Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Name of God

On more than a few occasions, when discussing the nature of God, translations and the like, I quote Professor Robert Alter’s commentary on the dialogue between Moses and God prior to his confrontation with Pharaoh (from The Five Books of Moses, A Translation with Commentary, Robert Alter, 2004, ISBN 0-393-01955-1). The story is told in Exodus 3, and when Moses asks of God, “what is his name?” (Exodus 3:13), God replies “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14). Here’s what the Professor writes on Exodus 3:14;

‘Ehyeh-‘Asher-‘Ehyeh. God’s response perhaps gives Moses more than he bargained for – not just an identifying divine name (the implication of offering one such name might be that there are other divinities) but an ontological divine mystery of the most daunting character. Rivers of ink have since flowed in theological reflection on and philological analysis of this name. The following brief remarks will be confined to the latter consideration, which in any case must provide the grounding for the former. “I-Will-Be-Who-I-Will-Be” is the most plausible construction of the Hebrew, though the middle word ‘asher, could easily mean “what” rather than “who”, and the common rendering “I-Am-That-I-Am” cannot be excluded. (“Will” is used here rather than “shall” because the Hebrew sounds like an affirmation with emphasis, not just a declaration.) Since the tense system of biblical Hebrew by no means corresponds to that of modern English, it is also perfectly possible to construe this as “I Am He Who Endures.” The strong consensus of biblical scholarship is that the original pronunciation of the name YHWH that God goes on to use in verse 15 was “Yahweh.” There are several good arguments for that conclusion. There is an independent name for the deity, Yah, which also appears as a suffix to proper names, and that designation could very well be a shortened form of this name. Greek translations reflect a pronunciation close to “Yahweh.” In that form, the name would be the causative or hiph’il form of the verb “to be” and thus would have the theologically attractive sense of “He Who Brings Things Into Being.” All this is plausible, but it is worth registering at least a note of doubt about the form of the divine name. Here God instructs Moses to tell Israel ‘Ehyeh, “I-Will-Be,” has sent him. The deity, if the Masoretic vocalization is to be trusted, refers to himself not with a causative but with the qal (“simple”) conjugation. This could conceivably imply that others refer to him in the qal third person as Yihyeh, “He-Will-Be.” (The medial y sound in this conjugated form would have had considerable phonetic inter-change with the w consonant in YHWH.) This in turn would make the name fit a common pattern for male names in the third-person singular, qal conjugation, imperfect form: Yitshaq (Isaac), “he will laugh”; Ya’aqov (Jacob) “he will protect,” or “he will grab the heel”; Yiftah (Jephthah), “he will open”; and many others. If this were the case, then the name “Yah” could have been assimilated to “YHWH” by folk etymology and then perhaps even affected its pronunciation. Whether the pronunciation of this name later in the Hellenistic periods, by then restricted to the high priest on the Day of Atonement, Yahweh, as indicated in Greek transcriptions, reflects its original sound is at least open to question. The logic of Yihyeh as the essential divine name would be that whereas particular actions may be attributed to humans through the verbal names chosen for them, to God alone belongs the unlimited, unconditional being. This conjecture, inspired by the use here by God of the qal conjugation rather than the causative conjugation in naming himself, is far from certain, but it might introduce at least some margin of doubt about the consensus of opinion regarding the divine name.

Two thoughts have remained with me since first reading Professor Alter’s commentary. The first is that translation is a serious business, made all the more difficult when tenses, grammar and word boundaries bear little relationship with modern English. The acknowledgment of these difficulties must precede, and qualify, any attempt at a translation (which Professor Alter does). Correspondingly, the absence of such an acknowledgment must signal a fraudulent or lazy approach. So much for the efforts of Joseph Smith, who’s method for “translating” the Book of Mormon comprised burying his head in his hat, reading out each word that appeared on his scrying stone and not proceeding to the next word until his scribe (a role fulfilled by Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery and Emma Smith) had written down each word correctly (a discussion on the extant accounts can be found here). Luckily for Joseph Smith, the 2,000 year old “reformed Egyptian” (a language that no-one else has ever heard or seen) that he was supposedly translating shared its grammar, word boundaries and tense system with modern English. And, if he were “translating” (in the commonly understood sense of the word) what was written on the plates, one would expect that he would have been assisted in his task by actually looking at them. More likely, he simply invented it.

The second is that, as in all Hebrew names, the name is not a mere label – it tells us something about the person. Professor Alter points out two alternatives, but I see a theological attraction in harmonizing them. The traditional rendering, “I-Will-Be-Who-I-Will-Be” speaks of Gods unlimited and unconditional being, as the Professor notes. The alternative offers an intriguing possibility in that God has a name that no one has given to him. This avenue is worth exploring further because the biblical convention is that the greater gives names to the lesser. In Genesis 2:19-20, Adam’s first job is to give all the animals names, and in Genesis 2:23, Adam names Eve. To the biblical mind, the giving of the name affirms the hierarchy; the animals are named by Adam, and Adam is named by God. In this schema, one can readily see that the “highest” name is of God himself – he has the “name above all names” (Philippians 2:9) and there is no name “higher” than His. All else in the universe is derived from God and he is the source from which all things are created and have their being (Colossians 1:16 etc). Thus, the two alternatives might be harmonized (whether this was the author’s intent or not) for it offers a picture of One who does not owe his existence to anyone or anything greater than Himself, but is unique in that all else owes its existence to Him.

God is not merely an inhabitant of our universe; He is the unique source of its being. Furthermore, this idea has been around a long time; at least since God spoke to Moses on the Mountain.

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