Friday, September 12, 2008

Lord, Language, & Liturgy

Part 1

In our liturgy we read "Yahweh" when the Hebrew text uses the Tetragrammaton YHWH to refer to God. Most of our English translations continue to translate YHWH as LORD, distinguishing it from the Hebrew word adonay ("lord") by the use of small or large caps formatting. Actually, substituting LORD for Yahweh is not a translation at all; it's erasing one word and replacing it with another. I am convinced that this perpetuates a very unhealthy tradition and makes for a muddled reading of Scripture. The time has come to break that tradition once and for all and restore the divine covenantal name given to Israel to the public reading of Scripture.

It is better for us to read Yahweh rather than LORD in our translations, Scripture reading, and preaching for these reasons:

1. Yahweh was given to Israel as God's "memorial name" (Exod. 3:15). This personal name of God was revealed to Israel so that they might use it in prayer and thus remind God of his covenant so he would act for them. God's personal name for Israel was not "Lord" but "Yahweh." As Psalm 20 says, "Some trust in chariots and some in horses but we will memorialize the name of Yahweh our God." The name of the God of Israel was not "Lord" or "LORD" but Yahweh. They were to call on God to remember (that's what "memorialize" means) his covenant by using the name he gave them for that purpose. I should say here also that all the gnostic theologizing about what this name really "means" is a distraction. Yahweh is not a "term" that refers to something else, like God's infinite majesty or whatever. Yahweh is a concrete name given to the Israelites to use, to call out in prayer and praise in their worship.

2. "Lord" is a title not a name. You can make the word "Lord" into all caps, italicize it, bold it, or whatever, but that doesn't change the fact that it means "Master" or "Sir" and is not a name, certainly not God's revealed personal name. So when one translates passages like "Let them praise the name of Yahweh" as "Let them praise the name of the LORD" you muck up the meaning badly. In fact, this is not really a translation at all but an altering of the text for some external purpose. God's revealed name in the Hebrew Scriptures is not "Lord" or "LORD" but Yahweh.

3. The abbreviation YAH is not replaced with LORD in our English translations. We still say and sing "hallelujah," which means "praise Yah[weh]." Why don't we sing "hallelu-LORD"? Silly, you say? Just as silly as replacing YHWH with Lord. If saying the whole name is so spiritually hazardous, why isn't saying part of the name just as dangerous? But YAH was not even replaced by superstitious Jews who refused to say the whole name for fear of judgment. In addition to Hallelujah we still have all the proper names that include Yahweh in them, like Joshua (Heb: Yah-shua - "Yahweh saves"). The best we can say is this is inconsistent; the worst is that it's evidence of how stupid this superstitious avoidance of the name Yahweh really was and is.

4. Later Jews superstitiously refused to vocalize the name. I'll get to when this happened in a moment. But the practice of replacing Yahweh with Lord was an act of rebellion, pure and simple. God gave this name for the Jews to use in memorial prayers, Psalms, and worship. Not using it means that they thought they were wiser than God. This is part and parcel with the Pharisaical "fencing of the law." In order to avoid transgressing the 3rd Word ("taking the name of Yahweh in vain") the wily Pharisaical Jews decided to just avoid the word altogether. And we want to follow that tradition?

5. What modern Jews think about what we do in our translations is irrelevant. This is a red herring anyway because we have enough in our Bibles to madden the Jews as it is. But more importantly, we need to remember that post AD 70 Judaism is a different religion than that practiced by OT believers before Christ. There are no simple "OT believers" around today. Adding Yahweh to our translations wouldn't make a difference at all. The superstitious avoidance of the vocalization of Yahweh didn't become "official" until after the first century AD, probably in response to the Christian argument that Jesus is Yahweh. Even so, why should we coddle them in their superstitious rebellion anyway? It seems to me that the real offense would be to Evangelicals who THINK the Jews would be offended. I doubt very much if most Jews would even bother to sigh.

Go to part 2.


Valerie (Kyriosity) said...

One thing that's puzzled me about this issue is that the New Testament doesn't use "Yahweh." Any thoughts on why that is and how it should influence our thinking on the point?

Garrett said...

Because Yah-shua has come.

Garrett said...

To extrapolate further. When Israel called on YHWH, who of the persons of the Godhead showed up? The theophanies are Christophanies. Now he has come in the fullness of his revelation. YHWH saves.

Kevin said...

Good post, Jeff. Exodus 3 is pretty clear that God wants us to use the Name.

