I often get asked about the “true pronunciation of the divine name” or “the authentic meaning of YHWH, the Tetragrammaton.” I’ve often wondered why people care — why is it that they can’t be content with the scholarly convention of “Yahweh” in this regard, especially if they aren’t scholars, the people who typically argue about such things. I got at least one answer to this question this week as a guest on an internet podcast, and it turned my stomach. I’d normally reserve a post like this for my other blog, PaleoBabble, but since this story involves explaining the Tetragrammaton, I’m posting it here. Please bear with me; I know this is unfamiliar fodder for this blog.
Anti-Semitic Conspiracy as a Hermeneutic
I was guest this week on a blog talk radio show called “Search Engine International.” It’s apparently out of the UK. The hosts were two men who referred to themselves as “Elder Rawchaa” and “Brother Gaja”. The show is ostensibly some sort of Christian broadcast, but these two are committed to anti-Semitic thinking. I know this is going to sound crazy, but I was basically on the show so they could teach me the great truth that the name “Yahweh” had been inserted into the Old Testament by some sort of ancient demonic conspiracy, and that this name actually pointed to Baal. Consequently, Yahweh is a false god, and so the Jews are worshipping an evil entity and, presumably, are therefore evil. The “real” name of God was “Ahyah” (this pronunciation tells you they couldn’t read the biblical Hebrew text, but bear with me). I know some of you will think this is just Gnosticism, but it’s more complicated (or dumber) than that. The hosts danced around their nutty idea for about 40 minutes of the hour interview (that alone tells you something — why try to be coy if what you think is legitimate?), but as soon as Elder Rawchaa quoted from a book by Henry Makow, I knew where they were headed. Henry Makow is the force behind a website that promotes the “truth” of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic propaganda hoax that promotes the idea of a Jewish plan for global control. Wikipedia is worth a quick reference here for those to whom The Protocols is new: “It was first published in Russia in 1903, translated into multiple languages, and disseminated internationally in the early part of the 20th century. Henry Ford funded printing of 500,000 copies that were distributed throughout the US in the 1920s.”
I nearly ended the interview by signing off with a “Heil Hitler,” but only refrained from doing so because it was recorded — no telling what people whose minds are so poisoned might do with that. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a well-known, demonstrable hoax. My hosts of course denied this. As David Redles notes in his scholarly work, Hitler’s Millennial Reich: Apocalyptic Belief and the Search for Salvation (NYU Press, 2005):
“The Protocols is, of course, a hoax. But it was, and for some anti-Semites, still is, a believed hoax. The forgery, a concoction of the Czarist secret police, the Okhrana, combined an obscure nineteenth century anti-Napoleon III satire, Maurice Joly’s Dialogue aux Enfers entre Machiavel et Montesquieu (1864), with The Rabbi’s Speech, a portion of a novel by Hermann Goedsche titled Biarritz (1868). The Rabbi’s Speech is a millennial, with references to the imminent coming of the Jewish messianic age that will see the House of David assume leadership of the world in fulfillment of the covenant of Jehovah. The covenant is realized by Jews through manipulation of the evils of modernity, including capitalism, which is portrayed as centralizing wealth and power in the hands of the Jews, and both democracy and socialism . . . The Protocols became a key element in Hitler’s conspiratorial thinking, for it was used to explain the apocalyptic chaos (of the Weimar Republic — MSH). The international Jewish bankers, he argued, had created the hyperinflation that had forced Germans into epidemic hunger, making them pliant in the face of a Jewish -Bolshevik type revolution and thereby taking another step toward the creation of the Jewish millennial paradise of world domination. Hitler’s conspiratorial mentality, and its peculiar logic, is also seen in his reaction to the disclosure that The Protocols were a fake. He charged that, since the press was controlled by the Jews (part of the plan revealed in The Protocols), the accusations of forgery by the press only proved that The Protocols were true” (pp. 55, 58).1
Hitler of course talks about The Protocols in Mein Kampf. A detailed scholarly analysis of The Protocols was published by Hadassa Ben-Itto, a lawyer and judge in Israel for over thirty years. Her work is called The Lie that Wouldn’t Die: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (Vallentine-Mitchell, 2005). I would also recommend The Paranoid Apocalypse: A Hundred-Year Retrospective on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (ed. Richard Landes and Steven T. Katz, NYU Press 2012). This book is a collection of scholarly essays on The Protocols and the subsequent academic focus on the hoax. It’s a wonderful academic investigation into Jewish conspiracy thinking. For those who follow my fiction, one of the essays (by Michael Barkun) will be of special interest: “Anti-Semitism from Outer Space: The Protocols in UFO Subculture.” How about that?
