The Problem With “God”

©2007 by W. L. Graham

“God” has become such a common catch-all term for deity used by people of all faiths that it is often given a casual affirmation of presumed agreement as to the identity and/or concept of God, irrespective of any theological differentiation. In the English translations of the Hebrew and Greek Bible texts, the overuse of God as a singular proper noun has led to its almost universal acceptance as the proper name for principal deity throughout the Judeo-Christian religious culture, obfuscating some very important distinctions in the Hebrew.

The principal Hebrew deity of the Bible is properly identified as the Almighty Father God, Lord Yahweh. His personal introduction to the Exodus Jews was through Moses at Mount Sinai where he first became known to them by the sacred name spelled with the Hebrew letters YHWH. Over time, vowels were added to this mysterious Tetragrammaton to form YaHWeH (alternately YeHoViH) which, by the twelfth century AD, evolved to JeHoVaH with a "hard J", i.e. "Jehovah", the most common English rendering of the name besides Yahweh. However, Semitic language scholars generally agree that Yahweh is the most accurate rendering of the sacred name of the Hebrew national God of the Bible.

Despite numerous explicit biblical commandments regarding the importance of recording and honoring this distinctive sacred name, and its appearance in the Hebrew texts more than 6,400 times, “Yahweh” is almost universally rendered simply as Lord, Lord God, or Sovereign Lord in all but a few modern versions of the English Bible. This extraordinary practice of omitting the sacred name of the Bible’s Almighty God, both in the written text and common speech, is defended by biblical translators with the odd assertion that it demonstrates a tradition of reverence for the name Yahweh. In other words, according to this peculiar view, God’s name is too sacred to speak or even to write!

Thus, the personal identity of the Almighty God of the biblical religion has been displaced through the arbitrary substitution of vague, monotheistic terminology in the texts. Not to put too fine a point on the subject, but one might well speculate how strange the biblical texts would read if the same standard were applied to the Bible’s other principle characters and the Bible’s translators simply substituted “man” or “woman” for their proper given names!

The other frequently used Hebraic term of great respect for the authority of Yahweh is the word adon, or Adonai (emphatic), approximating the English title Master or Lord. In addition to its usage in reference to Yahweh and also his highly revered emissaries, this title of respect was an accepted reference and formal address for a human authority figure, according to Hebrew culture of biblical times. Adonai (or Adonay) is, however, most frequently associated with Yahweh, either by direct attachment to his name or by contextual reference, in order to identify him as the Lord of the Hebrew nation and to accord him supremacy above all other gods.

Many otherwise literate Bible students may be unaware that the Hebrew writers of the Bible believed in and taught the existence of a vast race of extraterrestrial gods whom they called the elohim. To correct a very common misconception, elohim is neither the proper name nor an exclusive designation for the principle Hebrew god, Yahweh. While this distinctive plural noun is well known by scholars to be correctly translated “mighty ones” and is found throughout the Hebrew texts some 2,570 times, it has been consistently translated as God, singular proper noun, in all but a few instances where it is arbitrarily rendered gods, angels, sons of God, and (rarely) mighty ones.

It should be emphasized that elohim is a term used by the Hebrew writers regardless of whether the particular beings referred to are seen as benevolent or malevolent, and also for specific pagan gods (see Jdg 2:11-13; Jdg 10:6; 1 Kgs 11:33; 2 Kgs 1:2). It is also the very same word used in reference to all of the unnamed strange or alien gods found throughout the bible texts, the worship of whom was strictly forbidden. Such gods are frequently associated with graven images and unlawful religious practices including animal and human ritual sacrifice, but are also portrayed as living, active beings or mighty ones, as in “new gods (elohim) who came recently whom your fathers did not dread” (Deu 32:16-17). The important point being that the plurality of extraterrestrial elohim (or “gods”, high and low) identified throughout the Bible reveals the authentic theological perspective of the original Hebrew writers, making the identification and differentiation of deity an extremely important matter.

