What’s the big deal with translating Yahweh as LORD?

In the comments of ‘Yahweh’, Henry asks some sincere questions. They’re worth answering more publicly, so I’ma do that here.

You’ll forgive me if I come across strong; I cannot apologize for getting a bit fired up about recovering the name of God himself.

Doesn’t the NT always translate Yahweh in OT quotations as Kurios also?

The NT simply quotes the LXX, which translated the tetragrammaton as kurios. That’s because the rabbis read the tetragrammaton in Hebrew as if it said adonai (“lord”) instead of yahweh—so they translated it into Greek as kurios (“lord”).

That was providentially fortuitous for making the connection between Jesus and Yahweh. But the fact that the NT authors used a bad translation of the divine name, under divine inspiration, is no reason for us to continue translating the divine name badly.

I think there are good reasons for the “Lord” translation, as I understand that the Hebrew name had an actual theological meaning that is – admittedly partly – conveyed by the title Lord.

The Hebrew yahweh is the third person masculine singular conjugation of haya, meaning “to be”; it is the same name God uses of himself in Exodus 3:14, where he gives his name to Moses as the first person masculine singular conjugation, ehyeh, meaning “I am”. Yahweh means, more or less, “he is”, or perhaps “he who causes to be”.

How is that reflected in the word “Lord”?

The reason for the LXX translating Yahweh as kurios was not because that’s a good translation, but was in fact precisely to obfuscate the divine name. The rabbis superstitiously feared that even speaking God’s name might amount to blasphemy. Why would we want to propagate such foolishness, concealing the divine name from God’s people?

I think I remember that there was a French Bible that translated the word “Eternal One” or something like that.

That’s closer to the meaning of the Hebrew. But let me ask you: do you think we should translate any other names in the Bible in this way? Should we replace “Jesus Christ” with “God Saves, The Anointed”? By the same token, should I address you as Home-Ruler, rather than as Henry?

If not, why do you think we should replace “Yahweh” with some translation of its Hebrew meaning?

And if we should not do that with ordinary names, how much more should we not do it with God’s!

And of course any good Bible will have “Lord” in small caps and a note at the front as to what the name means.

How many people do you think read that note? And of them, how many do you think remember it? I would wager very few. So this is a lousy approach, even if “Lord” was an accurate translation of Yahweh—which it is not. “Lord” is a title. Yahweh is a name. The name. The covenant name of God. The one he specifically gave for his people to know.

But to me it is less confusing for readers to have the NT quotes line up.

But NT quotes notoriously don’t line up in numerous other ways. It seems tragically ironic to mistranslate the OT in order to make it line up with the NT on this one issue, but then to translate it accurately so it doesn’t line up with NT quotations on other issues.

I also didn’t understand your comment about the children’s talk. Don’t you think that saying “Oh my Lord” or “Oh God” or “Goodness Gracious” or something similar violates the commandment?

I’m not sure about goodness gracious, but in general I agree with you. I’m not suggesting we can’t blaspheme in other ways. Not at all. You can check out ‘What is blasphemy?’ where I answer this question in more detail.

Maybe I’m overreading and you just wish the children were being taught not to say “Oh Yahweh,” although I’m skeptical that that is a big problem in any English speaking country.

Ironically, this makes my point for me. When we ask what the Bible means—for example, when we’re teaching our children what the third commandment means—we should start by asking what it meant to the original readers. I’m not denying sensus plenior, of course; but the meaning that Moses himself intended, and his audience understood, is the primary meaning of the text.

That meaning was that taking up the name Yahweh for a worthless purpose was forbidden. It is specifically the covenant name Yahweh that is given in the third commandment itself! Twice!

You shall not take up the name of Yahweh your God for a worthless cause, for Yahweh will not hold him guiltless who takes up his name for a worthless cause. Exodus 20:7

Yet because of a poor translation policy, ordinary Christians are not even aware that this name is in there. The name of Yahweh has been so lost that even in the church we needn’t forbid our children to use it in vain—because our children don’t know it.

That is deplorable.

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