Gerhard von Rad

Names and the Name – 4

God has a name – 3

There has been no shortage of attempts by biblical scholars to ascertain the etymological roots of the divine name (YHWH). Beitzel notes that ‘The Exodus discourse between Moses and his God bristles with a number of virtually insoluble philological and theological problems, and one is not surprised at the inability to forge a common scholarly concensus regarding the linguistic and theological meaning of the ineffable tetragrammaton’.

G. R. Driver, and others, relying heavily on Greek analogies have posited the opinion that the divine name did not originally have a readily intelligible form, but was rather ‘an emotional cultic outburst, such as dervishes might cry out ecstatically.’ Unsurprisingly, this view has not gone without critique.

It seems to me that it is not without significance that there was very little interest in the etymology of the divine name in Israel, nor in the ontology of her God. Jenson is right here: ‘What the word “Yahweh” may once have meant we do not know. Since historical Israel did not know either, the loss is not theologically great.’ More important is the truth that Israel’s interest in her God’s name lay in the actions of power which he performed on their behalf. Few have stated it better than von Rad. Commenting on Exodus 3:14, he accuses scholars of seeking to reduce the divine name to ‘a final axiomatic formula’. He continues:

… nothing is farther from what is envisaged in this etymology of the name of Jahweh than a defintion of his nature in the sense of philosophical statement about his being (LXX evgw, eivmi o` w;n) – a suggestion, for example, of his absolute aseity, etc. Such a thing would be altogether out of keeping with the Old Testament. The whole narrative context leads right away to the expectation that Jahweh intends to impart something – but this is not what he is, but what he will show himself to be to Israel.