In seminary, my Hebrew professor explained the choice we have in dealing with describing GOD.
- To begin with, we traditionally don’t use GOD’s name in scripture. We use a marker. Wherever the name is used, it is replaced with GOD or LORD in caps.
- The name was first written in ancient Hebrew, which does not possess vowels and gets transliterated into English as YHWH.
- Historically, Jews have treated the divine name as sacred, and shun its speaking or writing, hence the above markers.
- Christian tradition has made synonymous the notion that GOD is a god and the god, and came up with the horrible solution to the problem by simply calling GOD, God.
For Dr. Hamilton, the choice was between showing integrity to GOD’s revelation and showing respect to our Jewish brothers and sisters. He gave the disclaimer that he would be using the divine name in class and that he expected his class to as well. If this was a problem, we could make accommodations. So, from the beginning, he taught us to replace all of the markers with YHWH. When reading in class, he expected us to say the divine name. When leading our teaching practicums, he anticipated that we would include conversation about the divine name if our text called for it. I was all for it.
Of all the traditions that befuddle and anger me, it is the one in which none of us speaks of or to YHWH by name. For me, “God” as a name is much worse than any other, for it is not how YHWH was revealed. There are many really good choices if respecting our Jewish friends is a priority for us: I AM, the Great Mystery, Creator, Divine Mother, Liberator, or GOD. Each of these tells us something about our god in the way we have learned about GOD’s nature. But God? Not so much. Is my name “Man”? Is my wife’s “Woman”?
So what does this matter? For many, this may be a semantic argument or an excuse for political correctness (as if that were truly a bad thing and not a generous and affirming thing). I contend that this is absolutely essential to understanding GOD. For it is in relationship that GOD is known. GOD is revealed to humanity personally and in dialogue. When Adam’s grandson Enosh was born, “people began to invoke the name of YHWH.” GOD declared “I AM” and invited Moses to hear the divine name: YHWH. GOD chose to rename Abraham and Jacob. GOD was made incarnate in the person of Jesus. What each reveals is the power of relationship and the intimacy and focus that comes with a name and in knowing the name. Just as people’s experience of a bishop remembering their name or being introduced by someone you’ve just met by name, we are affirmed and respected by the use of our names. It is because the names and their use is powerful, and shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Therefore GOD is revealed in intimacy, conversation, and relationship. And little about us is as important as our names to building that bridge between us.
Outside of seminary, I chose to use a marker name (GOD) in print out of respect for my Jewish friends while still directing us to the divine name. I also use many of the other descriptors mentioned above as a way of directing our focus toward specific aspects of GOD. But I only use God when quoting others. Because, in the end, it is neither intimate nor descriptive. In fact, it separates us from our creator because it possess nothing of the one to whom it attempts to define.
Want to know GOD better? Start by approaching humbly, calling GOD by name: YHWH.