Unspeakable Name

God has done us the singular honor of asking us to call him by Name... a sermon for the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus

SJF • Holy Name 2012 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: speak to Aaron and his sons saying, Thus shall you bless the Israelites... So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.

One of the most striking features of the Jewish faith is that although the name of God is written throughout the Hebrew Scriptures — what we Christians call the Old Testament — no one is supposed to say that name aloud. In fact no one is supposed to say that name at all — except the high priest on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and even then only secretly and softly and quietly when he goes into the Holy of Holies at the heart of the Temple. And since the Temple was destroyed in the first century by the Romans, the name goes unspoken.

So holy is this name, spelled in four letters, Yod, He, Vav, He — or as we would say, Y H W H — that instead of pronouncing it aloud, every time it appears in the text of the Scripture, the pious Jewish person follows the instructions printed out in the margin of the page, where it says, “Read Adonai” — and instead of saying the unspeakable Name as written will say “Adonai,” which means “the Lord.”

You have no doubt noticed and perhaps wondered about the fact that in English Bibles and prayerbooks you will often find the word “LORD” printed in all capital letters, or sometimes “GOD” printed the same way — and this indicates that the Hebrew original at that point in the Hebrew text has the four letters of the unspeakable name.

So holy is this name, that even the paper it is written or printed on becomes holy — which is why the hand-written Torah scrolls, and even mass-produced printed Hebrew Bibles, are never just thrown away. When they become too damaged or worn for further use they are reverently placed into a kind of cemetery for Bibles. And if there is need to write down a Hebrew text, say of a Psalm for a summer camp worship service, something temporary: if there is a chance that the paper might simply be thrown away rather than being preserved, instead of writing the full four letters of the unspeakable name they will sometimes write instead two Yods, what we would call two Y’s, which doesn’t mean anything in Hebrew and which to us looks like a large quotation mark. The Name is so holy that whenever that double-Y appears, instead of saying it the person will say — not the Name itself, but that substitute, “Adonai.”

Some Orthodox Jews will not even write down the English word “God” for the same reason, but instead will write G-hyphen-d, or G_underscore_d, so scrupulous are they to avoid even coming close to taking God’s name in vain. And in conversation or even in a classroom teaching about God many observant Orthodox Jews will not even use “Adonai,” — the Lord — as a substitute, as it has taken on some of the holiness that belongs to the unspeakable Name itself; rather they will refer to “Ha Shem” — which simply means “the Name.” So, for instance, if you ask such an Orthodox couple if they are traveling to Jerusalem next year, they might say, “If Ha Shem wills it.” “If ‘The Name’ wills it.”

Of course the people of Israel had other ways to communicate the unspeakable Name, in addition to using such written or spoken substitutes. We see one of them in the reading from the Book of Numbers this morning, where the priests of the family of Aaron are given the authority to bless the people with the unspeakable Name by ritual means. They would hold up their hands like this — which looks a like two copies of the Hebrew letter Shin, the first letter of Shaddai (meaning Almighty) and Shekinah (meaning presence of God). The priests, while holding their hands like this, would pronounce a four part blessing of protection, light, grace and peace, as the people reverently bowed their heads — not even looking at the priests’ hands as they were raised above them.

This blessing is still given in synagogues to this day, and you may know that actor Leonard Nimoy borrowed this sacred hand-gesture when he played Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, recalling it from a childhood peek at the blessing as it was bestowed in his parent’s congregation in the synagogue. Thus the high and holy blessing to live long and prosper has become prosaic — or even Vulcan.

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Which ironically brings us back to earth. It is probably a bit hard for us to relate to all of this awe and holiness surrounding God’s name since we use God’s name all the time, either taken in vain, or even in causal conversation, is so common we scarcely notice it. We will casually say, “God bless you” to a sneezing stranger, who for all we know could be a Buddhist or an atheist. Perhaps we may not even know that the word “Goodbye” is just a short form of “God be with ye.” So we modern Christians speak this Name of ‘God’ all the time.

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And perhaps after all it is right that we should. One of the primary differences between Judaism and Christianity is precisely the belief that God has come to us to be with us as one of us — that God who created the universe became a human child — born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children, to become heirs in Christ. He grew to manhood and then suffered and died for our sake and for our salvation. God moved from being our Creator to being our Brother. And because Jesus is our brother we can join him in calling out to God as our Abba, our Father in heaven, as the Spirit inspires us and as Jesus taught us to do. Who would not call their own loving Father by name? And who has more right to do so than a child of that same Father — even if adopted?

In coming to us as one of us, the Son of God took on a new name, Jesus — the name which is above all other names, at which every knee should bend upon the earth and under the earth, and by which every tongue should confess that he is Lord — Adonai.

It is a holy name, a sacred name, and we should not profane it or speak it vainly. Jesus our brother is also our Lord and our God, as Doubting Thomas would eventually confess. It is through Jesus we earn the high and holy right to call God ‘Father,’ a privilege not to be taken lightly.

Even our earthly customs of the names we call each other often show more respect than some people do for God. But when a justly famed or important person, one you are accustomed to calling Mister this or Doctor that, or even by a formal “Sir” or “Ma’am” instead of speaking their name aloud — when a person like that invites you to call them by their name, we may be at first a little shy to do so. When an archbishop says to you, “Call me Rowan,” or a president says, “Please call me Barak,” you are invited to do something few would presume to do on their own initiative.

In the Incarnation, God has done just this. He has said to us, “Call me Father,” “Call me Brother.” The one whose name remained unspoken and too sacred to pronounce, only flashed in hand-signals or whispered in the Temple’s Most Holy Place, at the last and in the fullness of time, has come to us and said, “Call me Jesus.” And it is in that name we pray.+