Tuesday, March 6, 2012

You Can Call Me YHWH

Exodus 3:13-15

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?” 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.

Perhaps you know the history of the name of God in the Old Testament (OT): throughout the OT, God is most commonly referred to in one of two ways—both of them reflected in this passage. The first way is in the use of the generic term “elohim,” which is typically translated “God.” The second way in which God is referred to is by the proper name of God: “YHWH” with the consonants pronounced Yahweh and translated as “the LORD” throughout the OT. In the history of its use, it eventually became taboo to speak the name YHWH (although it was spoken by many of the figures in the OT and its being spoken was perhaps not completely outlawed until 70 AD). Given the sacredness of the name YHWH and the commandment not to take the name of the LORD in vain the Israelites figured that it would be safest not to say it all, so when they encountered YHWH in writing they would simply read “adonai” (Lord).

So that’s a very brief history of the use of the proper name of God in the OT. Now we go to our text above since it is the passage where the given name of God is expressed. Moses says to God: “what can I call you?” And God’s response is that he is defined not by a name but by a quality—by the quality of complete self-existence: “I AM WHO I AM” or simply “I AM.” This is his identity—his overarching, ‘this is who I am, I am this to everyone’ kind of answer. But God isn’t done. He adds something more, something special, unique, and expressly covenantal: “The LORD” or more notably “YHWH.” It’s like someone saying to you: “I’m the most important person in the world, but because you and I are in a covenant, you can call me Richard.”

Christians, in similar vein as the Israelites, rarely actually use the name YHWH. Much of this comes from an attempt to try and avoid offending Jews, who believe that it is blasphemy to say “YHWH.” However, this decision isn’t exactly Biblical; in fact, the principle behind it is exactly the kind of legalism which Paul says that we as Christians no longer need to worry about. And if we’re worrying about blasphemy in the eyes of Judaism, we’d also have to stop claiming that Jesus is the proverbial “Son of Man,” we’d have to stop talking about God as triune, and we wouldn’t say that Jesus is the Son of God. (Although there certainly are times to hold this consideration in mind.)

And yet, despite the ultimate invalidity of this concern, we still never refer to God by the name that he gave to his covenant people; rather we refer to him by terms about him. It’d be like never referring to someone by their actual name but rather by their character, relationships, actions, etc. We do it so thoroughly that it has been written into the text of almost every Bible that we use, where the proper name of God is simply translated “the LORD.” We have had no choice in the matter—no one has discussed whether to translate it “YHWH,” it is simply constantly “the LORD.”

So now you may ask why this matters; well, take Psalm 42/43 (they were likely one Psalm originally): this Psalm is a swirling, chaotic, explanation of a troubling time which uses the term “God” all throughout. Yet there in the middle of the Psalm at verse 8, acting as a place of firm footing, is an expression of the endless love of God and in this one instance, the Psalmist uses the name YHWH. So as a point of hermeneutic interest, you can see how the use of the specific term in this one verse instead of the general term found through the rest of the Psalm calls attention to this particular verse, highlighting the importance of a steadfast foundation upon the covenantal God YHWH.

While tipping my hat to the concerns about the offensive nature of the use of the term YHWH, I must confess that I have serious objections to not referring to God by his name. For one thing, there’s the simple awkwardness of referring to God without using his proper name even though he specifically gave it to his covenant people (whom we as Christians are). On another level, one of the questions hermeneutics asks is not simply “what is said,” but “why might it be said that way instead of another (perhaps more intuitive) way.” And the use of YHWH instead of elohim offers perhaps more insight throughout the OT on that level than any other possibility out there. So why do we ignore it? Why do we allow translation committees to simply decide for us that we ought not to concern ourselves with this? God gave a covenant name to his covenant people and throughout Scripture it is used to remind people of the covenant nature of Israel’s relationship with God. Shouldn’t we, as people of the new covenant with God, also use the covenant name of God when we speak in covenant contexts?

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Danger of Seeking Truth in Science

Much is made within the traditional Christian community of the dangers of getting too deep into science—of being overly influenced by it. But I would contend that it is not that scientific study or the findings of the scientific community are inherently dangerous, but rather that reliance upon the findings of the scientific community as worldview-definition is unavoidably dangerous. As a means of defining worldview, the findings of science are bleak, narrow, and harsh—void of any intrinsic meaning, purpose, light, or care; they are the very definition of what we would call “inhumane”—principles which would be abhorrent to apply in practical ways to the life of one’s pet kitten but which are applied to humanity nonetheless, at least in theory. To base the foundation of one’s life on findings which uphold the principle that all life exists solely to live and die while acting out a simple desire for self-definition at any cost is the ultimate crime to collective humanity—a crime which will drive it into its proverbial grave.

