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What’s the big deal with translating Yahweh as LORD?

A reader wishes to know.

In the comments of ‘Yahweh’, Henry asks some sincere questions. They’re worth answering more publicly, so I’ma do that here.

You’ll forgive me if I come across strong; I cannot apologize for getting a bit fired up about recovering the name of God himself.

Doesn’t the NT always translate Yahweh in OT quotations as Kurios also?

The NT simply quotes the LXX, which translated the tetragrammaton as kurios. That’s because the rabbis read the tetragrammaton in Hebrew as if it said adonai (“lord”) instead of yahweh—so they translated it into Greek as kurios (“lord”).

That was providentially fortuitous for making the connection between Jesus and Yahweh. But the fact that the NT authors used a bad translation of the divine name, under divine inspiration, is no reason for us to continue translating the divine name badly.

I think there are good reasons for the “Lord” translation, as I understand that the Hebrew name had an actual theological meaning that is – admittedly partly – conveyed by the title Lord.

The Hebrew yahweh is the third person masculine singular conjugation of haya, meaning “to be”; it is the same name God uses of himself in Exodus 3:14, where he gives his name to Moses as the first person masculine singular conjugation, ehyeh, meaning “I am”. Yahweh means, more or less, “he is”, or perhaps “he who causes to be”.

How is that reflected in the word “Lord”?

The reason for the LXX translating Yahweh as kurios was not because that’s a good translation, but was in fact precisely to obfuscate the divine name. The rabbis superstitiously feared that even speaking God’s name might amount to blasphemy. Why would we want to propagate such foolishness, concealing the divine name from God’s people?

I think I remember that there was a French Bible that translated the word “Eternal One” or something like that.

That’s closer to the meaning of the Hebrew. But let me ask you: do you think we should translate any other names in the Bible in this way? Should we replace “Jesus Christ” with “God Saves, The Anointed”? By the same token, should I address you as Home-Ruler, rather than as Henry?

If not, why do you think we should replace “Yahweh” with some translation of its Hebrew meaning?

And if we should not do that with ordinary names, how much more should we not do it with God’s!

And of course any good Bible will have “Lord” in small caps and a note at the front as to what the name means.

How many people do you think read that note? And of them, how many do you think remember it? I would wager very few. So this is a lousy approach, even if “Lord” was an accurate translation of Yahweh—which it is not. “Lord” is a title. Yahweh is a name. The name. The covenant name of God. The one he specifically gave for his people to know.

But to me it is less confusing for readers to have the NT quotes line up.

But NT quotes notoriously don’t line up in numerous other ways. It seems tragically ironic to mistranslate the OT in order to make it line up with the NT on this one issue, but then to translate it accurately so it doesn’t line up with NT quotations on other issues.

I also didn’t understand your comment about the children’s talk. Don’t you think that saying “Oh my Lord” or “Oh God” or “Goodness Gracious” or something similar violates the commandment?

I’m not sure about goodness gracious, but in general I agree with you. I’m not suggesting we can’t blaspheme in other ways. Not at all. You can check out ‘What is blasphemy?’ where I answer this question in more detail.

Maybe I’m overreading and you just wish the children were being taught not to say “Oh Yahweh,” although I’m skeptical that that is a big problem in any English speaking country.

Ironically, this makes my point for me. When we ask what the Bible means—for example, when we’re teaching our children what the third commandment means—we should start by asking what it meant to the original readers. I’m not denying sensus plenior, of course; but the meaning that Moses himself intended, and his audience understood, is the primary meaning of the text.

That meaning was that taking up the name Yahweh for a worthless purpose was forbidden. It is specifically the covenant name Yahweh that is given in the third commandment itself! Twice!

You shall not take up the name of Yahweh your God for a worthless cause, for Yahweh will not hold him guiltless who takes up his name for a worthless cause. Exodus 20:7

Yet because of a poor translation policy, ordinary Christians are not even aware that this name is in there. The name of Yahweh has been so lost that even in the church we needn’t forbid our children to use it in vain—because our children don’t know it.

That is deplorable.

18 comments

  1. Henry

    Thanks Bnonn, I appreciate the thoughtful responses. Another point you could have made contra my original question is that it seems silly to use the lower case caps Lord as some sort of code – why is it we need to use a code word? It’s hard to think of any reason other than either translation or superstition. So I take your points and will think about them.

