Thursday, August 31, 2006

Blessed be the name...

YHWH and the LORD: does God have a name?
When you read the Bible, you might have noticed that in the Old Testament many versions put 'the LORD' at some points and 'the Lord' at others. Why is this?

It is a deliberate choice made by the translators, and reflects a different Hebrew word behind each option. In fact, where it says 'LORD', the Hebrew has the name of Israel's God: 'Yahweh'. Since Hebrew used to be written without vowels, the name is actually written just 'Yhwh' (sometimes people write it like this: YHWH), and 'Yahweh' is a best-guess for how it might have been said.

However, sometime along the track,* pious Israelites, who read the ten commandments and so knew that they shouldn't take God's name in vain, decided that the best way to avoid committing this sin was to never say the name (Yhwh) aloud at all.* That way, they could be sure that they would never misuse it (I don't think this move is either necessary nor sufficient, but I respect their reverence). So, instead of saying 'Yahweh' (or however they used to pronounce it), they would substitute the Hebrew word 'Adonai' (which means 'lord'),* or sometimes* 'Hashem' (which just means 'the name').
* I've generalised a little for simplicity; see here for a fuller explanation.

In later centuries, when they started adding vowels to written Hebrew, instead of adding 'a' and 'e' to YHWH (so that it read 'Yahweh'), they added the vowels from 'Adonai' (i.e. 'a', 'o' and 'a') in order to remind themselves that when they came across this word, they should say 'Adonai' (with the vowels) rather than 'Yahweh' (reading the consonants).

Incidentally, this why some people speak about God’s name as ‘Jehovah’, but you won’t find it in any modern translation. Sometimes the Hebrew letter yod is transliterated with a ‘j’ rather than a ‘y’, and sometimes the Hebrew letter waw is transliterated with a ‘v’ rather than a ‘w’. Thus, YHWH becomes JHVH. Then, when you add in the vowels from 'Adonai', you get JeHoVaH! So ‘Jehovah’ is a made-up name, a mistake made by those who didn’t realise that the vowels had been substituted. It would be a little like taking the vowels from 'Jesus' and putting them into the word 'God' to end up with ‘Gedu’.

Next: what happens in the New Testament?
Ten points for picking which church door is pictured. Five more for which passage is quoted.

12 comments:

andrewE said...

Then Jesuits would be Geduits:)

John Dekker said...

When I read The Message, I pronounce "Yahweh" as "the Lord". ;)

The other reason for not pronouncing the Divine Name would be ignorance of how it's supposed to be pronounced.

byron said...

Erro:   :-)

John: try here for pronounciation.

Jason Goroncy said...

Bryon. Thanks for this post. I'm just working my way through about 300 articles on this very question. Mostly, the largely etymological route gets us almosr nowhere, as does a history of religions track. I am convinced that the revelation of the divine name in Exodus 3 (a name they were already familar with) only makes sense in the context of Israel’s plight in Egypt and in the broader Exodus narrative. I look forward to your NT post. Have you read Bauckham on this?

Annette said...

Yeh my highschool bible teacher taught us that neat trick in yr 11. Tried it out on a few jehovah's witnesses shortly thereafter.
Writing in pic is spanish or perhaps Catalun (or however u spell language of Catalunya) cause pic is from Barcelona of the Sagrada Familia door.

Qué es la veritat? - I'm guessing... What is truth? Pilate. Ecce Hommo?

Cyberpastor said...

How much trouble do you get into to suggest that God's name is Jesus?

I have Messianic Jewish friend whose life revolves around a lot of this. I too respect the piety involved although it is interesting to see what happens when theology is not supported by consideration that the revelation of one's name is a gracious act for relationship.

Rob said...

Hey Jason,

I know you addressed your question to Byron, but I've read a bit of Bauckham on the revealing of the divine name and its implications for Christology in the NT (God Crucified). I'm not really sold on the idea that the baptism formula "Father, Son and Spirit" is a new disclosure of the divine name, though. I can see how it would sort of work, since Jesus is envisioned as the new Moses in Matthew 28, looking over to the promised land before he is taken up, but besides that I can't see a really strong connection.

Maybe he's written more fully on this elsewhere. What think ye?

byron said...

Fifteen points to Annette.

David - yes true piety is loving relationship. Not between equals, but as children, not slaves. And so, just as actually reading and obeying the scriptures shows more reverence than how you treat the physical book, so relating to the one who has revealed himself is the best piety. In neither case does it mean we can or should be flippant - the Bible is just a book, but throwing it into the mud or burning it are still symbolic acts. Same goes mutatis mutandis for the divine name. Love to hear any further reflections you have on this David!

byron said...

Jason & Rob - I've read Bauckham's Crucified God, but not a great deal in addition to it. I'm not consciously drawing upon it (I haven't had it in front of me), but I did find it very insightful and I'm sure it shaped my thinking. I'd love to hear more feedback about this post (and any more than come in this series), as I was hoping to make it a little more accessible to those who haven't read 300 articles.

I am convinced that the revelation of the divine name in Exodus 3 (a name they were already familar with) only makes sense in the context of Israel’s plight in Egypt and in the broader Exodus narrative.
Jason, I'd love to hear expand this a little.

I'm not really sold on the idea that the baptism formula "Father, Son and Spirit" is a new disclosure of the divine name, though.
Rob, the connection between Jesus and Moses in Matthew is not limited to the close of the book, but seems to be something of a semi-submerged theme throughout. As for a new disclosure, isn't it significant, that we hear here of 'the name' - not names, but the single name of Father : Son : Spirit?

Mark said...

"Father Son Spirit" is the proper "Christian name" for the God we know through and in Jesus Christ (to paraphrase Robert Jenson + John Macquarie)

Cyberpastor said...

Both Jenson and Macquarie seem to me to a bit wobbly on this point and reveal a tinge of modalism or even monism that has come to be associated with the Western tradtion. I don't think it is really that helpful to run the names of the three persons together which Jenson seems to do. On the other hand his talk about identites for persons does just the same thing.

God is by His Spirit the Father of our Lord Messiah Jesus. This is his "whoness."

psychodougie said...

so are you trying to say mark that it's inappropriate for us gentile christians to use YHWH? is that a name for God reserved for the jewish nation, who retain a special place in God's heart (as i read Romans)?
and we, then, the grafted in, whould we be calling God Father (think Hebrews), and that alone?