God’s name and Hovah-logic 2 (by Nehemia Gordon)

clip_image002.jpgReposted from Nehemia’s Facebook. Visit Nehemia’s Wall for more in-depth posts regarding Hebrew sources of faith, brought to light in their history, language, and context.

Keith Johnson just came out with a new book on the name of the Creator entitled His Hallowed Name Revealed Again. In this new book Keith follows up on what we wrote in our joint book A Prayer to Our Father about the phrase “may your name be sanctified”. Keith’s new book is based on the 180-page study he released earlier this year which has now gone through a series of expansions, revisions, and changes. Now its a bona fide book, but I think I’ll still continue to refer to it as his “little study”. Anyway, the release of Keith’s little study has prompted a flurry of e-mails and messages asking me once again about the pronunciation of the name of Yehovah and its relation to the Hebrew word for “disaster”. This question almost invariably comes from people who either don’t know Hebrew or know just enough to be dangerous to themselves. I’m not putting these people down. I applaud them for trying to understand Hebrew the best they can with the limited tools available to them. This is just me venting my frustration at having to explain basic Hebrew grammatical concepts.

The question starts off with the observation that the Hebrew word hovah means “disaster, calamity”. This word appears three times in the Tanach, once in Isaiah and twice in a single verse in Ezekiel:

“Evil is coming upon you which you will not know how to charm away; disaster (hovah) is falling upon you which you will not be able to appease; coming upon you suddenly is ruin of which you know nothing.” (Isaiah 47:11)

“Calamity (hovah) shall follow calamity (hovah), and rumor follow rumor. Then they shall seek vision from the prophet in vain; instruction shall perish from the priest, and counsel from the elders.” (Ezekiel 7:26)

Since hovah means “disaster” or “calamity”, the question goes, doesn’t this mean that Yehovah also means “disaster” or “calamity”. I guess this makes sense to those innocent of basic Hebrew grammar but in the Hebrew language this makes no sense. This would be like saying that the English word “assume” is derived from the word “ass” because when you ass-u-me you make an ass of you and me. Someone actually told me this many years ago and they were dead serious. Of course, an examination of any historical English dictionary will reveal that “assume” actually comes from the Latin verb “assume(re)” and not from the English word for a donkey.

Let’s look at some Hebrew basics before we get ourselves in trouble assuming. With a few exceptions, every word in the Hebrew language has a three-letter root, something proven in the 11th century by the Spanish rabbi Yonah Ibn Janah. Modern linguistics has confirmed this, observing that the three-letter root is a basic characteristic of all Semitic languages. Most Hebrew roots are “whole” roots meaning all three letters of the root are present regardless of how the root is used in different grammatical forms. For example, the Hebrew root SH.M.R. has the basic meaning “to guard”. Hebrew can use this root in dozens of ways, each with a different shade of meaning, such as the verbs SHaMaRti “I guarded” and hiShaMeR “be careful” (be on guard), the noun miSHMeRet meaning “duty” (which a person has to be on guard to keep), and the names SheMeR and SHoMRon. As a “whole” root, the letters shin mem resh are always present in words derived from this root.

The opposite of a “whole” root is a “hollow” root. In “hollow” roots, one or more of the three letters of the root can be absent in certain grammatical forms. For example, the root BNH בנה “to build” loses the third letter of the root in the verb baniti (spelled BNYty בניתי) “I built”. In this form of the verb, the H of BNH drops and is replaced by a Yod. If you didn’t know about hollow verbs and saw the word baniti you might think the root was BNY בני when in fact it is BNH בנה.

You’re probably thinking, “When is he gonna talk about the name?!” Ok, here goes. The name Yehovah derives from the three-letter root HYH which means “to be”. We know this from Exodus 3:14 in which the Almighty explains his name as “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh”. The word Ehyeh is an “imperfect” verb from the root HYH meaning “to be”. In later Hebrew, the “imperfect” form took on the meaning of “future” but in Biblical Hebrew it primarily expresses a repetitive action. In plain English, Ehyeh means “I am now and I will continue to be in the future”. This is why Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh can be translated as “I am that which I am” but also as “I will be that which I will be”. Both of these translations are correct even if they are a bit inaccurate. An accurate translation would be: “I am now and will continue to be in the future that which I am now and will be continue to be in the future”. That’s quite a mouthful and you can see why most translations prefer to dumb it down.