    Possibly I have a hard time getting worked up about this type of translation point simply because I think more should be expected of Christians in their Bible study. With the amount of free material available on programs like E-Sword and The Word there really isn’t much excuse for this to matter.

    Particularly here in the US I think people need better shepherding in their local church.
    In the particular church I attend I’d be surprised if there is an adult who isn’t aware of what the small cap “Lords” mean, but I understand that’s a blessing and probably pretty rare in the broader world of evangelical Christianity. And the fact that people have access to study material is not a good reason to put the Bible in code.

    I admit that when I hear a preacher in church use the name “Yahweh” it often makes me a little uncomfortable. Possibly that is because I share a little of the same superstition that the LXX translators did, so your post may be a good corrective to my own thinking.

    Do you think we know enough about how the word was pronounced to be comfortable putting anything but the consonants in a printed Bible? I’m thinking of the older Bibles that sometimes used “Jehovah”. I believe it’s the case that there is still some possibility that we’re pronouncing the name incorrectly.

    For what it’s worth, although I take your points I probably don’t see Yahweh as being a personal name in exactly the same way you do. Or at least I see it as being more than that. I believe the name itself was meant to reveal certain facts about God, such as his aseity, his independence from time, his constancy of character, and probably many others I could think of. The name “Yawheh” reveals God’s nature in such as way as to make it different in my mind from the name “Henry”. And I think the concept of God’s Lordship encompasses some of what the name reveals to some extent, so I’m not sure I think “Lord” is quite as atrocious as you.

    Certainly the name is very deep, so anything that would spur more Christians to reflect on God’s revelation of himself through this name would be good with me. I think your best point may be that we should use it simply because he gave it to us as the way he wanted to reveal himself. In any case, I appreciate the response. Best, Henry

  2. John

    “But the fact that the NT authors used a bad translation of the divine name, under divine inspiration, is no reason for us to continue translating the divine name badly.”

    Errrm…. why not? Why should we second guess this decision?

  3. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Henry—

    Particularly here in the US I think people need better shepherding in their local church.

    The situation is no better in New Zealand I’m afraid.

    In the particular church I attend I’d be surprised if there is an adult who isn’t aware of what the small cap “Lords” mean, but I understand that’s a blessing and probably pretty rare in the broader world of evangelical Christianity.

    You should take some time to reflect on how fortunate you are, and thank God for it tonight :)

    I admit that when I hear a preacher in church use the name “Yahweh” it often makes me a little uncomfortable.

    That is very intriguing. I don’t mean to psychoanalyze, but I wonder if this is not so much because of fearing blasphemy, as because Hebrew sounds foreign to our ears, and we have become exceedingly insular in the West. Nearly no one even has an appreciation for other languages, let alone speaks any. I wonder if you would also feel uncomfortable saying, for instance, Yitzak instead of Isaac? I am a fan of using non-anglicized names to recover the original pronunciation precisely because it jolts us out of implicitly casting biblical characters in a modern Western context. It reminds us of the divide between us.

    Do you think we know enough about how the word was pronounced to be comfortable putting anything but the consonants in a printed Bible? I’m thinking of the older Bibles that sometimes used “Jehovah”.

    “Jehovah” is actually “Yey-ho-uah”, since it comes from Latin. Same with Jesus; we get it through Latin, where it is pronounced, much closer to the original, as Yeh-soos. They had the right general idea, but Hebrew scholarship has come a long way since Tyndale. Since they didn’t know, at that time, what the original vowel sounds were, they simply substituted in the pointings for Adonai, which is how the rabbis wrote the tetragrammaton. So the vowels from Adonai (roughly E/A, O, A) plus the consonants from the tetragrammaton (YHWH) = Ya-Ho-Wah or Ye-Ho-Wah (the initial vowel is like the first E in Rockefeller; it isn’t really pronounced as a letter so much as a gap).

    We only lost the original pronunciation because of those bally rabbis refusing to pronounce the divine name. But while there are some scholars who disagree with Yahweh, I don’t find any serious reason to doubt that pronunciation—bearing in mind, of course, that there was no monolithic pronunciation of Hebrew in the ancient world anyway. As with English, there are many variants and accents.

    Btw, I agree that Yahweh is more than a personal name. But it isn’t less than one. It certainly reveals his aseity. But it also reveals his immanence and his chesed, his covenant love.

  4. bethyada

    Henry, some good points.

