Given that I am a student and adjunct instructor in theology at a Jesuit university, I became aware of the (Roman Catholic) Congregation for Divine Worship’s June directive concerning the liturgical use of the Divine Name in Hebrew (YHVH) back in the Summer. For those who haven’t seen it, I offer you a look:
Christians have been debating this for the last couple of weeks following publication of the directive in Christianity Today, so I thought I’d weigh in. Having learned to vocalize according to the qere reading “Adonai” or “Lord” when studying and reciting Hebrew in my Master of Arts-Old Testament days at TEDS, I have since gone back and forth on the propriety of vocalizing “YaHWeH” in the context of preaching and teaching. Mostly, I have lapsed in and out of the practice depending on the needs of the moment.
Although I am not canonically bound to observe the discipline, I have thought a bit about the matter and have decided that I am prepared to receive Cardinal Arinze’s directive as reflecting a certain wisdom and theologically appropriate deference concerning the practice. As a conversation starter, I’ll simply list some of my reasons:
1. The process of “fencing” the divine name by vocalizing “adonai” (Lord) as a qere (that which is read) circumlocution of the kethib (that which is written) “YHVH” was an act of reverence for the holiness of the divine name. By avoiding its vocalization the name was preserved from abuse. The scholarly consensus is that this practice originated c. 300 BC in several forms and gradually achieved universal observance. This was not superstitious, but an application of the commandment to never make wrongful use of the divine name.
The deep memory of Exile seems to have driven concern for a fastidious observance of the commandments. Numerous texts survive suggesting that the divine name was polluted by idolatrous adumbration. We actually have surviving graffiti from the ante-Christian period reading, “I bless you by Yahweh of Samaria and by his asherah,” and “I bless you by Yahweh of Teiman and by his asherah.” (Cf. Dever, Recent Archaeological Discoveries and Biblical Research, 1993). The ANE practice of naming deities often implied some power to authoritatively summon, and thus to control and coerce. The danger of this is often cited as a reason for the mysterious self-designation of Israel’s God by the elusive nominalizing of the Hebrew “hayah” (“I will be what I will be.”). It is likewise reflected in the patriarchal tradition of Jacob’s request to know the name of the angel-man-God who attacked him and in Adam’s naming the animals as a sign of his dominion. Viewed in this light, Israel’s pre-exilic condition and the syncretic idolatry characterizing it propelled Second Temple and Early Rabbinic resistance to similar threats of syncretism in both the Greek and Roman periods. That this memory was inscribed into liturgical practice vis-a-vis the divine name was actually a development laden with serious theological reflection. It is not too far to say, in fact, that the practice of qere circumlocution of the divine name represents a kind of liturgical-linguistic iconography setting forth the teaching of the Hebrew prophets and the post-exilic writings.
2. But why should we observe the practice as contemporary Christians? To this question I would pose the deeper question of our connection to our older brothers and sisters in the covenant. At the theoretical level, it requires reflection on whether there is a relationship of essential continuity or essential discontinuity between Christianity and Judaism. On the practical level in requires reflection on whether the Church has yet to learn anything of Jesus from Jews.
To the theoretical question, I think that there is good ground to think of the Christian relationship to Judaism as one of essential continuity with important discontinuities rather than the other way around. Certainly this works for anyone reading the New Testament in light of its reflections on the Hebrew Bible and the story of Israel. Saint Paul in particular was quite willing to narrate the story of his Early Christian communities (churches) in a vital continuity with the stories of Adam, Abraham, Moses, etc. The fact that his narration reorients that story around a new climactic moment-the death and resurrection of Israel’s Messiah, Jesus-should not obscure his belief that he was fully faithful to Torah and to the essential vocation of Israel as the instrument of eschatological blessing to all humankind. This continuity works prospectively as well as it does retrospectively, however. Romans 9-11 witnesses to a certain Pauline hope that Israel as Israel-not Israel as incidental, individual Jewish converts-will be saved in the eschaton. While it belongs to the integrity of Christian confession to acknowledge that this will essentially be an eschatological reconciliation to one covenant wherein Jesus as Messiah and Lord, Paul is at great pains-straining at points, even-to announce and defend God’s eschatological fidelity to all the covenants of promise. This fidelity is applicable, as he sloganizes throughout Romans, to Jews and Gentiles alike.
To the practical question, I argue that Judaism presents a continual challenge and opportunity to learn about Jesus. Saint Paul recognizes that Israel qua Israel is heir to the covenants of promise and constitutes the normative canonical steward of the Hebrew Bible/Christian Old Testament. This has resulted historically in the Protestant appeal to Judaism in order to establish the legitimate boundaries of the canon of the Old Testament (as opposed to the LXX-Vulgata tradition containing the Apocrypha/Deuterocanonical books). It has appeared in the Renaissance-Reformation appeal to Medieval Rabbinic exegesis in the Mikra’ot-Gedalot to overturn established Roman Catholic exegesis. It also appears in Benedict XVI’s extended dialogues with Rabbi Jacob Neusner as a norm for his own christological interpretation of the Gospels and his conclusions regarding the historical Jesus. Could it be that faithful observance of this (entirely legitimate) development in Second Temple Jewish theology and liturgical praxis will enhance our own theological reflection likewise? I think that there is good reason to suspect that it might.
3. Beyond these larger considerations, I would cite the mere apostolic precedent of the New Testament in its citation of the Old. These citations are often directly from the LXX, but not always. Whether they are from additional Greek translations of the Hebrew or original to the New Testament authors themselves, there is not a single instance where YHVH is transliterated or rendered in any other way than kurios (=adonai). Note, for example, Jesus’ citation of Isaiah 61:1-2 in Luke 4:18-19. While we may, perhaps, acknowledge that Jesus cited the text in Hebrew and expounded upon it in Aramaic, do we really want to accuse Luke of theological or theo-practical error when he opts to render Isaiah’s ruach adonay YHVH as pneuma kuriou? The same holds true in the next verse where Jesus’ prolamation of Isaiah’s liqroh shenat-ratzon l’YHVH is rendered as eniauton kuriou dekton?
4. Finally, there is simply the governing consideration of the Golden Rule and a general theopraxis of love. While in no way seeking to broaden the narrow way that leads to life, there is something to be said for making the way narrower than it already is. Acknowledging the stumbling stone that is Jesus’ Messianic claim, we ought also to be mindful of the rhetorical stubling boulders proffered by Chrysostom, Luther, the Crusades, and Oberammergau. This legacy of Christian Anti-Judaism leads in a disturbingly direct and straight line to the gas chambers of Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. That fact alone requires Christians to do all that integrity of faith allows to prefer others to ourselves. In the end, nothing is sacrificed by ornamenting the Divine Name with reverential silence. The bearer of the Name remains Lord of the Covenant and King of All Creation regardless. On the other hand, insisting on our Christian liberty despite the weakness of others both overturns the Apostolic command (Cf. 1 Cor 8:12-13) and sublty reduces the Divine Name itself from an icon to an idol.
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