Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Obstacle 1: GOD our God

I hope you enjoyed the endearing little love story between Tina and Archie - did you work out the symbolism?

Tina is the church. Archie is Christ. Barbara... was just a helpful character for the narrative to work! The old-fashioned name "Archie" that Archie wants to change is "Lord". 

Farewell LORD, Hello GOD

In the post before the Tina and Archie story I outlined the translation overhaul I believe is needed for "Lord" in many modern Bible translations both in English and other languages. I also said why this overhaul was necessary for a relevant and yet faithful religious institution like Christianity.

The Number 1 question was how to translate the Hebrew name for God, "Yahweh". I finally arrived, after two years of researching the issue, at the idea that GOD, all caps, like we see with the occasional "Lord GOD" occurrences we sometimes we in some traditional translations, would be a good solution. My wife thought this was a hilarious conclusion after so much work to arrive at something apparently so obvious. But this was before I delighted in discovering Eugene Peterson already arriving at a similar conclusion about fifteen years earlier!

You can see the Message (MSG) wikipedia page here, where I just had to do a minor edit. The person doing the post had the good idea of taking a few passages in different translations in order to illustrate the distinctive flavour of the Message translation. Unfortunately, they had apparently done a copy-paste of the passage in Psalms 23 without checking it - the small caps of "OD" next to the capital "G" got converted back to lowercase. 

This only makes the suggestion all the more palatable, as I have arrived at the same destination as Peterson but via, I am sure, a different route, bringing more grammatical substance than Peterson's work had access to.

Overcoming Other Hurdles: Yahweh our God

I identify five more important hurdles, even if all of these are relatively small or even tiny in comparison to the thousands of simple Yahweh occurrences. Today we will also attempt the first of these additional hurdles: Yahweh our God. In fact, Yahweh + possessive + God breaks down roughly as follows:

  • Yahweh our God, approx 90 times,
  • Yahweh your God approx 150 times,
  • Yahweh his God approx 30 times (plus "Yahweh Israel's God, approx 90 times)
  • Yahweh her God = never!
  • Yahweh my God approx 20 times,
  • Yahweh their God approx 40 times.
Total: approx 420 times

So far, I have shown nothing but love for Peterson's approach, but here I'm not so sure his gloss works particularly well: "GOD our God" (the Message). Although Peterson does not seem to have any qualms over it (he's just using his normal methodology) I think it's clunky. Not the GOD bit, obviously.

You see, you already have something very special going on with the unification of title and Name in GOD, so to get a variant of that word again in a capitalised G-God two words later requires a lot of mental gymnastics for the reader: according to my brief calculations in around 420 places. There has to be an improvement to that, and Tom Wright, Michael Heiser and others have prepared it for us perfectly, even if their logical answer may not be one that Jews or Christians (more "Tina"s) today may love. But the logic and another reason I will give in a minute will reassure us I am sure.

In his introduction to the Resurrection of the Son of God, one of his exhaustive studies on early Christianity, N. T. Wright is clear that a correct and initial way of describing any deity needs a lowercase "g", even when depicting the god of the Jews (who were surprisingly exclusivist). Jewish monotheism in the first and previous centuries was not at all a worldview in which there existed exactly one god, but rather that this deity, surprisingly, requires allegiance to him alone. Although Wright doesn't remind us here, the Jews also understand their god to be a very special god indeed, championing him "God of gods" (Deuteronomy 10:17, Joshua 22:22, Psalms 136:2, Daniel 2:47 & 11:36)

Michael Heiser agrees and his whole theological framework hangs off a form of henotheism* that fits the Divine Council portrayal of Palms 82 and Deuteronomy 32:8-9 really well.

We are going to look at these passages now to see how they highlight the henotheistic divine Council worldview of the time, using a more classic translation of ESV (MSG unfortunately really strays from the clarity of other mainline translation traditions here). Even in good translations, it is so easy just to skip over the Deuteronomy verses and miss it, but this is what it says (ESV):

8 When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance,
    when he divided mankind,
he fixed the borders/territories of the peoples
    according to the number of the sons of God.
9 But the LORD's portion is his people,
    Jacob his allotted heritage.

Ancient near Eastern religions of the time of Israel believed in a plurality of divine beings. The Israelites were no different. What was fresh about Israelite theology was that one god, the Creator god, was the Head god, who presided over His divine council. The Israelites had the enormous privilege of being the nation chosen by him as his uniquely his own.

What this means is that when used possessively, my, your, his, her, our and their god, we are not exegeting from a monotheistic culture as we have often assumed and our transitions have reinforced. Since Yahweh is the greatest of the gods there was no problem there, but there is no attempt to deny the existence of the others. Those are the gods of the other nations.

Example. I was born and grew up in a small city in the south West of England called Exeter, and enjoyed following my local soccer team. When I attended a match I would stand with my friends in the tribunes and sing football songs, some of which were inspiring, some rude and others just silly. It's one of the silly ones that helps me communicate my point here: "Exeter City FC: by fast the greatest team the world had ever seen". Imagine for a moment this really was true and the Grecians could smash Brazil 10-nil no problem! An Exeter fan, in this fantasy world, would still not mind his team being written "team" - nor would a Brazilian mind in a more realistic world. The context and direct wording is enough to establish the supremacy of the club. It doesn't need to be written "the greatest Team", because the thing of which they are the greatest is the category "football teams". In the same way, the thing of which Yahweh is the greatest is the category "gods".

As a result, it is also correct and even less confusing to use this possessive approach in the Bible, "Yahweh your god", etc.

Since we have seen a suitable candidate for Yahweh translation is GOD all caps, then we have our translation solution for obstacle 1:

"GOD your god".

NB It may be appropriate to add commas to give some breathing and mental space to the clarifications of the "my god"/"our god"/"your god"/"their god"/"his god"/"Israel's god", e.g. GOD, your god, is ....

In my next post I will proceed to the next obstacle in the path of the translation, GOD.

*Not all scholars like speaking of henotheism any more, which is odd to me as the ideas it contains are alive and kicking hard!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks very much for your feedback, really appreciate the interaction.