Garrett, you are incorrect. As Jeff pointed out, by the first century (and probably much earlier) the Name was not spoken out of a legalistic practice that had its roots in the 3rd Commandment. When the LXX was translated kurios was used to translate YHWH and adonai. It was also a formal address of respect. ('sir')

Valerie (Kyriosity) said...

Got it: The NT does use "Yahweh" every time is uses "Jesus." Thanks, Garrett.

One reason I really like listening to the World English Bible is that it does use "Yahweh" throughout the OT. Makes my iPod happy!

Garrett said...


Huh? I'm trying to understand why you're thinking I disagree with Jeff (I don't). My point was related to Valerie's question regarding the use of YHWH in the NT. Jesus (Yah-shua) has YHWH in it.

Kevin said...

Garrett, I see now what you are saying. I wasn't thinking of the Hebrew underlying the name. Cheerfully withdrawn. :)

Bobber said...

Is Jehovah a valid translation of YHWH? is it interchangeable with Yahwey?

Kevin said...

Bobby, it's actually a made up word that resulted from adding the consonants of YHWH to the vowels of Adonai. Jews couldn't pronounce the resulting word which was transliterated "Jehovah" by the Germans and then into English.

Bentok said...

Valerie and Garrett,

In The Lord's Service, Jeff points out that the covenant name of God is name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are baptized into that name. That might have something to do with why Yahweh is not used in the New Testament...he has a new covenant name.

Travis said...

This is why I am praying the LO..YHWH will bless my poker skills. I will personally fund JbJ to use the gifts YHWH has given him to produce the next Geneva Bible.

Valerie (Kyriosity) said...

But he's not in Geneva...he's in Niceville. And I don't care how good it might turn out, there is no way I'm ever going to buy anything called a Niceville Bible!

Valerie (Kyriosity) said...

And thanks, Bentok, that was helpful, too.

Michael said...

Perhaps I am the lone dissenter here, but I would vigorously caution you to avoid nomenclature like "superstitious Jews". It is both untrue to the history and insultingly condescending to Jewish ears.

There was nothing "superstitious" about the practice of fencing the divine name. Rather, it was (as you, Jeff, rightly indicate in reference to the Ten Commandments) an act of reverence for the holiness of a name that had been polluted by idolatrous adumbration. We actually have surviving graffiti from the ante-Christian period reading, "I bless you by Yahweh of Samaria and by his asherah," and "I bless you by Yahweh of Teiman and by his asherah." (Dever, Recent Archaeological Discoveries and Biblical Research, 1993). The deep memory of exile and conditions that led to it propelled Rabbinic resistance to syncretism in both the Greek and Roman periods. That this memory was inscribed into Rabbinic practice vis-a-vis the divine name was actually a development laden with serious theological reflection. It is not too far to say, in fact, that the practice represents a kind of liturgical-linguistic icon setting forth the teaching of the נביאים.

Smearing the practice as (mere) superstition muddies the portrait of Second Temple Judaism that we have gained since Davies/Sanders and sounds suspiciously like the discredited portrait painted by a Chrysostom or Luther (or worse, Oberammergau).

Very quickly we come round to the central problem of Christian-Jewish dialogue since the Shoah: Have we Christians anything to learn about Jesus from our elder brothers in the covenant? I think that we do and that we do ourselves no good by dismissing a practice on the grounds of some pretty sketchy historical reconstruction.


Jeff Meyers said...

MIchael: Thanks for commenting. I'm going to disagree, and rather strongly.

1. We do have something to learn about Jesus from our elders brothers in the covenant. These elder brothers were the disciples and apostles who have left us what we call the NT. They, along with all the old covenant Jews that converted to Jesus in the first century, have much to say. And we need to listen. But after the destruction of Jerusalem Judaism became another religion, not simply a continuation of the "Old Testament." The Jews today are fellow humans and are to be respected as image bearers. They are NOT Christ killers or anything like that. But they are not our "elder brothers in the covenant." That would have been true in the first century, but it is no longer the case. Jewish believers today are not simply to be equated with OT believers waiting for the Messiah. They have transformed the OT biblical faith into an oral law religion that has very little in common with pre-Christian Jewish theology and practice. And if there is continuity, it is with the apostate Pharisaical religion that Jesus and his apostles openly attacked, deeply offending the leaders of the Jews. They killed him for it.

2. The practice of not vocalizing the very Name that God gave to the Jews to vocalize is, if not superstitious, downright disobedient. God says that my "memorial Name" is Yahweh. Use that Name in prayer and worship and I will remember my covenant. He didn't say, "Be careful because my name is dangerous. You're better off not using it at all."

