Pronunciation According to Its Letters (6th Century B.C.)

The Meaning of “According to Its Letters”

After the Israelites “forgot” God’s Name, they began to pronounce it “according to its letters.”

This is explained in the Glossary of My People’s Prayer Book, (winner of the Jewish National Book Award), edited by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman: 

Jews stopped pronouncing it (the Tetragrammaton) centuries ago, so that the actual pronunciation has been lost; instead of reading it according to its letters, it is replaced in speech by the alternative Name of God, Adonai.1

The pronunciation of YHVH as Yahwa is the pronunciation of God’s Name, “according to its letters.” It is still used by the Arabs and Samaritans until this day. The two “H” letters in YHVH are read as Matris Lectionis, as “ah.” 

Besides Yahwa, there is also the substitutionary pronunciation of Yahu. Both of these can be considered as pronunciations of the Divine Name “according to its letters.”

The Archeological Discovery of the Name YAHWA (YAMA)

We gained our understanding of the ancient pronunciation Yahwa in the late 19th century when much effort was made to find the name Yahweh in ancient texts.

Theo G. Pinches described tablets with Assyro-Babylonian inscriptions of theophoric names.2These are written in the Cuneiform script, invented by the Sumerians.

On one tablet, the Hebrew name עֲקַבְיָא, or Akabyah, was found, where the full Name of YHVH was pronounced in the suffix as Yawa:

The earliest sample of this is dated to the time of Darius Hystapis (550 B.C.); it contains the name Gamar-yama (or Yawa).

Another tablet of the same date contains the name Natanyama (or Yawa).

Also, in the late 19th century, the business documents of the Murashu family were discovered, using the same Cuneiform script. The Murashu family lived in Nippur from 464 to 424 B.C. In these documents are 10 Jewish names that have “Yama” endings: ‘abi-ya-a-ma, ‘ahi-ya-a-ma, bad-ya-a-ma, bana-ya-a-ma, ba’l-ya-a-ma, barak-ya-a-ma, gadal-ya-a-ma, zabad-ya-a-ma, and hanan-ya-a-ma.3 M. D. Coogan lists these names and says there is “now considerable evidence to show that the Neo-Babylonian m was the equivalent of West Semitic w.”4 Yama is equivalent to Yawa.

YAHWA in Magical Texts

This pronunciation of YHVH “according to its letters” in magic was condemned by the Rabbis in the second century.  The expression YAHWA appears in Greek magical texts as ιαβα—Yahvah, or Yahwa. 

The Mishna Sanhedrin 10.1 described those “who have no portion in the world to come” as those who pronounce the Name “according to its letters.”

Even one who reads non-canonical books and one who whispers [a charm] over a wound and says, “I will not bring upon you any of the diseases which I brought upon the Egyptians: for I the lord am you healer” (Exodus 15:26). Abba Shaul says: “Also one who pronounces the divine Name according to its letters.”

In Egypt, the handbook of an Egyptian magician was found that includes more than 50 documents. It is the most comprehensive handbook of magic that we have from the ancient world. It dates to about A.D. 300 and is referred to as the Paris Magical Codex because it is kept in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.

It includes a so-called Jewish magical text entitled A tested charm of Pibechis (a famous magician) for those possessed by demons. The charm is 80 lines long and cites a number of Old Testament events. 

At line 3019, we read, “I adjure you by the God of the Hebrews, Jesus, ιαβα, . . . ϊαβα ραου.”5 

It is interesting that this charm used Jesus as the Name of God. This was the Christian belief of the time, as related by Eusebius and Justin Martyr.

The Samaritan Pronunciations of YAHWA and YAHU

The Gemara is the commentary on the Mishna. In the fourth century Gemara, Rabbi Mana commented on Abba Shaul’s statement about those who pronounce the Name according to its letters, saying, “As these Cutheans (Samaritans) when they take oath.”

In the 19th century, James Montgomery, in his article called “Notes from the Samaritan,” referred to a reply from the Samaritans, asking for their pronunciation of YHVH. They vocalized the Name in Arabic letters as:

Montgomery writes, “This Arabic representation of the pronunciation thus gives the word either as Yahwa or Yahwe, the final fetha allowing either vowel in the last syllable.”

