April 6, 2017

The name is Yahweh

by Jesse Johnson

The most arcane practice of English Bible translations is the use of “The Lord” for God’s name. It is a translation choice with zero scholarly merit, it confuses by creating artificial distance between the reader and the text, and is not defensible on any legitimate grounds. At best it is condescending, but more likely it is just simply superstitious.

If you were to hear me preach from the Old Testament, you would hear me say “Yahweh” in the places where my NASB or ESV says “The Lord.” I’m often asked after services by visitors what Bible translation I use which uses Yahweh. I tell them I’m using theirs, and have them open to the front of their Bible, and show them where it says something along the lines of:  

There is yet another name which is particularly assigned to God as His special or proper name, that is, the four letters YHWH. This name has not been pronounced by the Jews because of reverence for the great sacredness of the divine name. Therefore, it has been consistently translated Lord. It is known that for many years YHWH has been transliterated as Yahweh, however no certainty attaches to this pronunciation.

If you can train your mind to get over all the inaccuracies in that note (and it is bad—note the passive “assigned,” as if God was named by someone else; and how is different sized CAPS a form of translation?) you understand what the NASB editors are saying is that you are supposed to read Yahweh when you see them giving you The Lord. As if Christians have the decoder ring from The Christmas Story, and we can see through CAPS of varying fonts to the word “Yahweh.”

Let me briefly explain why translations say they do this, and then explain why they should stop.

First, some do this because they say we don’t know “with certainty” how YHWH was pronounced by the Jews of Moses’ day. But this misses the point. We don’t know with “certainty” how any of the Hebrew words were pronounced. I’m not even sure Yahweh spoke Hebrew to Adam in the garden anyway. How did Adam pronounce Eve? Is it the same way Americans do it? We can’t even agree on how to pronounce Isaiah, much less Yahweh. But the solution is not to render Isaiah as “ISH,” and it is certainly not to replace Isaiah with “The Prophet.”

Second, some translations say they do this to avoid offending the Jews, whom the translations tell us refuse to pronounce Yahweh because of “reverence for the great sacredness of the divine name.” Ha! Imagine the scene in John 8:58 when Jesus declared “before Abraham was, I am,” and the Jews picked up rocks to stone him. Now tell Jesus, “You know, they are rejecting you because of the great reverence they hold for the sacred name of Yahweh…you see, you vocalized the great Tetragrammaton, so they had no choice but to stone you…”

It is really bad translation practice to change something as fundamental as God’s name to avoid offending people who would simply prefer you not mention the name of Jesus’ God around them to begin with. Do we really think that the Pharisees of today are having their devo’s in the NASB? And if they are, I doubt it is the font size of The Lord that will cause them to reject Christ.

Third, some translations say they do this because everyone else does it. That is seriously the reasoning the NIV uses in their preface—which is ironic to say the least. This too shows a really bad translation philosophy when it comes to names. As my dad might have said when I was a kid “Everybody else is doing it” is just as much of a reason to not do something as it is to do something.

Why does this matter? For a few reasons:

God gave us his name, so we should use it. When God sends Moses to Israel, Moses tells God, “They are going to ask who sent me, and I’m going to have to give them a name…” (Exodus 3:13). God did not tell Moses—“I have a name, but I also have ten commandments, and one of them says not to take my name in vain, so you had better not say it, because then others might think you were taking it in vain.” Yet this is the exact logic used by those who refuse to print “Yahweh” out of some sort of superstitious fear.

God told Moses, “Tell them ‘I AM’ sent you” (Exodus 3:14). Then, later, he reiterates that while he had appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, they did not learn his name (Exodus 6:3). But Moses and the Israelites are different, because he gives them the privilege of calling him “by my name, Yahweh.” Even the KJV uses “Jehovah” here, instead of The Lord. The point is obvious: God wants those with whom he is in a saving relationship to address him by his name, which he gives them. Frankly, it’s absurd to say that it’s improper to use the name that God himself gives. If he didn’t want us to use it, he wouldn’t have given it to us, and he certainly wouldn’t’ have commanded Moses to use it.

