Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.
Perhaps you know the history of the name of God in the Old Testament (OT): throughout the OT, God is most commonly referred to in one of two ways—both of them reflected in this passage. The first way is in the use of the generic term “elohim,” which is typically translated “God.” The second way in which God is referred to is by the proper name of God: “YHWH” with the consonants pronounced Yahweh and translated as “the LORD” throughout the OT. In the history of its use, it eventually became taboo to speak the name YHWH (although it was spoken by many of the figures in the OT and its being spoken was perhaps not completely outlawed until 70 AD). Given the sacredness of the name YHWH and the commandment not to take the name of the LORD in vain the Israelites figured that it would be safest not to say it all, so when they encountered YHWH in writing they would simply read “adonai” (Lord).
So that’s a very brief history of the use of the proper name of God in the OT. Now we go to our text above since it is the passage where the given name of God is expressed. Moses says to God: “what can I call you?” And God’s response is that he is defined not by a name but by a quality—by the quality of complete self-existence: “I AM WHO I AM” or simply “I AM.” This is his identity—his overarching, ‘this is who I am, I am this to everyone’ kind of answer. But God isn’t done. He adds something more, something special, unique, and expressly covenantal: “The LORD” or more notably “YHWH.” It’s like someone saying to you: “I’m the most important person in the world, but because you and I are in a covenant, you can call me Richard.”
Christians, in similar vein as the Israelites, rarely actually use the name YHWH. Much of this comes from an attempt to try and avoid offending Jews, who believe that it is blasphemy to say “YHWH.” However, this decision isn’t exactly Biblical; in fact, the principle behind it is exactly the kind of legalism which Paul says that we as Christians no longer need to worry about. And if we’re worrying about blasphemy in the eyes of Judaism, we’d also have to stop claiming that Jesus is the proverbial “Son of Man,” we’d have to stop talking about God as triune, and we wouldn’t say that Jesus is the Son of God. (Although there certainly are times to hold this consideration in mind.)
And yet, despite the ultimate invalidity of this concern, we still never refer to God by the name that he gave to his covenant people; rather we refer to him by terms about him. It’d be like never referring to someone by their actual name but rather by their character, relationships, actions, etc. We do it so thoroughly that it has been written into the text of almost every Bible that we use, where the proper name of God is simply translated “the LORD.” We have had no choice in the matter—no one has discussed whether to translate it “YHWH,” it is simply constantly “the LORD.”
So now you may ask why this matters; well, take Psalm 42/43 (they were likely one Psalm originally): this Psalm is a swirling, chaotic, explanation of a troubling time which uses the term “God” all throughout. Yet there in the middle of the Psalm at verse 8, acting as a place of firm footing, is an expression of the endless love of God and in this one instance, the Psalmist uses the name YHWH. So as a point of hermeneutic interest, you can see how the use of the specific term in this one verse instead of the general term found through the rest of the Psalm calls attention to this particular verse, highlighting the importance of a steadfast foundation upon the covenantal God YHWH.
While tipping my hat to the concerns about the offensive nature of the use of the term YHWH, I must confess that I have serious objections to not referring to God by his name. For one thing, there’s the simple awkwardness of referring to God without using his proper name even though he specifically gave it to his covenant people (whom we as Christians are). On another level, one of the questions hermeneutics asks is not simply “what is said,” but “why might it be said that way instead of another (perhaps more intuitive) way.” And the use of YHWH instead of elohim offers perhaps more insight throughout the OT on that level than any other possibility out there. So why do we ignore it? Why do we allow translation committees to simply decide for us that we ought not to concern ourselves with this? God gave a covenant name to his covenant people and throughout Scripture it is used to remind people of the covenant nature of Israel’s relationship with God. Shouldn’t we, as people of the new covenant with God, also use the covenant name of God when we speak in covenant contexts?