Translating the Name of God in the Bible
Updated: May 14, 2021
Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”
Great question, Moses.
And one that has plagued translators for centuries since. Not "What's your name, God?" but rather, "What should we tell people your name is?!"
It's still a valid question today because God's answer is difficult to translate, but even more difficult to understand. And even if it were straightforward, the very fact that it is God's name means it needs to be handled with care.
So let me start by saying: I am not telling anyone how to translate God's name. Nor will I attempt to present a full discussion of the meaning of God's name, why God answers the way he does, or what we should understand about his nature from his name. There are shelves upon shelves of books and probably thousands of sermons on these topics. I am merely here to discuss previous translators' decisions and their evolution to our current use of God's name, why there is no one-size-fits-all answer, and encourage bible translation workers and supporters to come to this text with open hands.
I Am Who I Am
So here's what God answered, according to the ESV translation:
God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.*” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM* has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people 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 thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.
*Or "I am what I am," or "I will be what I will be" **The word LORD, when spelled with capital letters, stands for the divine name, YHWH, which is here connected with the verb hayah, “to be” in verse 14
I have copied the footnotes above verbatim from the ESV because the translators thought them necessary to their target audience's (our) understanding of these verses.
We notice right away that "I AM WHO I AM" does not sound like a normal name form in English and our misgivings are confirmed by the footnotes. So, as all human language users do when we don't understand something the first time, we reinterpret to try to make sense of this response.
As the footnote attests, the Hebrew word translated "I AM" is a form of the verb hayah, which means "to be." In the first sentence, God uses the first-person singular form of the verb to say "I am who I am." Later, when he tells Moses to tell the Israelites, "I AM has sent me to you," the verb form is slightly different. Scholars debate whether it is a causative form "One who brings into being" or the more simple interpretation translated "Being," or "One who is." Unlike other biblical names whose meanings are explained or interpreted in the text, this one is not. After all, what meaning can we ascribe to God Himself?
This presents a sizeable challenge for bible translators who are primarily interested in communicating meaning!
The ESV translators realized this difficulty too. Their solution was to place a noun, "Lord," in their translation any time this Hebrew verb form for God's name (YHWH) appeared. To distinguish it from where the actual word "lord" appears elsewhere in the text, they use all capital letters. Thus, whenever you see capitalized "LORD" in your English bible, you can mentally supply YHWH.
The Hebrew Tetragrammaton
What exactly is YHWH? Biblical scholars call this the Hebrew tetragrammaton which is just a fancy word for "four letters." Since antiquity, many Jewish sects have refused to write or read aloud the four letters of God's name in Hebrew, considering it a violation of the third commandment to "not take the Lord's name in vain," that is, without giving it its due respect. Instead, their texts substitute the Hebrew word Adonai, meaning "Lord" wherever the tetragrammaton appears.
The Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures also used κύριος - "Lord," which carried over to the Latin Vulgate translation. At long last, that is also where many English translations including the ESV got the idea to write "LORD" in capital letters every time YHWH appears in the original text.
The pronunciation of YHWH is not entirely known. Hebrew writing, like many other writing systems of the region, does not usually include vowels. The vowels we have in the Hebrew biblical texts were added in later by a group Jewish scholars known as the Masoretes (who also added punctuation, and chapter/verse numbers).
To further complicate matters, languages change a lot over time and region, especially phonologically. For example, many English words are still spelled the way they were pronounced in one part of England 800 years ago which is nothing like how they sound in all the places English is spoken today. As far as historical-linguistic evidence can tell however, the tetragrammaton is pronounced something like "Yahweh" or as English speakers usually say, YAH-way.
Others have combined the tetragrammton YHWH with the Hebrew vowels from Adonai to produce the name Yahowah. This has been Latinized and later Anglicized as Jehovah and appears as God's name in some Bible translations and hymns still today.
God Has a Name
Back to Moses' original question, what should bible translators say God's name is?
First, translators need to communicate that God has a name. The God of the Bible is not an all-encompassing force or distant conglomeration of supernatural ether. He appears time and again throughout Scripture to specific people at specific times and places in the Personhood of the Trinity, making himself known and encouraging people to seek to know him in return.
Translators then need to confer with their own language communities and churches. In some communities, God may already be known by a specific title (like the ESV's "LORD") borrowed from generations of believers who understood God's name that way. Although our English word "lord" does not correspond in meaning or form with the Hebrew form YHWH, it stands in most English-speaking churches as the way believers commonly refer to God. Many other language communities similarly choose to represent God's name as a title, such as Lord, Father, Holy One, or Most High.
Other communities may need a new noun to distinguish the God of the Bible from other gods or spiritual entities in their area. This was true for the ancient Israelites, who needed to distinguish their God from the neighboring Canaanite god Baal, whose name translates as "lord" (see 1 Kings 18:20-40). In modern translations this can take the form of some transliteration of YHWH, with phonetic changes to fit the target language. This is a popular strategy for other biblical names that are foreign to the target language.
Your Name in All the Earth
Overall, bible translators need their target audiences to encounter God's name in the context of the rest of his Word. Although his reply to Moses is difficult to unravel, the truth, "I am who I am," is illustrated time and again throughout the rest of the Scriptures. As more language communities receive the Bible in their heart languages, may we sing together with the psalmist,
"O LORD, our Lord, Hoe majestic is your name in all the earth!"