The Egyptian Name YHWH
H. Abdul Al-Dahir
Yah is the most ancient form of the name Yhwh. The question of why the name was transformed from a two letter name into a tetragrammaton was a puzzle until now. How Yh became Yhwh has to do with the Egyptians. The Egyptian word for Yhw was transliterated into hieroglyphs and was spelled: GSL (Gardiner’s Sign List) M17, V28, V4, G43. M17 is pronounced as ‘Y’ or Ya, V28 is pronounced as ‘Hu’, V4 is pronounced as w3h or (weh) and G43 is pronounced as ‘ou’. So, the word Yhwh would be pronounced in Egyptian as Yah huweh hu. In Hebrew the name YHWH is written as yod het yod het.
We must begin by dating the various inscriptions. The Soleb Temple inscription, where the name Yhwh appears in Egypt, dates to between 1386-1349 BCE. The Negev inscriptions, where the name Yh appears, date to the Egyptian occupation of the Negev/Edom between the 14th-12th Centuries BCE. Hebrew dates to 1000 BCE give or take. So, the Soleb inscription which mentions the Shasu of Yhw dates to about the same time that the Egyptians occupied Edom and the Negev. At that time the Midianites and Edomites, who became the Judeans, were enslaved by the Egyptians to work the copper mines at Timna. This enslavement is mentioned in Deuteronomy 4:20. Also, according to Deut 33:2, Yhwh rose up from Seir which is located in Edom. In other words, Yhwh was worshipped in Edom by the proto-Judean copper miners. The Negev inscriptions were made by these proto-Judeans as is indicated by the many depictions of the menorah which you can find at this site. Scroll down to the last image.
The earliest form of Yhwh’s name was written in the Negev inscriptions as >——–O or Yh in Hebrew or >——O in Old Negev. Refer to III, the 2nd image after the picture of the ewer.
The last word is >—–O in this referenced inscription and is pronounced as Yh with a strongly accented ‘h’ or >—– in Old Negev. We know this because the Hebrew ‘h’ was also heavily aspirated due to the ‘h’ being written with a mappiq or accent. So, because the Hebrew word Yh contained a heavily aspirated ‘h’, this indicates that the pronunciation of the Negev >— (H) was also heavily aspirated. In the Old Negev inscriptions, Yh is also written with a double ‘h’ which indicates that the name was pronounced as Yh hw; the final ‘oo’ sound being an unwritten diacritic. Refer to III, the eleventh image after the ewer.
Now that the mechanics and pronunciation for the Hebrew and Old Negev god Yh have been worked out, we now must consider why Yh became Yhwh. This transformation was caused by a similarity in the pronunciation of the Hebrew god Yh and the Egyptian god Iah (Gardiner’s Sign List: M17-V28-N26-G7). As you see from the second spelling of the Egyptian moon god’s name that Yah and Iah had very similar pronunciations. It seems that the proto-Judeans (Midianites & Edomites) in the Negev were compelled to distinguish their god Yh from the Egyptian god Iah. The proto-Judeans accomplished this feat by appending a defining word or attribute to the name of Yh.
The Egyptian god was a moon god and the proto-Judeans worshipped a serpent god as is indicated by their spelling of this god’s name as a snake’s head with a protruding forked tongue as well as the many depictions of this god as a horned viper. In the Bible, this horned viper became the nehushtan or copper viper wound around a pole (Num 21:8) which was worshiped as Yhwh’s icon (2 Kings 18:4). The Negev word for snake was yh or possibly yhw, the ‘w’ being an unwritten diacritic. Diacritics were not added until the 7th Century AD. The most ancient form of the definite article was the ‘h’ which was retained in both Hebrew and Old South Arabian or the Sayhadic languages. However, in modern Arabic the definite article has become ‘el/al/ul/il’. In Arabic the word Yh was appended with the prefix ‘h’ and was spelled hyh but pronounced as hayya. In proto-Hebrew or proto-Canaanite the word for snake was ‘hw’ and pronounced ‘howa’ according to the Canaanite snake spells in the Pharaoh Unas’ pyramid which date to the 24th Century BCE. The Biblical word for snake, nachash was most likely borrowed from the Vedic language of the Mitanni Kingdom in the North. The Sanskrit word for snake was nagas or nachash in Hebrew.
To conclude, in order to distinguish their god, Yah, from the Egyptian moon god, Iah, the Hebrews appended the word ‘hwh’ to their word for their god Yah so that the word YHWH meant Yah the serpent as opposed to iaH the moon. The accented ‘h’ is still transliterated into English as a double ‘h’ so that Yh is transliterated as Yhh. Considering that the accented ‘h’ in the word Yh was pronounced as a double ‘h’, the word Yhwh would have been written as Yhhwhh but pronounced as Yah howah hu. The final ‘h’ originally would have been an aspirated ‘h’ as is indicated by the ‘ou’ sound that followed it in the Egyptian spelling. In other words, the Semitic word for Yhwh was transliterated by the Egyptians into hieroglyphs and spelled GSL (Gardiner’s Sign List) M17, V28, V4, G43. M17 is pronounced as ‘Y’ or Ya, V28 is pronounced as ‘Hu’, V4 is pronounced as w3h or (weh) and G43 is pronounced as ‘ou’. Literally, the pronunciation would have been Yah huweh hu. The final hieroglyphic G43 indicates that the final ‘h’ would have been aspirated like the accented ‘h’ in the Biblical spelling of Yah and the double ‘h’ in the Old Negev spelling of Yah.
Middle Eastern gods often had defining attributes appended to their names as the Aramaean god Singl whose name means ‘the god Sin is great’ or Melkart whose name means ‘king of the city’. The Sumerian gods almost all have appended names as Ningizzida (lord of the good tree), Enlil (god of the winds), Ea (house of water), Ninlil (lady of the winds) etc. So, it would not be unusual for the proto-Judeans to append a defining name to their god Yah in order to distinguish him from the god of their Egyptian occupiers iaH. At least we now know the pronunciation of Yhwh. The name was pronounced as Yah huweh hu in 14th Century Egypt. However, Yh/Yhh did not officially become Yhwh until after the 12th Century BCE as this name was still spelled as Yh/Yhh in the Negev. The earliest attested writing of the name Yhwh in paleo-Hebrew only dates from the late 9th or early 8th Century BCE.