Use of The Lord is confusing. It introduces an article to sentences where there is none. It takes a proper name out of the text and inserts a title instead. When God’s name is used along side the actual Hebrew word for lord (Adonai), it gets downright convoluted—“The Lord God.” In this case “The Lord” translates Adonai, and God is used for Yahweh. Because the smaller font size for the capital O is the same size as a normal O, the only way you know that the text actually says Yahweh is the single capital D. This simply is not acceptable. Imagine if a translator did that in any other field: instead of translating a name, he gives you a different word as a title, plus an article, and indicates it by capitalizing a single letter of the new word. But this is exactly what Bible translations do, and it is confusing.

Use of The Lord fosters superstition. The third commandment forbids Yahweh’s covenant people from lifting up “the name of Yahweh in vain” (Exodus 20:7). This commandment forbids calling yourself a follower of Yahweh but leading an empty life. Certainly application of it can be to ensure that you only use Yahweh’s name when you are actually addressing him. But to “apply” this commandment by refusing to translate it accurately in the first place…well it is absurd. The result is a superstition that lives on, where some people won’t even address God by name at all, for fear of violating the third commandment.

This is straight pharisaical law-keeping, minus the law and the keeping. It is a play right out of the “if it is a sin to work on the Sabbath, better not leave the house at all” play book. And just to be safe, better not translate the command either—otherwise someone might accidentally sin by reading it (and imagine what would happen if they read it out loud!). This kind of superstition is alive and well, aided and abetted by our English translations.

Regardless, this translation slight-of-hand fails at its task anyway. Ask yourself: does substituting God’s name for “The Lord” keep you from taking his name in vain? If someone swears by exclaiming “Good Lord!” has the shrewdness of English translators kept them from violating the third commandment?

Earlier I quoted the NASB translator’s note on The Lord, but the ESV is no better. It actually introduces its apology for using The Lord with this line, which I’m not making up: “In the translation of biblical terms referring to God, the ESV takes great care to convey the specific nuances of meaning of the original Hebrew and Greek terms…” They tell us that, right before they explain why they take the name Yahweh, add an article, a title, and four shrunken capital letters. They then say they do this because it is actually “beneficial to the English reader, enabling the reader to see and understand the different ways that the personal name and the general name for God are both used in the Old Testament.”

You know what else helps the reader see that God gives us his name? Actually translating the text that God gave us, instead of the vocalized superstitions of the Pharisees. If you are a pastor, do your part—when you read Scripture to your congregation, give them the name that God told his people to use. Or, as the Holman translation used to say—“The name is Yahweh.”

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • samloveall

    Just to be really picky about it, and to possibly be waaaaaay off base with the pickiness – – – if we’re translating, shouldn’t we be using “I am”, or, “I am that I am”, as God’s name, rather than transliterating YHWH? If we’re gonna take one step toward being more accurate, shouldn’t we take the rest of the steps that come with it? (And, being the rank amateur that I am, I may be being needlessly pedantic about it. You’re welcome to tell me so.)

    • Good question. But with names, the general practice is to render the name in the characters of the language, not the meaning of the name. For example, your name means “sun” in Hebrew. But translating Sam to English would be Sam, not sun and not SM, and to to Spanish would still be Sam, not sol.

      • Or Jesus, which certainly was not pronounced the way we say it, should still be translated Jesus, and not God Saves

