Saturday, December 18, 2004

Undisciplined rant about "Yahweh/LORD"

Someday I am going to write a disciplined, organized, proof-read essay about the use of "LORD" in English translations, what a stupid idea it is, and how it has led to increasing sloppiness among writers.

This is not that essay. This is a rant.

Premise: the use of "LORD" in Christian, English translations is a stupid and indefensible tradition that should have been cast aside centuries ago.

Nearly 7000 times (6,823, if memory serves), God saw fit to move His prophets to use His personal name Yahweh in the Hebrew Old Testament. Now, it is often observed that the Name is actually YHWH, written without vowels, and so the pronunciation is uncertain. In itself, this is true.

What is not often mentioned in this connection is the fact that all of the OT is written in consonants, without vowels; and so the pronunciations of all names is somewhat speculative. But that has never yet prevented English translators from giving vocalized (and somewhat Anglicized) forms of names such as Abraham, Isaac, Isaiah, and so on.

What is different when it comes to YHWH is that the Jewish scribes developed an unbelieving superstition about the Name of God. Because God forbade using His name in vain (Exodus 20:7), they figured, with Pharisaical legalistic precision, that the safest way not to take it in vain would be never to say it at all. They would copy it, but put in the vowel points for the Hebrew words for "Lord" or (if YHWH followed the actual word for "Lord") "God." (This is why our English Bibles sometimes have "LORD God," and sometimes "Lord GOD.")

Now of course, we can see that this is just as foolish as the Sabbath laws that condemned our Lord for healing on a Saturday. Dumber, in fact, for it forbade obedience to the many calls to call on Yahweh's name, swear by it, trust in it, and the like.

Further, it required acting as if the reader was wiser and holier than Yahweh Himself. (I speak as a fool.) By this, I mean that while Yahweh saw fit to put His Name in the text, the reader, much wiser than Yahweh, would not read that Name. He'd substitute another: 'adonay, which is Hebrew for "Lord."

English translators held to this foolish, superstitious tradition. But to signal that there was some difference between some occurrences of "Lord" and other occurrences, they gave everyone a decoder ring, as it were. So when we read "Lord," all is well. But when we read "LORD" in caps, that is a signal to get out our decoder-rings, and mentally substitute "Yahweh."

Dumb, huh? Yes, very. I mean, I feel as if I've heard every rationalization in the book, and each one makes less sense than the previous one.

So to sum up this part of the rant: nearly 7000 times in the Hebrew OT we see YHWH. We have reason to believe that it was pronounced "Yahweh," but we are uncertain. But there is one fact about which we can have absolute statistical certainty: however it was to be pronounced, it could not possibly have been pronounced 'adonay; and so it cannot possibly mean "Lord"!

Having said that, I say this.

I just got the long-awaited first volume of beleving OT uber-academic Bruce Waltke's commentary on Proverbs. Proverbs is a special love of mine. I did my Master's thesis on it, I've done seminars on it, I've studied and written on it, I've translated about half of it for myself.... It's a favorite.

And who better to do it than Bruce Waltke? Waltke is a believer, and he is a renowned scholar. I will never know one-fifth of what Bruce Waltke has forgotten. I am not worthy to move the place marker on his BHS (edition of the Hebrew Old Testament).

Further, we haven't had an in-depth, academic verse-by-verse commentary written by a Bible believer since Delitzsch's German commentary in the 1800's. It is long-overdue. And now Waltke, who is a marvelous and deep scholar, steps up to the plate.

I have not read it, and am not prepared to say much in depth about it. But one thing strikes me over the head as a blow with a baseball bat: the book's handling of YHWH is, well... insane.

I don't know whether that is Waltke's fault, the publisher's, or a combination. But let me 'splain.

First, Waltke gives one of the most bizarre rationalizations I've ever read from a Christian pen, for pretending that the text says "Lord" instead of Yahweh (p. xxiv). He actually sees the providential hand of God in our not knowing the pronunciation, as if it paved the way for identifying the Lord Jesus with Lord (decoder ring = Yahweh).

Now, it is true that Jesus is identified with Yahweh in the Bible. But Waltke does not mention that we don't know for sure how to pronounce "Abraham" or "Isaiah" either -- but that doesn't mean we should render the first by "garbage disposal" and the second by "balloon."

If we must take the Jews' superstitious refusal to honor God's commands to call on His name as binding on us, then Jesus should have equally been bound by their Sabbath traditions, and traditions about women and Samaritans. Which He wasn't. Nor should we be.

But it gets worse.

Having rationalized that we don't know for sure how to pronounce YHWH, Waltke later comments on the uses of the Name of God in Proverbs. In passing, he says, "The book refers to God almost exclusively by his name 'The LORD' (Yahweh), which occurs 87 times" (pp. 66, 67, emphasis added).

