The Incomprehensible Name of God: YHWH
change," which--when coupled with his fidelity--means that he is "ever faithful to Himself and to his promises," and is "abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness." CCC ž 212, 214 (Cf. Jas. 1:7; Ex. 34:6)
God's name expresses his uniqueness--He is the one and only God. One of the "riches contained in the revelation of the divine name" is that "God is unique; there are no other gods beside him." CCC ž 212 (Is. 44:6)
God's name suggests that he is transcendent, that, as creator of heaven and earth, "He transcends the world and history." CCC ž 212.
"The revelation of the ineffable name "I AM WHO AM" contains then the truth that God alone IS. . . . . God is the fullness of Being and of every perfection, without origin and without end. All creatures receive all that they are and have from him; but he alone is his very being, and he is of himself everything that he is." CCC ž 213.
As a theologian, Joseph Ratzinger suggests that we go beyond these truths, without denying them in any sense, and discover something even more marvelous. Is YHWH even properly speaking a name? "This question may at first seem nonsensical, for it is indisputable that Israel knew the word Yahweh as a name for God," as, of course, does the Catechism.
What Ratzinger suggests is that the revelation by God that his name is YWHW is really a "rebuff" or a "refusal to give a name than the announcement of a name." God's name may be that he is nameless because His real essence, as God, is unknowable. As Meister Eckhart puts it "God is nameless, for no man can know or say anything of Him."
Ratzinger suggests perhaps even the implication of a divine displeasure--I would have suggested coyness--at Moses' importunity at asking God a question which is unanswerable to men: "I am just who I am."
(God, it seems, cannot be known by name until he became incarnate and received the human name of Jesus. There is no problem in naming a person who has a human nature.)
Ratzinger compares the Mosaic theophany with a similar event in Judges 13:18 where Manoah asks the God he meets for his name. "Why do you ask my name, seeing it is a secret?" (or "wonderful") Through this deft question, God avoids having to reveal his name to Manoah perhaps because Manoah is incapable of comprehending it.
Something similar happens to Jacob in Genesis 32:29, the great wrestling match of Jacob with God. After his lengthy wrestling with God, Jacob asks this stranger his name, only to receive a deflection, a "gesture of repulse": "Why is it that you ask my name?" Since God's substance--his name--is incomprehensible, there is no good reason for asking such a question because even if God answered it, man has no capacity for it.
Ratzinger suggest that the reason that God avoids giving his name in any ordinary sense is to distinguish Himself from the gods of the nations all about Israel. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob does not have the same kind of name as the many gods of the nations round about Israel.
"The God of the burning bush will not put himself on a level with them." A name comprehends, restrains, allows control over a god, and the God will not--cannot--be comprehended by a creature.
At best, God's name--YHWH--is only a name in an analogical sense. God's name is similar to the names we give people and places and with which we are familiar. But there is an infinite difference or dissimilarity between God's name and those names, common and proper, with which we are familiar.
God's response to Moses and His revelation of the name YHWH, suggests Ratzinger, "serves as a kind of negative theology." It is a name that is not an ordinary name, as it "cancels out the significance of the name as a name; it effects a sort of withdrawal from the only too well known, which the name seems to be, into the unknown, the hidden." It is a name infinitely above any other name that we know while pilgrims on this earth. It is beyond our experience.
So the name-which-is-not-a-name with which God responds to Moses, "dissolves the name into mystery, so that the familiarity and unfamiliarity of God, concealment and revelation, are indicated simultaneously. The name, a sign of acquaintance, becomes the cipher for the perpetually unknown and unnamed quality of God. Contrary to the view that God can here be grasped, so to speak, the persistence of an infinite distance is in this way made quite clear."
"To this extent it was in the last analysis a legitimate development that led people in Israel more and more to avoid pronouncing this name, to use some sort of periphrasis, so that in the Greek Bible it no longer occurs at all but is simply replaced by the word "Lord." This development shows in many ways a more accurate understanding of the mystery of the burning bush than multifarious learned philological explanations do."
In our next article, we will address this last issue, i.e., the Jewish practice of avoid pronouncing the name of God, and the use of some sort of periphrasis--usually the use of the word Adonai (in Hebrew, meaning Lord), though the name YHWH remained in the Hebrew text.
In the Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures which occurred in the 2nd century B.C. under Jewish auspices, the Septuagint, the name YHWH was replaced in the text with Kyrios (the Greek word for "Lord). Therefore, referring to YHWH as "Lord" was a custom which was carried over by the Christians, who did not use the Tetragrammaton YWHW, but used the Septuagint where it had been replaced with Kyrios ("Lord" in Greek).
In the Latin translations of the Old Testament, the practice was carried over with the use of Dominus ("Lord" in Latin). It is a custom followed by the Catholic Church in her official translations of the Scriptures, and in her liturgy, where the divine name--YHWH--is replaced by the word Lord (in capital letters to indicate that it is in stead of the divine name).
We shall see in the next article that this practice has tremendous implications in our understanding of Jesus--His name, and Who He claimed to be--and in the way we worship God in the liturgy.
Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas. He is married with three children. He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum. You can contact Andrew at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Pope Benedict XVI's Prayer Intentions for January 2013
General Intention: The Faith of Christians. That in this Year of Faith Christians may deepen their knowledge of the mystery of Christ and witness joyfully to the gift of faith in him.
Missionary Intention: Middle Eastern Christians. That the Christian communities of the Middle East, often discriminated against, may receive from the Holy Spirit the strength of fidelity and perseverance.
Keywords: YHWH, Tetragrammaton, He Who Is, God, Moses, Ratzinger, St. Thomas Aquinas, Andrew M. Greenwell
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