REB and NJB Reviews and the Name of God

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I've been busy enough lately that I've lost touch with several blogs I've been trying to maintain connections with, and one of the things I've let slip is checking for Rick Mansfield's Bible translation reviews. He's now done the REB and the NJB, two translations I've spent a lot less time in.

I have little to say about these reviews, since I don't know either translation very well, but I did notice something interesting in the comments on the second piece, which arose from the NJB's use of 'Yahweh' to transliterate God's name in Hebrew rather than the standard English translation policy of using 'the LORD' for that name. Since orthodox Jews can't use such a translation because of that, it led to a discussion of the practice some Jewish people have of writing out 'G-d' so they don't use God's name. Apparently that very practice is viewed as sacrilege by many orthodox Jews, despite its opposite intent. This makes sense, though, because 'God' is not the name of God to an orthodox Jew. The tetragrammaton is, i.e. what would be transliterated as 'YHWH'. The fact that 'God' is used in English as a name for God is irrelevant, since it's not the name God revealed himself as having. Thus orthodox Jews see this practice of leaving out the vowel in 'God' as sacrilege, because it raises the status of this English word to the level of the Hebrew name that God used to reveal himself. That's an interesting irony.

8 Comments

I've not seen the NJB version, so I can't comment on it. But I think it's entirely appropriate to use the name "Yahweh" as an English translation for the tetragrammaton. Because we don't know the vowels, it may not be accurate--and so as my Hebrew professor said, it's like calling Fred, "Frod." Still, I think it's better than "the Lord" because that's not what the Hebrew says at all. The Hebrew word for Lord is different, it's Adonai. So by using "the Lord" it's like calling Fred, "Bob" (assuming that "Bob" is a respectful way of referring to Fred).

The word "God," of course, remains the appropriate translation for the Hebrew words--El or Elohim. The Jews may not use "God," but obviously use the Hebrew version of the same word. So, in that sense, they do use "God"/"Elohim"--which appears more frequently in the OT than "YHWH."

As for the Jews, when they read Scripture, they simply use the term "the Name" or Hashem (ha is the definite article, shem means name). As for G-d, I would agree that it is making a mockery of the tetragrammaton. The Jews aren't leaving out the vowels voluntarily, they simply don't know the exact vowels and don't want to offend God by calling Him by the wrong name.

In this culture, I don't think we appreciate the significance of a person's name or reputation. I'm always praying that God would rise up and defend His own name--as people are constantly slandering Him, ignoring Him, rejecting Him. But God often reminds me that He's not worried about His name being slandered because He knows who He is, He knows what will happen, and He knows the end of those who reject Him. And if I'm anxious about it, then I lack faith.

What was God's memorial name?--a form of the word "to be." The words do not express adequately who God is. It is the being the name signifies, not the words themselves.

The words we use are not as important as the dispositon of our heart when we address God. God knows our thoughts before we think them. Just as motives are more important that actions, our thoughts are more important than our words.

Names and language are useful, even essential, but how inadequate both are when we're speaking of the eternal Creator.

English-speaking Jews do use the word 'God'.

A strong argument can be made that God's name is a form of the word for creating, not the word being. It's not God's existence that the name relates to. Its God's making-things-to-be. I hadn't seen this until I read Doug Stuart's Exodus commentary on that passage in Exodus, but I found his arguments convincing. I hope to post on that at some point, but I've been too busy to start putting my reflections from that commentary into posts and have had to settle for less time-consuming posts.

There is one issue about the appropriateness of translating 'YHWH' as 'the LORD' as opposed to transliterating it that you're not taking into account. That's the LXX use of 'Adonai' for 'YHWH', which the NT authors readily quote as written in the LXX. The connection between 'Lord' in English translations of the NT and 'LORD' in English translations of the OT captures nicely what the NT authors intended in their use of this term for Christ. They were using that term deliberately because it was a term used in place of God's name. The way most English translations do it, it preserves the LXX practice that translated it that way and thus makes sense of the NT use. The way the NJB does it, you lose that, even if there's something else you preserve that most translations lose.

This is why I think we need multiple translations with different translation philosophies. Otherwise we lose the things each translation doesn't preserve. So rather than arguing that one of these ways of translating it is right, I'm happier just to acknowledge that they both retain something in the original and lose something in the original, as is the case with most disputed issues in translation (including the gender-inclusive debate).

Very interesting Jeremy. I know of a Jewish Christian who uses G_D. I'm not sure if that's a reflection of changing to something more in keeping with Christian faith (I can't think why it would be - just musing here).
Apart from that I can't say I've seen any Jewish use of it.

Yes, I see your point about using "the LORD" to preserve the LXX practice. But like "Hashem," the word "Adonai" or "LORD" is a substitute (something to stand in the place of the real name), rather than a translation.

I agree that the different translations together provide a fuller understanding of the Bible.

As for God's name being a form of the word for creation, as opposed to being, I'm not so sure. His name certainly can convey a sense of "making-things-to-be" or being the source of life. But I prefer "being" over "creating" in any explanation of God's name because, as I said, the word is a form of the word "to be." It is not a form of the word "to create" (Hebrew, bara). I tend to be literal and exact in my interpretation of language--and I'm usually very reluctant to move away from the actual words. Still, it would be interesting to hear Stuart's arguments.