    • A good point. At least I Am would be closer than The LORD

    • Nathan Dupont

      Good question samloveall, to understand why the I am that I am or in some translations I am what I am, or even I am who I am depending on which translation of the Bible you use,either way my excplanation comes from my indepth research on this issue. Yahweh or in English Jehovah (once the vowels are added) knew exactly who was running Egypt at the time and it certainly was not the pharaoh it was none other than the Morning Star (AKA Lucifer AKA Satan) that was running Egypt. So therefore it was unnecessary for Jehovah to explain who he was because Satan new exactly who he was already, so it was insulting (I could imagine) that Jehovah would have to say who it was that was going to cause the plagues. Therefore I am that I am or I am who I am (depending on the translation) is another way of saying you know exactly who I am! The Egyptians were completely oblivious to the fact that they were being mislead and were being used by Satan to do his deeds. It’s much like today with the world leaders because Satan hates human beings and refuses too bow to Jehovah’s creation (Adam and Eve) from the beginning so he has set out to show Jehovah just how terrible we really are and doing a good job of it I might add. If you read those scriptures once more keeping in mind the fact that Satan already knew exactly who was going to cause and did cause those plagues it makes a world of sense. So why in the world would Jehovah have to tell him (meaning Satan) who he was when Satan already knew. So in essence Jehovah was actually speaking directly to Satan when he sent Moses with the warning. I can only imagine it as when you’re younger your parents will say to you don’t make me repeat myself! (for lack of a better illustration.)
      Fun fact!: Many of the “pop idols” in the USA have blatantly sported the Egyptian pyramid in their music videos, concerts etc, because much like Egyptian times they were promised by Satan to be like gods and worshiped, but they have no clue that it is all to create a sense of humor on his (Satans’) part. Here are some examples of the pyramids being flashed around today in a show of loyalty by pop idols. Jayzee, Beyonce, madonna, various rap stars, the US dollar bill, the food pyramid (which encourages us to eat yeast by the way, which is another story entirely) and hidden pyramids in the Colorado airport and ALL over Washington DC.

  • Jason

    Thank you, the author, for this great post (couldn’t help myself)!

    I agree. Transliteration and downright replacement hurt people reading the plain meaning for no good reason. Names should be preserved as they are and concepts should be translated.

    • you forgot the CAPS.

      • Jason

        Corrected, and thank you.

  • cpsheepdog

    Why do you adhere to the name “Jesus”, in lieu of Yeshua? Is this not a bit of a contradiction to your argument?

    • At least “Jesus” is a name, not a title. Imagine replacing every use of Jesus with “The SAVIOR.” Wouldn’t that undercut his personhood? I think so.
      And, btw, your point about Yeshua — Jesus is exactly the argument that should be made for Yahweh. Nobody says Jesus was pronounced that way, yet we don’t blink about using it. But then we change a name that is thousands of years older than that? Ba humbug.

      • Not only that but the original Greek doesn’t writer Yeshua but translates the name to Greek, right?

  • Ray Adams

    Absolutely on target. Thank you! Personhood is necessary to relationship.

  • Jonathan F.

    I think Titus 1:14 applies here. As far as I can tell, the earliest written prohibition against pronunciation is in Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1 (“Abba Shaul says, also one who utters the Divine Name as it is spelled [has no share in the world to come].”). Certainly has the marks of one of the “commandments of men.”

    • Yep. Commentaries I’ve read said Jews stopped using the divine name during the 400 years of silence. The LXX was around 250 BC or so, so at least three centuries of that man-made tradition.

  • Caleb Martin

    Thanks for the thoughts! This is one reason (among many) that I love the new Bibliotheca Bible I received several months ago. It uses “Yahweh” in place of “Lord.” It has quickly become my daily reader.
    I would love to see some publishers go further and translate ALL of God’s name’s in the Hebrew, rather than an English equivalent. Let the readers do the extra legwork and actually spend a little time looking up what the names mean! I’m not a scholar, but I feel that names are important and carry significance, and I would love to see and understand contextually the uses for the various names of God, such as Shaddai, Adonai, Elohim, etc., rather them just handed to me in English. Maybe one day we’ll be so fortunate…

  • LOL – WordPress can handle it…sounds like you just need to know how…

    • Teach me, Obi-wan Caughlin.

      • That’s Darth Coughlin to you ….

      • It can be different from installation to installation and could require some customization which isn’t standard. It does come out harder to do that you’d expect.

  • Thanks, man. Very helpful and, funnily enough, we were just speaking about this in our elders’ meeting for public reading. To that, do you announce that you will be reading “LORD” as “Yahweh” before you read the text – or do you just expect people to catch-up and then show the when they approach you?

