The Biblical and Jewish roots and Judaeo-Christian reverberations of the Greatest or Mighty Name of God.

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The  Biblical and Jewish roots and Judaeo-Christian reverberations of the Greatest or Mighty Name of God.

Stephen Lambden UCMerced.

In progress and under revision, correction and updating - 1980s-2017.

The Israelite-Jewish roots of the Motif od the Mightiest Name of God

The Islamic, Shī`ī, Ismā’īlī, Shaykhī, Bābī-Bahā’ī  and other representations and interpretations of the al-ism al-a`zam or  ism Allāh al-a`ẓam, the Mightiest of God concept, are rooted in the Hebrew Bible and related post-biblical Jewish and associated literatures. The Mightiest Name concept has its roots within ancient Israelite religion and various of its post-biblical developments expressed within diverse stream of Judaism  spanning the period between around 300 BCE up until the early medieval period (800 CE). 

        The Hebrew Bible contains many references to the various Names of God and their sanctity and power. In ancient Israelite thought knowledge of the Name שמ  (shem) of  God or of the names of various celestial and terrestrial persons and things was thought to be intimately associated with access to their powers and influences. Certain Name (s) of God Himself  are sometimes represented as virtually hypostatic realities of great magnitude. In the Ancient Near East various deities had a multiplicity of names or titles. There are, for example,  fifty or more names of the originally Sumero-Akkadian and subsequently Babylonian high god Marduk in the Enūma Elish  (I:101-2) (Abusch, DDD2: 543-9). In an evolving montheistic setting it is easy to see how one among many names and titles of a particular God is likely to become supreme, to be seen as foremost, singled out for pre-eminence or considered the most powerful or mightiest Name of God.

■ Bibilical Names of the God of Israel

In the Hebrew Bible (= HB) the personal though supernatural Deity who is the God of Israel has ten or more principal names including the common Semitic name `Êl (אל "God") and related theophoric designations such as `Êl-Elyōn (God-Most High"), `Êl-Shaddai ("God All-Powerful"?) `Êlōah ("God" cf. Allāh) and  `Elōhîm ("God" = Heb אלוהים). Especially important names of the God of Israel are  (Heb.) יהוה = YHWH, the tetragrammaton   its abbreviated from  יה = Yāh and its extended form YHWH Sebā’ôt = "Lord of Hosts") as well as Adonai or "Lord" (`ādōnaī ).

 It was perhaps during the reign of Rameses II (13th century B.C.E.) that Moses, a Hebrew with an Egyptian name, "fled from Pharoah and stayed in the land of Midian" (Exodus 2:15) where he married into the family and kept the flock of Jethro the "priest of Midian."  According to Exodus 3:1ff., it was while Moses was working as a shepherd that he encountered God and was called to "bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt":

Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian; and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of the bush; and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, "I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt." When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, "Moses, Moses!" And he said, "Here am I." Then he said, "Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." And he said, "I am the God ( `Elōhîm  Heb.  אלוהים) of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. (Exodus 3:1-6). FN. 2

While in Exodus 3:2, it is an "angel of the Lord" (mal'akh YHWH) or messenger of YHWH which appeared to Moses in a flame of fire of a burning bush, Exodus 3:4 implies that it was יהוה  YHWH ("the Lord") who spoke directly to Moses. As the narrative unfolds, the mysterious angel is seen to represent the God, (ha-) `elōhîm  Heb.  אלוהים ) who subsequently identifies himself as YHWH (Exod.3:15.) This apparent confusion between God and his messengers has been thought to be expressive of the mystery of the divine transcendence. Moses had a visually real though indirect, encounter with his Lord indirectly perceived through His messenger in the ethereal formlessness of a flame of fire set in a burning bush which "was not consumed."

The text of Exodus 3:1-6, cited above is followed by an account of the commission of Moses (3:7-12) and by verses expressive of the revelation of the divine Name:

Then Moses said to God ('elohim),  "If I come to the people of Israel and say to them,  `The God ('elohim) of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?'"  God ('elohim) said to Moses, אהיה אשר אהיה (= 'ehyeh 'asher 'ehyeh)"  "I AM WHO I AM" And he said, "Say this to the people of Israel, `I AM ('ehyeh) has sent me to you.'" God also said to Moses, "Say this to the people of Israel, `The LORD יהוה     (YHWH) the God ('elohim) of your fathers, the God ('elohim) of Abraham, the God ('elohim) of Isaac and the God ('elohim) of Jacob, has sent me to you':  this is my name (lit. my memorial)  for ever and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations (lit.,  for generation of generation)" (Exodus 3:13-15)