    Bnonn, if I made my own Bible translation I would use Yahweh in the OT. Short of that I prefer small caps “Lord” over lower case “Lord” as it identifies the difference. Yet consider also:

    1. Do we know how YHWH (YHVH) was pronounced?
    2. The LXX was quite a good translation and may be more accurate than the Masoretic in places (compare Dead Sea Scrolls).
    3. Could this be God’s intention? The transition to “Lord” was post OT and pre NT. This allows for the use of the name “Jesus” (Yahweh saves) to be associated with the “Lord” portions of the OT by virtue or Jesus being Lord and the OT having the word “Lord”. And in the post NT era we have the use of the name “Jesus” rather than the use of the name “Yahweh”.

  5. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    John, your argument is simply a non sequitur. The NT authors merely used the LXX; they didn’t create it. The LXX is not inspired; their use of it is. Their use of kurios to translate the tetragrammaton doesn’t mean kurios is a good translation in general, any more than the inspired use of the LXX rendering of Psalm 40:6 in Hebrews 10:5 means that is actually what the Hebrew says.

    When we translate the OT, we translate names as names. The tetragrammaton is a name. QED.

  6. John

    It wasn’t exactly an argument, more of a question to your unexplored assertion.

    Of course whether the LXX is inspired is also a question with no answer, only opinion.

    But forgetting that for a moment, you’ve agreed the NT has blessed this use by inspiration, so whether it is a “bad” translation is kinda irrelevant isn’t it?

    Question, is the LXX inspired in those places it is quoted in the NT?

    You say that “When we translate the OT, we translate names as names.”, but of course that is the point at issue since in this case nobody did that in Greek. The LXX didn’t do it, and the apostles didn’t do it, but you know better than them apparently. Do you really have warrant to know better than them, that is the question. You have an opinion about how The Name should be translated, it comes back to your opinion, and pointing to how other names are translated. But this isn’t just another name. What is your assertion that the apostles were too ignorant to have corrected the LXX had they wanted to? I mean, the apostles didn’t always quote the LXX. Even when they didn’t quote the LXX, they still used Kurios. What do we do about that? Apostles got it wrong _again_?

  7. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    You’re not advancing the argument; you’re just repeating the same error of equivocation I’ve already refuted.

  8. Gabriel

    John, you’re second statement is simply silly. I doubt that even you yourself hold that the LXX is inspired. As for your third statement, irrelevant in what way? It could be considered irrelevant in that even though the translation decision was poor, the NT authors used it under divine inspiration. However,

  9. Gabriel

    (continued from the last comment that I posted without completing) it’s not like they had a wide variety of easily accessible translations to choose from like we do today. But if it truly is a bad translation and using the divine name is the better choice, then it can’t be considered irrelevant to Bible translators today. They should indeed use God’s name in the translations instead of keeping the tradition going, especially if it is wrong. To answer the question in your fourth statement, no. You don’t seem to understand what you are asking, so I think you need to be reminded that the Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (along with some uninspired books). It is not its own book. It is a translation of several other books. The NT authors’ use of it is inspired, not the translation in itself.

  10. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    For the record, I’m censoring John’s comments pretty heavily. To understand why, see the comments on these posts, for example:

    http://bnonn.com/does-the-bible-teach-any-kind-of-free-will/

    http://bnonn.com/thorny-problems-with-molinism-4/

  11. John

    Censoring “heavily”, LOL, you censored THE WHOLE THING! So in this thread you’re answering questions (which ones?) which are not even here!

    Labelling the counter argument to your position “silly”, is of course just ad hominem. It’s what you say when you don’t have an argument. And yet I know you’re well read enough to know that this position has a long (LONG!) history. But no, you’ve written it off in one word “silly”.

    Yet again we still lack answers to the 2 main questions : 1) is the LXX inspired at the places the apostles quote it. A yes or no is required here. Get it? Yes or no.

    2) what about when the apostles do NOT quote the LXX and yet translate Kurios. What then off your bad uninspired translator theory?

  12. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    You need to stop with this “we” nonsense. It’s a chronic habit of yours. The fact that you live in a state of perpetual confusion which you mistake for enlightened doubt doesn’t mean that anyone else does.

    And yet I know you’re well read enough to know that this position has a long (LONG!) history. But no, you’ve written it off in one word “silly”.

    As usual, you can’t keep track of a basic discussion. I’ve written off the position on the basis of accurate translation. That was the whole point of the OP.

