Friday, May 27, 2011

Psalm 118 – The Name of the LORD

I’m still reading through Professor Robert Alter’s “The Book of Psalms – A Translation and Commentary” and, as I have noted earlier, it’s both a challenge and a delight.

This week, I want to take a look at the use of the phrase “the Name of the LORD” in Psalm 118. One reason for doing this is to contrast it with the rather wooden interpretations imposed on this idiom by two religious movements started in 19th Century North America; Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses;

• In it’s tract “17 Points of the True Church”, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints claims to comply with the criteria because it has the name “Jesus Christ” in it’s name – it “bears the name” of Jesus Christ (Point 2). There's a discussion on this tract here, and I posted a couple of comments in the posts.

• The Jehovah’s Witnesses likewise claim to be the “true church” because they also “bear the name” of God (Jehovah) in their collective name.

The thrust of both movements (neither of which recognize the other) is that if you don’t have the name of God in the name of your Church then, by simple mechanics, you must belong to a “false” church. By this logic, including the name of God in the Church’s title is mandatory for a Church to qualify as the “true” Church. Incidentally both movements have recently dropped the names of God from their titles – the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is now content to brand itself as “Mormon”, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses now brand themselves simply as “Witnesses”. I’ll leave them to sort out their internal logic for themselves.

My concern is that this mechanical inclusion of a formula of words in one’s self-identifying title is not what the Biblical idiom is about. It’s an issue that becomes manifestly apparent in dealing with texts such as Psalm 118, which uses the idiom in two of its passages.

The first instance of the use of the “Name of the LORD” is in Psalm 118:10-12, as follows;
All the nations surrounded me.
With the LORD’s name I cut them down
They swarmed around me, oh they surrounded me.
With the LORD’s name I cut them down
They swarmed around me like bees,
burned out like fire among thorns.
With the LORD’s name I cut them down

I’m using Alter’s Translation here. The KJV and NIV use the idiom “In the name of the LORD, I cut them down/I will destroy them”. Note that Alter follows the convention used in the KJV and the NIV that translates the covenant Name of God, YHWH/יהוה as LORD, using all capitals.

In this passage, the Psalmist is describing the “Name of the LORD” as a weapon that is used to cut down or destroy the enemies of the people of God.

This brings us to our first problem; what is the “Name of the LORD”? It’s an immediate problem in the Psalm because YHWH/יהוה is not a proper name in this context; it’s a title, rather like our words for “God”, “King”, “Master”, “Judge”. If Exodus 3:14 is a reliable guide, YHWH/יהוה is not even a proper title, but a daunting statement of unqualified being that none but the Highest Deity can ever utter. He is the nameless one who has a name above all names. So, if we look in the Bible for a “magic” name that we can utter to cut down our enemies, we will look in vain. That’s not to say that we will reap an abundance of descriptives and epithets and even contextualized names of deities (e.g. Elyon, which is apparently borrowed from the Canaanite pantheon), but none are unique enough to cause the enemies to be cut down at their mere inclusion in a formula of words.

Before resolving this (alleged) difficulty, I’d like to consider the second use of the idiom in Psalm 118:26a

Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the LORD.
Baruch haba ba shem YHWH (ברוך הבא בשם יהוה)

The Psalm uses this phrase to greet the people who approach the Temple Altar. There is some debate about whether the greeting in the Psalm is extended to the crowd of worshippers, or if the worshippers extend the greeting to Levitical choristers, or even Priests. Professor Alter suggests that this is a greeting to the crowd, but three Gospels have the crowd using this to greet God’s anointed representative (Matthew 21:9, Mark 11:9, John 12:13), and in two Gospels, Jesus chides the Jews for not greeting him with the idiom sincerely (Matt 23:39, Luke 13:35).

I understand that the idiom has been shortened in modern Hebrew to the rather formal salutation “Blessed is he who comes” (baruch haba/ברוך הבא), and the “Name of the LORD” (ba shem YHWH /בשם יהוה) is inferred, perhaps out of religious conservatism or secular deference.