But in footnote 5, he wrote:

Conclusive evidence on this question was given by Prof. N. Schmit in the discussion of the present paper at the meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. He said that he had learned orally from the son of the Samaritan High Priest, whom he had met in the preceding winter in Jerusalem, that the Samaritans pronounce the Name either as Yahwa or Yahu.

Yahu is another substitutionary pronunciation that dates back to the sixth century B.C. 

Yahu, the Substitutionary Pronunciation of YHVH and YHV

Many Christians, Jews, and Samaritans have been led to believe that Yahu was also the Divine Name. This is entirely understandable, as Yahu was the substitutionary expression for the common form of “he will be” and was used in the prefixes and suffixes of theophoric names.

Yahu Replaced the Common Form of “He Will Be”

In Ecclesiastes 11:3, we find the substitutionary pronunciation of YHVH, in the common phrase of “he will be.”

Where the tree falls, there it (he) shall be יהוא.

This is one of only six uses of the older form of YHYH, “to be” in the Masoretic Text. The tree in this verse is a masculine noun in Hebrew and therefore reads, “he will be.”

In order to avoid the pronunciation of the Name of God, יהוה the scribes replaced the final “he” (H) with a silent aleph (A), to get יהוא “Yahu,” which can be literally interpreted as “YAH is He.”

Yahu Means “Yah Is He”

Many Israelites were given the name יהוא, Yahu, YHVA, meaning “YAH is He.”

This is the combination of “Yah” יה, and “He” הוא.

The meaning of it goes back to Deuteronomy 32:39:

Now see that I, even I, am He.
And there is no God beside Me;
I kill and I make alive;
I wound and I heal;
Nor is there any who can deliver from My hand.

We can find the same expression, “I am He,” in Isaiah 41:4 and 43:10.

The YHVH Suffixes of Early Names Were Changed to Yahu Suffixes

Yahu, יהוא is at the end of the name of Elijah, אליהוא in the Aramaic Targum. From our understanding of יהוא in Ecclesiastes 11:3, we know that YHVH, יהוה was the original suffix. It was replaced by the substitutional form Yahu, יהוא, to give us “EliYahu.”

This Yahu יהוא suffix in Elijah’s name was shortened again to יהו and still pronounced “Yahu.” The aleph א is silent in יהוא and has no effect on the pronunciation.  

The Hebrew name of Elijah אליהוא is also found in 1 Samuel 1:1 and Job 32:2. But here, “Yahu” is interpreted as “is He.”  The “Y” means “is” and הוא means “he.” אליהוא  is pronounced “Elihu” (God is he).

Abihu, אביהוא (Exodus 6:23), the son of Aaron, is another early name where יהוא has been interpreted as “is He” (father is he).

There are two features about these names that tell us they were originally “YHVH is God,” אליהוה, and “YHVH is Father,” אביהוה before being changed to “Yahu is God,” אליהוא and “Yahu is Father,” אביהוא and later interpreted as “God is he” and “father is he.”

  • In Hebrew theophoric names comprised of two parts, the word “is” is never spelled out with the letter Y. It is presumed to exist.
  • These names don’t make sense: the son of Aaron, Abihu (he is father), was never a father, and Elihu (he is God) was not God. In 1 Chronicles 6:34, “Elihu” (he is God) was corrected to “Eliel”—“God is God.”

The YH Suffixes of Later Names Became Yahu Suffixes

Besides “EliYahu,” there are 72 other names that end in Yahu in the Masoretic Text. These are listed in the Appendix. These Yahu suffixes are the only surviving evidence of the name Yahu in the Masoretic Text. The other appearances of Yahu, such as in Ecclesiastes 11:3 and the names of several Israelites, have been sounded as Yehu. The Masorites did not sound the Yahu suffixes with a sheva because only the prefixes of names were given a sheva vowel marking.

The most famous scholar of the Masoretic Text, Christian David Ginsburg, believes that these Yahu suffixes were originally YAH suffixes. They were altered to Yahu to avoid the pronunciation of the Divine Name YAH, which is the contraction of Yihvah.6 It is also possible that someone try to change YAH to “Yaho” by the alteration of YH to YHV. Indeed, we know that the original suffixes were “YAH” because Targum Jonathan has no Yahu endings at all. And the Great Scroll of Isaiah, in the Dead Sea Scrolls in the second century B.C., also used YAH endings except in two of 16 pronunciations of the name Isaiah.

