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That Small-Caps, All-Caps LORD… and What it Means

Have you ever wondered why the Bible sometimes puts the word LORD in small caps, or in all caps, and whether it means anything? It definitely does mean something! It represents the personal name of God.

Something New: The Name of God

In the progressive narrative of Scripture (I talk more about Scripture being progressive in “What is the Bible?”), God reveals his personal name for the first time to Moses in Exodus 3, at the burning bush. God first identifies himself as he has before, as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob:

1 Now Moses was pasturing the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian; and he led the flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2  The angel of the LORD appeared to him in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush; and he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was not consumed. 3 So Moses said, “ I must turn aside now and see this marvelous sight, why the bush is not burned up.” 4 When the LORD saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” 5 Then He said, “Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6 He said also, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Then Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. (Exodus 3:1-6, NASB)

God says that he’s heard his people crying out from their suffering and enslavement in Egypt. God’s plan is to send Moses to Pharaoh to get the Israelites and lead them out of slavery. Moses sees some problems with that plan! Pharaoh is a very powerful king, and Moses is a disgraced fugitive (Pharaoh’s daughter had found, adopted, and raised Moses, only to have him switch sides, killing an Egyptian who was abusing an Israelite. Moses fled the country just as word was spreading, so of course he is not going to be well-regarded with Pharaoh!). And Pharaoh likes having the Israelites as slave labor. He’s scared of them, but they are very useful. It’s not going to be an easy job, and it’s going to be dangerous! So Moses starts objecting. His first question is, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?” (Ex. 3:11). God’s answer is interesting – in response to who Moses is, God says, I’ll be with you. Apparently, the point isn’t who Moses is – the point is that God is with Moses.

Moses’ next question, therefore, is very logical: it’s something like, “Well then, who are YOU?”

13 Then Moses said to God, “Behold, I am going to the sons of Israel, and I will say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you.’ Now they may say to me, ‘What is His name?’ What shall I say to them?” (Exodus 3:13, NASB)

The other people groups surrounding the Israelites would use the names of their gods as a means of exercising power over the god – they would invoke the god’s name in conjunction with a sacrifice in order to obligate the god to respond as requested. This makes us wonder – did Moses think he could gain some bargaining power over God by knowing God’s name? God answered him and provided a name, though it’s a rather odd sort of name:

14 God said to Moses, “ I AM WHO I AM”; and He said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” 15 God, furthermore, said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is My name forever, and this is My memorial-name to all generations. (Exodus 3:14-15, NASB)

God says something enigmatic, and a little hard to translate: “I am what I am” or “I will be what I will be.” It’s a statement that has a bit of the idea of “I’m beyond your comprehension.” God isn’t contingent on anyone or anything – and God certainly won’t be controlled by a person invoking his name!

God makes this phrase, the “I AM,” into a name, saying, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is My name forever, and this is My memorial-name to all generations.” God uses it as a name, and specifies that he is the same God who is God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and then he makes it really clear by saying that it is his “name forever” and “memorial-name to all generations.” You can tell it’s something special.

The story continues, and Moses objects a bunch more times, and finally God sends Moses’ brother Aaron with him and they go off to Egypt to talk to Pharaoh. Meanwhile, the name of God remains an important revelation of who God is.

The Four Letters: YHWH

The name itself (where it says “LORD” in Ex. 3:15) is four letters in Hebrew. These letters are transliterated (written in our alphabet rather than the Hebrew alphabet) as YHWH. This four letter name is sometimes called the Tetragrammaton, which comes from the Greek for “four letters.” It’s a special word, and it’s treated specially.  

The Old Testament was written in ancient Hebrew. At the time the Hebrew Bible was finalized, Hebrew was written in all consonants – the vowels were just implied. (Scholars also argue about whether there were spaces between the words, but apparently by the period of the Exile when the text was finalized, there were some spaces between words, so we’ll use spaces in our example.) To give an example in English, it would be like reading this:

MRY HD LTTL LMB

You could figure it out, right? But, not as easily as with vowels! Later, a group of Jewish scholars who existed from the sixth to tenth centuries AD, the Masoretes, added vowels to the text to increase clarity. But they didn’t want to change the sacred text, and they wanted to be clear about what was original and what they were adding, so they added the vowels as symbols above and below the consonants. It would be almost like this:

MaRY HaD LiTTLe LaMB

However, when they came to the name of God, they did something special because of the holiness of the divine name. Over the generations, Hebrew readers did not read the name of God out loud, considering it too sacred to risk profaning it by pronouncing it. Instead, when they came to the letters YHWH, they would substitute Adonai, the Hebrew word for “lord.”

When the Masoretes were adding vowels to the name of God, they didn’t put vowels to connect and make the word “Yahweh,” as it might have been pronounced. Instead, they added the vowels for the substitute word, Adonai, to the consonants for YHWH. It created, in print, a word that isn’t an actual word but a hybrid of the two. Hebrew readers saw it and knew to say “Adonai.”

