God’s Name Is...?

Dale Carnegie once wrote: “A person's name is to that person, the sweetest, most important sound in any language.”  I think that’s true, and as a pastor and soccer coach, I’m constantly trying to remember people’s names. It’s in this context that the name of God is really interesting to me. In Exodus 3 (the Burning Bush), and chapter 34 (the Cleft of the Rock), God reveals his name to Moses in profound power and clarity. But while studying God’s self-descriptions in these passages, I realized that our English translations have different philosophies when it comes to sharing God’s name with us. 

There’s nothing nefarious or conspiratorial about this. Different translation teams have different philosophies of translation and tradition. Each English translation is really good (with one or two exceptions, for another time), at what the translation is trying to do. But no translation is perfect either.    

When God shares his name to Moses, especially in Exodus 3:14-17, and 34:4-7, translations typically use one of three names: 1. the LORD (most common) 2. Jehovah (older translations), and 3. Yahweh (a few newer translations, most notably the NLT and HCSB).          

Why do most (modern) English translations use the word LORD for God’s Name?

Two main reasons that most English translations have chosen the word LORD as a translation of the Hebrew word יהוה (YHWH), both of which are rooted in a deep tradition.   

1) The pre-Christian, Greek translation of Old Testament (the Septuagint) typically translates YHWH as κύριός, meaning Lord, King, Master. This seems to reflect that Greek-speaking Jews used the Greek word for LORD as a substitute for the divine name. 

2) In the Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament, there reflects a growing discomfort with pronouncing God’s name. Remember the third commandment: “You shall not misuse the LORD’s name?”  Jews took that one really seriously. Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, even used a different script (font) for the divine name. But this discomfort grew so much, that Jews basically stopped saying it out loud (Orthodox Jews are similar today). Sometimes they would just say The Name, and sometimes they would use the term adonai, which also means Lord. In quite a few places, we have textual evidence that scribes changed YHWH to adonai.      

Because of these two textual traditions, English translators followed suit , feeling more comfortable with the word LORD instead of Yahweh.  

Why do some older translations (like the ASV) use the word Jehovah? 

Here’s where it gets really interesting. There are no vowels in ancient Hebrew, just consonants. Vowels were added in later, meaning we can’t have complete certainty on pronunciation. But here’s one thing we do know: scribes started to write the vowels sounds of Adonai (other Hebrew word for Lord), over the divine name YHWH. In other words, the name Jehovah is a combination of the vowels of Adonai, and the consonants of Yahweh. Fascinating. 

Here’s what it looks like transliterated: Y-A-H-O-W-A-H. Note that Hebrew is a guttural “back of the throat” language, so the Y sounds like a J and the W sounds like a V. In other words, Jehovah was never a real word and it certainly isn’t God’s name.  

Yahweh and Father

Like any good Protestant, I’m less impressed by these traditions that people and translations stick to, even though some of them do have merit. Even if using the term Yahweh more commonly might take away from its sacredness, and even if we don’t exactly know the right pronunciation, shouldn’t we do our best to use God’s name in whatever language we’re in? 

“Say to the Israelites: ‘Yahweh, 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, the name you shall call me from generation to generation.” -Exodus 3:15

Yahweh is his name “forever.” I think we might be missing something in prayer and praise if we don’t take this into account. Even the familiar OT phrase Hallelujah (allelouïa), occurring 4x in Revelation 19, means Praise-Yah! Granted, most of New Testament prayer is addressed to God as “Our Father.” In personal conversation with my dad, I don’t call him “Mark,” unless I’m joking or unless he’s not paying attention to me.  But when talking to others about him, or hyping him up to others, I might indeed use his name to help people know who I’m talking about.  So in prayer, praise, and proclamation, I think we should use Yahweh in 3rd person communication (such a nerdy way to say: “when talking about God”). But, in 2nd person conversation, talking to God, I’d probably use the more intimate term that Jesus used: Father.   

For more on the name, character, and even “conflict” within God, please consider watching my most recent sermon on the topic, here:  https://youtu.be/NYRg-yPRgrQ

How do you think we should refer to God?