Have you ever wondered how the title “LORD” came to represent the personal name of God, YHWH? Does the question seem strange to you? Strange or not, for a variety of reasons, I suggest we reconsider how English translation have translated YHWH.
To be sure, the traditional choice of rendering “YHWH” as “LORD” or “GOD” has merit. Here are a few of the more important points in favor of the traditional translation:
(1) LORD has historical and theological capital. It’s certainly an ancient option—the equivalent of “lord” or “master” for YHWH was used by LXX (Greek, which was then taken up by the NT) and Latin traditions, and can be found in early Hebrew and Aramaic as well. Some suggest that the early Jewish aversion to pronouncing YHWH was shared by the early Christians, and we should follow their lead.
(2) LORD carries christological implications, with NT authors using the same label in Greek OT texts to identity Jesus with YHWH. During and after my last two interactions with Jehovah’s Witnesses, there was simply no answer for the observation that Joel 2:32 (a YHWH text) is applied to Jesus in Romans 10:9-13.
(3) LORD has cultural value: “The LORD” has become a very common way of addressing God. And LORD avoids offending Jewish friends and some Jewish siblings in Jesus who do not pronounce God’s name.
(4) LORD has royal effect. The term helpfully renders God as Emperor or King.
For a variety of reasons—more than I can engage here—I’m not compelled by these and other valid, valuable arguments to maintain the traditional approach. Here are a few reasons, in no particular order.
(1) There are limits to our knowledge of the theological motives behind the use of kyrios, mara, and theos for YHWH in early manuscripts. As Jonathan Pennington shows in his book Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew, our long-standing assumption that reverential circumlocution stood behind the use of “the kingdom of heaven” instead of “the kingdom of God” needed to be critically examined (then dumped).
Reverential circumlocution certainly seems far more likely to be in play when kyrios and other words are used for Yahweh. But the aversion may have been partial rather than total. Bruce Metzger has suggested that early Jews moved away from pronouncing YHWH in part to avoid the appearance of polytheism. Other scholars such as James Barr and as Emanuel Tov have urged caution in drawing conclusions about theological motives and the degree to which they were held. It’s often overlooked that names using Yah—the shortened form of the shortened form of Yahweh—were widely employed in Jewish names of this era: John and Joanna, for instance.
(2) The christological value of LORD is not lost when we use Yahweh. All that is true of what we call “kyrios Christology” (say, the use of Joel 2:32 in Romans 10:9-13) could just as easily be described as “Yahweh christology.” Moreover, facilitating theological connections is not a widely accepted principle for contemporary translation. Translation is about accurately communicating the meaning of words, phrases, names, and concepts. In any event, LORD is too great a departure from YHWH to set an unalterable standard.
(3) There’s an important counter-objection: We don’t know how YHWH was originally pronounced. To be sure, Yahweh is an approximation that does not exactly represent God’s name; the original vocalization has been altogether lost. But many English stabs at Hebrew words are approximations. We regularly approximate names like Moses, Jesus, Mary, Peter, James, and John, with the English version of these names probably no greater departure than Yahweh is from the original vocalization of YHWH. (To release my red herring: is guesswork in pronunciation more or less problematic than adding “the” to the text on hundreds of occasions in order to facilitate the use of “Lord”?)
(4) Yahweh offers an advantage over LORD, that of consistency in translation choice. English translations lose consistency when the NIV and ESV capitalize God instead of Lord (Lord GOD). The NRSV employs Sovereign LORD, which preserves consistency but comes off as wooden and archaic (I do have a weak spot for the classic “LORD of Lords”).
(5) While LXX usage is important, it is not the only consideration. The NT’s use of Greek translation traditions has not prevented us from using Hebrew to guide our translation of the Old Testament if other (Aramaic, Coptic, Latin, etc) evidence suggests the Hebrew is more precise.
(6) The heart of my concern is simply practical: how do my students hear the text, and which translation best enables the text to register as intended? In my experience, theopolitical and cultural capital have been canceling one another out. Cultural saturation morphs the title “the Lord” into a name (not surprising, since that is what we are translating), which in my experience severely damages its ability to impress theopolitical significance on believers. By their own admission, my students and parishioners seldom associate LORD with kingship or rule. LORD and Lord both register as religious language—mere vague synonyms for God rather than “the Name of God” (YHWH) or “Emperor,” “Master,” or “King.” As a result, even lower-case uses of “Lord” fail to make an imperial impression.
Although I tend to conceive of our culture as literary, we are in reality very oral. In a given week, I read or cite the Bible aloud for others, or hear it read aloud or cited for me, in family devotions, class, Sunday school, liturgy and sermons, office discussions, and casual conversation. And many people now listen to the Bible or Bible teaching in audio formats. Much of the rest of my interaction with the Bible happens inside my head, where I’m “hearing” texts, not “seeing” them on a page.
To cite just a few passages: try reading Daniel 9:3-4, Psalm 110:1, or the opening and closing line of Psalm 8 aloud. (Fair warning: if you’re older than 30 and were raised on Christian music, reading Psalm 8:1 in the NIV or ESV risks the glory of Sandi Patty playing in your head for a good 30 minutes.) There’s no oral distinction between the different Lord/LORDs in these passages. As a result, almost every listener simply hears the equivalent of “God, our God” or “God said to my God.”
By contrast, student after student tells me that they understand the text far better if in a text like Psalm 8:1 they hear, “Oh Yahweh, our Master,” or “Oh Yahweh, our King,” or “Yahweh our Ruler.” (They’re not alone; their teacher is also aided by such approaches.)
Capital letters aren’t getting the job done (although YAHWEH would be fine with me, let us not speak of the difficulty of typing in small caps! Readers can guess what happened to this intricate format when I tried to copy and paste this essay into an email.) LORD is often written without caps in English, and many languages do not have capital letters. In class, where clarity matters (where doesn’t it matter?!), it’s awkward to speak of LORD /Lord without saying “Lord in [sm]all caps” or “LORD in all caps.” So as a matter of course, I have simply resorted to Yahweh.
I wonder if over-familiarity with (and resulting vagueness of) LORD and Lord have helped make Yahweh an increasingly popular option. I’ve heard scores—probably hundreds—of my fellow scholars and scholar-pastors use Yahweh in class, pulpits, and papers delivered at conferences. Christian musicians regularly employ it (Phil Wickham, Chris Tomlin, and “Yahweh” by Cities Apart). Then there’s the U2 hit.
Contemporary usage always affects translation, for better or for worse. It keeps the name James in the Bible (it should be Jacob), and it keeps us translating Jude, Judas, and Judah (when one of those would suffice and maintain consistency). In this case, I think a change could guide us in helpful directions.
I agree with Bruce Waltke’s assessment: “Using a title . . . establishes a less intimate relationship with a person than using his or her name” (OT Theology, 11), and this is particularly true if the name and all sense of a name has been entirely lost. Waltke opts for “I AM” in all-caps, and I like that option.
But knowing and using God’s name is an enormous privilege given to Yahweh’s covenant people. Don’t we lose something if we lose God’s name?