Tuesday, June 06, 2017

What's in a name?

Normally, it's the job of translators to…well…to translate. That's kind of the whole point of the exercise. Translate a text from one language to another. Sometimes, when translators are in the dark, they transliterate, but that defeats the purpose of a translation. After all, the premise of a translation is that readers don't know the original language, so a transliteration is opaque. 

It can pose a dilemma. A striking case is the tetragrammaton. If you read scholars and commentators (e.g. Alexander, Cassuto, Childs, Currid, Durham, Enns, Garrett, Hamilton, Kaiser, Motyer, Sarna, Stuart, Waltke), there's no agreement on how to render the divine name. Proposed renderings include:

• I am
• I will be
• I will become
• I will cause to be

As will as more paraphrastic renderings:

• The One who always is
• My abiding identity
• I will be what I need to be for you 

Part of the difficulty is how to approach the issue. Some scholars rely on etymology, but that's unreliable–hence the etymological fallacy. 

But even from an etymological frame of reference, scholars differ on the etymology of the construction. 

Some renderings are more metaphysical, accentuating what God is like. God's essential nature. Others are more dynamic, accentuating God's providential protection. A difference between what God is and what God does. 

There's a tradition of overinterpreting the tetragrammaton to prooftext a theologian's philosophical agenda. Aquinas is a classic example.

Yahweh's answer seems designed both to reveal and conceal. On the one hand, the name has tantalizing connotations. So they may disclose something about the character of Yahweh. On the other hand, the sense of the name appears to be couched in a studied ambiguity, so that God is holding a lot in reserve.

Why, then, is Yahweh's answer to Moses something of a cipher? Why not be more forthcoming? My best guess is that it's deliberately elusive because, in the ancient Near East, knowing the name of a god was used in incantations and imprecations to manipulate a deity into doing favors. A command performance.  

This may be what Jacob had in mind when he asked the angel's name (Gen 32:29). He was losing his wrestling match with the angel. He may well have thought that if he could just learn his name, that would give him an edge. A competitive advantage. The patriarchs were not far removed from folk magic. 

God's name is enigmatic to discourage Jews from using his name to extort God. Not that they'd succeed, but it's a mentality that needs to be forestalled. 

If you wish to know what Yahweh is like, you don't derive that from a name, but from the entire Pentateuch. God unveils his nature and character, not in name, but in action. 

The temptation to misuse God's name isn't confined to ancient sorcery. Consider, in church history, right up to the present, how God's name, or Christ's name, is used in exorcism rituals to compel and expel demons. It's easy for Christians to turn the name of Jesus into a magic formula, as if they were casting spells. Ironically, that's using witchcraft to combat witchcraft, like using Satan to cast out Satan (Mt 12:26). A self-defeating exercise.  

On a different, but related note, some "deliverance" ministries  think it's important to learn the demon's name. If you can get the demon divulge its name, you can make it say uncle. As I recall, that was Fred Dickason's position. 

Or take the epiclesis, in high-church ceremonies, to transform the communion elements into the True Body and Blood. 

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