Thursday, July 07, 2005

'Yhwh': The divine name and bible translation

Adrian Warnock has been enjoying the privilege recently of being able to ask the translators of the ESV a few questions. One of these regarded why the ESV, like almost all the other major translations, had translated the divine name Yhwh, which is communally thought to be pronounced 'Yahweh', as 'the LORD' (or occasionally GOD). It may even be more accurate to say that they replaced, rather than translated, the name 'Yhwh', as it is generally thought that the name derives from the Hebrew root 'to be' (McLaughlin, John L. 'Yahweh' in Freedman, David Noel (ed.) Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000). It is a very old tradition, dating from centuries before Christ (ibid), and one endorsed, or at least tolerated, by the NT writers using the ancient Greek translation of the OT, the Septuagint. The ESV is doing nothing new.

However, I think it may be time to roll back the centuries of tradition. C. John Collins's answer to Adrian Warnock's question failed to convince me, and if I had the time I would attempt to rebut them. I think there is a strong argument to be made for the replacing of 'the LORD' with Yhwh/Yahweh in all subsequent revisions, or translations.

Although we have seen that the name Yhwh should conjure up a powerful impression of the creator God who is the both beginning and the end, it is also quite a personal name. Our God is not an abstract concept 'the Lord' with no character or personality. 'The Lord' is not a name we have for something we do not really know anything about, like the 'unknown god' the Athenians worshiped (Acts 17:23). It is not an idea that we have to fill with meaning, according to the culture we find ourselves in. Yhwh is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not the god of Moab or Ammon. He revealed himself in great acts to the people of Israel, and to us Christians in the greatest act of all, filling the name Yhwh with meaning, distinct from that of the other gods and lords of the ancient near east.

If you read the account of God revealing himself to Moses at the Burning Bush, you can see the tension between the everlasting 'I AM WHO I AM' and the ‘God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob' who related to an individual family. This is a key tension, I believe, for Christians to maintain.

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." And he said, "Say this to the people of Israel, 'I AM has sent me to you.'" 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. Go and gather the elders of Israel together and say to them, 'Yhwh, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying, "I have observed you and what has been done to you in Egypt, and I promise that I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey."' And they will listen to your voice, and you and the elders of Israel shall go to the king of Egypt and say to him, 'Yhwh, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us; and now, please let us go a three days' journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to Yhwh our God.'

(Exodus 3:13-18; ESV replacing 'the LORD' with 'Yhwh', and adding some colours which represent different things)

Of course in the bible God is regularly referred to simply as ‘God’ and ‘the Lord’ countless times, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, especially in a culture that is so far from ancient Israel, I think that it would be useful to retrieve some balance. It is still the case in the West that if you say ‘God’ people think of one, all-powerful, vaguely Christian God, neutered by the Enlightenment (although that is changing). Saying ‘Yhwh’ instead may shake up the conversation, so that ’Yhwh’ can be filled with a biblical meaning, not a post-Enlightenment one.


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