God has a lot of names.
And they’re significant, for two reasons: first, because unlike us, God has chosen his names for himself; and second, because he has chosen to reveal his character and works through them.
And so he has a lot of names, because there’s a lot to know about him.
Some of his names are simple and straightforward. Elohim (in the Old Testament) and Theos (in the New Testament) simply mean “God.” Adonai (OT) and Kurios (NT) simply mean “Lord.”
Some of them are more complicated. Yahweh Tsebaoth (OT) means “Lord of Hosts” or “Commander of Armies”; the name speaks of his ability to back up his plans and commands with a powerful heavenly host of battle-hardened troops—even though he’s omnipotent and doesn’t really need the help.
And that brings us to the name Yahweh, or more correctly YHWH, which we typically translate as “LORD.”
And that’s a shame. Let me explain why.
First, a little background.
Unlike the other names of God, which are titles or descriptions, YHWH is God’s personal name; in Western culture we would say that it’s his “first name.” And remarkably, God reveals that name to his people and invites them to use it when referring to him.
Imagine that. God invites his people to call him by his first name.
But of course, God is God, the Creator of heaven and earth; we may do whatever he invites us to do, but we may not treat him as common. He is holy; we treat him not just with respect, but with a respect unlike any other. And so he tells his people, “You must not take my name in vain” (Ex 20.7); that is, you may call me by my first name, but only respectfully. This relationship is not trivial, and it is not a joke.
When the Hebrew OT was written, scribes did not include vowels; they wrote just the consonants, and part of being literate was knowing the text well enough to know what the unwritten vowel sounds were. (That’s why it was—and still is—such a big deal for a Jewish boy to read aloud from the Torah, in public, when he became a man at bar mitzvah.)
At the same time, the Jews were very careful to keep all the commandments, and even to put protections in place to prevent themselves from violating a command accidentally. God had said not to take his name in vain; eager to please, the Jews thought they would safeguard against taking the name in vain by never taking it at all.
And so, when the public reader of Scripture came to the name YHWH, he would not pronounce it; he would read Adonai (Lord) instead. Centuries later—long after Christ’s death, in fact—when Jewish scribes called Masoretes added vowels to the OT text, to every occurrence of YHWH they added the vowels for Adonai as a reminder to the reader to say the latter, not the former. (And thus, to this day, we’re not sure how to pronounce the name—the name by which he invited us to call him.)
And then the word looked like “Yehowah.” Centuries later, when biblical scholarship passed through Germany, those scholars wrote that pronunciation as “Jehovah,” and a new name was created. (Interestingly, the name that the “Jehovah’s Witnesses” approve for God is in fact the one name that we know for sure is not actually a name for God (!).)
A thought. Do you like to hear your name? Of course you do. Often, in an introduction, your name is the only one you hear. 🙂 What do you think God thought when his own people refused to speak his name? And all out of respect?
I wonder in what other ways we choose to show our respect for God in ways that hurt him.
In another development, a group of Jewish scholars translated the Hebrew scriptures into Greek a couple of centuries before Christ. In a far-reaching decision, they chose to translate the Hebrew YHWH with the Greek kurios, “Lord”—even though they were already using that Greek word to translate Adonai—I suppose because the public reader would read “Adonai” whenever he saw YHWH anyway.
So now, we’ve replaced God’s first name with a title.
What does that do?
It distances us from the person.
Some people call me “Dan”—some few even call me “Danny.” (They would be my older sisters, in whose minds I am still an obnoxious little boy.) Others call me “Dr. Olinger.”
Which ones do you think I’m closer to?
God has asked us, his people, his sons and daughters, to call him by his first name. And we call him “LORD” instead. We hold him at arm’s length when he seeks an embrace.
How do you think he feels about that?
I’m not suggesting that we burn all the Bibles that have “LORD” in all caps. But we should at least remember that God has called us to an intimate relationship with him; he has invited us to come boldly and joyfully into his presence, as the little children came to Jesus.
We should delight in that degree of loving, respectful intimacy as much as he does.
James Steinbach says
A bit tangential but still on the topic of names vs titles:
I really appreciate the (H)CSB’s New Testament translators opting for “Jesus the Messiah,” not “Jesus Christ.” It’s helpful to remember that “Christ” isn’t his surname; it’s a title revealing his anointed roles.
I recall hearing that YHWH (which of course is the English equivalent of the Hebrew consonants) was an intentional abbreviation by way of the prior removal of the vowels. And without knowing the original vowels, there’s no way to know how to pronounce the name. As I heard it, the scribes did all this out of respect and reverence to avoid mispronouncing God’s name. And that now the name is lost to antiquity.
True or not true?
Dan Olinger says
Essentially. I wouldn’t speak of “prior removal of the vowels,” though; before the Masoretic period the vowels were simply not written for any word. It’s not really correct, then, to call it an “abbreviation.”