I hear all the time that the name of our Creator should be pronounced “Yahweh” based on this or that transcription in some foreign language. One of the most popular arguments points to ancient Akkadian sources. I could spend a great deal of time dissecting each one of these sources, but for argument’s sake let’s assume the Akkadian sources really do support the pronunciation “Yahweh.” I still don’t understand why someone would rely on a non-Hebrew source and ignore the Hebrew evidence.
As someone who reads several languages and speaks two fluently, I have seen how badly people butcher words in a language that is not their own. It is ludicrous to trust an Akkadian scribe to accurately represent the pronunciation of a Hebrew word. It makes even less sense to prefer an Akkadian source over a Hebrew one.
In the last few months I have been an English teacher in China and have seen countless examples of how difficult it is for people to HEAR a foreign language. Many of my students READ advanced English. However, when it comes to HEARING English, they have a very difficult time. For example, this past week I read the lyrics from Pink Floyd’s The Wall to my Chinese students (yeah, I’m a pretty cool teacher). I asked the students to write down what they heard. I read one word at a time, very slowly, and repeated each word several times. They had never seen the lyrics before, so they had to base what they wrote on what they thought they heard. No matter how clearly I pronounced the word or how slowly I said each word, most of the students simply could not figure out what I was saying. Here are some examples of what they thought they heard:
We don’t need no fat country
We don’t need no fart control
We don’t need no fort cometure
no dark sarcasion/ sokaseem/ sarcazen/ sourcastion in that classroom
Teacher, leaf zoos kids alone
Teacher, live through kids alone
Teacher, leave both those kids alone
All and all, it’s just another break in the walk
All and all, it’s just another break in the world
All and on, it’s just another break in that warm
All or no, it is just another break in the wall
Allow all allow, it’s just another break in the war
Along or and along, is just a break in the waste.
Along all the long, it’s just another break in the work
Alone all along, is just another break in that word
All along, it’s just another break in the one
These are smart kids who read English quite well. However, the sounds of spoken English are alien to them. To be fair, I would not do nearly as well transcribing the lyrics of a Chinese song. English is just so different from Chinese!
Now imagine you are an Akkadian scribe who does not read or speak Hebrew. Scripture refers to the Akkadian-speaking Assyrian invaders as “those people of an obscure speech, with their strange, incomprehensible tongue” (Isaiah 33:19). Now be one of those Akkadian speakers. Hebrew is just as obscure and incomprehensible to you as Akkadian is to the Hebrews. You hear these Israelite captives speaking about their God and you write down what you think you hear.
Actually, that never happened! What really happened (and where people are getting Yahweh) is some Akkadian scribes wrote down the names of individual Israelites that included part of the name of the Israelite God in them (like Yeho-shua, Yeho-natan, etc.). The pronunciation of “Yahweh” is based on an extrapolation from how the Akkadian scribes wrote down these personal names.
Now is where it gets really convoluted. No one today knows for sure how to pronounce ancient Akkadian! This was a dead language for thousands of years. In the 1800s someone discovered an inscription written in Old Persian and Aramaic on a mountainside at Behistun in Iran. He scaled the mountain and transcribed it. Eventually scholars were able to decipher the Old Persian based on the Aramaic. Even though Old Persian and Akkadian are like apples and oranges, they were able to extrapolate from Old Persian to decipher Akkadian. Both were written in a similar syllabic script called Cuneiform. Now for the fun question. How do we know how to pronounce Akkadian? Based on Old Persian! And how do we know how to pronounce Old Persian? Based on Modern Persian!
So when someone tells you that the name YHVH was pronounced Yahweh in some ancient Akkadian document, what they really mean is: The Modern Persian pronunciation of Old Persian used to decipher ancient Akkadian, records what some Akkadian scribe who didn’t know Hebrew thought he heard an Israelite say. Huh! And that’s supposed to be more trustworthy than a Hebrew source preserved by Jewish scribes? On what planet does that make sense?
I love it when they reply: “But those Hebrew sources are only from the 10th century AD!” And when is the Modern Persian source from? The 19th century AD!
As Bart Simpson would say: “¡Ay, caramba!” Which my Chinese students would no doubt transcribe: “Oil corn-flour!” Now let’s reconstruct the pronunciation of Medieval Spanish based on what my Chinese students think they heard from Bart Simpson! That’s about as reliable as using Akkadian to support the pronunciation of our Creator’s name as “Yahweh.”