Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Obstacle 1: GOD, our God [UPDATED]

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 does it work here? He has Deuteronomy 18:13 read, “Be completely loyal to GOD, your God” (MSG).

You see, you already have something very special occurring with the unification of Title and Name in God, so to get that word repeated again just two words later could sound odd.

Tom Wright, Michael Heiser and others have helped us prepare for it, even if their logical answer may not be one that monotheistic Jews or Christians today may love. I am certain, however, their logic will give us confidence in the way Peterson has cleared this hurdle.

In his introduction to The Resurrection of the Son of God, one of Wright’s exhaustive studies on early Christianity, this author 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). Thus, Jewish monotheism in the first century and before was not at all a worldview in which there existed exactly one god, but rather implied that this deity, surprisingly, required allegiance to him alone. Although Wright doesn’t remind us here, the Jews also understood 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 hinges on a form of divine pluralism that seems to fit the Divine Council portrayal of Palms 82 and Deuteronomy 32:8-9 particularly well.

We are going to look briefly at these passages now to see how they highlight the divine plurality sometimes referred to as the Divine Council worldview that prevailed at the time, this time using the ESV (MSG unfortunately really strays from the clarity of other mainline translation traditions here). Even in better translations of this passage, it is so easy just to 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 exception. What was fresh about Israelite theology was that one god, the Creator god, was Head God, who presided over His divine council. The Israelites had the enormous privilege of being the nation chosen by God as his uniquely his own.

What this means is that when used possessively, my God, your God, his God, her God, our God and their God, we are doing two things. First, simply by applying the possessive, a plurality of divine beings exists (or at least can be legitimately believed to exist) is recognised. This god is the one that possesses me, you, us, etc. Secondly, capitalising the “G” of God, allows the reader special status to that god, and since Yahweh was the greatest of the gods there really is no problem with this capitalisation of the “G”, just so long as we are careful not to forget the first point of plurality (which unfortunately is precisely what our modern understanding of monotheism tends to do).

So there is Yahweh, the supreme divine being and possessor of the Israelite people, and there are the other gods (or sons of God), assigned to the other nations.

Consequently, in these possessive instances, the clever combination that God represents, combining both name and title qualities in a way similar to anarthrous Kyrios, now seems to be back-firing on us.  With the Hebrew creating a distinction between the name “Yahweh” and the title “God”, “God” seems no longer to function as a translation for Yahweh however you might choose to spell it. 

Peterson’s proposal, however, is a stroke of genius (if you’ll excuse the pun): here he is again, translating Deuteronomy 5:27:

  Listen to what God, our God, says and then tell us

Those commas are crucial to this solution. Without them, then yes, you have a real problem of redundancy. With them, and the reader has time physically and psychologically to catch their breath. That breath creates space. That space permits us to qualify the name more fully and takes us out of the main current and momentum of the sentence. This is precisely what we want in terms of meaning (bringing qualification to the specially-named deity, Yahweh, as the possessing deity) and precisely what we need in terms of grammar (to avoid the redundancy).

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,

In my next post, I will proceed to the second obstacle in the path of the translation, GOD, “Lord of Lords”.

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