What To Do, Take 1: “Jehovah”

This provided translators with an interesting problem, and they have handled it in different ways. Sometimes, particularly in the case of names, words get transliterated, not translated, and then modified. Mosheh is the English transliteration of the Hebrew, and then it’s modified to give us Moses. Yosheph is the English transliteration that is modified to give us Joseph. Notice that Hebrew Ys are usually rendered as Js in English. Likewise, Ws are often made into Vs.

For God’s name, what should they do? They have the original letters YHWH and then the vowels from Adonai, so the translator sees something that looks like:

YaHoWaH

If you try to read that out loud like it was a single word, and remember to make the Y into a J sound, and the W into a V sound, what do you get? This is the origin of the word “Jehovah” – transliterating the divine name with the Hebrew consonants for YHWH plus the Hebrew vowels for Adonai. For a period, “Jehovah” was thought to be the divine name.  But, since it turns out Jehovah is not an actual word in any Hebrew manuscript, it isn’t used in many English translations any more.

What To Do, Take 2: “The Lord”

Currently, most translations key off of the practice of pronouncing Adonai when a reader came to the divine name and translate YHWH as the word “LORD.” There is an important precedent for using “lord.” The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures from the third to the second century BC. (Slight tangent, just because it’s helpful to know – Septuagint is abbreviated as “LXX,” which is the Roman numeral for 70, based on the legend of the 72 translators, six from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. However, when you see “LXX” in print you say “Septuagint.”) This is an important translation – extremely prevalent in the time of Jesus and the apostles. In a lot of cases we can see in the New Testament scriptures that the authors are quoting from the Septuagint rather than from the original Hebrew. We can think of the Septuagint as the Bible that Jesus and the apostles used. The Septuagint translates YHWH as “lord.” This was before the vowels were added to the Hebrew, but because of the practice of saying “lord” for YHWH, the translators used the Greek word for lord, “kurios.” The apostles then used passages from the Hebrew Scriptures with the word “lord” for YHWH to connect the LORD of the Old Testament to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Back to the English translations! When translators moved away from using “Jehovah,” they could have used “Yahweh.” Scholars did a lot of study to decide that Yahweh is the best English pronunciation of God’s name. Instead, translators used the word “lord,” as the Septuagint had.  

In using “lord,” however, they still wanted to indicate that the divine name is in the text, that it isn’t actually the word Adonai. (The word Adonai is in the Hebrew Bible, in lots of places – and will be translated as “lord” or “Lord” without special capitalization.) To indicate the divine name, translators used a special version of “LORD” with the small caps format (or all caps, which has the same meaning – it’s just a font difference) to indicate God’s personal name.

There is some variety – the American Standard Version and Young’s Literal Translation still use Jehovah. The World English, Names of God, and Lexham English Bibles use Yahweh. But the majority use LORD.  I count 43 English translations on the Bible Gateway website that use LORD, including the NIV, KJV, ESV, and NASB.

Why Does it Matter?

This is a lot of content about one word in the Bible! It’s great to ask ourselves why it matters. We say “lord” as many generations of readers of the Hebrew text would have. It’s a respectful tradition, but it’s good to know that the word LORD is really the name Yahweh. It’s the personal name of the one true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The whole story of the Bible is God’s revelation of God’s self and God’s purposes for creation. God reveals himself to us, humans – that’s pretty amazing, isn’t it? God even tells us his personal name! It’s a mark of relationship and connection. It is so good to know that a sovereign and powerful God wants to have a personal relationship with each human being.

So should we say Yahweh?

Sometimes when I think of the goodness of God in revealing himself to us, I feel a little sad that we don’t always use the name Yahweh. Should we? God gave it to us! He told Moses to use it. And it’s all over the Bible – even the passages before the scene in which God reveals his name contain YHWH, the name of God. This happens because the Bible, even with all its individual books, is still a unified story.  The whole Old Testament was finalized after all the events it describes (I know that it’s obvious that it had to be finished after the events it describes, but it’s always been a helpful point for me anyway). The Hebrew Scriptures are written into their final form with the knowledge of God’s name, which is why the Hebrew YHWH appears as early as the creation stories (Gen. 2:4 is the first instance). The Scriptures use it – shouldn’t we? Or, is it too holy to say out loud?

I do hear some scholars and teachers using the name Yahweh. If we do so in reverence, there is nothing wrong with using it. It isn’t a sacrilege, because God made us to seek him, and to learn to know him, even in his holiness! On the other hand, many people are unfamiliar with the name Yahweh, and so we sometimes end up with a disconnect if people don’t know who we are talking about. There are good things about saying “Lord,” like the Septuagint, the Bible Jesus and the apostles used.  And there are good things about saying Yahweh, the name God revealed to us. We can do either, and both, and keep learning more about God’s revelation in his word!


Image: Flowering Texas Mesquite tree in Big Bend National Park, by Deanna Munger

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