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Kristin M. Swenson, Ph.D. Headshot

The Name of God, to Have and to Hold?

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There is a long-standing tradition that no person, no mere mortal, should presume to possess the name of God. The Name, as the reasoning goes, is a holy thing, a handle on the divine not to be trifled with. We hear concern about its misuse in the ancient biblical commandment, "Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD in vain."

But what is that name? The short (but incomplete) answer is that it's the four-letter word that God introduced to Moses -- a Hebrew word that played on the verb "to be": "I am who I am." Transliterating those four Hebrew letters yields some variation of YHWH or JHVH.

In an effort not to mess with the name, early biblical texts showed its presence with four simple dots. Some people today will use Ha-Shem ("the name" in Hebrew) or Adonai ("lord" in Hebrew) rather than risk tampering with the real thing. "Jehovah" is a hybrid composed of the consonants of the Hebrew four-letter name plus the vowels of the Hebrew title "lord." Many English translations represent the four-letter name with "LORD" (not to be confused with "Lord," a translation of the Hebrew adonai or of the Greek kurios.) It's the four-letter Hebrew name that's behind the commandment quoted above.

Efforts not to take the Name in vain have extended also to the description-word "God." So we get the charming "gosh darn," "good golly," even "for goodness sakes." "Sheesh," of course falls into the same category, this time to avoid "Jesus," along with "criminy" and my personal favorite "jiminy cricket."

A new translation of the Bible just came out: "The Voice." It's wildly unconventional insofar as it attempts to realize a profound theological belief: that God's Word can be loosed from the constraints of traditional translation AND that its version is neither the only nor the last word. By employing different creative writers to render individual books (and scholars to vet the results), "The Voice" models the Bible's diversity of voices, a quality that most translations flatten. But its departure from strict translation supposes the value of other, more traditional ones, too.

Among the plethora of new Bible translations, "The Voice" stands out for its courageous effort to make biblical texts sensible to today's readers in new ways. Predictable styles, vocabulary and idioms are absent. In their place: interpretation that illuminates and clarifies terminology that can be misleading or opaque to modern readers. In some cases, that traditional terminology may be so familiar that we don't even know what we're missing.

Such efforts are bound to be misunderstood. For example, the book's release elicited this sensational headline: "Christ Missing From New Bible." Ah, the beauty of punctuation: Christ is not missing from the new translation; "Christ" is. Few people know that the word "Christ" is actually a transliteration of a translation of a word with an ancient meaning that itself is multivalent. Its use today, however, is monotone at best and sometimes dead wrong. (Christ is not Jesus' name, first or last, but a descriptive title). "The Voice" reaches out to draw back the curtain on such terms, providing poetic interpretation and fresh description.

Despite the liberty "The Voice" editors gave to the creative writers who worked on the different biblical books, they standardized monikers for God. I don't agree with every choice they made, but I applaud the effort. They sought to render the various names and descriptions for God that appear in the Bible in ways that get at the theological implications of those Greek and Hebrew terms.

In a stroke of theological brilliance, Leonard Cohen sings in "Hallelujah," "You say I took the name in vain./ I don't even know the name./ But if I did, well, really what's it to ya?/ There's a blaze of light in every word./ It doesn't matter which you heard/ the holy or the broken hallelujah."

"The Name" as it functions in the Bible is in some mysterious way an aspect of a dynamic and living God. It suggests that in some powerful and mysterious way, God's Name makes the presence and being of that God somehow accessible, somehow know-able to human beings. In other words, by revealing the Name, God made Godself vulnerable. Human beings have the capacity to misuse the Name, and that goes far beyond any expletive. It extends to our treatment of others, of the planet, of anything or anyone that falls within the purview of God.

Now, I'm not sure how to reconcile the freedom of God with the accessibility of the Name, but I am pretty sure that "the Name of God" is far more dynamic and multifaceted than any single word. Maybe, as Cohen's song suggests, every single word can carry something of the divine within it or otherwise evoke the holy and make it real. Think logos, Holy Writ and all that.

Biblical theology suggests both that human beings cannot fully possess the Name of God with all that it implies and at the same time that we nevertheless bear responsibility for how we wield the Word. The sum of those prescribes humility in the face of profound knowledge, openness to what my challenge and even change us, and unceasing restraint.

Full disclosure: I translated three books for 'The Voice' and consulted on a couple of others. I was paid for my work but will receive no royalties.