Jehovah’s Witnesses and the redbud

The wisteria smells rotten-sweet, like I imagine the forbidden fruit  might have smelled, lying on the ground with two bites gone. People say apple but it wasn’t named in the bible. Apple sounds far too innocuous. I think it would look more like a star fruit or one of those spiny fellows next to the kiwis and exotic fruit in the supermarket.

The pollen is finally, irrevocably here. It hung in the air yesterday, just hung in a green haze and running felt like being a fish in a not-exactly-aqueous environ. I’ve been in North Carolina more than half my life so it ought not to be a surprise, but every spring it always is. Later this week the pollen will start sweeping the porch in waves of green surf, getting in  throats, pores, and other unwelcome places.

The redbud in front of our house is  as gorgeous as ever. It’s called a redbud but the blossoms are purple. They dot the trunk of the tree in clusters the size of your palm.  Ours is the biggest redbud I’ve ever seen. I wonder if it’s really two trees. Back when the Jehovah’s Witnesses used to come with unfailing regularity and I met them with unfailing levity, one of the women told me that there are certain redbuds that are actually red. I believe it because all of those women were very old (very, very old) and I respect old age combined with garden lore. (Less so religious lore.) I fed them cake every week and was polite to a degree that surprised even myself. In the end, that was why they stopped coming. I was too calcitrant, too pliable. Like a reed in a gale. I just never could bring myself to disagree with ninety year old women. If they had said that Jesus was winging his way (even as we spoke) on a dragon made out of cake and lava, I still would have tilted my head and smiled at them.

Anyway. They’ve stopped visiting, those ladies with ankle-length skirts and papery skin. The only one I didn’t like was Renee, who really did seem like a sheep in wolves’ clothing. Possibly it was because, at fifty-odd years, she was a spring chicken in comparison with the others. I once referred her to Robyn’s house but Robyn and she never got along because Robyn actually told Renee when she didn’t feel like entertaining for hours a week.

For the most part I enjoyed their visits.  That spring was a bit lonely. Annie was only nine months old and I baked and read incessantly. The old ladies would pull up and I’d invariably have forgotten, and the baby would be napping in her car seat that I strung on a rope from the redbud so she could swing from a bough that really did break, eventually.

I liked to hear them read the bible stories, which were familiar to me, having grown up in a missionary family. (Renee never did seem to remember that fact; she was given to extraordinary flattery which made me uncomfortable.) It seemed a bit sneaky. I believe they must have training courses on how to evangelize,  and Renee specialized in flattery. It was magnificently done. Her technique was flawless. She was prepared for logical objections (I had heaps but voiced almost none, in deference to the old ladies), and she was even prepared for people like Ashley. The only thing she wasn’t prepared for was my magnificent patience.

One of the few times that I demurred was when she introduced the name Jehovah God, instead of just God. They start off calling him God, just to get a foot in the door, and after a few sessions they explain that his name is Jehovah so they’re going to call him that. It’s a nice segue so they don’t seem so cultish.

Jehovah, for those of you who don’t know, is something of an artificial name. It’s a construct. It comes from a symbol which is called, strangely enough, the Tetragrammaton, and which looks like this:

My dad, a biblical scholar who is fluent in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, among other languages, told me that this is the symbol for Yahweh, which is the name that the Hebrews called God. This is where it becomes complicated– the Hebrews, like many traditions, attached great reverence to the name of God and so they didn’t pronounce this name. Instead they said Adonai, which means my Lord, and is thus translated in many English translations, following that Jewish tradition. But in ancient Hebrew, Dad says, only consonants were written. They just skipped the vowels. Lk ths. Actually, sht kl. (Right to left.) Later, when it was discovered that no one could read it, they started making little tics to represent vowel sounds. Tics and dashes. Like Morse code, which apparently you used to have to know to get a Ham radio. So the transliteration in English is either YHWY or JHWY. Now what happened is that the vowel sounds for Adonai were ticked on later under those characters. The effect was that when you pronounced JHWY, the English transliteration, with the vowel sounds of Adonai, you get a word that sounds like Jehovah. This, at least, is how early Christians read the word, not knowing that the Semitic tradition was to substitute the word Adonai, out of respect. (Not even during Jewish holidays was Yahweh pronounced; it was only on Yom Kippur that the high priest invoked the name, while the temple was still standing in Jerusalem.)

That, in essence, is what I gathered from my dad, who knows about such things. Jehovah is understood to be a construct, and I suppose the Jehovah’s Witnesses like to call God that because 1. It sets them apart, and 2. They’re told to. (Also I think it sounds poetic.) For awhile I was thanking Tetragrammaton before dinner, which made Ashley nervous. It probably sounded too sci-fi.

