The Name and the Sound of Breath

On various social media, and in sermons, and teachings, the claim is sometimes made that the Hebrew name of God equates to the sound of breathing.

That teaching goes something like this:

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 Rab[b]i’s 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 breathe is giving constant acknowledgment to God.

You can find this example at https://diggingdeeper.net/2022/02/17/my-very-breath/.

So, let’s dig a little deeper. It is true that God has a name in the Hebrew Bible, not just a descriptor or category (such as god [elohim], lord [adonai]). In the text where the Lord appears to Moses through a burning bush, the narrator wrote,

God [ʾᵉlōhı̂m] said to Moses, “I AM [ʾehyê] WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ”

God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD [YHWH], the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’”

Exodus 3:14–15

Lost in English translation is that “the LORD” is hiding the name of God in Hebrew. This name is sometimes transliterated into English with the four letters, YHWH, called the Tetragrammaton in academic parlance. Though this text in Exodus introduces the name to Moses, its first appearance in the Bible is at Gen 2:4 and the name appears over 6800 times in the whole Bible.

The Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, known as the Septuagint (abbr. LXX), translated God’s name as either “God” (θεός; theos) or “Lord” (κύριος; kurios). The latter translation begins the tradition of translating God’s name as “Lord.” The New Testament authors wrote in Greek and used the Septuagint and so consequently they speak of God as “Lord,” a term they also applied to Jesus.

Speaking of the development of the tetragrammaton, we did not somehow arbitrarily come up with the vowels between the consonants. Nor did Hebrew speakers lack a preference for vowels—it is actually hard to speak without vowels. Rather Hebrew did not express every vowel in written form—though some of the Hebrew alphabet function as vowels. In time, scribes created vowel markings so the vowels would not be forgotten as Hebrew became less used. Below I have given a copy of Gen 1:1 without and with vowels (and other diacritical markings) noted.

בראשית ברא אלהים את השמים ואת הארץ

בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ

Hebrew had vowels before the vowel markers were added. But when it comes to YHWH, scholars remain uncertain exactly how this word was pronounced because the Masoretes, the scribes responsible for the vowel markings in the Hebrew Bible, used the vowels for adonai (“lord” or “master”) and would read the name as adonai or “the name” to avoid the misuse of God’s name in keeping with the third commandment. (See any standard Bible dictionary or encyclopedia for this information; e.g., I consulted Geoffrey W. Bromiley, editor, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, rev. ed. [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982], s.v. “God”).

Instead of the sound of breathing, the name YHWH is related to the verb “to be” (הָוָה; hāwâ) in Hebrew. It would convey the sense that God is the “one who is,” thus, directly connecting to the “I am who I am,” or even “I will be who I will be” of Exodus 3:14. This link is clear and uncontested to Hebrew scholars as the footnote in the NIV 2011 points out: “The Hebrew for LORD sounds like and may be related to the Hebrew for I AM in verse 14.” Leon R. Kass, Founding God’s Nation: Reading Exodus (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021), 73, points out that the name of God YHWH is the “correlative third-person singular, imperfect, of the same verb: ‘He is being,’ ‘He will be being.'” As a verb, YHWH would be read as “he is,” not an onomatopoeia of breathing in and out.

The Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the LXX dealt with the awkwardness of God announcing that his name is “I AM” in this way: Ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν, which translated would be something like “I am the being one.” Thus,” says the Lord (Κύριος), The One Who Exists (Ὁ ὢν) sent me to you.” The point is that God’s name revolves around the notion of the one who exists and who exists on God’s own terms. God’s existence, unlike our own, is not contingent or dependent on anything. God EXISTS! That is what is embedded in God’s personal name YHWH.

So who are the scholars and rabbis who say the name of God replicates the sound of breathing? You will note that in the piece cited above no bibliographic data is given and for good reason. None exists. Here you will only hear the sound of silence. You will not find this information in the Bible or any ancient Jewish source.

So take a deep breath. Now let it out, and be assured that God exists.