In ancient Hebrew thought, besides Lord Yahweh, multiple gods referred to in the Bible (e.g. Baal-zebub, Dagon, the goddess Ashtoreth, the angels Gabriel and Michael, and also the one commonly called the devil or Satan) were all considered elohim, whether divine or evil. Basic research of common reference sources will reveal this little-known bible fact. To further clarify the correctness of the diverse and plural usage of elohim, the singular form of the word is eloah (rarely used), or simply el, most often used conjunctively to form compound words and names that denote divine power or might (e.g. elshaddai, Israel, Bethel, etc.).

The only permissible usage of elohim as a singular noun, despite its plural word form or the absence of a grammatically proper adverb or preposition, is when elohim is definitively identified, by name or designation, with the principle elohim authority figure, Lord Yahweh. In such cases this usage may be viewed as both a personal and racial identification in the same way that an extraterrestrial god might introduce the former English Monarch as Humankind’s King James, or simply James, Humankind. Thus also do the biblical texts alternately refer to the Hebrew god as Adonai Yahweh, Yahweh-Elohim, or Elohim Adonai (i.e., Lord Yahweh, Yahweh of the Elohim, and Elohim Lord, respectively).

The Greek translations present a unique challenge over the Semitic language texts. For example, with respect to the common practice of rendering the Greek theos as “God”, a presumed reference to the Hebrew Lord Yahweh, determining the plural form (i.e., Heb. elohim, “gods” or “mighty ones”) or rendering it as an adjective or adverb (divine, godlike, godly, etc.) is complicated. One must ascertain from the context of a particular passage of scripture which usage is most accurate. If a problem arises concerning a specific word translation, maintaining a Hebrew rather than Greek perspective will facilitate the best interpretation of a text. We should keep in mind that the literature that comprises our English Bible, including the New Testament, was originally written by Jews who were well acquainted with and communicated basic Hebrew theology, frequently quoting Old Testament Hebrew scriptures. The NT writers also were literate in classical Hebrew and Aramaic, the common language of the historic biblical region of Palestine.

Naturally, they communicated in their native language, rather than Greek, and would have no doubt written the synoptic gospels as well as the letters which form the New Testament in Aramaic and/or Hebrew whenever writing to their Semitic brethren. Paul, a citizen of Rome, literate in Greek and Hebrew, may have penned some of his letters in Greek (e.g., his letter to the Romans) and others in Hebrew. The text of the Hebrews letter would almost certainly have been written in Hebrew or Aramaic. Sadly, the originals have been lost to time, however it is widely acknowledged that copies of both Greek and Aramaic texts date to the first century church. Yet a long-standing bias which favors Greek versus Aramaic primacy with regard to translating the NT literature has resulted in much controversy among language scholars. A decidedly Greek inspired (and some would say anti-Semitic) interpretation has found its way into many NT texts with the original Aramaic names of both people and places altered. Current English translations of the NT from Greek and Latin codices often vary significantly from the Semitic translations.

“Lord Yeshua”

Yeshua is the Aramaic birth name which the NT translators have rendered “Jesus” from the Greek Iesous (pron. ee-yay-soos). According to NT scripture, Yeshua would thus be the actual name which the angel of the Lord, Gabriel, instructed his parents to name him at birth (see Luke 1:26-31). A slight spelling variant of Yoshua (i.e., Joshua), the name means savior, or deliverer, in Hebrew. The Greek-to-English rendering “Jesus Christ” is not the authentic sacred name conferred upon the NT Messiah by the Father God, Yahweh, and does not even approximate the correct spelling or pronunciation of Yeshua ha Meshiach in the Hebrew. [Note: “Christ” derives from the Greek word kristos, meaning “anointed/smeared with oil” and does not represent the full and precise meaning attached to “Messiah”.]

The true biblical names of the Father, Lord Yahweh, and the Son, Lord Yeshua, need not be a controversial subject and are not difficult names to write or speak. Even for those unaccustomed to saying the name Yeshua, it is surely worthy of some respectful consideration. According to the divine word as it was originally communicated in Aramaic, Yeshua is a “name above every other name that can be named” (see Philippians 2:9) and the “only name by which one can be saved” (see Acts 4:12). Thus the Greek and Latin translations of the NT by scribes appointed by the early Roman church has resulted in the alteration of the sacred, God-given name of Yeshua, the Messiah, in all but a few modern English Bibles. There are, nevertheless, many Semitic language scholars in the Middle East, and also increasingly in the West, who are committed to the restoration of the Aramaic language and cultural influence in Bible translation, particularly with respect to honoring the Bible’s sacred names.

