 last year to all bishops’ conferences about “the translation and the pronunciation, in a liturgical setting, of the divine name signified in the sacred Tetragrammaton.”

The Tetragrammaton (Greek for “4 letters”) is YHWH, the four consonants of the ancient Hebrew name for God. It is also written as JHVH and YHVH because Hebrew and English letters do not match exactly. The exact pronunciation of YHWH is not now known. It occurs in various written and spoken forms, including Yahweh, Jahweh and Yehovah.
About vocalising YHWH the letter says: “As an expression of the infinite greatness and majesty of God, it was held to be unpronounceable and hence was replaced during the reading of sacred Scripture by means of the use of the alternate name: ‘Adoni’’, which means ‘Lord,’”.

The letter speaks of an ancient tradition “that the sacred Tetragrammaton was never pronounced in the Christian context nor translated into any of the languages into which the Bible was translated”.

YHVH is often referred to as the ‘unutterable’ name of our ‘ineffable’ God, the one who is too great to be expressed in words, who is indefinable. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes God as “the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable” and says that “our human words always fall short of the mystery of God”. (CCC 42)

When Moses asks what name he should give to the one who speaks to him on Mount Horeb, Moses is not asking what to call God. He is asking “Who are you; what are you like; what have you done." This is clear from God's response: “i am who i am.”, meaning that God is eternal, the God of our ancestors.

Because a name represents the reputation of the person addressed, it should be treated with the same respect as is given to the person. For this reason, God's name, in all its forms, is treated with enormous respect and reverence in Judaism.

The recent directive from Rome is not saying anything new. The Church has always been sensitive to concerns among observant Jews about pronouncing the name of God. While the Jerusalem Bible on which the current Lectionary is based uses the term ‘Yahweh’, it has been replaced by ‘Lord’ or ‘God’ in the Lectionary passages.

The practice has crept in however of using the God of Israel's proper name in hymns. Examples from the popular repertoire include “You Are Near”, “Yahweh (is the God of my salvation)”, “Strong and Constant”, “Micah’s Theme” and “Yahweh, the Faithful One”. At the very least, songs such as these will need to be edited to remove the word “Yahweh”. Composers have been asked to try to come up with alternate language for their hymns. Late last year, the Queensland Knights of the Southern Cross launched a campaign against improper use of the Lord’s name. This Vatican directive provides an opportunity to encourage the faithful to show reverence for the name of God in daily life, emphasising the power of language as an act of devotion and worship.

Elizabeth Harrington