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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30 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 September 9, 2022

      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 September 12, 2022

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

    • D. Carlson September 12, 2022

      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.

    • Adarsh Kaur November 16, 2022

      I completely agree. I was going to write something similar to what you have written. Both the biblical references to the breath and the sounds of Yahweh lead me to feel and believe this connection.

      Yah the sound of the inhale, and weh the sound of the exhale.

      I am also struck that the word and sound “Wahe” (Whaa-hey) from the Sikh scriptures has an almost identical sound. “Wahe” translates to something like indescribable joy. It is usually part of the phrase “Wahe Guru” ~ which means the indescribable joy of being led from darkness to light, or in other words, the experience of God.

  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 September 11, 2022
    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 September 11, 2022
    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 September 12, 2022
    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 September 22, 2022
    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 September 28, 2022

      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.

    • Joel D. October 10, 2022

      Yes!! Thank you! Even Paul when he disagreed with some men and their motives of selfish ambition rejoiced that the gospel had been preached.

      Why dampen such beautiful inspiration in our Creator of Life for an academic detail? Doesn’t work for you? That doesn’t bother me. It works for me and a multitude of others. Let it be! =)

  10. Daniel B. September 30, 2022
    Reply

    I will school my tongue to say ( I DO NOT KNOW ) on a daily basis …… yet is it good for a fool to believes all things to be true ? …. YEs ✨I SAY UNTO ANYONE WHO ARE NOW READING THESE WORDS BEFORE YOU !!!
    It is good to be such a fool !! Why ? Because( I DO NOT KNOW)
    And it is better to seem foolish in front of Man ! Than to seem foolish in front of The Most High even for a second!
    If someone therefore is skeptical by nature, then he will be skeptical even when he here’s the truth !! G-D forbid!
    Ask for divine assistance with your own personal relationship with the Most High , humble your thoughts for your thoughts are not G-DS thoughts . Against your expectations to be wise say out loud now ( I AM ) not wise . Pray for that , that you may be lacking ???? Because (you know not ) A wise person knows they are truly not wise !! This is what makes them wiser still .

  11. Paul October 23, 2022
    Reply

    I will say this and you can accept or not. I was speaking to the Lord and asked him about why the early israelites did not want to speak his name as he gave it to Moses and he told me that YhWh is breath but he is not the breath he is the life that occurs because of the breath. I had never heard this before but I thought it was so beautiful as God breathed his Ruak into Adam to make him a living soul and we cannot even speak without his breath crossing our lips and with our spoken words we can create life ot death. I had never heard this YHWH being breathing so I looked up online to see if this was something others had heard and found this post. I’m a bit confused about what you are arguing. It seems you are arguing about pronunciation or whether it should or should not have vowels but what does that have to do with the fact that God is our very breath. I went to college for biotechnology at th beginning of the human Genome project and today in a time when scientists can clone just about any animal, they still cannot create life in a lab because they cannot ad God’s Ruak. So I guess I’m asking are you saying that God is not in the very breath?

    • Adarsh Kaur November 16, 2022

      Love what you shared. Yes, God is the life in the breath, the force of life, the spark of life in the breath.

  12. Timothy S. November 16, 2022
    Reply

    The fact that such a thing as this has cemented itself as a truth in so many of the faith and it is untrue has painted a picture of how the antichrist will sway christians to his side. I myself was filled into believing this and I thought I couldn’t be swayed. Thank you for showing us the truth.

  13. Gregory L Craig November 20, 2022
    Reply

    Thank you EVERYONE for your comments. I’ll need to pray to our FATHER GOD for clarification and how HE would have me to respond to this information and/or relate it to my life.

  14. Nick December 18, 2022
    Reply

    Good article but i don’t know if whether or not they actually did speak the vowels or not as the point of the post. The point is whether or not “yh” and “wh” sound like breathe sounds. I would have really liked it if you had spoken about this.

    • Jeff Gibbs December 22, 2022

      Dear Nick:

      Thanks for writing. As I understood the post that was making the rounds, the point that was being claimed to be true was precisely that in Moses day, the vowels were not pronounced–and this we know was not true. The vowels were not written; no vowels were written at that time for any Hebrew words. By the way, when I breathe in, I don’t make a “y” sound at all, and when I breathe out, I don’t make a “w” sound. As to your other good question (and it is a good one), the proper name for Israel’s God in Hebrew doesn’t “mean” anything. It seems to be related to the verb “to be, to become,” but the name itself is not a Hebrew verb form; it doesn’t mean “I am.” It is it’s own unique “thing,” the proper name of God. All the best!

  15. Nick December 18, 2022
    Reply

    Doesn’t Yahweh actually mean “you are” because in Hebrew it would be weird to say “I am” as in Hebrew you’d actually be referencing yourself?

  16. Scott Chandler 23 days ago
    Reply

    Would your view change if this portion had been spoken differently or left out, “Over time we’ve arbitrarily added an “a” and an “e” in there to get YaHWeH, presumably because we have a preference for vowels.”? This is the main point of contention that I am seeing and yet it is only presumed that the vowels were later added to standardize the readings. I struggle to see how this text can cause such an outcry to call the writer uneducated and ignorant. The point of the post on social media is to bring a conscious focus on God in all situations. The point, as I heard it, is to remind us that God is ever present and the creator of all things. Is that not what the name YHWH tells us? Perhaps it is my ignorance speaking, but if we picked apart every sermon preached the way you picked apart this post, the Word of the LORD would never be heard. We would be so caught up in correcting the sermon illustrations that we would not hear the Word.

    • Robert M Jubeck 13 days ago

      Amen!

    • Adarsh Khalsa 11 days ago

      Love this!!

  17. April 17 days ago
    Reply

    As a mother of 9 children I’d have to say that your argument here actually convinced me to believe that every breath is a prayer, and is infact the first sound an infant born alive makes. It seems that in this case education has birthed intelligence and also ignorance. So, in all the kindness and charity of heart I implore to ask and answer a few questions… reeducate. I’m not talking scholarly education. First, how many babies have been born and taken their first breath and first cries in your presence? In real life, in real time? Additionally, have you actually studied baby language? You can do so online via YouTube. Furthermore, how many dying breaths have you been privileged to hear? So, when I sigh I make just the constant sounds. When a baby cries it makes either,or and both consonants and vowel sounds. While yours is my very first article pertaining to the matter, I do believe I will dig much deeper. Your article seemed very well researched and educated in the language and history but completely lacking in other areas, like first hand observation. While I was mostly hear to understand the concept that a baby’s first breath and cry was the sound of Abba’s name .. I do believe I already know the answer as I have heard each and everyone of my 9 babies take their first breath and cry. While certainly we can all make claims I found no evidence that the author sought the Set Apart Spirit to guide in answering but relied upon his own wisdom and knowledge. Which in the scholarly arena has it’s merits but as of depth and observation, lacking. I don’t claim to be absolutely wrong but I will seek Abba on the matter and not man.

    • Adarsh Khalsa 11 days ago

      I love your insight which comes from real, lived, human experience. Embodied experience of living and dying and how the breath connects us to life and spirit. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

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