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:

  1. 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.”
  2. Vowel sounds were only added to God’s name much later than the time of Moses.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Jeffrey Gibbs

Emeritus Professor of Exegetical Theology

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15 Comments

  1. Dr. Mark J Schreiber August 25, 2022
    Reply

    Excellent reasoning, astute observations and cogent arguments and just what I would expect from a NT exegetical professor. I doubt if anyone on face book could counter Dr. Gibbs’ exegesis. It’s hard enough to search Scripture for the intended sense via the original languages let alone adding pious nonsense that usually leads to some special revelation mentality meant to please the malleable minds of itching ears who always desire to hear something new. Well done, Dr. Gibbs.
    i

    • Jeffrey A Gibbs August 28, 2022

      Thank you, Mark! All the best! Jeff

  2. Andrew Bartelt August 26, 2022
    Reply

    Thank you, Jeff, for this helpful and accurate debunking of another misconception, pious though it may be. I just had a conversation with someone who was making this point, and now I have a clearer awareness of where this all has started. Btw, we DO know that “Yahweh” is probably the right pronunciation. The original “yah” is preserved in expressions like “hallelu-yah” or in the theophoric in names, often “yahu.” The segol as an “e” vowel in the second syllable is the standard pointing of an Imperfect III-He verb, which we know from Ex 3:14 is the basic root. The question is whether the “a” vowel with what would seem to be the 3sm prefix is Hebrew Hiphil (in which case the meaning could be something like “cause to be,” which has attractive implications), or, more likely, an old Amorite G-Stem (= Qal), which seems also to be implied by the 1sc form in Ex 3:14. But yes, duh, they pronounced words by using vowels. Does the originator of this claim think the entire language and Hebrew Bible was spoken only by mumbling consonants?

    • Jeffrey A Gibbs August 28, 2022

      Andy: Thanks for more good information, more than I could have offered!. I’ve seen this in various forms, on various platforms. It’s a fairly widespread claim, I think. But as it stands, it’s based on falsehood. All the best! Jeff

  3. ja August 28, 2022
    Reply

    I, for one, certainly wouldn’t maintain that the name was pronounced without vowels. However, the consonants are all aspirants, regardless of the vowel sounds. An aspirated consonant is literally breathed: The Creator’s Spirit blew/breathed over the chaos at creation. The Creator breathed life into the first human. In the gospel of John, Jesus breathed the Spirit into the disciples. The mystical significance of the YHWH is there, even if it has no lexical significance. Finally, even with the vowels fully pronounced, Yahweh still sounds like breath. To me, it says that every breath is prayer. That goes much deeper than the mechanics of language.

    • swange 25 days ago

      This idea was recently posed to me and I have been researching origin and if scripture teaches it. Rob Bell made it a fairly popular idea in his video series “Nooma” series called “Breathe”. Passing along a concept a known heretic made popular would make me question the credibility of teacher. Nonetheless, so far as I can find, the word of God no where teaches this concept. As I’ve thought about it, I’ve got some concerning questions… If every breath is “prayer”, (voluntary or involuntary) would one be coming close to praying repetitively (Mt. 6:7) as well as violating the 3rd commandment? Would it not also be a greater offense of the 3rd commandment to “say the name of God with every breath” as we commit our sins? Finding this claim to be more and more against the run of the Word than with it.

    • Jay 23 days ago

      (This is to ‘swange’) How would it be violating “Remember the holy day?”

    • D. Carlson 22 days ago

      Seems to me that this is taking two totally different things and trying to make a new thing from the two. YHWH means, “I am who I am” or a variation of it. This has little to do with how God breathed life into our first parents, or how Jesus breathed the Spirit into the Apostles. We shouldn’t mix doctrines just to make some sort of a cool, experiential, emotional feature. Instead, we should teach the greatness of God who DOES breathe life into His creation and how Jesus gives the authority of the forgiveness of sins to His Church…and that Jesus often refers to Himself as “I AM”…these are clear doctrines which are more than wonderful in and of themselves. The whole “every breath is a prayer” thing is not something taught in the Scripture, and I don’t think God appreciates us being overly inventive with His Word.

  4. Joyce August 29, 2022
    Reply

    Thank you for this explanation.

  5. Charlie Tagoc September 3, 2022
    Reply

    Thank you for explaining these things to your followers. It really helped me a lot.

  6. msmonarch 23 days ago
    Reply

    I unwittingly passed this story seen on Facebook. Thanks for the clarity of this discussion. I will follow with an email to the one I shared. I am too in love with passing God’s love to mess with mudding his truth.

  7. Nancy Gerst 23 days ago
    Reply

    Thank you for this essay. It’s amazing to me that well-meaning Christians (or spiritual seekers) embrace things like this, re-post, and soon a whole gaggle of folks are quacking nonsense with sincerity of heart and halos askew. Have a blessed day!

  8. BrianH 23 days ago
    Reply

    I’ve also heard this argument connected to God changing the names of Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah….essentially adding part of His own name to his chosen people. I would love to hear any thoughts on this.

  9. Rev. Lisa Zahalka 12 days ago
    Reply

    I think your missing the point. All of our spiritual worship is based on love and yes emotion. The concept, while most likely not accurate is not unlike many scriptures, written to inspire belief and record history. Who cares if a some letters are left out. Like a parable a point is made, and made beautifully. Not everything has to be accurate, to be worthy. Many lay folks can take this story and not be led into hell because it is not accurate. Jesus told parables all the time. Why can’t this piece of language be taken the same way?

    • Katie 6 days ago

      Because this is not true. Anything that comes from the Bible should be told in truth. Sure it sends a good feeling to the reader but it’s a lie. And later can make a Christian look like a fool. We as Christians need to know what we’re talking about and stop being and saying cliche things. Also I find it interesting that you would compare a parable from Jesus to an internet story that has been proven to be false. Preach the truth and only the truth. The Bible stands alone. It does not need clever little stories to bring people to Jesus.

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