    To your questions:

    (1)

    You’re confusing inspired words with true words. Inspiration is a process where men are carried along by the Holy Spirit in such a way that they speak from God. What reason is there to think the translators of the LXX were inspired? Just because the NT quotes the LXX? Inspiration doesn’t work retroactively.

    (2)

    This question is hopelessly confused on many levels:

    i. Why would the NT authors not follow convention here, given its fortuitous theological linkage, and the affordance of their audiences?

    a. Their Greek audiences didn’t know the tetragrammaton; kurios by contrast was self-explanatory.

    b. Their Jewish audiences didn’t know the tetragrammaton either; its pronunciation had been forgotten by the first century.

    ii. How would the NT authors translate the tetragrammaton into Greek?

    a. Apropos (i-b), its pronunciation had been forgotten. So they would have needed special revelation. But we’ve already established that God providentially used kurios, so why expect him to change that pattern when not directly quoting the LXX?

    b. Moreover, on a slightly lighter note, even if they had known its pronunciation, Greek has no Y, no H, and no W. The best transliteration for Yahweh is ιαβε (iabé). Maybe God just didn’t want his name mangled that badly ;p

  13. John

    So then.. to state plainly what you are obfuscating,

    (1) whenever the bible is quoting something else, it is not inspired. So then, we have license to trawl through the bible, speculate on what might be quoted and therefore uninspired, and snip it out. The scholars are pretty unanimous that the Carmen Christi (Phil. 2:6-11) predates Paul, and since as you’ve lectured us that inspiration isn’t retro-active, that’s not inspired. All the OT quotes in the NT are only inspired to the extent that they got it right. If they made a mistake, we can safely tear out those pages. Recovery of sight to the blind in Luke 4:18-19? We can take our scissors to that one since it’s not in our Hebrew versions. And so and and so forth.

    (2) Oh, so if there is (a) fortuitous theological linkage and (b) your audiences aren’t very familiar with the term, then LORD or Kurious becomes the favoured translation. In other words, that’s the situation we are all in. So… you are conceding the debate then? That wasn’t too hard now was it?

    BTW, concerning your theory that God couldn’t figure out how to spell YHWH in Greek and didn’t want it mangled, it seems odd he didn’t struggle with turning Yehoshuah (Yahweh saves) into Ἰησοῦς. Nor apparently does the shortened for יהּ (Yah) bother him, being used 50 times in the bible.

  14. Gabriel

    Just as a side note, I never engaged in ad hominem attacks against you. You don’t seem to know what that is. An ad hominem attack is a personal attack against a person without actually engaging the argument put forth. I did no such thing. I tried to answer you on behalf of Bnonn. I called your second statement in comment #6 (“Of course whether the LXX is inspired is also a question with no answer, only opinion.”) silly because that’s what it was, and like I said, I doubt that you yourself believe that the Septuagint is an inspired translation.

  15. John

    Gabriel: “ad hominem”, Merriam Webster dictionary, “appealing to feelings or prejudices rather than intellect”.

    When you say something is “silly”, you’re trying to make the reader dismiss their opponent as an idiot, rather than engaging in the actual issues.

  16. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    John, your last comment to me is a perfect example of why I don’t publish your screeds. Comments should advance the OP by developing the discussion. I’m happy for people to disagree with me thoughtfully, because that does develop the discussion.

    Unfortunately, your disagreement is just aggressively confused all the time; and it’s worse because you don’t even see it.

    Publishing your comments simply sets the discussion back by lowering the tone, and forcing me to explain and correct your confusion.

    For example:

    whenever the bible is quoting something else, it is not inspired.

    This is an obvious non sequitur. You are either incompetent or malicious. A biblical writer can, under inspiration, quote a non-inspired source. That doesn’t retroactively cause the non-inspired source to become inspired. Nor does its lack of inspiration imply that the Bible’s quoting of it is not, itself, inspired. Your inability to keep these kinds of obvious distinctions clear in your head makes it pointless to publish your posts.

    Please do not comment here again.

  17. Gabriel

    Well, firstly, I don’t think I was responding to you emotionally. Secondly, the very next definition in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, which you seem to have completely ignored to support yourself, is as follows: “marked by or being an attack on an opponent’s character rather than by an answer to the contentions made,” which is what it means in the context of an argument.

  18. Kirk Skeptic

    Thanks for an interesting article and welcomed effort to de-westernize Christianity. As for John, would he assert that Menander and Aratus were inspired becuase Paul quoted them?

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