    • I used to give a little 30 second explanation when I preached an OT passage. But soon people started telling me that I was repeating myself, so now I just hope people catch up 🙂

  • ChurchSalt

    Funny, just preached on this last Sunday. “This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered” – Ex 3:15
    Doesn’t sound like God wanted the name obscured real bad does it? Then Jesus comes along, says He’s the I AM, and they keep using the name “Jesus” without blinking. To be consistent, maybe translators should switch Jesus’ name to JSS or LORD. Just kidding, translators, please don’t!

  • Still waiting for a translation that meets or exceeds the NASB in accuracy and does this (as well as omitting the bracketed passages).

    This will give you small-caps:

    <span style=”font-variant: small-caps;”>Lord</span>

    This comment system won’t accept it, but your post should.

    • Thanks David. That took ten minutes to add, but worth it!

  • Robert Sparkman

    I agree with the thesis in general. However I think there might be some concern with sounding like some of the “Torah observer” groups who tend to use Hebrew in a condescending manner toward non-observers.

    It would be nice if NT quotes of OT scriptures referring to Jesus as Lord would use Yahweh to accentuate his deity. Unfortunately such NT references often don’t even capitalize Lord.

    As an aside, I believe David Stern’s translation of the OT (CJB?) uses Adonai where Yahweh is indicated in Hebrew so apparently some Messianic Jews do have issues with using Yahweh.

  • grh

    “It is really bad translation practice to change…[insert offensive item here]…to avoid

    offending people who would simply prefer you not mention…[same offensive item]…around them to begin with.”

    Hmm…this sounds suspiciously like some of the same reasoning the ESV translation committee used to justify not using the word “slave” in the NT…because it might “offend” some people. There are other more legitimate reasons in some occurrences, of course, but this was in the mix, and it was not insignificant.

    https://youtu.be/Mx06mtApu8k

    • My second pet-peeve in English translation is “bond-servant.” Yee gads.

  • Norm Eddy

    It looks like the new HCSB takes some baby steps in the right direction.

    • The old HCSB did, but this week they released their update, undoing any baby steps they had taken before. Alas.

  • mpatrickriley

    Jesse,

    I appreciate the article, and I am in essential agreement with your point here. Indeed, I have the same practice as you: most often (though not always), I will read the text aloud as Yahweh.

    However, I have considered one significant objection to the position you’ve advocated here: the New Testament itself. Just picking a random example (and these could be multiplied mightily): 1 Peter 3:12 cites Psalm 34:15: “For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous.” Psalm 34:15 employs the word Yahweh here, but throughout the NT, we see the authors using the single title kurios to handle instances both of YHWH and adonai.

    This NT usage seems to be, in my estimation, more or less akin to what we see in modern English translation.

    Is this an argument that you have considered, and if so, what is your reply?

    • Karl Heitman

      This is a fair question and I’m anxious to see how Jesse answers it. I did ask the same question to my Greek prof in seminary and I think the answer is something along the lines of there is no Greek equivalent to the tetragrammaton just as there’s none in the English. In other words, YHWH or Yahweh is not a translation; it’s a transliteration. The NT writer probably employed kurios simply because a transliteration from the Hebrew to the Greek wasn’t an option. If I’m way off base, Jesse will school me! I don’t claim to be a master linguist 🙂

    • Thanks for your kind question Michael. You are right, and I should have interacted with that above. I had a few paragraphs on it, but took it out.
      I wouldn’t say that NT usage is akin to modern translations…I mean, it is, but only sort of. Better to say that modern translations are akin to the LXX.
      The LXX was about three centuries before the NT, and most of the Apostles likely had never used the name Yahweh, instead using Kurios. So why didn’t the Holy Spirit inspire the NT authors to go back and break translation history?
      1. The NT almost always quotes the LXX. In a way, it is more powerful to quote it as is, than add an additional secondary point to any OT allusion by changing the LXX.
      2. Paul especially was immersed in Greek and educated in the LXX. What he does is instead of using the Hebrew OT, or changing the LXX, he simply identifies Jesus as the LORD. By doing this consistently, it creates yet another slam dunk case that the NT teaches the deity of Christ.
      3. There are places in the NT that the LXX is quoted (or at leas alluded to), where Kurios is changed to Jesus. So there is that (Phil 2:11 eg).

