Differences in Languages

Bible Studies

God’s Name

The Trinity

It is sometimes rather difficult to translate from one language into another, especially when the text is talking about things that fall outside of ordinary human experience.

Several interesting differences exist between ancient, written Hebrew and our English language.  First of all, written Hebrew only had consonants.  When Hebrew was a living language, people simply understood which vowel sounds to supply as they read the written consonantal text.  But when the language began to cease being the primary, day-to-day language of the Jewish people, the rabbis became concerned how to preserve the meaning of the Hebrew text.  Since the Scripture was God’s own word, they understood that even the smallest letter and the least distinguishing mark between one letter and another were there by God’s sovereign will.  (Cf. Matthew 5:18.) Therefore, they knew they could not modify the written letters.  But they also knew that they had to find a way to supply the ordinary reader with the means to know which vowel sounds went with the consonants of the written Hebrew text.  They came up with a very clever method: instead of modifying the biblical text, they placed dots and dashes above and below the letters.  These dots and dashes are called vowel points because they enable the reader to know exactly which vowel sounds to supply with the written Hebrew consonantal text.

However, God’s proper name, Yahweh, was so sacred to the Jewish people that they never pronounced it and substituted either their generic word for God or their ordinary word “lord” (“sir, master”) instead.  When the rabbis copied the Hebrew consonantal text, adding the vowel points above and below the letters, they used the vowel points for God or lord when they came to the word “Yahweh.”  They did this to notify the Hebrew reader not to pronounce God’s sacred name, but rather to substitute one of those two words instead.  That’s why, were you to translate what a Jewish congregation says when it pronounces Deuteronomy 6:4, you wouldn’t hear: “Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one.”  Instead you would hear, “Hear, O Israel: Master our God, Master is one.” Or, as it is written in English translations, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.”

The Tetragrammaton, or 
Four Hebrew Consonants 
Comprising God’s Name

If someone were to try to pronounce the vowels for the substitute word, “master, along with the four Hebrew letters that comprise God’s proper name, he might come up with “Yehowah,” or as it is Anglicized, “Jehovah.”  But Jehovah is not God’s proper name; Yahweh is.  Most English translations, following Jewish tradition, choose not to render these four consonants (They are called the Tetragrammaton.) with “Yahweh” but use the word, LORD, in all capital letters.

In the Bible, no one ever dared to name a child God or Yahweh–the very thought was the height of blasphemy–but throughout biblical history, godly people gave their children names that reflected God’s attributes and ownership. For example, Elisha, which combines two words, El (meaning God) and yeshua (meaning salvation or deliverance), means “God is salvation.”

Many times people incorporated God’s proper name, Yahweh, as part of the name. Elijah is comprised of El (God), with the first person singular suffix, i (my), and Yahweh (contracted to Yah): “My God is Yahweh.”

Joshua is formed by contracting Yahweh with yeshua: “Yahweh is salvation,” an appropriate name for a deliverer, such as Joshua, the son of Nun. Before the Babylonian captivity, Joshua’s name in Hebrew was pronounced Yehoshua (Yeh HO [as in no] shoo ah); afterwards it was written Yashua (Ya [as in day] SHOO ah). In Greek and Latin it is (pronounced YA [as in day] soos),  written Iesus in Latin.

It is not surprising that Joshua was a popular name for Hebrew boys (cf. e.g. the high priest of Zechariah 3), nor was it unusual when the angel instructed Joseph to name his wife’s son Joshua (Matthew 1:21 ).*  In the course of time, English translators rendered it Jesus in order to distinguish our Lord from his Old Testament kin.

There are other interesting differences between ancient, written Hebrew and modern English: Hebrew is written from right to left, as over against English, which is written left to right.  And Hebrew only has two tenses, completed action and incomplete.  So if you are talking about an action that took place in the past, you would use the perfect tense to signify action that had already taken place.  But if you are talking about action that is taking place now or will take place in the future, you would use the imperfect tense.  How would you distinguish between the future and the present?  The Hebrew speaker could make that clear in other ways.  That may seem bizarre to us, but ancient Hebrew was very effective for God’s people to use as a means of communication. 

Another interesting difference between ancient Hebrew and modern English has to do with gender.  Hebrew only has two genders, male and female.  So everything, not only plants and animals, but rocks and dirt are either masculine or feminine.  That simply indicates that the Hebrew people did not think of these concepts in exactly the same way that we do.  That would be true of ancient Greek as well.  Even though the Greeks had three genders as we do, masculine, feminine and neuter, they did not hold to as rigid an understanding as we do.  For example, when the Lord Jesus addresses Peter (a masculine noun.) in Matthew 16:18 and says, “Upon this rock, I will build my church,” Jesus uses the ordinary word for rock or bedrock, but this Greek word is a feminine noun. 

You and I don’t think of rocks as having feminine qualities as over against masculine ones.  Neither did the Greeks; it is simply how their language is, and grammars of ancient languages are descriptive, not prescriptive.  This underscores another point, one related to the biblical doctrine of the Trinity.  The Greek word for spirit is a neuter noun, but that does not mean that the Holy Spirit is some kind of inanimate object; again, it is simply the nature of the Greek language to use gender differently than we do.  Getting back to Hebrew, the word for spirit in the Old Testament is a feminine noun, but, again, that does not mean that the Holy Spirit is a female; it is rather that the nature of the ancient Hebrew language was to use gender differently than we do.

Bob Vincent