Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Name of God, Pt. 2: The Reverence of God's Name

If the Scriptures command us to "publish the name of YHVH," how then did the custom of avoiding it come about? It was not through some priestly conspiracy, as I've seen some suggest, but out of a deep sense of reverence.

First, let's step back from the speaking of God's Name to the writing of it. Why is it many observant Jews even refrain from writing "Lord" and "God," but render them "L-rd" and "G-d" instead? (I've even seen a few Messianics take this to an extreme, writing "M-ss--h" instead of Messiah.)

The answer is found in Deu. 12:2-4:
Ye shall utterly destroy all the places, wherein the nations which ye shall possess served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every green tree: And ye shall overthrow their altars, and break their pillars, and burn their groves with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods, and destroy the names of them out of that place. Ye shall not do so unto YHVH your God.
To understand why a Jew will not write the Name, or even a title, of God, you have to look at this passage like a rabbi. Remember that the rabbis both seek to keep the most literal interpretation of a command possible as well as observe its drash. For example, when an Orthodox Jew wears teffilin (phylacteries) in prayer, it's to keep the command to wear God's Word on his hand and between his eyes literally (Deu. 6:8). Therefore, when they see a command to destroy the names of the pagan gods, but not to do the same to the Name of YHVH, the observant Jew likewise takes that command very literally. If you write YHVH--or indeed, any Name or title belonging to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob--on a piece of paper, and then either erase the Name or allow the paper to be destroyed, to the Jew you are destroying the Name of God.

What then of speaking the Name of God? Forbidding this practice came out of two separate issues. The first is the command that he who blasphemes (slanders) the Name of YHVH must be put to death (Lev. 24:16). Again, think like a rabbi: The noblest pursuit in their minds is to put a fence around the Torah--that is, to erect commands beyond what the Torah commands so that one will not accidentally sin. For example, to create a specified "Sabbath's day journey" that one isn't supposed to walk beyond (about half a mile). If one were forced to walk just a little more than the prescribed journey, one wouldn't have sinned against the Sabbath by working. The same principle applies here: The simplest way to avoid accidentally blaspheming the Name is to avoid using it altogether.

The second issue is that the pagans in the first century (and the neo-pagans of today) used the names of their gods in magical rites, and the Jews didn't want them to use YHVH's Name the same way. This is why, for example, the book of Esther only contains the Name in four hidden acrostics, and then only in the original Hebrew: It was a safeguard against the Persians, among whom the book was published (likely in their own language) learning and misusing God's Name.

This resulted in an increasing sacredness in the use of the Name of YHVH. First, it was restricted from common use, with one substituting Adonai (Lord), Avinu (Our Father) and other circumlocutions instead. By about two centuries before Yeshua's birth, this practice had been enshrined in what some call the ineffable (Unspeakable) Name doctrine. The use of the Name became restricted to the priests, and then to the Cohen HaGadol (the High Priest), and then only on Yom Kippur. Edersheim notes that where once the practice was to say the Name aloud on Yom Kippur, when it became known that the Name was being used for magic, the Cohen HaGadol began muttering it under his breath, until the very pronunciation was lost from the common mind.

In my previous entry, I showed that the Bible does actually command us to make YHVH's Name known. This of course means more than just the syllables--it means His reputation, His honor, who He is--but it includes the syllables. But now I'm going to issue a caution: Yeshua and His Apostles were very careful about using YHVH's Name. Yeshua most commonly referred to Him as "My Father," and the NT uses Kurios (Lord) and Theos (God) rather than transliterating YHVH into Greek. Therefore, we too should exercise the greatest of caution in actually speaking God's Name, doing so only in worship, prayer, instruction, or another reverent context.

We want God's Name to be known, not for it to become common.


On to part 3.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Name of God, Pt. 1: Can We Speak God's Name?

This is a piece I've meant to do for a while, and it seems apropos to do it now as a follow-up to talking about the names we use for ourselves.

By now, readers may have noticed my tendency to use the KJV, but to usually replace "Jesus" with "Yeshua" and sometimes replace "the LORD" with "YHVH." The reason I prefer Yeshua to Jesus is very simple: First, it emphasizes His Jewishness. Second, "Yeshua" means "Salvation" in Hebrew, and the longer form, "Y'hoshua," means "Yah is Salvation." "Jesus" doesn't carry that meaning--or any meaning, for that matter--in any language, and I want to preserve the importance of the Messiah's Name. Thirdly, while there is nothing wrong, per se, with saying "Jesus"--God knows your heart, and He knows whose Name you're praying in--it's not a particularly good transliteration of our Master's Name either, having gone from Hebrew to Greek to Latin to German before reaching it's English form.

What about the proper Name of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as He revealed it to Moshe, Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh (hereafter rendered as YHVH)? Should it be used, and if so, how should it be pronounced?

The Jewish tradition is to never pronounce the Tetragramaton--or rather, that only the High Priest may say it, and only then on Yom Kippur. I'll go into the origin of that tradition another time. For now, suffice to say that when a person reading from the Tanakh came to the Name, he would substitute "ADONAI" (Heb. for "Lord"), which is where our own custom of writing "the LORD" in place of God's Name in our English translations comes from. Some translations of the Tanakh, recognizing the link between YHVH and God's declaration to Moshe, "I AM that I AM" ("Ehyeh asher Ehyeh"), use "the Eternal" instead.

