For Epiphany, I’m reading Richard Bauckham’s new-ish book, Who is God? Key Moments of Biblical Revelation. Chapter 2 offers an intriguing discussion of the divine name (YHWH or LORD) in the Burning Bush episode (Exodus 3) and then through the rest of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Bauckham makes a number of important points on the Exodus passage as well as Jesus’s modes of reference to the divine name and, finally, the application by NT authors of a substitute for the divine name (LORD, or kyrios in the Greek) to Jesus!
On the Divine Name at the Burning Bush
- this is the first point in the Hebrew Bible where the word holy is used: “you are standing on holy ground” (though the related verbal form is used in Gen 2.3 of the Sabbath). “Here begins, as it were, the story of God’s holy presence with his people” (p. 39).
- Why does Moses ask for God’s name Ex 3:13? “The most obvious reason is that they live in a world in which gods have names. All around them in Egypt live people who invoke the Egyptian gods—Ra, Osiris, Isis, Horus, Set, and others. To call on one of these gods for favor, one had to distinguish one from another by their names. Gods were no use unless one could call on them by name” (40).
- God’s answer proceeds in 3 parts introduced with verbs of speaking. First, God says “I will be who I will be” (Bauckham translates ʾehyeh, ʾǎšer ʾehyeh in the future and not the present tense on the basis of God’s looking to the future in Moses’s ministry before Israel as well as other parallel phrases in the HB). This first answer refers to God’s self-determining character and refusal to be boxed in: “he will be who he chooses to be”. “Names define and limit and constrain. If the reason the Israelites want to know their God’s name is so that they can call him to their aid like some genie in a lamp, then he will not be named” (42-43). Second, God instructs Abraham to say, “I will be has sent you”. This strange answer “means that the One who cannot be constrained, even by Israel’s cries for help, commits himself to a course of action for Israel’s sake. The self-determining One determines himself to be Israel’s Savior, the One who is sending Moses to deliver the people” (43). Finally, God answers and provides his divine name, i.e. the LORD (capitals are used in English translations for LORD to denote the tetragrammaton or 4 Hebrew letters of Yodh, He, Waw, Yodh): “The LORD [YHWH], the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’” (3:15a). There is a play on words between ʾehyeh and YHWH as they share the same consonants. While some have seen a connection between the God of Israel’s divine name and the verb to be such that this name refers to existence itself (“he is” or “he will be”), Bauckham concludes that we don’t know what the name means. Instead, the name, which appears 6,800 times in the HB, creates a relationship so that Israel can address, though not control, God.
- Bauckham concludes that this name is one that can be used by both Gentile and Jewish Christians, since God revealed himself to Israel not simply for their sake but also for the nations. prophetic texts like Zech. 14:9, echoing the Shema, look forward to this future deliverance where all recognise Israel’s God: “And the LORD will become king over all the earth; on that day the LORD will be one and his name one” (46). This is the same God revealed in Jesus Christ so that there is continuity between the New Testament and Hebrew Scriptures.
Jesus’ Uses of The Divine Name
- In the first century, the divine name was not used apart from by priest at the temple on special occasions such as the day of atonement (Bauckham doesn’t provide any references here). The non-enunciation of the divine name seems to stem from the Ten Commandments and, in particular, the commandment “to not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God”
- This does not mean that the divine name was not used at all. Rather, it was referenced through recognised substitutes without being explicitly used. In Hebrew translations of the OT, the term adonay’ (or “my lord”) was used, and in Greek translations and other Jewish literature, the word kyrios (lord) was used.
- Jesus makes reference to the divine name in the Lord’s Prayer (“hallowed be thy name”, lit. “may your name be set apart as holy”; Bauckham usefully compares this prayer with the words recorded in Ezekiel 36:22-23 as well as a traditional Jewish prayer in the Qaddish).
- Jesus does not seem to have habitually referred to God through the most common form of referring to the divine name: LORD. Or at least, he does so only when citing OT scriptural passages that used kurios (for instance, in the temptation narrative in Matthew 4:7, 10). The two other occasions where he does use LORD, in Mark’s Gospel, (5:19; 13:20) these seem to be down to a redactional choice of the evangelist (though if I understand correctly, Bauckham is saying that Matthew and Luke therefore provide a more accurate record of Jesus’s words and quite why Bauckham thinks this isn’t clear). Two further cases still seem to bear the more conventional meaning of kyrios, i.e. master: Matt 9:38 // Luke 10:2 and Matthew 11:25 // Luke 10:21.
- More positively, Jesus referred to God via the divine passive. Take Matthew 5:4 for example: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (= God will comfort them). The divine passive, Bauckham explains, protects divine transcendence.
- Jesus frequently (269 times or so) uses theos, the Greek equivalent of elohim (elohim appears approx. 2247 times in the HB compared to 5527 uses of YHWH and it also appears more frequently in later books of the HB). Yet Bauckham claims that what Jesus meant by theos was in fact a substitute for the divine name. This is because Jesus spoke Aramaic and used the term elah’ which, Bauckham asserts, reflects the divine name in this language rather than mari (my Lord). So rather confusingly, Aramaic used elah’, a word like the equivalent of elohim as a circumlocution for YHWH rather than kyrios. It is elah’ which theos translates in the Gospels.
- Bauckham’s most intriguing suggestion is that Jesus uses Father as a substitute for the divine name (that is, as a way of pointing to it without using it). He uses Father 14 times in prayer (and the only single other term he uses in prayer is elay’, in the cry of dereliction quoting Psalm 22:1: Eloi Eloi, lama sabacthani). Unfortunately this proposal isn’t fleshed out or substantiated but it deserves further investigation. As Bauckham notes we have Paul’s use of Abba (Aramaic for father) in Romans and Galatians which suggests that the very way of using the term by Jesus was in some way special to early Christians (see also Mark 14:36).
Jesus as the Divine Name (Kyrios)
- Intriguingly, NT authors continue Jesus’ pattern by referring to God not as kyrios but as theos and father (pater). Most intriguingly of all, NT authors refer to Jesus as kyrios. While this word had a wide semantic range (from master or lord or sir to a way of representing the divine name of the God of Israel), Bauckham notes that we can be fairly certain that NT authors intended this final sense when referring to Jesus as kyrios.
- This is most obvious with the use of OT citations applied to Jesus. So, for instance, when in Phil 2:9-11, Paul writes, “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”, he picks up on and alludes to verses used by Isaiah to refer to the One God of Israel (Isa. 45:18, 22–23) and, amazingly, applies them to Jesus. The name that is above every name is the divine name (YHWH) which Jesus participates in and fully shares as a full participant in the divine identity of the One God of Israel. The prayer of the prophets which we echo in the Lord’s (or we should say, LORD’s) prayer–may your name be sanctified among all the nations–“comes to fulfillment when Jesus is seen to be the revelation of God and therefore the one who shares the Divine Name with his Father” (58).