The Meaning of the Tetragrammaton for Conspiratorial Anti-Semites
So how did my hosts defend the idea that the name “Yahweh” was forged into the Hebrew Bible as a (believe it or not) demonic/Jewish conspiracy? I’ll trace how my hosts argued their point, but understand up front that it’s a journey to non sequitur land.
1. Their first point was the the real name of God was “Ahyah.” This of course is taken from Exo 3:12, 14, but it’s a mis-transliteration of the Hebrew (= ‘ehyeh = אֶהְיֶה). Since this is the way God pronounced his own name, nothing else is God’s name. The Tetragrammaton (YHWH; יהוה) cannot, therefore, be God’s name. The YHWH word was forged into the Hebrew Bible. I went through the fact that ‘ehyeh (אֶהְיֶה) was simply the grammatical first person of the verbal root h-y-h (hayah; in ancient Semitic also h-w-h since y/w are often interchanged) and that yahweh would be the third person form. It would be expected that when God refers to himself he would use the first person (don’t we?) and when others referred to God’s name using the h-y/w-h root it would be in the third person. This didn’t phase them. They asked me what “translation” I was using to get all this, and I told them it wasn’t a translation and that it was Hebrew grammar — I was using the Hebrew text, known as the Masoretic text. Their response was “ahhhh [play creepy music here] the Masoretic text …”).
2. At this point Elder Rawchaa read a passage from Makow’s book, which, among other things, asserted that the YHWH had been inserted (yes, thousands of times) into the Old Testament by the Pharisees (whom Elder Rawchaa apparently confused with the Masoretes in his comment above about the Masoretic text). This forgery operation was part of a conspiracy (I’m still fuzzy on which motive they preferred) to change God’s name and thus make it lost to history or to honor a demonic god, Baal (who of course was who they worshipped — after all the Jewish Masoretes were enemies of Jesus).
3. After this “teaching point,” Elder Rawchaa proceeded to read me a few more quotations from occult sources (other members of the Jewish global conspiracy – the Illuminati, the Freemasons, Rothschilds, etc.) where the Tetragrammaton was used in occult formulae in connection with Baal and other gods.
4. Elder Rawchaa also referred me to Exod 6:3, where the text says (in most, perhaps all, English translations that the patriarchs did not know God by the name Yahweh, but as El-Shaddai. He also produced several passages like Hos 2:16 (“And in that day, declares the Lord, you will call me ‘My Husband,’ and no longer will you call me ‘My Baal’) to further make his point that the Tetragrammaton was a name for Baal and thus evil.
Well, let’s think about this just a bit, point by point.
Points 1, 2
In response to the issues of ‘ehyeh (“I am”) versus the form yhwh / yahweh, I’ve written up an explanation of the forms of the word and how they relate on a permanently posted page on this site. You can click through for that. That page contains a link to 17 pages of excerpted portions of three resources for much more technical discussion. I won’t backtrack on the morphology here. Instead, I want to focus on the response of Elder Rawchaa (“ahhhh the Masoretic text …”) and the logical flaws of his view.
First, the Pharisees are not the Masoretes of the Masoretic Text tradition. The Pharisees and scribes of the NT were around before the Masoretic Text was produced (ca. 100 AD). Consequently, the Pharisees did not insert the Tetragrammaton into the Hebrew Bible (HB). The HB was around long before the Pharisees. How do we know? The Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS). Several of the scrolls include the Tetragrammaton (in paleo-Hebrew or Phoenician-style script, no less), so unless one wants to ignore things like space and time, you’t not getting a Pharisee-led divine name insertion campaign. (But who knows; I’ve learned with these sorts of “thinkers” to expect the unexpected, no matter how bizarre). I managed to point this out to the Elder. That led a bit later on to “other people” committing the forgery — but no surrender of his original point. Other people … like the Moabites? (Yahweh appears in the Moabite Stela / Mesha Stela; 9th century BC) as the god of Israel). The Kuntillet Ajurdu inscriptions? The Khirbet el-Qom inscriptions? (Both from the 8th century BC). I’m guessing the Elder would say these are paganized (or heterodox) inscriptions and so they must support his position. He’d be correct with respect to the former, but not the latter. The point is that the name, associated with Israel, predates the Pharisees. That the divine name is found in texts outside the HB does not mean the HB got it as an import from other cultures. That is a non sequitur. Why couldn’t it be the other way around — that the non-biblical texts were written by people *about* Israel and its national deity? Answer: it could and was, since the name of Israel’s god is known from even older sources. But the thinking is flawed even without this. Saying there was “importation” in this one direction is like saying the name “Baal” in Canaanite texts was imported into them by Phoenicians since Baal shows up in those texts as well. You have to assume omniscience (against much more reasonable answers) to think like this. Or, you create an idea that reinforces your anti-Semitic position and proceed therefrom.