Interestingly, over time ADONAI became too holy to be used in anything but direct reading from the Scripture, and HaShem (the Name) was substituted instead. One wonders what will have to be substituted when HaShem becomes too holy. My siddur (Jewish prayer book) uses a double-yod in place of God's Name rather than write YHVH, Adonai, or HaShem.

But is there any Biblical basis for eschewing the Name of God? None at all. YHVH appears 6519 times in the Tanakh--many of them direct quotes from human beings. For example, shortly after the fall, Havah (Eve) says upon the birth of her son Cain, "I have gotten a man from YHVH" (Gen. 4:1). Moshe continually told Israel, "This is what YHVH has commanded . . ." David used YHVH's Name reapeatedly in his Psalms, which were meant to be sung aloud.

No, clearly Scripture permits saying God's proper Name, YHVH, provided that we do so with reverence. It is something greatly to be lamented, then, that both the Jewish and Christian communities have eschewed using it almost to the point of destroying it from history altogether.

I don't think that there's anything wrong with saying "God" and "the Lord" (any more than there was anything wrong with the Apostles writing "Theos" and "Kurios" in the NT) out of a sense of reverence. (For that matter, while I do not join in the custom, I have no problem with those who omit the vowels of L-rd and G-d for the sake of reverence.) My concern is that those terms have become so generalized today that one can never tell if someone means "the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" when they say "God," or if they mean Allah, the Brahman, a deist god, or what. Many Christians sidestep this potential confusion or inaccuracy by saying "Jesus," but that risks confusing the Trinity. I would that we knew for certain how to pronounce YHVH and would do so--with all reverence and awe--even if there were no other reason.

Moreover, I think Scripture encourages, if not commands us, to make God's Name known:
Deuteronomy 32:3-4
Because I will publish the name of YHVH: ascribe ye greatness unto our God.

2 Samuel 22:50
Therefore I will give thanks unto thee, O YHVH, among the heathen, and I will sing praises unto thy name.

Psalm 34:3
O magnify YHVH with me, and let us exalt his name together.
Over the next few articles, I'm going to discuss how the practice of never saying YHVH came about, whether we know the pronounciation today, and how we should avoid misusig it. Until then,


On to part 2.

Mark Steyn on The DaVinci Code

This one's going to be (seemingly) a bit off-topic for this blog, but given the upcoming DaVinci Code movie and Cameron's two-part sermon (available here), it seemed apropos. That, and I absolutely love Mark Steyn's work.

So, without further ado, let me present The DaVinci Code: Bad writing for Biblical illiterates.

And for those who like to Freep, here's the FR thread.


Monday, May 08, 2006

What's in a Name?

I got (indirectly) an interesting question on FR today:

I don't understand the need for the term "Messianic Jews". If they are Christians, then they should be glad to be called by that name.

Mashiach, Messiah, and Christos, Christ, are simply two translations with the same meaning, which is "Annointed One." Mashiach is the original, since the promises of the Messiah came in Hebrew, not Greek. That doesn't mean that it's wrong to say Christ--the Apostles certainly didn't mind translating the word for their Greek audience--any more than it would be wrong to say "Jesus the Annointed" to an English audience for the sake of explaining the meaning of "Christ" and avoiding our tendency to think of it as a surname.

The reason that Messianic Jews choose to use "Messianic" instead of "Christian" is twofold: First, because they are not ashamed of their Jewishness, and wish to incorporate it into their worship and self-identification.

Second, because there are in fact distinctions between a Messianic perspective and a mainline Christian perspective. I can tell you for a fact that many Christian churches receive a Jewish believer into their ranks and immediately put the pressure on him to eat a ham sandwhich and celebrate Easter instead of Passover and put off all things Jewish as a rite of passage.

There's a reason why the Jewish community considers "Jewish Christian" to be an oxymoron. For more historical perspective on that reason, you might want to read this article.

By using the term "Messianic," a congregation emphasizes its Jewish character and its commitment that Jewish believers in a Jewish Messiah should be able to stay Jewish and keep the Torah that Yeshua did instead of being forced into Gentilism.

There's something of a debate right now as to whether those of a Gentile pedigree, like myself, should use the term "Messianic Jew," "Messianic Hebrew," or whathaveyou. (Sadly, many congregations, fearful of losing their Jewish character, exclude Gentile believers in clear contradiction to Scripture. I suppose that's one way to avoid having to deal with the terminology issue.) I personally just call myself a "Messianic" to avoid being seen as making a claim to something I'm not.

I've taken to preferring saying "Yeshua" to "Jesus" not because of any sacred-name nonsense (the idea that if you are saved in the name of Jesus instead of Yeshua, you're not really saved), but to emphasize the Messiah's Jewishness, and because Yeshua, in Hebrew, means "salvation" (the longer form, Y'hoshua, means "YH(VH) is Salvation"), and I like to preserve that. I often use the Hebrew names of the Apostles to emphasize that they were all Jewish and Torah-observant as well.

In any case, someone calling themselves "Messianic" or "Messianic Jewish" should no more bother you than someone calling themself a Baptist, Calvinist, Lutheran, or whatever. Just consider it a denominational name, and don't put up a wall of separation over it.