Here Moses requests that God disclose His name to the end that his mission to the Israelites will be successful. From the burning bush, the God ('elohim) worshipped by Moses' ancestors first informs Moses that He is, אהיה אשר אהיה = 'ehyeh 'asher 'ehyeh   (trans. = ) "I AM WHO I AM"  or  perhaps,

  •  "I AM THAT [IS WHO] I AM," 
  • "I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE" or
  • "I CAUSE TO BE WHATEVER I CAUSE TO BE". 

 This elusive Hebrew phrase אהיה אשר אהיה may anticipate and throws light on the meaning of the subsequently disclosed name יהיה = YHWH. The three occurences of אהיה  "I AM" here and the most sacred name  יהיה = YHWH   most likely derive from the same Hebrew verbal root (perhaps H-W-Y [H-W-H]  הוה meaning "to be/come to pass"), although there is no consensus exists about this matter. The etymological verbal form in this connection may not be the simple form (qal) but the Hebrew causitive hiphil = "H-Stem".  On the basis of diverse etymologies the implication of  the  אהיה אשר אהיה  may thus be that God is One who acts in sovereign freedom, One Who is Self-Existent, One who makes Himself known in whatever way He chooses or, among other possibilities, One Who sustains existence, or Who cannot be properly known or adequately named.

■ THE TETRAGRAMMATON: יהיה = YHWH 

Occurring more than 6,000 times in the HB the tetragrammaton יהיה = YHWH is the personal Name which the Deity  אלוהים  (`elōhîm  x 2,570 sing.+pl.) "the God" of the Israelite forefathers disclosed to Moses on Sinai. The God ('elohim) worshipped by the patriarchs also gives a more direct reply to Moses' question about His name. He declares Himself to be  יהיה = YHWH the tetragrammaton (Greek, "having four letters"). The four Hebrew consonants that make up the name of God YHWH (yhwh) remain of uncertain pronunciation and meaning. Its exact meaning continues to be debated among biblical scholars and its accepted pronunciation was lost hundreds of years ago, during the Middle Ages.

■ THE TETRAGRAMMATON IN POST-BIBLICAL JUDAISM

According to Freedman's article YHWH in the 5th volume of  TDOT "The problems associated with the Tetragrammaton are manifold and all somewhat technical" (Freeman, TDOT V:500). Such technical matters cannot be discussed in detail here though it can be noted that pronunciations of the tetragrammaton proposed by modern scholars include, YeH H , YeHôáH, YaHôH, and YaHúH  as well of course as the now quite well-known yaHWeH = Yahweh, commonly used,  for example, in the Jerusalem Bible. (Ecole Biblique Jerusalem, 1 vol ed.1951; Eng. 1972; rev. 1966, 73+ [NJB Eng.]1985).

This latter basically erroneous vocalization of  YHWH  is expressed by the artificial and impossible hybrid transliteration YeōWāH which becomes . "Jehovah" in English.   This word was the  invention of  Renaissance Christians who ignored or misunderstood the Masoretic convention of combining of the consonants of YHWH with the vowels of the substitute reading 'adônai (Hebrew, "Lord"), hence           ; also ('elohim). During the past century or more Biblical and other scholars have striven to recover the pronunciation of YHWH. Today the form yahweh  is most widely accepted. For 2,000 years or more, however, the very attempt to pronounce the tetragrammaton was something widely viewed, at least in "orthodox" Jewish circles, as something sacrilegious or spiritually dangerous. 

At some stage after the Babylonian exile, from the late Second Temple period (58 X Zerubbabel] BCE--70 CE), Jews held back from publicly uttering this holy name. The name יהיה = YHWH came to be regarded as "unspeakably holy and therefore unsuitable for use in public reading, although it continued to be used privately" (Freeman, TDOT V:500). Ancient mss.  of the HB or texts therein, including certain of the Dead Sea Scrolls, sometimes refrain from registering the 4 Hebrew Letters constituting יהיה  the tetragrammaton by  abbreviating it or obscuring  its  pronunciation by writing its 4 unvowelled letters in the archaic Hebrew script (cf. 4Q139;  

DIT This reading of the divine name is probably much older than the MT. In some (though by no means all) of the Dead Sea scrolls, the use of the archaic script to write the name may indicate a special pronunciation. In 4Q139, two dots before the name YHWH may serve the same function.5 Material from Jewish sources will be-found in Reisel and Rosh-Pinnah.6 According to Driver,7 the Tetragrammaton was abbreviated to y in early biblical texts, but his argument is not convincing.