I’d called Dad the week before and learned about all this by the time the ladies came over. Then Renee dropped the J-bomb. She said to me, as if she’d just thought of it, “Now sweetheart, we call God by his name because we call everyone by their names, don’t we?”

I thought about how she never remembered my name, from week to week, nor Annie’s, nor Ashley’s, and said yes.

She continued, “Well now, God’s name is Jehovah and it was revealed by himself and names are important to people and it’s important to call them by their names.”

I said, “But my dad’s name is James and people don’t call him that. I call him Dad, personally, and other people call him Jim, and some people call him Dr. Pohlig, and his family calls him Sam and in Africa, people called him Jacques or Zach.”

This threw her and the old ladies woke up confused and so I nodded many times and they settled back into their seats. Renee’s face had settled into a steely/patient mask. This was familiar territory for her.

She asked, “Well what do people call you?” (It was meant to come off as rhetorical but I’m pretty sure she’d forgotten my name again.)

I answered, “Well, most people call me Sarah but some call me Elizabeth and a few even call me Sarah Alice.” The flattery started up instantly.

Sarah! I think that’s a lovely name!”

I was tired of arguing and conceded the point out of boredom.

I would always drop everything when their sedan pulled up and I’d run around like a madwoman, hiding the ashtrays and kicking beer bottles out of sight. It took awhile, but still less time than it takes ninety year olds to get out of a sedan. They loved Annie and she loved them. We were all very happy, really, until Ashley came home from work early one week and got snippy with Renee, who snarled at him while the old ladies, oblivious, smiled and nodded and drowsed on the porch.  He’d brought up one of the early embarrassments of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, in which they wrongly predicted (thrice) the date of the end of the world. I’d googled all of this after the first day they’d visited but I’d had the courtesy not to mention it. Who wants to be reminded of three false prophecies? It just seemed like it would be a sore subject so I never brought it up. Ashley was not so sensitive and it turned out to be a sore subject after all.

After that Renee’s visits became more sporadic and she would call ahead of time to make sure that that ‘nice young man’ wouldn’t be there.

Their visits tailed off, slowly. I convinced Renee that she needed to learn how to swim and she began taking swimming classes. She could’ve written the training manual on conversion herself. I don’t underestimate that woman. She was a bit invasive, actually. We came back from vacation in July to find a pamphlet on the inside of the door. (The back door was unlocked.) Shady swore on his state fair Kimono lizard that it wasn’t him, so it had to’ve been Renee. Relations were not resumed but I still miss the old girls.





  • Sarah. You are brilliant. I love it when you write.

  • Thank you Kate 🙂 I love your posts as well, esp. the latest about forsythia.

  • Rebecca wrote:

    Oh my goodness, your patience in having tea-time with Jehovah’s witnesses, AND in talking out name-of-God theology with them. There is artistry in that.

    Now, I am trying to remember WHERE it was along the line that Jehovah ended up getting mixed up with Jove, but I can’t recall. It sounds like something Milton would have done, but on purpose. What would your ladies think of that?

    I love how you put all this together here.

  • You know, I wonder that too, Rebecca! The first time that I confounded the two was in reading The Chronicles of Narnia. I don’t know who did it, but it does sound like a bit of Miltonian fun. It’s doubly confusing that they’re both godheads. Once I sorted out they were two different beings, and that Jove wasn’t a nickname for Jehovah, then I just thought they were coincidentally similar names. Let’s find out!

  • She really was like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. That’s exactly what I thought the first time she showed up at my house. I even considered making my own pamplets to give to her the next time she came over but she never came back after I told her that I like my Bible better than hers.

  • She never would have listened. Did she touch your bible like a not-so-distant carrier of plague after she read that YHWY is translated Lord? Because she did with mine. You were the first to see her for what I later came to believe was true. Good thing.

  • Chicken wrote:

    Haha! I can’t believe you miss them. I wonder if Renee is swimming the English Channel by now. By the way, Israeli people still read Hebrew with no vowels. In fact, Hebrew on signs in Israel is usually written with no vowels. In cursive Hebrew none the less. This causes me to be illiterate while there. If vowels are present I can read, on the downside, I have no earthly idea what I am reading unless the sentence states something about a dog or the sun.

  • Whoa that is so cool!! So you can read Hebrew?! At least, dog and sun?? Chicken, perhaps? I miss you!!

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