In the previous blog, I tried to show that names in most languages have easily determined meaning, what we call “transparent” meaning. Determining the meaning can be tricky, however. Consider the name “Frank.” This originally meant one from the nation of the Franks = Frenchman. If we are historians, we may recognize this, but the more common meaning of “frank” is to be honest, to be open, to be direct. This does not make the meaning of the name “Frank” to be “Honest One,” however. It doesn’t work that way and the search for a name’s meaning can go down the wrong path if we are not careful.
Nicknames are more reliably transparent. By a “nickname,” I mean an acquired name other than the birth name given to a child by parents. For example, there was a man in my church when I was growing up named “Shorty.” I didn’t realize until I was in junior high that his real name was “Glenwood.” But guess what? He was pretty short. The nickname was both transparent and fitting.
The Hebrew name for God (יהוה= YHWH) has a long history in translation before it gets to us. I would not characterize it as a nickname, but it is not a “given” name either in the sense of having been bestowed by parents. We could say it is a given name given by God to himself, but it is more than this. It is a name with meaning and therefore is a way of God revealing himself to us. As my teacher, Carl F. H. Henry emphasized, God is a self-revealing God who tells us about himself. We only know things about God he has chosen to reveal. No hacked emails. No private recordings released. We know no more about God than what he reveals to us (humanity) about himself.
A tradition arose among ancient Jews that avoided speaking the divine name. The origins of this practice are somewhat murky and disputed, but a common explanation for it today is that such non-speaking is the ultimate cautionary practice to avoid violating the third commandment. If we are to respect the Lord’s name by never taking it in vain (Exodus 20:7), we show ultimate respect by never uttering it at all. (See this explanation by an Orthodox Jewish rabbi.) Instead, a Jewish person who follows this avoidance tradition will substitute a term like Adonai (אדני) which means “my Lord” (see Exodus 4:10). How ancient is this practice?
In the 3rd century BC, beginning about 250 BC, the Jews of the great city of Alexandria began a project to translate the Hebrew Bible into Greek. The result was the Greek Old Testament, commonly called the Septuagint and given the shorthand designation of the LXX. This is not the place to rehearse or dispute all the historical questions concerning the project, but taking a big picture view of the results shows us three things:
- The project itself is called into being by the needs of the Jewish community of Alexandria. Remember, Alexandria, while in Egypt, is largely a Greek city, founded by Alexander the Great. The language of the community was Hellenistic Greek, a living tongue that was evolving at this time. The Jewish community in Alexandria, perhaps as many as 100,000 people, needed Scriptures in the language they read, wrote, and spoke, and this was not Hebrew. Scripture in Greek was a practical necessity for the synagogues of Alexandria and other Greek-speaking cities with Jewish communities.
- Any sense of “inspiration” attached to the books of the Hebrew Scriptures was understood to be transferred to this new version in a different language. Christians are especially aware of this because the Christian New Testament authors, writing in Greek, primarily use the LXX for their quotations of Scripture.
- When it comes to translating names, those who produced the LXX chose transliteration over translation. So, “Daniel” in Hebrew (דניאל) becomes “Daniel” (Δανιήλ) in the Greek version.
What about the divine name, the tetragrammaton (יהוה= YHWH)? Stay tuned for the next blog to discuss this.
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University
This blog does not reflect official views of the University, only opinions of the author.