The name Jehovah is actually based on a mistaken reading of the biblical text by medieval Christian scholars who were educated in the Hebrew language but were not aware of certain Jewish scribal customs.
In short, they did not realize that it was a Jewish tradition to write the vowels for the word ’adonai, Lord, with the consonants for the name Yahweh, known as the tetragrammaton, and they wrongly read this hybrid word as Yehowah, or Jehovah in English.
That is to say, the name Jehovah (or Yehowah) did not exist in Israel—despite the popularity of this name in English-speaking, Christian circles, and despite religious organizations like Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Before getting into more specifics about the original pronunciation of God’s name, YHWH, let me explain the Jewish scribal custom known as qere-ketiv (pronounced q’rey, k’teev), Aramaic for “read” and “it is written.” This practice included several different scribal customs, including: (1) the practice of not reading certain words that were considered objectionable in the biblical Hebrew text and replacing them with less offensive words in their place; and (2) the practice of replacing one reading of a word with a variant reading of that same word, normally reflecting a minor difference in spelling or grammar. An example of the former would be the reading of the verb “lie with” (Hebrew shakab) for the verb “ravish” (Hebrew shagal). This occurs four times in the Tanakh, Deuteronomy 28:30; Isaiah 13:16; Jeremiah 3:2; and Zechariah 14:2, which is why the NIV translates with “ravish” (as written in the Hebrew text) but in an ancient synagogue, the marginal text with “lie with” would have been read. In this case, “ravish” would be the ketiv, what is written in the main Hebrew text, while “lie with” would be the qere, the word to be read in place of what is written. An example of the latter would be the substitution of the plural form of a word for the singular form, or, to use English as an example, substituting the spelling “color” for “colour.” These types of substitutions occur frequently. Again, the substituted form is the qere while the replaced form is the ketiv.
How did the Jewish scribes indicate this? In some manuscripts, the word to be replaced (the ketiv, the word written in the main text) would be left without vowels, which would be quite conspicuous. Then, in the margin of the text, the qere would be written in full (that is, with both consonants and vowels). In other manuscripts, the consonants of the word in the text (ketiv) would be preserved but the vowels of the word to be read in its place (qere) would be substituted, creating a hybrid form, while the consonants of the qere word would be written in the margin.
Recreating this in English—this is only for the purpose of illustration, since the languages are very different—I will substitute the Hebrew name Miryam for the name Mary, using the two methods just mentioned.
The first method would look like this, where the vowels would be left out from the word in question in the main text (the ketiv) and the word to be read in its place (the qere) would be written out in full:
The virgin’s name was Mry. Miryam
The second method would look like this, where the vowels from the marginal text (the qere) would be inserted into the word in the main text (the ketiv), creating a hybrid, non-existent form in the main text, while the word in the margin would be written without vowels.
The virgin’s name was Miriya. Mrym
In both cases, any English reader would recognize at once that there was something wrong with the form in the main text (either Mry or Miriya), looking at once to the margin to see the replacement word. How then was it that the Christian scholars who began studying Hebrew in the late Middle Ages missed the fact that the Hebrew formyehowah was a combination of the consonants for yahweh and the vowels for ’adonai?
It is very simple. In the case of the divine name yhwh, which occurs roughly 6,800 times in the Hebrew Bible, the scribes did not write the qere form, ’adonai, in the margins, so these scholars had no idea that they were actually looking at a hybrid form, similar to the make believe Miriya just used as an illustration.
It had been a Jewish belief for many centuries that the Lord’s name was too sacred to be pronounced and so, whenever it occurred in the text, Jews would say “the Lord” (’adonai) in its place. This is reflected as far back as the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures made by Jewish scholars in the third to second centuries B.C., in which the Greek word kurios, “lord,” was substituted for the name yahweh. It may also be reflected in the scribal practice found in the Dead Sea Scrolls in which a different script was used when writing out the consonants y-h-w-h.
There was no need, then, for later Jewish scribes to constantly indicate in the margins that yəhowah was not the original reading, since this was universally known to all literate Jews. It was not known, however, to the Christian scholars who were newcomers to Hebrew and who mistakenly took the hybrid form of the name to be the original form of the name.
What then was the original pronunciation of the Lord’s name? It is best reconstructed as yahweh, a causative form of the root “to be” and meaning, “He who causes things to be; he who make things happen.” (The Hebrew for the famous words “I am that I am” in Exodus 3:14 is, ’ehəyeh ’asher ’ehəyeh, with the word ’ehəyeh being a play on words with yahweh, also coming from the same root, “to be.”) This reconstruction is also based on the short formyah, which occurs in the word “Hallelujah” (from the Hebrew words halləlu [praise] yah), as well as in names such as Elijah (from the Hebrew ’eliyahu, short for “my God is Yahweh).
Religious Jews would not think of referring to God by either the wrong name Jehovah or the right name Yahweh, since the former is basically meaningless to them and the latter would be considered too sacred to pronounce. To them, He would be called God or the Lord or HaShem (literally, the Name; in popular practice, then, HaShem becomes the Lord’s new name). However, when words such as God or Lord are written by religious Jews, they are not written in full—hence the common forms G-d or L-rd—since they are considered too sacred even to write out, except in official, sacred texts, such as the Bible or prayer book.
Interestingly, while all of us have become familiar with the (wrong) form Jehovah, and while some of us are also familiar with the (correct) form Yahweh, the English way of saying Yahweh would be actually Jahveh—which sounds quite odd to our ears. Yet that is far closer to the Lord’s self-revealed name than is Jehovah!
Thankfully, our heavenly Father is pleased if we walk with Him in close, intimate fellowship, and He is not put off by being called Jehovah, nor is He bothered if we do not relate to Him well as Yahweh, although increasingly, it seems that His people are worshiping Him by the name He chose to use when revealing Himself to His people.