But wait -- didn't Waltke just explain to us that he refused to render YHWH as "Yahweh" because we're unsure of the pronunciation? (Even though he's willing to render Shlomoh as "Solomon" in 1:1 and elsewhere.) So shouldn't he have said, "...'The LORD' (which we have no idea how to pronounce)"? This little slip lets out the truth, in my opinion.

But it gets still worse.

I don't like it when someone refuses to honor God's decision to use his name, Yahweh. But at least let's be consistent. Surely that isn't too much to ask, is it?

But evidently it is too much to ask either of Waltke or his publisher, Eerdmans.

Take just one page to show something I've already seen a number of times in this book, p. 576. Here Waltke translates Proverbs 14:1ff. He renders v. 2 in part as "Whoever fears the Lord [sic]," even though the Hebrew text has Yahweh. So we aren't even warned to get out our decoder rings!

But then, in the footnote, Waltke says, "Pagans may walk uprightly, not knowing the LORD [sic], and the fear of the LORD [sic] tends to be the topic of this book...." Huh? If "LORD" is a secret wink-wink clue that the underlying Hebrew text really has YHWH -- then what is the underlying Hebrew text here? These are Waltke's own comments! Did he write them in Hebrew first, before translating them into English and then censoring his own use of YHWH?

And then again on p. 581 he twice uses "Lord" to render YHWH... but on the very next page uses "LORD"!

Now, I have no idea whether this is Waltke's fault, or his publisher's. If the latter, I can't understand why Waltke wouldn't correct the galley proofs, as it ends up making him look... well, not showing him to be the fine scholar I truly believe he is.

And I seem to see that sloppiness increasingly. John Piper's books quote the OT a lot, and I find that either he or his publisher aren't careful to preserve the translation's use of "LORD" in those quotations. Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

Well, I'm through with this rant. I will just say to the Christian, believing world of academics and translators, "Brothers, guys -- shake off the Pharisaical chains. God says His name is 'Yahweh,' let's us do the same."


Rick Beckman said...

Why Yahweh & not Jehovah?

DJP said...

Because "Jehovah" is not a possible rendering of the Hebrew. See question 7 here.

Rick Beckman said...

Thanks. :) That makes sense. Kinda creates a problem for KJV-Onlyists, as it has "Jehovah" locked into two verses, I believe, which means for the KJV-Onlyist, "Yahweh" must be the errant name. :\

jigawatt said...

Dan, you are saying in this post that all OT names have only speculative pronunciations, right? I thought that this only applied to YHWH because the Jews forbade anyone from pronouncing it. Since (I suppose) other names like Abraham, Isaac and Solomon were not forbidden, but rather were passed down by the Jewish people, we can be pretty sure of their correct pronunciation.

DJP said...

Well, jigawatt, it is strictly true that we are not absolutely certain about the pronunciation of any of the names.

But (A) we are more than confident of them, in part, because we have them transliterated into other languages, such as Greek. (B) By that same token, we have Yahweh transliterated into Greek; and we have the -yah that is suffixed to so many names.

But at the very least (C) we know for absolute certainty that it wasn't pronounced 'adonay (Lord).

Unknown said...

I have recently questioned the use of 'the LORD' and 'Lord' in the bible but my question is not why we do not have Yahweh in its place but rather why 'THE' before 'LORD'. I tend to agree that if God wants His name used, and the wor YHWH has beeen translated into LORD, by putting a THE in front of the word removes all personal relationship from God. An example of this would be to say "Love the Yahweh with all your heart...." instead of "Love Yahweh with all your heart...
". I believe we are invited to have a personal relationship with God and by using the English script as the OT does, I believe removes that personal relationship as God intended.

DJP said...

I'm not sure I quite understand you, Martin. I'd never advocate rendering it as "the Yahweh." The "the" is only used when LORD is substituted.

And as far as the propriety of "the," that's much more fluid; both Hebrew and Greek use the definite article very differently than English. I don't offhand think Hebrew ever uses it with a proper name (i.e. as if we were to read "the Abraham"), but Greek frequently does.

Jesse said...

This is late, but I can't think of anywhere else to share my befuddlement. I just today (2010)stumbled upon Isaiah 28:16, which says “Lord GOD.”
When did God get all caps? Consult Hebrew and lo and behold: it is adonai Yahweh. Well, if you translate adonai as “Lord,” you can’t have “Lord LORD” because then the Christian decoder ring gig would be up. So the ESV, NKJ, and others go with Lord GOD. The NAS, surprisingly, goes with “Lord God” breaking their own rule of LORD for Yahweh. Thus if you had the NAS and you so far were actually tracking with the CAPS system, you would assume that Yahweh was not in Isa 28:16 because there are no caps. The Holman, which had just about won me over, chooses this as one of the 30% of places to not translate Yahweh as Yahweh, and follows the NAS, meaning again that the reader doesn’t even get a Christian decoder ring clue of Yahweh. The NIV at least musters a way to let you know that Yahweh is in there: “Sovereign LORD” is how they get out of their all caps bind.