Will this offend some people? Sure. But it's true. All the rabbinic sophisticated theological reflection to the contrary, the practice does nothing to fulfill the the command to not bear the name of Yahweh in vain. Hedging the law never leads to a proper fulfillment of the law. Jesus made a lot of enemies within the leadership of 2nd temple Judaism saying things like this. They killed it for it.

3. Pretty sketchy historical revisionism? What would that be?

Michael said...


To your first objection, I note that your pre-/post- 70 distinction is laden with eschatological presuppositions that I do not share. Your thinking here suggests a post-millennial (or at least an unwarrantedly positive a-millennial) viewpoint and I would argue on exegetical grounds that this runs afoul of the Pauline eschatology of Romans. While there are seams and proper distinctions to be made between Christianity and Judaism, the hard discontinuity you propose is not borne out in the New Testament or in the subsequent history of Christian theology. I would argue that Paul himself looks for an eschatological reconciliation of Israel (Rom. 9-11). VanGemeren really gets at this issue from the very Dutch-Westminster tradition of biblical theology that governs your thinking. See his two "Israel As the Hermeneutical Crux
in the Interpretation of Prophecy" articles reviewing and expanding on Graafland's Het Vaste Verbond for the details. Also note the following:

The very fact that you opt for the Hebrew Canon of the OT over the Greek is a rooted in a theological claim that the covenants of promise belong properly to the Jews qua Jews as canonical tradents.

Your Protestant readings of that Canon are likewise rooted in the Renaissance/Reformation reclamation of Jewish exegesis in the Tannatic and Medieval periods.

To your second objection, I am puzzled by what appears to be sneering at the practice of fencing the name as either "superstitious" or the result of (silly?) beliefs that the name of Yahweh was "dangerous". As you presumably know, the ANE practice of naming implied some power to authoritatively summon, and thus control in some sense, a deity. This is reflected in the patriarchal traditions of Adam's naming the animals as a sign of his dominion and of Jacob's request to know the name of the angel-man-God who attacked him. The milieu of syncretism/idolatry that I described in my former post gave rise to the fencing of the name by the 300s BC (not, as you claim, the 70s AD). As I also indicated before, this development in Second Temple Jewish theology was entirely legitimate and did nothing to obscure the name = identity of YHWH as Lord of the Covenants of Promise.

Finally, I did not accuse you of "revisionism" but of constructing a rather shaky "reconstruction" rooted as it is in the Bietenhard proposal you cite. I simply argue that the generally accepted scholarly consensus holds that the widespread practice of fencing the name dates from the 300s BC and that you have proposed a fairly shaky challenge to this.

First, Bietenhard acknowledges the Jewish practice of replacing the kethib reading with the kere in oral-liturgical presentation (something important to note regardless of the written form of his early MSS of the LXX). This creates the impression that the situation of the LXX and the MT parallel one another exactly. Whatever your beef with English Bible translations (don't we all have plenty?), the contemporary situation you are reacting to has to do with what is read (qere) in a liturgical context.

Second, a closer reading of even the section you cite suggests that the practice of kere circumlocution, while perhaps not uniform or standardized, was in evidence very early. The fact that Christian scribes largely followed this established Jewish precedent (to say nothing of the Apostolic precedent in the NT citation of the OT) is evidence of its antiquity and theological appropriateness.

This isn't about a craven collapse before post-Shoah political correctness. It is about the self-critical examination of the ways that the church has historically diminished and derided its rich inheritance from the Synagogue. I argue that Nostra Aetate (1965) and the subsequent post-conciliar documents represent a faithful and theologically responsible way forward.


Jeff Meyers said...


My position is not based on postmillennial presups. Whatever one may think of the possibility or promise of the reconciliation of genealogical Jews, there should be real no argument about the religion of post-AD 70 Judaism. To say that the Jews will be saved and incorporated into the church at some point in the future, is to say NOTHING about our need to learn something from their religious philosophy and practice now. Love them. Understand them. Seek to convert them. Yes.

The bottom line is that we don't want to defend the erroneous practices of post-Christian Judaism nor make these errors a platform in our Bible translation philosophy.

The historical evidence is not as solid as you claim. I've given some examples. The idea that the practice arose because of the Jew's sensitivity to idolatry and syncretism is just as historically revisionist as the standard explanations.

Lastly, what is read in the liturgy is the whole point. Translations should be faithful to the fact that the Scriptures were given to be read aloud in the assembly.

Michael said...


I'm not sure that your assertions here are borne out by the historic witness.

I'll simply say this and let it go:

1. Your continued appeal to 70 AD is a Christian theological appeal rather than an appeal rooted in history or Jewish self-consciousness. My attribution of this to your post-millennialism is rooted in the hay that guys like Jordan, Gentry, etc. want to make of it. Regardless of this, however, the application here is etic rather than emic.