The Ineffable Sanctity of the Tetragrammaton

It will recalled that one of the “ten commandments” has it that “thou shalt not take the Name of thy Lord  in vain (Exod.  ). Here the “Name” of thy Lord is  יהוה    YHWH? 

From several centuries BCE the traditional pronunciation of YHWH was only uttered annually by the high priest in the Jerusalem "Holy of Holies". This, among other factors, encouraged numerous speculations as to the nature, identity, power and sanctity of this transcendent divine Name within the Abrahamic religions. Its power was such that according to many Jewish and Islamic texts it gave the prophets and others favoured souls the power to perform miracles. In the Gk. LXX (2nd-3rd cent. BCE?) YHWH is translated theos ("God") or ku,rioj (= Kyrios, [lit. "Strong’?] "Lord"). It often appeared in magical amulets of the first few centuries CE as the all-powerful name (Gk.) iaÿ, Magically inscribed or conjured along with the names Adonai and (the angelic Deity) Abraxas (both related to YHWH), it was such that it could be said, "When this name is but spoken, the earth moves from its foundation" (cited Ringgren TDOT V:509).

Relevant post-biblical source literatures include, for example,  the  pseudepigrahpal Enochian writings, Hellenistic Jewish literatures, various of the Qumran writings ("Dead Sea Scrolls"), as well as Targumic, Rabbinic and other magical, mystical and esoteric writings such as the Hekhalot  (Celestial Palaces) and Merkabah (Throne Chariot) texts.

Within post-biblical Judaism the transcendent sanctity of the divine Name  YHVH (Heb.)  יהוה  (the tetragrammaton, Yahweh, incorrectly = “Jehovah”) was so  safeguarded that its precise, “correct” pronunciation was known only to an elevated priestly few. It was apparently uttered but once a year by the Jewish High Priest in the supremely sanctified  qadosh ha-qadosh (“Holy of Holies”) of the Jerusalem Temple on the Day of Atonement  (            ).

Existing in Palestine-Israel and elsewhere prior to the fall of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE, the Qumran, possibly Essene Jewish faction who treasured the so-called `Dead Sea Scrolls’, were very  ethically and  ritually strict or pius about the personal Name of the transcendent God of Israel. According to the Damascus Document   associated with this faction,

Post-biblical Judaisms, especially varieties of Jewish mysticism and esotericism, added many sometimes novel, hypostatic, occasionally magical, theurgically meaningful, qabbalistic and talismanic Names of God. Certain of the Qumran texts ("Dead Sea Scrolls"), include passages referring to God by means of the "great Name" or reflecting a `Mightiest Name‘ theology. In, for example, col. IV of 4Q504 [4QDib.Hama ], `The `Words of the Luminaries’, a petitioner refers to Jerusalem as the place which God chose, "for your Name to be there for ever." Apparently in eschatological times God- the Name is to sit there for ever enthroned. This such that all countries could vision His "glory" and bring offerings of gold, silver, precious stones, "all the treasures of their country" to his "great Name" to the honour of Israel and Zion "your holy city and your wonderful house" (cf. Haggai 2:7) (trans. Martinez, 415). Many Rabbinic and later Jewish mystical texts celebrate God’s Mightiest Name.

 In the Hekhalot Zu³arti (The Lesser Palaces) and other Merkabah texts (2nd- 6th cent. CE?), the power of the Name is greatly lauded and celebrated (Hekhalot Zu³arti, 337/347 tr. Schäefer 1992:56). This text also mentions the great "Name" of God as being of cosmic potency. Through its instrumentality Moses "was able to part the sea and pile the waters up into high "mountains". The divine essence is made up of powerful, sacred Names forms of which were handed down throughout history by Balaam, Moses, the Angel of Death, David and Solomon (ibid, 357ff). Some of these Names are preserved in a long unintelligible chain incorporating angelic names and such names of God as Shaddai ("All-Powerful"), Qadosh ("Sanctified" ) and the biblical (folk etymology) hy<ha, rv,a] hy<ha (`ehyeh `āsher `ehyeh’ tr. [AV] "I AM THAT I AM" Exod 3:14 <--2.1).