Dale A. Brueggemann said...

But returning YHWH to Yahweh in the OT translations would tend dull our ears to the NT echoes of that LXX tradition in calling Jesus Christ the "Lord."

I would also ask, where do you see the name Yahweh anywhere in the NT? When the NT quotes OT texts that have YHWH in Hebrew, it has no trouble in continuing the practice of rendering it kurios (Lord). Just a few examples follow:

* "the angel of the Lord" (Matt 2:19)
* "Lord your God" (Matt 3:3 = Isa 40:3; Matt 22:37 = Deut 6:5)
* "name of the Lord" (Matt 23:39 = Ps 118:26)
* "LORD to my Lord" (Matt 22:44 = Ps 110:1).

Would you then to straighten out the NT on this practice too, so that it would be clear that the NT attributes the divine name to Jesus?

DJP said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Dale.

But why should we be bound to echo the LXX tradition? It's an odd text of uneven value, and we certainly don't feel bound to echo it in other ways (i.e. dropping verses from Proverbs, adding other verses, etc.).

Of course I wouldn't insert "Yahweh" into the NT, because it isn't in the text. But it is in the given text of the OT, over 6800 times. The simple and, I think, undeniable fact is that God the Holy Spirit saw fit to move the writers to use Yahweh well over 6800 times.

For me to (A) know that and (B) lay out a rationale why I shouldn't honor the text, is to oppose my wisdom over God's. It amounts to saying "I have a better idea about how to honor God and Christ than God had." To go that way is to head off into Pharisaical/Roman Catholic human tradition.

For the Lord/Yahweh passages applied to Christ, it's enough to translate Moses and Isaiah faithfully to Moses and Isaiah (and the others), and Paul and Peter faithfully to Paul and Peter, respecting the text. They either (A) the reader can look up the original and note that Yahweh is used, or (B) pastors can bring it out in sermons, or (C) a note could be inserted marginally, to wit: "The OT text has 'Yahweh.'"

It's using "LORD" that misleads the readers and dulls the ears, since "Yahweh" DOES NOT POSSIBLY mean "Lord," for which there are at least two other Hebrew words.

Briefly and in sum: respect the text. It's the submissively believing thing to do. God knew what He was doing, and He's really good at communication.

Unknown said...

from what I understand, Collins wanted to use YHWH in the ESV and was outvoted, unfortunately.

Unknown Poster said...

Thanks for the link-back. You imply a disturbing power of publishers over scholars. How concerned should regular Joes, like me, be over the accuracy and veracity of our translations on the whole? Where else are we being bamboozled by the adherence to tradition over proper translation?

DJP said...

Oh, you know, I don't know a lot about backstage politics. I can just tell you as a reader of Heb and Gk and English versions for 35+ years that I wouldn't have massive alarm. Nobody's going to Hell or failing to grow in Christ because translators are doing "Yahweh" wrong. My main picked-bones are all relatively minor, matters of degree. But I wouldn't propose any Dan Brown-level conspiracy...

...well, except the nasty effects of feminism. I think that's a real problem, and a real shame; and some GOOD men are, I think, on the wrong side of the pluralization-to-avoid-offending-feminists issue.

Moon said...

When people say Oh my Gd/OMG/etc (xD teasing you a little bit) is that taking the Lord's name in vain? or does is it taking God's self-revealed name Yahweh/YHWH a breaking of the 3rd commandment?

Moon said...

for some reason Facebook keeps bringing up these old posts of yours and I keep commenting on them :'( next time i will look at the date...but my question still stands

Jeremiah Greenwell said...

Funny story; I'm writing a work of fiction to show the unity and practical application of the OT canon with the NT canon (cause I'm no scholar but I love seeing biblical truths revealed in works of fiction). In it I use 'the LORD' for consistency with how a reader at that time would have read the passage (ie a Jew rendering YHWH 'Adonai'), but when the most godly character in the story makes a confession before his death he uses YHWH, scandalizing his son.

All that to say you aren't the only one who's noticed. And I barely know enough Hebrew to find my way around the OT.

Michael Herrmann said...

Dan, forgive me for commenting on a seven+ year old post.

This post of yours has been stuck in my brain for years. It popped to the forefront again this morning during devotional reading. Since first reading your post I've taken to substituting YHWH as I encounter "LORD" in the OT. I prefer the personal nature of it and like how it "sounds" in my head.

When might we read the "disciplined non-rant" version of this topic?

See you at the Sufficient Fire conference.

DJP said...

That's great news, I look forward to it.

Well, there's a footnote in the Proverbs book, as I recall. I've written on it a few times at this blog. Otherwise, not sure, not a plan.

Rob Steele said...

Wow, this might be the oldest post I've ever commented on. This article still moves me. Did you ever write the disciplined, organized, proof-read essay about the use of "LORD" in English translations? Thanks!