While I grant the significance of the temple's destruction for Judaism, the Rabbinic traditions (Halachah and Aggadot)from which the Mishnah, Tosefta, Tannatic Midrash, and Talmud spring were widely dispersed among the Diaspora long before 70 (which is why Pharisaism attracted St. Paul even in Tarsus). The traditions represented therein are much, much earlier as periodic citations in the ministry of the historical Jesus would seem to indicate.

2. As I wrote above, your preference for the Hebrew canon over the LXX-Vulgate canon is already a concession to the normative value of the Rabbinic "religious philosophy and practice". Apart from the Renaissance-Reformational acknowledgment that Jews as Jews are the normative canonical tradents, you forfeit all justification not to have preached this past weekend from (according to the Roman Lectionary) Ecclesiasticus 27:30-28:7.

3. This likewise holds true for Reformation-era exegesis of the Old Testament in dialogue with the Mikra'ot Gedalot. Surely you have seen how many times Calvin and others cite Rashi and RaDaK to controvert some Romish exegesis or another. Your notion that we have "nothing to learn" isn't reflected in your own Reformed tradition.

4. As I wrote above, I don't concede your claim to history (especially your claim that qere circumlocutions of the divine name originate in "post-Christian" Judaism. You've cited one example from Bietenhard that is not as clear as you seem to assert. You have taken his inch and present it as though it were a mile and even the portion you quote doesn't quite establish what you seem to be saying for it. The case remains that a date of c. 300 BC for the origination of the practice has achieved fairly solid consensus. You may be correct on the equivocal nature of the evidence, but you haven't really proven that case. You argue that my explanation is revisionist, but I am merely presenting that consensus so there is no revisionism (in the sense of overturning a widely accepted proposal) underway here.

5. You argue for the exact correspondence between English translation and what is read in the liturgy, but that is, of course, an editorial decision not reflected in the MT or the DSS or in (apparently) the oral recitation of the LXX, a fact Bietenhard himself grants.

6.Whether or not the practice itself reflects an "error" on Christian theological grounds would seem to me to turn a great deal on the New Testament citation of the Old Testament. Note, for example, Jesus' citation of Isaiah 61:2 in Luke 4:18-19. While we may, perhaps, acknowledge that Jesus cited the text in Hebrew and expounded upon it in Aramaic, do we really want to accuse Luke of "error" when opting for pneuma kuriou in when transposing Isaiah's ruach adonay YHVH? What about Jesus prolamation of Isaiah's liqroh shenat-ratzon l'YHVH as eniauton kuriou dekton?

Great fun jousting with you. We really need to meet for a beer now that the weather is turning nice.


Jeff Meyers said...

Beer. Yeah, we definitely need some of that, don't we. Sorry about the quick and dirty replies. No disrespect intended, you know.

Quickly. Look, Michael, for me it's ultimately about the text and not any reconstruction of the history of the Jews, etc. I'm a biblicist, truth be told. The Hebrew Bible tells us the YHWH was self-designated, covenant memorial NAME of God from the time of Moses. It was actually in use since creation (Gen. 2) but was not fully understood and appreciated until God delivered the Israelites from Egypt.

Whatever the Greek Jews did in Alexandria is interesting for historians, but it has no bearing for me on how the church is to read and use the Hebrew Scriptures. It's not normative. Here, of course, I am showing my Protestant colors. I have no regrets about not preaching from Ecclesiasticus a few weeks ago. I would never dream of preaching on such a book in the assembly. Sorry. It may be great pre-Christian Jewish literature. But it is not the Word of God. Incorrigibly protestant I am.

Yes, the NT writers use Kurios to translate YHWH in the few places that OT passages are quoted with that name. But in every case, I believe, they are referring to Jesus. Jesus is Lord (kurios). Jesus is Yahweh. They are writing theological narratives to show that Jesus was Yahweh come in the flesh. But that they would have read "kurios" in their liturgical assemblies IN ORDER TO AVOID OFFENDING THE JEWS is incredible. There's no evidence of it.

And as far as I can tell there's really no other reason why we don't translate and read YHWH as Yahweh today. There's every reason to read so as to make it clear that the covenantal NAME of God is distinct from the title Lord.

So it's about the Bible and helping CHRISTIAN people understand the Bible. It's not about the possible offense that modern Judaism might take to our practices. Again, the Jews that I have talked to just don't care about what we do. They are already offended by our worship of Jesus and the Triune God. The "offending the Jews" argument is worthless.