Reading the Bible 4: The Book of Adam and the Tetragrammaton

Today we move on to the second tablet from which Genesis was compiled: Genesis 2:4b-5:1a. Our tablet begins thus:

“In the day that Yahweh God made the earth and the heavens, no plant of the field was yet in the earth, and no herb of the field had yet sprung up; for Yahweh God had not caused it to rain on the earth. There was not a man to till the ground, but a mist went up from the earth, and watered the whole surface of the ground.”

Notice that I’ve changed the period at the end of 2:4b to a comma as there is no punctuation in the original Hebrew and given the toledoths-as-colophons Wiseman hypothesis, 2:4b is not the rest of the sentence that begins in 2:4a, but rather the start of the sentence in 2:5.

Looking towards the other end of tablet, we find the closing passage reads: “This is the book of the generations of Adam.” Under the Wiseman hypothesis, this suggests that Genesis 2:4b-5:1a originally come from a “book” in tablet form written by Adam (the first man created by God) describing his origins (translated as ‘generations’). The Wiseman hypothesis fits quite well as the account indeed records the origins of Adam, giving details that would have only been readily available to Adam, and stops well before Adam’s death. It also explains the strangeness of having what appear to be two creation stories and the odd repetition when verse 2:4 is seen as a single sentence instead of the end of one document and the beginning of another. Rather than two creation stories, we have one creation story in a document from God’s point of view followed by a separate document that records Adam’s origins from his own view. As we move through Genesis and examine its component documents, we shall see how the Wiseman hypothesis neatly accounts for peculiarities like these that remain as mysteries in competing theories about the history of text of Genesis. Such explanative power is the sign of a superior hypothesis.

Returning to the opening passage of our current document, we find that it introduces what is known as the tetragrammaton (Greek for “four letter word”) – the four Hebrew letters יְהוָ֥ה that spell the divine name. Unlike Elohim, which is akin to a role or title, the tetragrammaton denotes the actual personal name of God. Fittingly enough, it seems related to the Hebrew root for “to be” and is understood to roughly mean “the self-existent one” or “He who brings into being”. In the past, this name has been rendered in English as Jehovah. However, due to pronunciation shifts in the English language as well as advances in our understanding of written ancient Hebrew, the modern consensus is that the divine name is more properly transliterated as YHWH and rendered as Yahweh. The fact that the WEB renders this word as Yahweh is another reason why I chose to use this translation for this study.

YHWH occurs 6,828 times in the standard Hebrew texts and is the most commonly used word to refer to God in the Bible. In addition to the commandment in Exodus 20:7 (“You shall not take the name of Yahweh your God in vain, for Yahweh will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.”), the Bible tells us frequently that God considers His name and its reputation very important and that He desires people to know Him by His name. Unfortunately, an overzealousness in avoiding the accidental violation of the commandment against misusing the divine name eventually led to the practice of restricting the pronouncing of YHWH to the High Priest on Yom Kippur (the Jewish Day of Atonement) in the days when the Temple was still standing in Jerusalem. Since the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the divine name has not been pronounced and certainty about its correct pronunciation has been lost to the past. During readings of the Hebrew Scriptures, the word Adonai (which is the majestic plural form of the word Adon, meaning “my lord”) was read aloud in place of YHWH. As a result, the practice of translating YHWH as “Lord” has taken root which seems a shame if not wrong considering the extreme importance that God placed upon His name and people knowing Him by it.

It’s nice that a modern English translation like the WEB has restored YHWH to the Bible. It makes a striking difference I think to see God’s name in use throughout the text instead of the classic rendering “LORD”. It especially makes the numerous verses that invoke the sacredness of God’s name resonate more effectively when one actually sees that name right there in the surrounding text.

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1 Comment

  1. A very interesting commentary so far…I’ll have to follow this one. A favourite bugbear of mine is the use of Yahweh rather than the more popular but less accurate Jehovah, and it’s good to see a Bible translation using it.

    The issue of using God’s name in Jewish culture is fascinating and it surfaces subtly in the gospels. Whereas Mark, Luke and John use the phrase ‘kingdom of God,’ Matthew uses ‘kingdom of heaven’. Some readers take this to be evidence that the kingdom being referred to is literally a kingdom that is in heaven, the more likely explanation is that Matthew omitted the name of God so as not to offend his primarily Jewish audience.
    Thus when he uses the phrase ‘kingdom of heaven’ Matthew refers to a heavenly kingdom, rather than a kingdom ‘in’ heaven (this explanation is made a lot clearer by the original greek script than the English translation)

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