The divine name appears in Egyptian texts as well. As the ABD article on “Yahweh” notes:
To move outside of the Levant, we find Egyptian name lists which include a Syrian site, Ya-h-wa (No. 97), which is identical to Yahweh. A Rameses II (1304–1237 b.c.) list is found in a Nubian temple in ˓Amarah West with six names (Nos. 93–98) following the designation “Bedouin area.” Nos. 96–98 have been found at Soleb in Nubia on an Amon temple of Amenhotep III (1417–1379). No. 93, Sa-˓ra-r, has been identified with Seir (Edom) and related to the biblical references (Deut 33:2) which associate Yahweh with Seir and Paran. This could be taken as evidence the name was known in Edom or Midianite territory ca. 1400 b.c. (EncRel 7: 483–84).
However, Astour (IDBSup, 971) notes that the writing “S-r-r” is incorrect as opposed to the spelling in other Egyptian inscriptions. Furthermore, three of the sites, including Yi-ha, on Rameses III’s temple in Medinet Habu, are in a Syrian context suggesting that Ya-h-wa/Yi-ha was also in Syria. Thus the name is not associated with Edom or Midianites but does seem to appear as early as 1400 b.c. in Syria.2
So, now we’re back to 1400 BC – and other scholars would associate the term in these texts with Edom and Moab. Hess notes:
Some scholars see here the origins of the worship of Yahweh in the southern desert of what are today the regions of the Sinai and the Negev. In the topographical list of Pharaoh Amenophis III (c. 1395–1358 BC) is found the expression t3 š3sw yhw, which can be interpreted, “the Shosu-land of Yahweh” or “Yhw in the land of the Shasu.” Shosu/Shasu was an Egyptian term for groups of nomadic peoples who were located in the desert areas east of Egypt. If this is to be interpreted as the name of a place or people in the area of Seir (Edom) and the southern desert, rather than to the north, then the biblical theophanies mentioned above, the associations in Exodus of Yahweh worship with Midianites and with Sinai, and the revelation of Yahweh in Exodus 3 and 6 may be related. This does not necessarily relate the Egyptian term to Israelites (although that is possible). It simply argues that Yahweh was known and worshiped in the deserts south of Canaan in the fourteenth century BC. However, there are those who question the identification of this place name with Yahweh.52 Even so, Smith is correct in affirming the early identification of Yahweh with sources in the southern desert (Judg. 1:16; 4:11; 5:4–6, 24). He suggests that the desert origins parallel those of the Ugaritic god Athtar (rather than Baal), who is both a warrior deity and a precipitation-producing deity associated with inland desert sites. He notes that Numbers 23:8, 22 and 24:8 associate the god of the exodus with El, and argues that El should be distinguished from Yahweh.533
So, for the sake of Elder Rawchaa and this conversation, the case can indeed be made the divine name goes all the way back to the biblical Mosaic period. What a surprise. But that’s only a segue to Point 4 below.
This one hardly needs comment. That occultist literature uses names of pagan deities and demons in the same sentences, formulae, incantations, etc. with Yahweh does not mean that either the occult writer saw them as all the same, or (!) the biblical writer who lived millennia earlier saw them the same. What a writer living between the Renaissance and the contemporary era thought cannot be used to produce the same thought in the mind of a second or first millennium BC writer. You’d think that would be obvious …. you’d think a lot of other things, here, I know.
Elder Rawchaa’s use of Exod 6:3 is unique. However, it is related to a much more common notion, that Exod 6:3 tells us the patriarchs didn’t know their god by the name Yahweh. I’ll give two approaches that undermine the Elder’s use of this to separate Israel from the name Yahweh – one that disputes this understanding of Exod 6:3 and one that presumes it.
With respect to the former, I’ve pointed out elsewhere on this blog (in footnotes, granted) that the consensus translation (” I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the Lord I did not make myself known to them”) is only one syntactical possibility. Another much less familiar option was pointed out by Francis Andersen years ago in his book, The Sentence in Biblical Hebrew. On syntactical grounds, Andersen argues for a translation that is basically opposite in its meaning to the accepted view: “I am the Lord (YHWH). I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai. And my name is the Lord (YHWH); did I not make myself known to them?” The verse in this translation expresses a rhetorical question. At the very least, Andersen’s seminal work on sentence structure and its implications for this crucial text should be part of the conversation.