      So this is why I say that it is good that we don’t use the LXX. It is good that the English Bible textual tradition is through the MT, not the LXX. Also why it is good to quote the NT as is, and not “fix” any of the “mistakes” in the LXX, even if it makes looking up NT quotes of the OT in our OT confusing. The job of the translator is not to fix that (or to uphold the LXX), but to simply translate the text as is.
      That’s the best answer I’ve got for you on that, and you are right, it is the strongest argument against my case. Thanks Michael.

      • Karl Heitman

        Jesse, the question remains in my mind: do we know why the LXX translators used kurios instead of YHWH or some Gk equivalent?

        • B/c of Jewish superstition against saying the name. At least that is what commentators say. BTW, interesting side note is that while this is the strongest argument for using The Lord, it is also not the argument that translations use. I dont’ know of any that point to the LXX as their basis, probably b/c they dont’ follow that principle anywhere else.

  • Nikon1isAwesome!

    ” for many years YHWH has been transliterated as Yahweh, however no certainty attaches to this pronunciation.”

    This….

  • Bruce Symons

    Jesse, what is more serious in your opinion — adding an article or guessing at the vowels to insert? Why, also, is ‘the LORD’ not a ‘name’?

    • Well, we aren’t “guessing” as in choosing vowels out of a hat. Yahweh is from the verb “to be,” and Ex 3 points us in the right direction (points! Ha! because Hebrew vowels are…never mind).
      Adonai is the word for Lord, someone who owns slaves or is otherwise exalted. Its not a name. Putting an article in front of it changes it too. I don’t address you as The Bruce. And supposedly (according to a baby book I have on standby) Bruce means “think bush.” So its just not right for me to call you “The Thick Bush.” But again, Adonai isn’t even the root of Yahweh. So it would be like instead of calling you Bruce, or The Thick Bush, I called you The Lawyer. You might be both a lawyer and a Bruce, but that doesn’t make them interchangeable.

      • Bruce Symons

        Jesse, sorry, I actually have no idea what you are talking about here. Wouldn’t Ex 3 point us to two e’s — so is it ‘honouring’ to God (as you do refer to him a few times in your post) to mispronounce his name, Jasse?
        Secondly isn’t your discussion of my name ‘meaning something’ a bit of linguistic gobbledegook? since a feature of proper nouns in English is that they have reference but no sense? And some of them even need a ‘the’ with them. Have you ever crossed Atlantic or Pacific? Have you seen Thames (the river)?

        PS I’m not a lawyer only a linguistics teacher.

        • It seems like you are saying that if we don’t pronounce it like Moses would have we are mispronouncing it…but that’s the nature of the world post-Babel. We don’t speak Hebrew. David in the US is David in Mexico, but pronounced differently. Neither is wrong.
          You are exactly right though about the role of articles. In LA, it is “The 5” not I-5. But translators should carry that across, not drop it or change it, and definitely not call I-5 “The FREEWAY.” I mean in your examples above, I hope you see how adding the article actually diminshes the personal element of it. But regardless of the merits, its not the translator’s role to invent articles or change names for titles. That’s my point.

  • John Hooper

    Jesse, I heard you preach a while back on the gift of tongues. In the sermon you said that you usually preach from the HCSB, but because it translates glōssa languages instead of tongues you didn’t want to give yourself an unfair advantage. I’ve noticed in the newest version of the HCSB, (just called the CSB now) they now translate glōssa as tongues. Also and more relevant to this article in some places the CSB has gone from Yahweh back to LORD, see Psalm 69:31.

    • I know…killing me. Its enough to make a grown man cry.

