Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Who is God?

If, like myself, you do the majority of your Old Testament reading in English, then perhaps you've noticed the same problem I have. English Old Testaments have two Lords. Er, well, they at least have two different spellings of the word 'lord.'

The first spelling is "Lord." This is a translation of the Hebrew word adonai, which means (obviously) 'lord.' It's actually somewhat like our English word 'sir,' in that it is a title of respect, but can be used in any context, whether as a mere formality of respect, or in addressing a king or a god.

The second spelling is "LORD," in all caps. This is a translation of God's personal covenant name, YHWH. It's kind of a long story as to how God's name gets translated with an impersonal title, having to do both with the third commandment, and an unfortunate lack of vowels in the name. Nevertheless, I think it is unfortunate that God's name gets hidden in our English translations, for two reasons.

The first is the theological/relational reason. God introduced himself to us with his name. He made it known to his people so that we would know who he is, and yet we insist on using his title. He wants to be familiar, and we insist on keeping a respectful distance.

The second problem is simply the confusion that ensues in our English bibles. I was meditating today on Psalm 100:3, "Know that the LORD, he is God," or shall we instead say, "Know that YHWH, he is God." Given that most of us consider "LORD" and "God" to be synonyms, the first translation is simply a truism. It lacks all punch. But what this verse is actually doing, is reminding us that YHWH, who is our faithful covenant savior is also the God of all the universe. Using his personal name reminds of of all that he has done for us. For OT Israelites it would have reminded them not least of YHWH revealing his covenant name to Moses and then leading the people out from under the yoke of slavery in Egypt. YHWH loves us, cares for us, and he in fact is God. This verse is a confession of faith. Not unlike when we sing "This is my father's world, the battle is not done, and though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet."

1 comment:

Jeff said...

I think the word which might be most similar to the Hebrew word adonai, might be the spanish word senor. Senor can be used to address anyone from a father, a boss, a stranger, all the way up to the king, or even God, as in, "Jehova, senor de los cielos."

We just don't have a word in English that has the same breadth of semantic range.