Pious Nonsense: “The Ancient Name of God Is the Sound of Our Breathing”
I’m writing this post for two reasons. First and generally, it is simply not helpful when Christians pass along claims about what something in the Bible “really means” when those claims are based on faulty or inaccurate information. Truth matters, and good information is important. Christians should avoid saying things that are inaccurate, if for no other reason than the church’s opponents will justly mock us for being uninformed about basic information. Second and specifically, I have continued to see a pious but uninformed claim rise to the surface in recent months. I have decided, then, to describe the claim and to show how it is based on obvious ignorance about Classical (or Biblical) Hebrew.
Here is a brief example of this claim—I found it (and several others) being passed around by well-intentioned Christians on Facebook. The essential reasoning is typical of other versions of the claim.
“There was a moment when Moses had the nerve to ask God what his name is. God was gracious enough to answer, and the name he gave is recorded in the original Hebrew as YHWH.
Over time we’ve arbitrarily added an “a” and an “e” in there to get YaHWeH, presumably because we have a preference for vowels. But scholars and rabbis have noted that the letters YHWH represent breathing sounds, or aspirated consonants. When pronounced without intervening vowels, it actually sounds like breathing. YH (inhale): WH (exhale).
So a baby’s first cry, his first breath, speaks the name of God. A deep sigh calls His name—or a groan or gasp that is too heavy for mere words. Even an atheist would speak His name, unaware that their very breath is giving constant acknowledgment to God. Likewise, a person leaves this earth with their last breath, when God’s name is no longer filing their lungs.
So when I can’t utter anything else, is my cry calling out His name? Being alive means I speak His name constantly. So, is it heard the loudest when I’m the quietest? In sadness, we breathe heavy sighs. In joy, our lungs feel almost like they will burst. In fear we hold our breath and have to be told to breathe slowly to help us calm down. When we’re about to do something hard, we take a deep breath to find our courage. When I think about it, breathing is giving him praise. Even in the hardest moments!
This is so beautiful and fills me with emotion every time I grasp the thought. God chose to give himself a name that we can’t help but speak every moment we’re alive. All of us, always, everywhere. Waking, sleeping, breathing, with the name of God on our lips.”
The basic reasoning can be summarized like this:
- The proper name of God revealed to Moses (Exodus 3) was originally composed of four Hebrew consonants that can roughly be transliterated in English as “y,” “h,” “w” and “h.”
- Vowel sounds were only added to God’s name much later than the time of Moses.
- Therefore, when God revealed his name to Moses, it was not spoken with any vowels, but was remarkably close to the sound of human breathing, in and out.
- It is a marvel, then, to realize that even when a child breathes or takes her first cry, she is speaking the name of God, etc., etc.
This claim is based on an obvious and fundamental error, namely, it confuses how Biblical Hebrew was originally written with how it was originally spoken. As every student of Hebrew knows, every word written in Hebrew in the Old Testament (at the time of Moses or later) was originally written without vowels underneath the consonants (which is where vowels were later placed). But that in no way means that Hebrew literature (including the name of God) was originally spoken without vowels! As hard as it can be for English speakers to imagine, the ancient Israelites knew, from context and from tradition, how to pronounce the Scriptures even though the written texts were essentially only consonants. (To use a simple example that my friend Paul Raabe suggested, because of our knowledge of English and of our own sacred texts, every one of my readers knows how to pronounce the following consonantal clause: “Fr Gd s lvd th wrld.”) To repeat, the entire Hebrew Old Testament was originally written without vowels for any of the words, but it was spoken with vowel sounds—and this applies to the divine name, too.
The vowels (or “pointings,” as they are called) that we have today in our printed editions of the Hebrew OT are part of a system that was devised by Jewish scribes (the Masoretes) starting perhaps sometime around AD 500. One important goal of the Masoretes was to help standardize the pronunciation and oral reading of the Bible in a time when many Jews’ first language had become Aramaic or even Arabic. To repeat, however, the important point: before the written vowel system was devised and added, Hebrew that was written without vowels was pronounced with vowels—including the name of God as revealed to Moses. There is no reason whatsoever to think that God’s name in Exodus 3 was ever pronounced without vowels. It was only written that way, just was the case with every other Hebrew word at that time.
For many decades there has been widespread agreement among capable scholars that the divine name given to Moses in Exodus 3 was originally pronounced “Yahweh.” Perhaps we cannot be absolutely sure. It is true that reverence for this proper name of God led Jews even before the time of Christ to avoid pronouncing it except under certain careful circumstances. Later this reverence led the Masoretes deliberately to write under the divine name sets of vowels that corresponded to different titles, such as Hebrew “lord,” (adonay) or Aramaic “the Name” (shem?). (This explains why the King James Version rendered the divine name as “Jehovah”: this reflects one of the common sets of vowels that scribes provided for the divine name: “Ye-Ho-WaH.”)
I’m sure that there are profundities attached to God’s name which I have not even imagined, and that I cannot imagine. But the claim that I keep seeing is so evidently based on ignorance of how all Hebrew in the time of Moses (and later) was written as well as spoken that I decided it should not go without some response. It might be true that we cannot be precisely certain how the divine name sounded when it was delivered to Moses at the burning bush. But there is no basis for the claim that God’s name originally was spoken as if it had no vowel sounds—like the sound of human breathing. This sounds pious—but it is nonsense.