With respect to the latter, I would draw readers’ attention to Hess’ quotation cited above. This portion is relevant:
“Some scholars see here the origins of the worship of Yahweh in the southern desert of what are today the regions of the Sinai and the Negev. In the topographical list of Pharaoh Amenophis III (c. 1395–1358 BC) is found the expression t3 š3sw yhw, which can be interpreted, “the Shosu-land of Yahweh” or “Yhw in the land of the Shasu.” Shosu/Shasu was an Egyptian term for groups of nomadic peoples who were located in the desert areas east of Egypt. If this is to be interpreted as the name of a place or people in the area of Seir (Edom) and the southern desert, rather than to the north, then the biblical theophanies mentioned above, the associations in Exodus of Yahweh worship with Midianites and with Sinai, and the revelation of Yahweh in Exodus 3 and 6 may be related.”
The implication of Hess’ comment is that the patriarchs didn’t know their god by the name Yahweh, but by other names. Yahweh was the name used in Midian – precisely where Exodus 3 has Moses for the burning bush experience when he reveals the divine name. Elder Rawchaa wants to restrict that name to “Ahyah” but the archaeological material (not to mention the biblical material) inform us that “Yahweh” wouldn’t have need forging or importing – it was the name by which the god of the mountain was know, even before we had a Hebrew Bible. This difference between the two (‘ehyeh and yahweh) is only morphological (once again, see my page on this for an explanation).
With respect to Hos 2:16 (“And in that day, declares the Lord, you will call me ‘My Husband,’ and no longer will you call me ‘My Baal’) I’d suggest that the verse does not at all say that “the name Yahweh wasn’t original to the Hebrew Bible.” Rather, it … well … says what it says – that the *8th century BC* Israelites to whom Hosea was writing were committing evil by calling Yahweh Baal (co-identifying the two). Here’s the logic teaching moment: that some Israelites did this does not mean (a) that all Israelites did it, or (b) that Israelites before the 8th century all the way back to the patriarchal era did it.
I’m not sure how Elder Rawchaa would handle the fact that Hosea was Jewish, either.
Lastly, to mop up, there are some other logical disconnections related to the Elder’s viewpoint.
(1) Elder Rawchaa never explained why the Old Testament’s “non-Ahyah” El-names in the Bible were okay and not demonic names. I’m guessing they’re demonic, too, but that’s only a guess.
(2) Going back one last time to the “aaahhh … the Masoretic Text” response of suspicion, Elder Rawchaa never explained how the Masoretic Text outside Exodus 3 (for his Yahweh-Baal links) was a perfectly fine text when it reinforced his idea (or so he thought) but not when I used it for rebuttal.
Well, I know this was long, but I thought it worth blogging. I’m still asking what lessons I should take away from this interview (other than to quit doing interviews; still considering that). One thing that isn’t really a lesson, but which hit home again to me, was how easily these two guys could have destroyed the average church-goer today. If folks like them can devote the amount of time and industry to anti-Semitic Bible study that they obviously have, what does that say for the people occupying the pews now? Kind of disturbing.
- Incidentally, Redles’ work is the *best* book I’ve ever read for understanding Hitler’s worldview. It really ought not be any mystery as to what motivated him or his inner circle with respect to the holocaust — and his thinking was molded and set in place before he came to power. I can’t recommend this book more highly for those interested in understanding the mind of Hitler. ↩
- Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6:1012, 1992. ↩
- Richard S. Hess, Israelite Religions: An Archaeological and Biblical Survey. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007. The footnotes within the quotation are those of Hess and are as follows. 49 – See Savran, Encountering the Divine: Theophany in Biblical Narratives. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 420. New York: T&T Clark, 200; 50 – The southern origin is supported by Görg (1976); Mettinger (1988, 24–28); Axelsson (1987, 58–61). For the northern view, see Astour (1979); de Moor (1990b, 111–12); 51 – Van der Toorn (1993) traces Yahweh’s origins outside Canaan to Edom and Midian. Following Axelsson, he argues that the earliest biblical texts demonstrate that, despite southern desert origins, Yahweh first appeared in the hill country of Israel rather than Judah. Van der Toorn follows Edelman and Blenkinsopp in arguing that the Gibeonites were originally Edomites. He concludes that the Gibeonites introduced Yahweh to Israel through Saul. This last point is least convincing although the Gibeonites may have known of Yahweh before Israel’s appearance. Additional attempts have been made to locate the divine name Yahweh in a Ugaritic myth (spelled as yw), in a personal name from a fourteenth-century BC (Amarna) text from Tyre, or in the personal name of a contemporary text from far to the north of Palestine (de Moor 1990b; 1997). Due to the fragmentary nature of all these texts and the possibility of other interpretations, none can be regarded as certain or even probable. Cf. Hess (1991a). Even the Egyptian geographic name discussed above cannot be asserted without doubt as containing the name of God; 52 – M. Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, 276; and 53 – Ibid., 145–47. ↩