Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Name of God: Pronunciation or Meaning?

Regarding God's name, which is more important, pronunciation or meaning?

Does God require that we use as God's name a word that tries to preserve in spelling and pronunciation the original name for God in the original Hebrew? Or does God permit and even show by example we may translate God's name into a word that has meaning in our own language and use that word as God's name?

This is an issue with Jehovah's Witnesses and can come up from time to time as an issue in the Church of God. Some in the Church might think we need to pronounce God's name as it was originally pronounced in the original Bible languages in Bible times. Jehovah's Witnesses claim that "Jehovah" is how God's name is pronounced and should be used as God's name.

I want to make two points in this post.

One, it is impossible to know how a name for God was originally pronounced in Bible times because pronunciation changes over time. I have a Bible text that shows that pronunciation changes.

Two, God sets an example of translating a word for God's name into the language of the readers or listeners, a word that has meaning for them, NOT trying to preserve the original spelling or pronunciation. He has done this by inspiring New Testament writers, when writing the New Testament in Greek, to translate the Hebrew name for God into a Greek word with similar meaning when quoting the Old Testament. There are several cases of this, but I will use one to illustrate the point.

When God spoke to Moses from the burning bush, Moses asked God His name. "Then Moses said to God, 'Indeed, when I come to the children of Israel and say to them, "The God of your fathers has sent me to you," and they say to me, "What is His name?" what shall I say to them?' And God said to Moses, 'I AM WHO I AM.' And He said, 'Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, "I AM has sent me to you." ' Moreover God said to Moses, 'Thus you shall say to the children of Israel: "The LORD God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is My name forever, and this is My memorial to all generations." ' " (Exodus 3:13-15).

This name, translated here as "I am who am" or "I am" in verse 14, is translated "LORD" in all capital letters in verse 15 and elsewhere in the Old Testament in the King James version and in the New King James Version. It can be translated "Eternal". It means the self-existent ever-living one. Jehovah's Witnesses call this name "Jehovah". Some refer to it as "Yahweh".

The name in the Hebrew text is made up of four Hebrew letters, often represented in our alphabet as "YHWH".

This is God's name in the Hebrew language in the Old Testament. In the King James version and the New King James version, it is usually translated into the English LORD or GOD, and you can tell when the words Lord or God refer to this name by the fact that "LORD" or "GOD" will be in all capital letters.

The decision to translate this name into the English word "LORD" is a decision made by King James version and New King James version translators. Is it wrong to use those words, or should we try to pronounce God's name as we think it was originally pronounced in Hebrew when the Old Testament was written?

I know of no way to know how this word was pronounced thousands of years ago. Inventions for recording the human voice and sounds only came into existence in the last couple of hundred years. We have no recordings of the sound of speech before then.

Pronunciation changes over time. That is a fact. It is a reason why different parts of the world speaking the same language have accents. Americans and Britons speak English, but with somewhat different pronunciations. Even within the United States, there are regional differences in how we pronounce words.

The Bible even records an incident in which one part of Israel had a different pronunciation of a word than another part of Israel. Yet, all the tribes came from Jacob. One part or both must have been pronouncing the word differently than Jacob and his immediate sons pronounced it. "The Gileadites seized the fords of the Jordan before the Ephraimites arrived. And when any Ephraimite who escaped said, 'Let me cross over,' the men of Gilead would say to him, 'Are you an Ephraimite?' If he said, 'No,' then they would say to him, 'Then say, "Shibboleth"!' And he would say, 'Sibboleth,' for he could not pronounce it right. Then they would take him and kill him at the fords of the Jordan. There fell at that time forty-two thousand Ephraimites" (Judges 12:5-6).

God shows that it is right and proper to translate God's name into a word with meaning in the language of the people reading or listening rather than to try to preserve the original spelling or to try to represent the original pronunciation. God shows us this by the example He set in how He inspired the New Testament writers, who wrote the New Testament in the Greek language under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to write God's name when quoting the Old Testament. God did not inspire them to insert the original Hebrew word for God's name into their Greek writings or to use a combination of Greek letters to try to represent how the Hebrew name for God might have been pronounced. Instead, God inspired them to translate God's name into the Greek word for "Lord", a word with meaning for Greek speaking readers.

Here is one example. In the Old Testament, we find this verse: "But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people" (Jeremiah 31:33). That word, "LORD" is YHWH in the Hebrew, the same word God gave as His name to Moses in the passage of the burning bush. It is the same word Jehovah's Witnesses say should be pronounced "Jehovah", the same word that includes the meaning "I am" or "the Eternal".

Now, the writer of Hebrews quotes this Old Testament verse in Hebrews 10:16: "This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the LORD: I will put My laws into their hearts, and in their minds I will write them". In this New Testament verse, the word "LORD" is not the Hebrew word YHWH. It is the Greek word, "kyrios", which means "lord" or "master", that is, one who has authority or ownership.

So the writer of Hebrews, as other New Testament writers, did not insert the Hebrew letters for God's name into his quote of the Old Testament verse to represent God's name, nor did he try to preserve the pronunciation of God's name in Hebrew in his quote, because it is obvious that the pronunciation of "kyrios" is nothing at all like "Jehovah" or "Yahweh". Rather, he translated God's name into a word in the Greek language that had meaning for a Greek-speaking readership.

And since he was writing under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, his choice to translate God's Hebrew name "YHWH" into the Greek word "kyrios" was approved by God.

Following that example, of translating God's name into a word that has meaning for the people who read the Bible in their own language, King James Version translators and New King James version translators have translated both the Hebrew word "YHWH" and the Greek word "kyrios" when used for God's name into the English word "Lord". So it is right for us to use the word "Lord" for God's name.

The same principle can apply to other names for God the Father or for Jesus Christ. It is not wrong to translate any name for God from one language to another, using a word that has meaning for those who use that language. We do not have to try to figure out how it was originally pronounced in the Hebrew or Greek and try to reconstruct that pronunciation, nor do we have to use original Hebrew or Greek spelling for God's name. We can simply use the English equivalent.


Matt said...

It is important to note that two Hebrew names for God "YHWH" and "Adonai" were translated into the same Greek name.

author@ptgbook.org said...

Good point. Thanks Matt.