Those four consonants were as close as you were allowed to get. Missing out the vowels was, of course, normal in writing scripture – but when you read it out loud, you had to say, “Adonai”; the LORD.
What am I on about?
You will have spotted (who could possibly miss it?) that whenever God’s name comes up in our translations of the Old Testament, that strange form of lettering is used – the LORD WITH BLOCK CAPITALS, rather than “the Lord”. That’s because it isn’t the actual word that is written. It’s expressing the same convention as writers of the Hebrew text used for God’s name: written “JHWH” but never pronounced. Whenever you saw it in scripture you said “Adonai” – “Lord”, but God’s actual name was never spoken.
It was too holy.
Because of this, we don’t actually know how JHWH might have been pronounced, because it never was. We guess at Jehovah, or Yahweh, but you can take your pick if you feel bold enough to break the convention.
Before Christmas, you couldn’t make a graven image of God and you couldn’t say God’s name. Much the same as you couldn’t offer an unclean animal in sacrifice, or use an unclean pot to cook a sacred meal. All these things could jeopardise human awareness of God’s holiness, his separation from the tainted things of this world.
In many ways, this guarding of God’s holiness was utterly crucial. It protected Israel from the idolatry of the pagan world around. Only they kept the true faith pure; shining as a light in the darkness. God’s chosen people stood out as the only worshippers of the one, true and living God, who dwells in unapproachable light.
It also explains the fine mess that the Pharisees had gotten themselves into (to quote Ollie Hardy). They pictured “un-holiness” as something contagious – like the new variant strain of Covid – so that you had to constantly protect yourself against uncleanness. Even Peter complained to God, “Nothing unclean has ever passed my lips.” They tried to go around in a “holy bubble”, not coming into contact with anything that might stain them (hence passing by on the other side). Oh dear! Hands, Face, Space may be crucial in not picking up Coronavirus, but it’s not the way to avoid “spiritual contamination” – to keep yourself pure; unsullied by the godless world.
Then along came Christmas.
And eight days later, God was given the name Jesus.
And we can say his name.
And we can make statues and paintings of him, because he is a human being like us.
And holiness is no longer to be looked for by keeping yourself untainted by the world. It’s the light shining in the very unclean manger. The light in every place of human need and frailty.
The light of the Name above all Names, that bids our sorrows cease.
The light in each other. The light in here, where Jesus is.