The YHV (Yaho) Prefixes Were Sounded as Yahu

As mentioned, we have evidence from the Business Documents of the Murashu Sons of Nippur dated in the reign of Artaxerses I (464–424 B.C.) that Yahu was also used as a substitutional expression for YHV (Yaho) in the prefix of names in the time of Ezra. There is a clear example of Yahu-natan, for Jonathan (Yaho-natan). Two other names that appear in the Business Documents of these sons are Yahu-lakim (YHV is for you) and Yahu-lunu (YHV is for us).7

Yahu Was Eventually Considered to Be the Divine Name

Because Yahu became the pronunciation of YHV prefixes and suffixes, and because it was the pronunciation of Yihvah in its common form, many started to see Yahu as the Divine Name! Therefore, the Greek Septuagint replaced Yahu with the substitutional Yohu (iou) in the names of several Israelites, in the prefix of Yahuda (Judah), and in the YHV suffixes.

In the Appendix, are many examples of the substitutional Yohu (iou) used for Yahu suffixes.

The Elephantine Papyri of 407 B.C., calls God “YHV” (Yaho, or Yahu)

We have about 175 documents from a fifth century B.C. Jewish community at Elephantine, an island on the Nile in Egypt. These contain numerous references to “the God Yaho,” or “Yahu,” spelled YHV in Hebrew letters.

The most impressive evidence that Yaho/Yahu really was used as the Name of God is a well-preserved letter to the Governor of Judah, asking for assistance to rebuild the temple of YHV (Yaho/Yahu). Below are a few lines from it. You will see that they had previously sent a letter to Johanan, the high priest mentioned in Nehemiah 12:22–23, but their letter seems to have been ignored.

To our lord Bagoas, governor of Judah, your servants Yedoniah and his colleagues, the priests who are in the fortress of Elephantine . . .

We have also sent a letter before now, when this evil was done to us, (to) our lord and to the high priest Johanan and his colleagues the priests in Jerusalem and to Ostanes the brother of Anani and the nobles of the Jews. Never a letter have they sent to us . . .

Look to your well-wishers and friends here in Egypt. Let a letter be sent from you to them concerning the temple of the God YHV (Yaho/Yahu) to build it in the fortress of Elephantine as it was built before; and the meal-offering, incense, and burnt offering will be offered in your name, and we shall pray for you at all times, we, and our wives, and our children, and the Jews who are here, all of them, if you do thus, so that that temple is rebuilt. And you shall have a merit before YHV (Yaho/Yahu) the God of Heaven more than a man who offers to him burnt offering and sacrifices worth a thousand talents of silver and (because of) gold.8

Besides this letter written to the Governor of Judah, there are also contribution records for those who “gave money to the God YHV (Yaho/Yahu).”9 And there is a letter from a Jew to a superior that includes the phrase, “I bless you by YHV (Yaho/Yahu) and Khn.”9

  1. The Sh’ma and Its Blessings, Glossary, Tetragrammaton, edited by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman.
  2. YA and YAWA in Assyro-Babylonian Inscriptions, Society of Biblical Archaeology, Theo G. Pinches, 1892
  3. Patterns in Jewish Personal Names in the Babylonian Diaspora, M. D. Coogan, Journal for the Study of Judaism, 1973, p. 188.
  4. Ibid., p. 190
  5. Bible Studies, Adolph Deissmann, 1901; The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Hans Dieter Betz, 1986, p. 96.
  6. Introduction of the Massoretico-critical edition of the Hebrew Bible, Christian D. Ginsburg, 1897,p. 387.
  7. Patterns in Jewish Personal Names in the Babylonian Diaspora, Journal for the Study of Judaism, M. D. Coogan, 1973, p. 184.
  8. Pritchard, J. B. (Ed.). (1969). The Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (3rd ed. with Supplement, p. 491). Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  9. Ibid., p. 492
  10. Ibid., p. 492