Also known as: Jehovah
Earliest recorded mention: c. 1400 BCE
Major texts: Torah (Old Testament)
Then Moses said to God, "I am to go, then, to the sons of Israel and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you.' But if they ask me what his name is, what am I to tell them?/ And God said to Moses, "I Am who I Am. This," he added, "is what you must say to the sons of Israel: 'I Am has sent me to you.'"/ And God also said to Moses, "You are to say to the sons of Israel, 'Yahweh, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.' This is my name for all time; by this name I shall be invoked for all generations to come." (Exodus 3:13-15)
The oldest books of the Bible, Genesis and Exodus, combine two separate traditions that refer to the deity by two different names. One of these is Elohim, a Hebrew word for God that can be either singular or plural (which I find fascinating, and will probably discuss at length down the road). The other, more familiar name is Yahweh.
"Yahweh" is our best transliteration of the Tetragrammaton, four Hebrew letters that were Romanized as YHWH, without vowels. Its precise meaning is a matter of scholarly debate. The Catholic Encyclopedia says that it is a noun derived from the Hebrew verb "to be," and means, "He who is." The Encyclopedia Britannica gives its meaning as "He Brings Into Existence Whatever Exists.”
Nor do we know how the name was pronounced — in large part because the name was not pronounced, because it was considered blasphemy to utter the name aloud. This teaching is still part of not only Judaism, but Catholicism as well. In 2008, the Vatican directed churches to stop using the name Yahweh in songs or prayers.
"As an expression of the infinite greatness and majesty of God, it was held to be unpronounceable and hence was replaced during the reading of sacred Scripture by means of the use of an alternate name: 'Adonai,' which means 'Lord,'" said a Vatican letter on the subject. "Avoiding pronouncing the Tetragrammaton of the name of God on the part of the church has therefore its own grounds. Apart from a motive of a purely philological order, there is also that of remaining faithful to the church's tradition, from the beginning, that the sacred Tetragrammaton was never pronounced in the Christian context nor translated into any of the languages into which the Bible was translated."
In my third-grade CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, the Catholic version of Sunday school) class, we learned that God was a being omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. Then, of course, we had to learn what those words meant: all-knowing, all-powerful, everywhere at all times. Infinite and unknowable. God had no gender, but we referred to Him as the Father Almighty because — because — because why? Well, that's a post for another day, but it was mainly because humans had to translate God into something we could recognize and relate to.
This, to me, is the mystery and the paradox of Yahweh: infinite and unknowable, the God of the Old Testament wants to be known. He gives us His name, which we cannot say. He shows Himself to us through symbols and messengers, because our human brains are simply not capable of taking in the enormity of God's existence. He is.
This being the case, how can any person or religion claim to know the single truth of God? We cannot. Instead, we choose a frame that shows us only the aspects we can get our minds and hearts around. The value and truth of the frame we choose does not invalidate anyone else's frame, because when it comes to the great I Am, none of us are more than blind men looking at an elephant.