Tuesday, November 25, 2008

To Name or Not To Name

I've been agonizing over a particularly sticky issue regarding my own morning "quiet time" with God lately. Namely (to pardon the pun): naming Him.

I'm currently reading through the Bible in haphazard fashion via the English Standard Version, which does a reasonable job of combining the formal equivalence of the NASB (my old standard) that I love so well with the more lyrical qualities of, say, the KJV. Anywho, like virtually all modern, widely-read English Biblical translations, the word "LORD", in all caps, typically in a different font, appears very often when God is referred to in the Old Testament. Whenever LORD appears in that manner, it means that the original Hebrew indicates the Tetragrammaton, YHWH, the name of God. Turns out, even in their oldest scriptures, the most the ancient Israelites could bring themselves to do was spell out the consonants, always omitting the vowels of that particular word. As a result, there is some debate as to how the name of God should be pronounced, although the vast majority of scholarship has settled on "Yahweh" (for which Wikipedia has a very enlightening article, as it happens).

The best reason I can determine for this YHWH --> LORD substitution is deference to traditional Jewish sensibilities. Apparently, naming God, even in Scripture, runs the risk of breaking the third commandment (second for the bloody Papists in the audience), taking the Lord's name in vain. And frankly, and with all due respect to any Jewish readers (let's face it, my lackluster recent blogging has probably reduced my audience to me, Sam, and a coupla Mazurs, so I'm probably not offending anyone), this is simply not a good enough reason to quite literally deface the entirety of Old Testament scriptures. As a result, I've been training myself to reflexively say "Yahweh" whenever I see "LORD" in the text. As a practice, it's one I recommend, as it has helped me to gain a better feel for God as a specific and personal God, not some nebulous all-powerful Force or something equally undefined.

But I'm not sure if I'm fully justified in this practice. The New Testament, written in Greek, makes heavy use of quotations from the OT, most typically taken directly from the Greek Septuagint version thereof. As a result, neither YHWH or any Greek equivalent ever appears in the NT -- rather, what we see whenever the corresponding passages containing YHWH in the OT are quoted is rendered in the Greek as κυριος, kurios, or Lord. Believing as I do that the NT was as equally inspired by God as the OT, it must be the case then that this construction itself, too, was inspired by God. What I am forced to question, then, is whether God Himself, rather than the Jewish scribes, felt that His name was too sacred to be further rendered and/or pronounced in Scripture.

I do not believe that to be the case, although I cannot rationalize this belief. After all, if He did not want His name known, He would not have inspired the authors of the OT to write it so frequently. So until God shows me otherwise, I will continue to read Yahweh where others read LORD.

Incidentally, of all the various Bible translations in my house (can't have too many!), only one, in which I have spent virtually no time at all, ever renders the Hebrew YHWH as Yahweh -- the Holman Christian Standard Bible. Not exactly a "big league" translation. But useful, although it only does so in scant few places, primarily in Exodus.



Anonymous Marty said...

You may be interested in the Papist view on this. The Catholic Encyclopedia is enlightening on the history of the Tetragrammaton. And the Holy See has (thankfully) recently banned the use of the word "Yahweh" in songs and scripture readings during mass. The reason I say "thankfully" is that most of the songs that use this word are relatively modern, and awful. It was (literally) unheard of to do this back in the day. The Holy See's reasoning is given here. They claim that even in Jewish tradition, a substitution such as "Adonai" was made.

9:31 AM  

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