The problem for the wooden translations of the idiom in the context of his triumphal entry is that Jesus does not “bear the name” of God in his name. The name “Jesus” derives from the Hebrew word for “rescue” or “salvation”. Furthermore, it’s not unique to First Century Israel – there were plenty of Jesus’ out there, including the Jesus in Colossians 4:11 and the Jesus in the Galilean Hills that Josephus tried to negotiate with. The name also occurs as Joshua (Moses’ successor) and Hosea (the Prophet). My point is simply that if a church calls itself “the Church of Jesus”, I could rightly ask “which Jesus?”

Such convolutions are simply not necessary in the Biblical idiom. The “Name of the LORD” is not a proper name, like Martin or Jesus, but a package that contains the character, status and reputation of the person.

In Exodus 3:14, God does not merely introduce Himself as “my name is Earl”, but He tells Moses who He is, and in doing so He tells Moses why He alone does not have a name. I have discussed this previously here.

In Genesis 17:5 and 17:15, God changes Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah to signal a change in their status (or ownership). Naomi (literally “sweetness”) attempts to change her own name to Mara (literally “bitter”) to signal her dire situation (Ruth 1:20). Jesus changes Simon to Peter (John 1:42), and he also gives a new name to “those who are victorious” (Rev 2:17). So, the “name” tells us about the status of the person.

The “name” also tells us about the reputation of the person. This comes from a tribal perspective in which the chief is responsible for the behaviour of his tribe. It follows, then, that when the tribe misbehaves, the chief’s “name” is reviled. This is how we should approach Romans 2:24 (quoting Isaiah 52:5 see Septuagint) “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you”.

Returning to the Psalm, the use of the “Name of the LORD” in Psalm 118:26 becomes transparent – the blessing is extended to the person (or persons) who are owned by and who represent the LORD. The crowd in the Gospel accounts were shouting this to the one that they believed would be their divinely appointed King, who would cut down their enemies. One has to wonder where they were a week later, at Jesus’ trial and execution, but that particular litany of human failings is another story.

How does the “Name of the LORD” become the weapon of Psalm 118:10-12? Again, we have to look into the character and reputation of God. This is not an invocation of a word, but a belief that God will protect, rescue and vindicate His People. It’s conditional, though. We enjoy God’s protection when we behave in a way that rightly represents Him - when we “bear His Name”. This is not a mandate for us to use the “Name of the LORD” to further our interests (thus breaking the third of the Ten Commandments, see Exodus 20:7). Rather, it is a solemn command to further His, and it is a distinction that must be consciously maintained. The message is that if we serve God, He will triumph over our enemies.

As I noted in the discussion on the Tract "17 Points", the idiom is used in 2 Chronicles 7:14
...if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.
What does this passage say about being "called by [God's] name"?

2 Chronicles 7:14 refers explicitly to Israel. The word "Israel" has one of the names of God in it - "El" (אל), but it's not in a positive context. The phrase "Israel" (ישראל) means "God overcomes" or "he struggles/contends with God" as in Gen 32:28.

I don't think any modern church would be game enough to follow Genesis' lead and call itself "The Church of the People Who Constantly Fight God" (though such a title would be truer than we'd like to admit). I also think the Old Testament authors enjoyed the irony; they certainly scolded the Israelites for continuing to exhibit their nature, as described in their name.

So, when 2 Chronicles 7:14 refers to "called by the name/bearing the name", it isn't about incorporating the name of God into the title of the community, but rather it's about the nature of the people who should have been God's representatives - their vocation as His "witnesses" before the surrounding nations.

In conclusion, the Biblical idiom to “bear the Name of the LORD” is not about semantics, but about being owned by and being representative of the LORD. That is how the “Name of the LORD” cuts down our enemies, and why we should shout out “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the LORD”.

1 comment:

  1. From Drew via FB:

    Excellent post, Martin! Thanks very much for sharing! I'll have to check out more of your blog! :-)