  • tovlogos

    We know from Genesis 11:1 the whole world spoke one language, until Babel.
    We also notice that the descendants from Adam to Noah are Hebrew names;
    and now we see Hebrew return to its original use in the land.
    As you indicated, due to reverence the Jewish people didn’t call Him Jehovah — which wouldn’t be difficult linguistics; since Hebrew is made up of Roots and Vowels.
    Thus, Ha Shem for the Jews. Jesus called Him, Father/Dad.

  • Dirk Yount

    For a second I thought I came across a Sacred Name article. This issue and the destructive Hebrew roots movement puts the term Yahweh on my radar when people insist that we use it.

    In the New Testament there is obvious evasiveness when it comes to saying the name of God. I think that is intentional. When Jesus taught us to pray he said “Our Father…” There are other instances. In Bivin/Blizzard’s book Understanding the Diffiicult Words of Jesus, they go into why evasive synonyms were used for God’s name.

    Why
    not Adonai? I did a study few years ago (not exhaustive) that revealed
    Moses never called God by his name when speaking directly to him (such
    as Exodus 4:10), but said Adonai, a title, meaning Lord. Moses would
    often speak in God’s name such as Lev. 23:34 “Speak to the sons of
    Israel, saying, ‘On the fifteenth of this seventh month is the Feast of
    Booths for seven days to YHWH.”, but never said it to him directly, only spoke
    in his name.

    I think because of the mistake made
    with mistranslating Jehovah in the past, the translators of the NASB and other
    bibles, were playing it safe by using LORD. There
    is no text that I’m aware of that definitely renders the pronunciation
    Yahweh. This is an educated guess from scholars in the past. It could also be other forms,
    possibly Yahuweh. The pronunciation is lost since the Masorites put the marking for Adonai under YHWH.

    I’ve been around a lot of Sacred Namers/HRM’ers and my experience is that to insist people say Yahweh, is not only legalistic, it’s not necessarily correct linguistically.

    I’m of the opinion that since we are children to him, he hears us when we call, correct pronunciation or not, correct word or not. When your child calls out to you, you hear them. So, Lord, LORD, Abba, Father, Yahweh, Papa, or nonsensical drivel, he hears our heart. Blessings….

    • Nathan Dupont

      Adonai means “sovereign lord” adonaijah means “sovereing lord Jehovah”. Here is another easy way of figuring out that we are supposed to use his name. Unfortunately for satan, he forgot when he influenced the men of the earth to remove the almightys’ name that the jews named most ALL of their children after Jehovahs’ name. Look it up! No joke, start with Elijah, then maybe jehoshua and so forth. It makes me smile when i see those names because it serves as a reminder that we are still loved. 🙂

  • Christian

    Thank you for posting this article. A good rule of thumb is to read the translation team’s preface. As pointed out by the author, the preface usually contains the philosophy behind a particular translation. I try to make it a habit to read the preface of any new translation I may read.

    Obviously just reading the preface doesn’t eradicate translational problems such as the use of a title in place of a name.

    When reading the Common English Bible, I found myself annoyed—if not irked—that they changed “Son of Man” to “The Human One”. They facilitated this change for the sake of gender inclusion; however, it creates—at least in my mind—a problem with the natures of Christ.

    The church that I currently serve as Interim Pastor uses the NASB. Beyond the confusing name substitution, the sentence structure and format (breaking each verse into a new paragraph, which inevitably breaks up thought “chunks”) are frustrating.

    Perhaps a better practice, maybe, is to provide our own translations to the congregation. This practice may not be acceptable or even practical everywhere, but where it is permitted and encouraged, it can bear fruit.

    I am encouraged when I hear of churches that teach basic translational philosophy and practice. The everyday layperson benefits greatly from approaching the Word of God beyond one translation (I say this as someone who used to be an ESV only proponent).

    P. S. Is anyone else perplexed that we use “James” instead of “Jacob”?

  • I put a new post up today on this issue (from Motyer), so I’m going to close this thread and direct people there. http://thecripplegate.com/call-god-by-his-christian-name/

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