Don’t call God ‘Yahweh’

Don’t call God ‘Yahweh’

From time to time, I hear preachers refer to ‘Yahweh’. Preachers often explain Bible translations and point out that ‘the LORD’ is the way most versions translate the four-letter Hebrew word for God’s name: YHWH—the divine tetragrammaton. I’m sure I’ve done it in the past. I have resolved to do so no longer.

I think I know why we do it (at least, I think I know why I did it). Firstly, it helps highlight that God is the covenant God of Israel who has revealed his name and who wants to be called by his name. Secondly, we Aussies are more comfortable with names than titles, and calling God ‘Yahweh’ feels a lot more personal than calling him ‘the Lord’. (It isn’t just an Australian habit, though; the Holman Bible [HSCB] does the same.) Thirdly, I wonder if it’s a bit of a hangover from the theological classroom.

So why stop doing it? Two reasons: firstly, because the common Bible translations continue to use ‘the LORD’, and secondly, because I don’t hear Christians talking about ‘Yahweh’ in their everyday conversations or calling him that in prayer. It isn’t the way Christians actually address God. It never has been. It is worth remembering that ‘Yahweh’ is a scholarly reconstruction of the original pronunciation—first suggested by Wilhelm Gesenius (1786–1842). Many contemporary scholars are not convinced that he was correct. A student from Christ College pointed me to this presentation by Mark Futato that explains the issues and argues that we shouldn’t use ‘Yahweh’.

As far as Bible translations go, the NIV and the ESV consistently use ‘the LORD’. The Holman (HCSB) is a partial exception: it uses ‘Yahweh’ for about 10 per cent of the uses in the Old Testament. The NIV never uses ‘Yahweh’.1

I’m not arguing that we need to share the reservations of post-biblical Judaism and avoid pronouncing the tetragrammaton (YHWH). It isn’t that using ‘Yahweh’ risks blasphemy. In 2008, the Catholic church reaffirmed its view that translations and liturgical texts should not attempt to transliterate the divine name because using ‘the Lord’ (or equivalent) has been the church’s tradition from the beginning and it preserves the mysterious holiness of God. Those are not my reasons.

My concern is piety. We are better off using the same terminology as our Bible translation so we can help people recapture the personal sense conveyed by ‘the LORD’. Instead of glossing ‘the LORD’ as ‘Yahweh’, just say ‘the Lord’: “The Lord loves his people and rescues them”, “The Lord wants his people to worship him with all they are”, etc. Instead of reinforcing the feeling that ‘the Lord’ is a title, which is a bit distant and formal, reclaim it as a term of intimacy—as the name the one true and living God gave his people. This will help to keep the connection between how we speak and pray and what we hear in preaching. (Also, if this is correct, then it is probably better to do the same in Hebrew exegesis classes.)

The reason the Holman Bible uses ‘Yahweh’ only occasionally is because of the common pattern of Christian piety. E Ray Clendenen, an associate editor of the HCSB explains:

We did not render the majority of occurrences of YHWH as Yahweh because our goal is not only to be accurate but to use an English style that is most familiar to people. Since most Christians today probably do not commonly speak of ‘Yahweh,’ but rather of ‘the Lord’, we felt it would be insensitive to use Yahweh for YHWH in every case and would make the Bible seem too uncomfortable for most people.

On that argument, surely the Holman Bible would be better off being consistent and following the usual pattern of English translations.

However, at the same time, I think we should use ‘the LORD’ more often than the generic term ‘God’. Of course, there are times when, like the Bible, we will use the generic, but let’s make ‘the LORD’ our default term. That is the way we render his name in English.

If we do this, we will be following the apostles, who quoted the Septuagint and used the Greek word for ‘Lord’ (kurios). Also, we preserve one of the important Christological features of the New Testament: the apostles gave Jesus the same title as God. It is not that every reference to Jesus as ‘Lord’ is a full-blown claim to his divinity, but the cumulative effect is significant.

So let’s call God ‘the Lord’ consistently and regularly.

Footnotes

1 The King James Bible (1611) uses ‘Jehovah’ in four passages (Exod 6:3; Ps 83:18; Isa 12:2, 26:4) and in several compound place names. The English Revised Version (1885) adds eight other uses. The American Standard Version (1901) uses ‘Jehovah’ in all Old Testament passages. The New English Bible (1970) uses ‘Jehovah’ twice. The Living Bible (1971) uses ‘Jehovah’ in about 400 Old Testament passages, and The New Living Bible (1996/2007) uses ‘Yahweh’ in seven passages, as well as in some compound names for God. The Jerusalem Bible (1966) and The New Jerusalem Bible (1985) use ‘Yahweh’ consistently. The CTS New Catholic Bible (2007) is based on the text of The Jerusalem Bible, but uses ‘the Lord’ throughout the Old Testament.

John McClean

John McClean teaches Systematic Theology at Christ College in Sydney, where he is Vice-Principal. After seven years as minister at Cowra, John has been teaching theology for the last 13 years. He is married to Elizabeth and they have two young adult children. The McCleans are members of Springwood-Winmalee Presbyterian Church and John is currently the interim-pastor for the Winmalee congregation. He has published a book on the theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg (From the Future, Paternoster, 2013 ) and a short introduction to Christian doctrine, (Real God for the Real World, Groundworks, 2014). He is part of the Gospel, Society and Culture Committee of the Presbyterian Church in NSW.