As I stated in a previous post (see Ten Essential Words post), one of the reasons for my entering the blogosphere is to share some of my writing projects. One project, which is now completed, involves instilling new life into the Ten Commandments. From time to time, I am sharing excerpts from the manuscript. What follows is an excerpt from the second chapter of Ten Essential Words.
“I am the LORD your God” is how God finally responds to [the Hebrews] and this becomes the beginning of the First Commandment. When asked what the First Commandment is, most people would probably quote the latter part of this command: “You shall have no other gods before me.” But I have come to believe that it is the first part that is the remarkable statement. After all, how will you know if other gods are before me if you don’t know who me is?
Part of the problem is the way we have interpreted that first phrase in our English language. It actually reads, “I am YHWH your God.” No wonder we just say “the LORD”. (Pat, I’d like to buy a vowel, please?) Those four letters, YHWH, are sometimes known as the Tetragrammaton (which literally means “word with four letters”) and is the Hebrew and personal name of God. The original Hebrew language did not have vowels, as we use them, which is why it looks impossible to pronounce. When we add our vowels to help pronunciation, it becomes the name Yahweh and it means something like “I am”. This is why, when Moses asks God what he should say to the Israelites in Egypt, the following exchange takes place in the book of Exodus,
Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’ “
So why don’t we stick with the Yahweh interpretation? The Israelites held God’s name as so holy that they would not speak it for fear of violating the Third Commandment: “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God”. So when they were reading the scriptures and would come across the name Yahweh – the name of God, they would instead read the word Adonai, which means “my lord”. It was just understood that they were referring to Yahweh. Even today, observant Jews are taught to say “Adoshem” to avoid saying even “Adonai” in nonliturgical settings. Instead of spelling out God’s name, they instead write G-d. In keeping then, with this tradition, most English versions of the Bible now render the name “Yahweh” with the phrase “the LORD”. It is capitalized to distinguish it from the usage of the word “Adonai” in scripture, which would simply be in lowercase letters, “the lord”. So when we run across the phrase “the LORD” in our Bible, we know that it is actually a reference to God’s personal name.
Or we are supposed to know. But if you are like me, that phraseology was never really explained as I read through scripture. So while the early Israelites used the phrase “MY LORD” as a sign of respect for the personal name of God, I fear it has now done the opposite for us. My fear is that by always seeing God referred to by a title, “MY LORD”, we have forgotten that God has a personal name. It is why I have tried to get back into the habit of using the name Yahweh when scripture calls for it – to convey to people today what God was trying to convey to the Israelites over 3,000 years ago: “My name is Yahweh and I am your God.”