Monday, June 6, 2011

Where the Term “LORD” Comes From: God’s Divine Name

I know I said I would post this much sooner (like last month), but time got away from me (I’m still in school—that’s my lame excuse).

But if you watched the video I referenced earlier, than you can learn a Hebrew word!

The Hebrew word in question (which, in this case, is actually a name) is Yahweh (יהוה). This is God’s divine name. In fact, whenever you see the term “the Lord” in your English Bible, that is a translation of יהוה (yod-hey-vav-hey, Hebrew consonants that correspond to YHWH). Because Hebrew is made up of all consonants, vowel sounds were often understood. No one really knows how יהוה was originally pronounced, but the best guess scholars have is Yahweh.

But why “the Lord” (with small caps)? 

Over time, a Jewish tradition developed: Because some Jewish communities wanted to treat God’s name with the utmost respect, they began to keep from pronouncing his name out loud when they would read the Hebrew. So whenever they would come to יהוה, instead of pronouncing it as “Yahweh,” they would say ’adonai (אדני) instead, which means literally, “my lords.” It’s plural in form, but it functions as what is known as a “plural of majesty,” which is when the single God is referred to with a plural form. So it would be more adequately understood as “my Lord” or “the Lord.”

Many Jews today, when reading aloud the Torah in synagogues, will continue to pronounce יהוה as אדני.
Modern English translations have followed this tradition. So when אדני actually appears in the Hebrew text, English translations will use “the Lord” (no small caps). But when יהוה occurs in the Hebrew text, they will use “the Lord” (small caps), just to make the distinction.

The name יהוה is related to ’ehyeh (אהיה), which means “I am/will be.” In the burning bush story, when Moses asks God what he should say to the Israelites when they ask the name of the God who sent him to them, he says, “I AM WHO I AM / I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE [’ehyeh ’asher ’ehyeh   אהיה אשר אהיה]. Thus you will say to the children of Israel: ‘I AM [ ’ehyeh אהיה] has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14).

Here’s something that’s also cool about how אהיה is used in this passage: When Moses expresses doubts about going to Egypt to speak to the slaves, God says, “I am/will be [אהיה] with you” (see Exodus 3:12).
God introduced him as one who is—one who is present. In the context of the Exodus story, this is actually pretty powerful. Yahweh (the one who “is”) is a present God—a personal God, one who cares about his people who were slaves in Egypt. He heard their cries. And he was there. And he would be with Moses.

Jesus picks up on this language: “Before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58). The next verse says that his fellow Jews picked up stones to throw at him because he had just equated himself with the one true God. No human could claim to be God (unless it was actually true!).  

By stating this, Jesus claimed to be יהוה, the same God who said his name was “I AM” in the burning bush to Moses. Embodied in Jesus is the same One who parted the sea for Moses and the Israelites. The One who brought Israel out of Egypt is the same One who, for the sake of humankind, made himself nothing and became obedient to death—even to death on the cross (Philippians 2). 

This God is not some distant, far-off pie-in-the-sky deity—he isn’t a God who used to be. He is a God who is.
This is a God who saves.