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the harrison review

thinking inside the box

August 16, 2020

Andrew Harrison

the name of God

        The Jewish and Christian sacred texts both comprise the writings of the Old Covenant.  Whereas Jews and Christians part ways on the New Covenant writings, given its representation and endorsement of Jesus of Nazareth’s personal claims to Messiah, these two religious groups nevertheless walk in lockstep insofar as they view the Old Testament as a faithful record of God’s special revelation to mankind, conveyed through the people of Abraham.


This God of the Old Testament was not a distant God.  Some American Founding Fathers were deists, who believe that God exists, but that he--I employ a linguistic custom here, not an argument for God’s having a gender--generally leaves humanity alone, forbearing to impart special messages through prophets and commissioning no ‘only begotten sons’ to light the way.  One might think of the God of the Old Testament, then, as the anti-deist God, in no way resembling the ‘absentee father’ God of the deists, but conversely serving as an ever-present help to his people, inspiring holy writings, engraving special commands onto stone tablets, and perhaps in the clearest signal of his intent to be a personal God to the Jews, imparting a personal name for his chosen people to use:

Exodus 3:13–15 (English Standard Version)

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.”......God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘[YHWH], 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."

And yet, from the Septuagint’s Greek translation of the Old Testament in the 3rd century B.C. right up to today’s modern English translations, whether for Jewish or Christian particular use, in virtually every translation you will find YHWH represented as ‘LORD,’ or some variation.  One wonders, then, why followers of the Judeo-Christian religions have abandoned the name of God.


~~~the Law, turned up to 11~~~

        The Jewish religion is a religion of law, God’s Law.  And throughout their long history, the Jews have taken a serious attitude toward that Law.  And what other disposition should they take? This was no rulebook legislated by man.  To this end, it has been a mainstay, at least of ancient Jewish tradition, to build a ‘fence around the law,’ meaning, not only to follow God’s commands as written but to append additional statutes intended to keep one from even coming *close* to a violation.  So when Scripture forbids a physical punishment’s exceeding 40 lashes, the Jews outlawed exceeding 39.  Better safe than sorry.  In essence the Jews took Mosaic Law, and turned it up to 11.


So when God gave his personal name to the Jews and instructed them in the Third Commandment of the Decalogue not to misuse that name, what better way to safeguard against misuse of his name than just not to use it at all?  This practice primarily found application in not *vocalizing* the personal name of God but in some cases extended to editing or omitting the name in written text as well.


~~~can I buy a vowel?~~~

        Regarding Jews’ and Christians’ electing to substitute a replacement for YHWH in English (and other) translations, no reason compares in importance to this Jewish tradition of not speaking the name.  There is, however, another piece of the story that bears inclusion.  When translators attempt to render some text in a language other than the one in which it was originally written, there are two primary tools available to him: translation and transliteration. We are all familiar with the concept of translation, where one uses whatever word(s) in his language best represent the *meaning* of the word(s) used in the original language (and yes, considering context and idioms and all that).  This is the main work of rendering a text into a new language.  


But what of proper nouns, like place names and people names?  Most (possibly all) names do in fact have related meanings, but it is very rarely the case that a translator would choose to represent the *meaning* of a name (David means 'beloved' and Sarah 'princess'), rather than the name itself.  After all, that just isn’t the usual function of names in our day-to-day usage.  (As it happens, there is quite a lot wrapped up in the meaning behind the divine name YHWH, which has something to do with ‘being,’ whether God’s existing eternally or his being the cause of everything that exists.)  Instead of translation, then, we transliterate the original language.  Transliteration is the simplest of concepts: Take whatever *sound* is made when pronounced in the original tongue and convert that sound into the letters of one’s own language. Transliteration is useful also for words that cannot be translated because the word’s meaning simply *has* no counterpart in another language.


In the original Hebrew writings (or the closest record we have of them), the name of God is recorded as four Hebrew consonants.  Scholars refer to the four-letter form of the divine name by way of the five-syllable ‘tetragrammaton.’  In English the tetragrammaton transliterates to YHWH.  But you can’t pronounce a word without vowel sounds.  And since the Jews weren’t speaking the name, its precise pronunciation was lost.  Since the Hebrew word Adonai, translated ‘Lord,’ had come to be the common replacement for the name, the Masoretes, sometime in the last half of the first millennium A.D., inserted the vowels from Adnoai into YHWH, giving us something like ‘Jehovah.’  And while this name achieved widespread adoption, its accuracy as a representation of the divine name has been rejected wholesale.  Today there is broad scholarly consensus that Yahweh is the most faithful approximation of the tetragrammaton.


~~~say his name~~~

        It is commonplace for a religion’s adherents to treat their religion’s divinity in sacred ways: Jews do not pronounce the name of God, Muslims proscribe visual depictions of Mohamed, and atheists append a momentary pause after speaking the name of Christopher Hitchens (Richard Dawkins, notably, is paid no such respect by his disciples.).


Even in modern times, many still advocate for the ancient Jewish practice of disuse of the divine name, whether out of reverence or because of any uncertainty that remains regarding correct pronunciation.  Regarding the latter, we must, they say, embody the virtue of “spiritual and intellectual modesty.”  But such a virtue is noticeably absent from any of the Ten Commandments, and hard to locate anywhere else in the Old Covenant.  And even if it were, I would expect spiritual and intellectual modesty to look something like a footnote in the biblical text or a Sunday School lesson on the subject.  As it stands, modesty bears quite the resemblance to just giving up.  And regarding reverence, while the ‘misuse’ of the name of God that is forbidden by the Third Commandment surely refers primarily to using God’s name in some profane way, I can’t help but think that we misuse the name of God in some sense by not using it at all.


I am of the persuasion that we have no good grounds for today’s translations of the Old Testament to continue to use anything other than a transliterated representation of the Hebrew name for God.  If God decided, of his own accord, to provide his people a name by which to call him, and to preserve that name within the pages of inspired Scripture, it stands to reason that he intended for that name to be *used*.  Jews and Christians have an obligation to use it.  I am not one to toss aside tradition with very little care or concern, but principle must always overrule tradition.


~~~’Lord’ either way~~~

        Four possibilities for change:

    1.  a blank space (a.k.a. the Taylor Swift option) - This is the worst option, but at least has the benefit of cluing the reader into the fact that something is missing, unlike the current use of ‘LORD,’ which the reader no doubt psychologically equates with ‘Lord’ or ‘lord.’  This option experiences the downsides, however, of making the Holy Scriptures read like a redacted CIA document as well as being unusable for vocal readings.

    2. print the actual Hebrew - This is a step in the right direction.  It would at least bear faithful representation to the inspired text, but still score a zero for usability.

    3. translate the name - As we noted above, the meaning of YHWH has something to do with ‘being.’  Translators could use ‘I am’ in the text.  This would make for some potentially awkward reading, but readers would doubtless grow accustomed to the convention over time.  Exodus 3 gives us a sampling of this approach.

    4. Yahweh - This is the best option because it is the most obvious one.  As we have already indicated, there is broad scholarly consensus that ‘Yahweh’ is a high-accuracy representation of the Hebrew.


Sadly, I cannot prophesy any change in this matter.  Two main facts are brought to bear:  

    1. There is no significant deleterious impact on the Jewish faith or the Christian Church that results from current practices.  Whether we call him by his name or not, he is ‘Lord’ either way.

    2. Tradition with as long a history and significance as this particular issue almost always wins.  Almost always.

Psalm 100:1–2 (World English Bible)

Shout for joy to Yahweh, all you lands!

Serve Yahweh with gladness.  

Come before his presence with singing.

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