If you think that the majority of the Western world is post-Modern and has moved beyond the modern reliance on the scientific community as the source of most, if not all, ultimate answers, I challenge you to ask those on the street what knowledge is and listen to them talk about data, facts, academic experts, and unbiased principles. The reliance on the modern scientific community for final answers is still the majority Western worldview, but is that the fact that the dominant Western worldview comes with more problems than answers. This is evidenced, in a way, by the fact that few people actually live their lives in this manner—they realize how unhelpful it is as a worldview, but they claim it for lack of a better alternative. After all, how many people for whom the source of answers about the purpose of life is the findings of the scientific community really live their lives as true utilitarians—crushing or throwing aside any who might impose upon their self-definition? Or to say it another way is to say it the same way: how many people carry a 9mm to execute any who threatens their project to immortalize themselves through accomplishment, propagation, and the production of famous and large artifacts?

On the surface, science attempts to answer the basic human drive towards immortality by justifying life as the scrabbling attempt to self-define—from the struggles of mating mantises to the struggle to build enduring monuments of stone and steel. It gives to humans the right to fight—by any means necessary—to say in an undeniable voice for centuries and millennia: “this is me, I am immortal, and nothing you can do will erase that.” From a purely scientific standpoint, those who ordered the building of the pyramids are those who reached the pinnacle in some sense: they found a way to immortalize themselves, carving their names into the very stone of time. Or consider the one who commissioned the Great Wall of China, a monument which is written on the earth so as to be seen from space. Did they not write their mark on the planet—the permanent medium of the ages? Yet all it takes is a few ill-placed explosive devices and the monuments are gone.

The film Citizen Kane tells the tale of a man who built a financial empire and with his wealth created buildings, institutions, and projects rivaling any before him. Yet death came. And with death his legacy began to be questioned and torn down, and the one thing which he wished to have with him at death above even his own legacy unto immortality was lost to him. When I contemplate such things, the words of a song from Don Francisco come to mind:

Rome is full of ruins, Babylon is gone
The Temple’s just a memory, that some still dwell upon
But deep within a place that sword and veil had once denied
The Tree of Life is growing, living waters flow beside.

A human seeks immortality as a response to the inevitability of death, and a worldview based on pure scientific study claims that it is acceptable—and even accurate to one’s nature—to strive for immortality at any cost, whether by building pyramids, starting a family legacy, forging an empire, creating fine works of art, or becoming fabulously wealthy. But the simple fact of the matter is that any attempt in this direction is a lie unto oneself. Even the finest works which attempt at immortality can be eradicated: wealth is lost, art is consumed, empires fall, families are swept away, and pyramids are torn down or eradicated.

I stood on the Acropolis at Sparta and looked out over the surrounding ruins. The Spartan Empire, the scourge of the Aegean Sea—known for their power, ruthlessness, and ability to create a society of martial dominance—is gone. Almost nothing remains. But as I stood there and looked, the sun was setting over snow-capped mountains, and I realized that all that remains of a society which attempted to breed immortality into its DNA is the view that they had from their front door, a view which was neither created nor sustained by them.

I’ve watched some post-apocalyptic movies where even the beauty of God’s created world is muted, along with the works of man—the sun was darkened, plants killed, water licked up. And even today, in many ways and places, humans have consumed, by folly and self-absorption, the beauty of the created world. Yet even that cannot kill the truth that:

Far beyond all human reason and words upon a page
His glory lightens all who fret their hour upon this stage
To know Him is our freedom, to hear Him is release
To fix your heart and soul on Him is rest and perfect peace

A worldview that is based purely upon the findings of the scientific community is futile. It is bleak, narrow, and meaningless, and though it may take death to impart the reality, living by its principles will never reach immortality. Yet it is the dominant secular Western worldview—the way that humans seek to fight the inevitability of death and to create immortality.

But immortality is only to be grasped in the Tree of Life and in knowing Christ and his glory as our light, our freedom, our release, and our perfect peace. And our mission to those who attempt to find ultimate truth and escape from mortality in scientific study is not to replace scientific study as a source of truth but to replace it as a source of ultimate truth. Our mission to them (which is part of our greater mission) is to tell people that the immortality they seek is never stored up in earth, “where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal,” but in heaven, “where moth and rust do not destroy and where thieves do not break in and steal.”

(The lyrics mentioned in this essay come from Still Your Soul in Silence by Don Francisco. This song, like all of his songs, is available free for download from his website: http://www.rockymountainministries.org/membersite.html)