Some permutations of the "Name" of God given in Rabbinic, Jewish mystical and qabbalistic texts, are complex many letter "Names" or secreted formulations. Some are said to consist of 12 letters, others 42 letters while some "Names" are "unintelligible nomina barbara incorporating Greek words. Islamic and Bābī- Bahā’ī sources likewise speak of God’s "Greatest Name" as something supremely powerful, incomprehensible or secret. This has something of a precedent in Rabbinic concepts of God's shem ha-meforash, his "Ineffable" or "Inexplicable" Name (Marmortstein, 1968).

Post-biblical Judaisms, especially varieties of Jewish mysticism and esotericism, added many sometimes novel, hypostatic, occasionally magical, theurgically meaningful, qabbalistic and talismanic Names of God. Certain of the Qumran texts ("Dead Sea Scrolls"), include passages referring to God by means of the "great Name" or reflecting a `Mightiest Name‘ theology. In, for example, col. IV of 4Q504 [4QDib.Hama ], `The `Words of the Luminaries’, a petitioner refers to Jerusalem as the place which God chose, "for your Name to be there for ever." Apparently in eschatological times God- the Name is to sit there for ever enthroned. This such that all countries could vision His "glory" and bring offerings of gold, silver, precious stones, "all the treasures of their country" to his "great Name" to the honour of Israel and Zion "your holy city and your wonderful house" (cf. Haggai 2:7) (trans. Martinez, 415). Many Rabbinic and later Jewish mystical texts celebrate God’s Mightiest Name.

In the Hekhalot Zu³arti (The Lesser Palaces) and other Merkabah texts (2nd- 6th cent. CE?) the power of the Name is greatly lauded and celebrated (Hekhalot Zu³arti, 337/347 tr. Schäefer 1992:56). This text also mentions the great "Name" of God as being of cosmic potency. Through its instrumentality Moses "was able to part the sea and pile the waters up into high "mountains". The divine essence is made up of powerful, sacred Names forms of which were handed down throughout history by Balaam, Moses, the Angel of Death, David and Solomon (ibid, 357ff). Some of these Names are preserved in a long unintelligible chain incorporating angelic names and such names of God as Shaddai ("All-Powerful"), Qadosh ("Sanctified" ) and the biblical (folk etymology) hy<ha, rv,a] hy<ha (`ehyeh `āsher `ehyeh’ tr. [AV] "I AM THAT I AM" Exod 3:14 ).

Some permutations of the "Name" of God given in Rabbinic, Jewish mystical and qabbalistic texts, are complex many letter "Names" or secreted formulations. Some are said to consist of 12 letters, others 42 letters while some "Names" are "unintelligible nomina barbara incorporating Greek words. Islamic and Bābī- Bahā’ī sources likewise speak of God’s "Greatest Name" as something supremely powerful, incomprehensible or secret. This has something of a precedent in Rabbinic concepts of God's shem ha-meforash, his "Ineffable" or "Inexplicable" Name (Marmortstein, 1968).

SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY

Abusch, T.

  • `Marduk' DDD2: 543-9

F. M. Cross,

  • 1973 Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic. Cambridge, Mass.

R. de Vaux, T

  • 1970  "The Revelation of the Divine Name Y-H-W-H," Proclamation and Presence. Festschrift G. H. Davies. XXX: London,  48-75,
  • 1978  The Early History of Israel  (Eng. trans., Philadelphia).

Driver, G. R.

  • 1928  "The Original Form of the Name 'Yahweh': Evidence and Conclusions," ZAW, 7-25.
  • 1960  "Abbreviations in the Massoretic Text," Textus, 1 (1960), 111-131.

Freedman, D. N + O'Connor, M.P.

  • `יהיה YHWH' in  Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament. Ed. G. Johannes Bottereweck  & Helmer Ringgren, (trans. D.E. Green), vol.5 Grand Rapids, Michegan: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. 1986[88], pp. 500-521.

McCarthy, D.J

  • 1978  "Exod. 3:14: History, Philology and Theology," CBQ, 40 (1978), 311-322

Mowinckel, S.

  • 1961   "The Name of the God of Moses," HUCA, 32 (1961), 121-133

Reisel, M

  • 1967 The Mysterious Name of Yahweh (Assen, 1967);

Rosh-Pinnah, E.

  • 1967 "The Sefer Yetzirah and the Original Tetragrammaton," JQR, n.s. 57, 212-226. "