The Name of God: Part 1

burning-bush-stained-glassNames have meaning. Here, I don’t mean sentimental attachment, although this can certainly be true. I mean that most names are related to other words within a language. Their background is often transparent, meaning it is obvious to those who take time to notice.

What we consider to be a family name or surname will have a background. This can be easily seen in a whole group of English names that refer to occupations. Here are a few examples: Carter, Fisher, Baker, Draper, Butcher, Painter, Waterman, Cook, Fletcher, Driver, Weaver, Smith, Potter, Miller, Gardener, Tanner, and Shepherd. (I’m sure you can think of many more). We rarely think of this transparent meaning with these names. President Carter was never evaluated on the basis of his name referring to the occupation of carting goods from one location to another.

Bible names also have meaning. They are often descriptive, a little more like Native American names: Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, Black Elk, Standing Bear. Such names might be given as part of manhood rites and involve visionary experiences, but they are easily decipherable for us. So it was with biblical names, particularly in the Old Testament.

A small knowledge of Hebrew helps here. For example, any Bible name ending in -el refers to God, because the word “El” (אל) in Hebrew means “god” or “God.” (Just as in English, context determines whether this is the God or a god, although Hebrew has no system of capitalization to help us.) Therefore, Samuel (שמואל) means “name is God” or “his name is God.” This is a declaration of allegiance to the God of Israel, the answer to a question. Whom do you serve? His name is God. In the context of the story of Samuel’s birth, it is also an answer from his mother, Hannah, as to whom has heard her prayers for a child: his name is God. Similarly, Daniel (דנאל) means “God (אל) is my Judge,” Ishmael (ישמעאל) means “God (אל) hears,” Uriel (אוריאל) means “My light is God (אל),” etc.

Those of you who have followed my blog know that when it comes to translation practice, I generally abhor transliteration. Transliteration is the abdication of the responsibility of the translator to render a word in the source text’s language into a word in the target language. It is the source of endless mischief in theological work based on translated texts. The famous example from my church tradition is the Greek word baptizo (βαπτίζω). In Greek, this is an unambiguous word that means “dunk” or “immerse.” If we translated it in Acts 2:38, we would have “repent and be immersed …” and all controversies over the mode of baptism would be resolved (maybe). But transliterating it as baptize obscures its meaning. In effect, this creates a new word in English, and such a word is disconnected from the original Greek word by English speakers. New words take on a life of their own and meanings may change, so the English word “baptize” may take on meanings the Greek word baptizo does not have. Such is the danger of transliteration, a cowardly type of translation practice in many cases.

This brings us to consider the divine name of God used in the Hebrew Bible. In the dramatic encounter between Moses and the Lord in the burning bush, God reveals his personal name to Moses in three ways. When Moses questions the Lord as to what name he should use for him when he confronts the elders of Israel, the Lord first says אהיה אשׁר אהיה (ʾHYH ʾŠR ʾHYH), which translates as “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). Later in the same verse, the Lord reduces this name to just  אהיה (ʾHYH), translated “I am.” The third variation follows immediately in Exodus 3:15: יהוה (YHWH), perhaps translated as “The One who is.”

These three variations must be taken together. The first two use the Hebrew verb for “being” (היה = HYH) with a first person singular form, thus meaning “I am.” In this context, we are intended to see the third variation (יהוה= YHWH) as more than a simple verbal form. It is a proper noun, a name, based on this Hebrew verb. But like the English names Smith or Carter, it is transparent to a Hebrew speaker and means “The One who is.” Why is this important? Because the first two are never used as a personal name for the Lord elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. The verbal form אהיה (ʾHYH) is used many times, often in connection to God. Two frequent examples are when the Lord assures someone “I will be with you” (e.g., Judges 6:16) and when God affirms the promise “I will be their God” (e.g., Ezekiel 11:20). But bald “I am” is not used as a name for God again.

So we are left with the third variation (יהוה= YHWH), which occurs over 5,000 times in the Hebrew Bible, the revealed and designated personal name of the God of Israel. How should we translate this word?

Stayed tuned for part two.

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4 thoughts on “The Name of God: Part 1

  1. I have often been curious about the naming of children in the OT. Some of the prophet’s children were symbolically named for teaching purposes, but others seemed to express a personality that we see developing through the biblical account. Are we to understand that the parents had enough insight into their child’s personality to give them a “transparent” name on the eighth day? I see some situations where the author is using a “play on word” using root words in the name. i.e. Jacob = deceiver

    • Yes, the interplay between person and meaning is interesting. One wonders whether “Jacob” as a root word enters the Hebrew vocabulary as “deceiver” after his life, or if this is some sort of nickname. It is hard to imagine a father naming his son “Deceiver” or “Usurper.”

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