It's not the verb for creating. It's the causative form of the verb for being, as in "I cause to be". The Masoretes vocalized it in the way that the English translates usually have it, and the LXX translated it the same way, which would then be the simple imperfect of "to be". The difference is only in the vowels, and the LXX translation took it to be vocalized differently. It may even have been a deliberate ambiguity between the two, but I think it's very likely that it was at least primarily intended to indicate that all things come from God.

Since I've already been convinced by D.A. Carson and Herman Ridderbos that Jesus' "I am statements" do not at all refer back to Exodus 3 but in fact rely on God's "I am" statements of Isaiah's servant songs, I think little of that issue is really at stake here. I suspect that a misunderstanding of Jesus' statements has led people to be reluctant to consider this.

Stuart's summation is that Moses would have heard it as "I cause to be because I cause to be", an affirmation that this is the creator of all things and thus above all gods Egypt might serve. We're tempted to read back into it this medieval European idea of necessary being and God's nature being identical with God's existence. I don't think this is an argument against that's being true of God, but I don't think there's any good reason for thinking that it was what God was revealing to Moses through this name.

Hey Jeremy,

Interesting thoughts.

I'm not sure about the connection to Isaiah's servant songs. By the way, the passages you're referring to are some of my favorite passages in Scripture--I've spent many hours reflecting on these verses. I love the book of John and I absolutely love the last part of Isaiah (40-66). Because the Servant is referred to in the third person, I don't see where God is making the "I am" statements (maybe I'm missing something).

The statement in Ex. 3:14, which is translated, "I am that I am" (eyeh asher eyeh) uses the qal imperfect form of the word "to be." Qal, meaning simple active. Not causative. Unlike English, the Hebrew verbal system is far more complex and has several other forms, including the qal, niphal, piel, pual, hophal, hiphil, hithpael. As Gesenius says, hiphil usually is the causative form of the qal. Ex. 3:14 doesn't use the hiphil form of the word "to be," so I don't think that it is accurate to translate this word as "I cause to be."

In fact, I think translating God's name as meaning that He is the cause of all things or that all things came from Him is too narrow.
He is not only the source, the name also conveys something more about Him.

Rather than the European idea of the necessary being, both the word and the context also suggests being or presence. He doesn't speak of creation. Instead He speaks of His promise to be with His people. He was with Abraham, He was with Isaac, He was with Jacob, He has not abandoned His people, but He will be with them to deliver them from Egypt. There is a sense that God is conveying through Moses the promise that He has been with them and that He will continue to be with them (as indicated by use of the imperfect tense).

By God's choice of word, He also is conveying that He is the existing one. Both eyeh and yahweh are forms of the word "to be." To be, to exist, to become, to happen. He is, He is the
God who is there (in the midst of His people).

And I see a very clear connection between Ex 3 and Jesus' "I am"/"ego eimi" statements in John. Both are statements where God is identifying Himself. And I'd venture to say that, through these passages, God essentially is saying that He is all that we need (being that He is life and the all-sufficient One). The Israelites needed a God who would be with them and deliver them from Egypt. The NT believers needed a God who would give them true life, sustain them, and show them the way.

I am ____. But this is not an invitation to fill in the blank with whatever we want. He chooses how He will be known. And He reveals Himself accordingly. It is not enough to say that He is the one who causes to be. He is far more than that.

By these "I am" statements in the Bible, God is directly identifying Himself--but He either leaves it open or He uses so many different descriptions. And, still, our words and His revelation to us of Himself will never entirely convey the fullness of who He is.

I discussed the "I am" statements and their background here. The one thing I would add to what I said there is that the "I am" statements in the gospels do not resemble the Greek of the LXX of Exodus 3, while they are the exact form of the Greek of those chapters of Isaiah. I'm not sure I made that fully clear.

Your argument relies on the MT vocalization, which is what Stuart says is not certain. In fact, we have no evidence that any vocalization is the right one, since the vowels only came in centuries after the texts themselves.

Stuart's main argument for vocalizing it the other way stems from the normal name of God elsewhere. I believe this is the only instance of the first-person singular for the name of God. The usual form is the third-person hiphil, a causative Yahweh. The vowels for the third-person form are the same ones as the hiphil causative for the first-person singular. If you vocalized this the same way the third-person Yahweh is vocalized in the MT, it would be 'ahyeh. To get the equivalent of the MT vocalization of Ex 3's first[-person name in the third person, it would be Yihw/yeh, not Yahweh. This isn't a surefire argument, but it's far more likely that the same form is intended here as in the other case, and since the Masoretes wouldn't have had any textual indication of which way to vocalize, it's likely that the current form is just a result of the wrong vocalization on the part of the Masoretes.

Stuart lists William F. Albright, Frank M. Cross, David Noel Freedman, and W.H. Brownlee as favoring this view. Those are some pretty stalwart scholars, so this isn't just some idiosyncratic view that has little scholarly support (not that such views can't be right, but in this case some excellent scholars have argued for it).

Some may argue for the third-person hiphil, but the common understanding is that the term is first-person qal (which supports an interpretation that stresses existence, being, presence). This still appears to be the prevailing view. As I said, I think a focus on God's creative side, ignores the complexity of who He is (particularly in Exodus 3, where there is no other reference to God as Creator). But, in other passages, clearly the Name is used in reference to the Creator (see, e.g., Ex. 20:11).

I get the sense that God (as spoken by Paul by inspiration of the Holy Spirit) is all things to all men. Maybe it is a good thing that even His name is beyond precise definition--retaining a sense of mystery. We know enough to call upon His name, but we can never know Him completely on this side of eternity. Only in Heaven will we know as we are known.

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