If for some personal reason one just doesn't like to use the Lord’s real name and is firmly committed to using the name Jesus instead, do I think this is an offense? Truly, I wouldn't presume to say. It may simply be a matter of personal choice without any spiritual effect one way or the other. Certainly who one believes in, and the name(s) we invoke, does seem to be an important scriptural teaching however. Personally, I am comfortable using the name Yeshua, but I also understand the thoroughly established Christian tradition that reinforces the near universally accepted usage of the Greek-to-English “Jesus Christ”. This may be viewed simply as an unintentional error on the part of believing Christians that derives from a faulty and insensitive translation process down through the ages. Perhaps what is most important is one’s spiritual relationship with Lord Yeshua with the decision on whether or not to use this most sacred of names left as a matter of personal choice.

Is Yeshua God?

The NT references to the Hebrew god as Father is understood to be an implicit reference to Yahweh and needs no further comment as to his identity. It is apparent that the term Father was deliberately chosen by Yeshua to introduce his relationship to Yahweh as well as the intimate, familial concept of his kingdom, a central theme of NT teaching. Through his assertion of intimacy with the Father and the mighty ones of his heavenly kingdom, or cosmic empire, Yeshua encountered immediate hostility from the Jewish religious leaders of his day. They interpreted this identification as a blasphemous declaration that he himself was one of the elohim (e.g., Jno 5:18; 10:30-39; 14:6-11). Numerous statements attributed to Yeshua and his disciples make it clear that he claimed a divine birthright and authority as the prophesied Hebrew Messiah. But nowhere does the New Testament emphatically assert that Yeshua is principle deity, the Father, or Almighty God, a dogmatic position nevertheless asserted throughout history by institutional Christianity. Clearly the NT presents Yeshua, who called himself the Son of Man, as being fully human and many would say that he also is fully “God”. This view of deity places Lord Yeshua as identical or equal to the Almighty God and Father, Lord Yahweh. This is not, however, an accurate representation of the whole of NT scripture or the views of the early Hebrew disciples of the faith.

It is evident in NT scripture that Yeshua acknowledged the Father as superior to himself (e.g., Jno 5:22,24; 5:30; 5:43,44; 12:49,50; 14:28; Mat 24:35,36; Mar 13:32; Act 1:7), always prayed to or personally addressed the Father with praise and gratitude (e.g., Jno Ch.17; Mat 6:5-15; 11:25,26; Luk 10:21, 22:42; Jno 11:41), and repeatedly said that the Father resided in heaven (or the cosmos) while he himself was physically on earth. He also specifically instructs his disciples (then and now) to likewise pray to the Father with the right to invoke his own name, Yeshua, as a form of personal introduction. In the Hebrew culture of the day, this was a great honor that bestowed a venerated master’s own status and authority upon a beloved disciple or household member. It is not, however, reasonable to adopt a legalistic position on the matter of prayer, as if to say that addressing Lord Yeshua directly in prayer, praise, or private spiritual conversation, as has always been the habit of faithful devotees, is in any way wrong. The joy and comfort that comes through exercising a great degree of liberty in one’s intimate spiritual relationship with a personal Lord Yeshua has always been a central feature of the New Testament faith.

It is not the intention of this commentary to upset anyone about their usage of “Jesus Christ” rather than Lord Yeshua or argue His deification, but only to help clarify the authentic views of the Hebrew writers pertaining to the true identifications of biblical deity and to respectfully uphold the sacred names. Most particularly, it is my hope that this will serve as an encouragement to believers to exercise better judgment when it comes to the term “God” and remember that the NT writers clearly understood and believed in Hebrew theology pertaining to all of the different gods among the elohim kind, in a vast universe. When asked the overly simplistic question, “Do you believe in God?” I sometimes respond “Which one?” This kind of response simply communicates my understanding of the authentic biblical view of deity revealed succinctly in the following NT scripture:

“For though there are so-called gods both in heaven and on earth, as indeed there are numerous gods and numerous lords, for us there is only one God, the Father...and one Lord, [Yeshua Messiah]....” 1 Cor 8:5,6.

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