Saying God’s Name

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Words can shape our reality by forming tBurning bush Creationhe way we think about ourselves, the world, and even God. I have known and said that all my life, insisting on gender-inclusive words for people and for God. But this week that truth took a step deeper into my soul.

Ever since my first Old Testament course in seminary, I have specially treasured God’s personal name, given to Moses at the burning bush.Thanks to biblical linguist Frank Cross and my Old Testament professor, Dr. Herbert Otwell, I discovered that YHWH is a verb phrase, meaning “He Who causes (gives birth to or begets) all that is alive or becoming.” The English phrase “I Am Who I Am” points to it, but loses a lot of the rich reality. The verb in Hebrew emphasizes ongoing action of being, or becoming, or living. So the personal name of God is as the One Who causes all that is alive, in ongoing being. It’s no wonder that the Gospel of John records all those “I Am” statements by Jesus, as he identifies with this mysterious, transcendent, redeeming Creator.

So for almost forty years now, I have made it a point to honor God by saying God’s personal name – but now I realize I need to honor God by not saying it.

Last week at a retreat after I read Scripture and preached, a longtime friend lovingly challenged me about pronouncing it. It is the sacred name, which Jews (including his wife) do not pronounce. While as a Christian I believe there is no longer a dividing line between the sacred and profane, this makes a big difference at this stage of my life. I want to respect my Jewish sisters and brothers, for whom pronouncing it is nothing less than blasphemy. But along with that, choosing not to say that name reminds me, even now, of the holiness, the vastness, the transcendence of God. Maybe that’s what Jews have meant by choosing to not pronounce it all along.

God is so much bigger than anything we can imagine, even while being the closest of our kin (redeemer), dwelling within and among us. If not saying the name reminds me of that, it is well-worth changing a lifelong habit, hard as that may be. After all, there are other names for God, as well. Like Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. And they all hold enough mystery for a lifetime of faith.

Your partner in ministry,

Betsy Schwarzentraub

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