The word eHYeH has all three letters of the root HYH which may lead you to conclude that HYH is a “whole” root. However, in other forms of the verb, the second and third letter drop which means it is a “hollow” root. For example, HaYiti (spelled HYYty הייתי) “I was” is missing the third letter of the root H and in its place has a Yod. On the other hand, the masculine singular imperative Heveh (pronounced Heh Vay) “be!” is missing the second letter of the root and in its place has a Vav. This last piece of information is crucial becomes it means in certain forms the root looks like HVH even though in fact it is HYH. This can be confusing because there is an unrelated root which really is HVH and which has an entirely different meaning from HYH. Don’t worry, I’m almost done with the crash course in Hebrew grammar.

Now back to the name. Yehovah comes from the same root as Ehyeh: the hollow root HYH. Yehovah is actually a combination of three verb-forms: Hayah “he was”, Hoveh “he is”, and Yih’yeh “he is now and will continue to be in the future”. Together Hayah, Hoveh, and Yih’yeh combine into the name Yehovah. But does the meaning of the name tell us its pronunciation? Not necessarily. Many ancient Hebrew names stray from the vowel patterns found in common nouns and verbs. For example, my name Nehemia (pronounced N’chem-Yah) means “Yah comforts”. However, if I said “Yah comforts” in a regular Biblical Hebrew sentence it would be Nee-chaym Yah. Why is my name pronounced N’chem-Yah and not Nee-Chaym-Yah? As we say in Hebrew: Kachah! Just because! Hebrew names don’t follow the same rules as common nouns and verbs. Deal with it! The bottom line is the meaning of YHVH as “he that was, he that is, and he that will be” doesn’t tell us how to pronounce the name. The pronunciation Yehovah is based on Hebrew Masoretic manuscripts, but for that you’ll have to read Keith’s little study.

Let’s get back to the hollow verbs. We saw that “Yehovah” comes from the hollow root HYH and as a result the Y can be replaced with a V in certain forms. To the untrained eye this makes it look like the root is HVH when in fact it is HYH. Remember the word Hovah meaning “disaster”? That word actually does come from the root HVH, which means “destruction”. There is no connection between the name Yehovah and the word hovah because they are from two unrelated Hebrew roots: HYH “to be” and HVH “destruction”. Pronouncing the name as Yehovah doesn’t change this situation. Even though Yehovah sounds like it contains the word hovah “disaster” within it, this is a pure coincidence, just like the word “assume” which sounds like it contains the word “ass” in it. It doesn’t mean that Yehovah means “disaster” nor does it mean Yehovah is connected in any way to the word for “disaster”. If you assume that to be the case, then you’re just making an ass of yourself. And don’t forget, that’s my role!

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For myself, I understand the frustration that Nehemia may have when he encounters people who enjoy thinking they know enough Hebrew to teach others, but the end result is horrendous.

I have my own personal example of Nehemia’s Hova-logic. There’s a group that does not use shua at all because it sounds similar to a negative word in Hebrew. I don’t know their explanation exactly, but that’s why they call Yeshua (Jesus) as Yahusha – they remove all instances of shua from their reading and pronunciation of Hebrew. Then they pronounced the Father’s name as Yahuwah instead of Yehovah because they have an inherent distrust of the nikkud (vowel marking) in the Hebrew manuscripts.

The sad thing is that I know the anti-shua people quite well, and they are good people who simply believe what they believe because they are sincerely trying to do what they know to be right. What a tragedy.

About Jonathan Lankford

Originally from Nashville, Tennessee, Jonathan has provided education and training services to organizations and individuals in Vietnam since 2007.
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