Bible Reviews Bible Reviews

The Tetragrammaton

What It Is and How It Affects Bible Translations

What Is the Tetragrammaton?

The tetragrammaton (literally: “four-lettered [word]”) is the Hebrew name of God given to Moses by God himself in Exodus 3:15:
God further said to Moses, ‘You are to tell the Israelites, “Yahweh, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.” This is my name for all time, and thus I am to be invoked for all generations to come.’
— New Jerusalem Bible

The English transliteration (written representation of the sound of a foreign word) is normally written “YHWH”, and the commonly-accepted English transliteration with vowels added is “Yahweh”. The rendering traditional in English Bible translations is “the Lord” (notice the small capitals used for the letters “ord”).

Does the Tetragrammaton Mean “Lord”?

In fact the tetragrammaton does not mean “Lord”. Though scholars dispute the precise meaning, they are agreed that the meaning is some form of the verb “to be”. Regardless of its meaning, it is typically used in the Bible as a name, and standard practice in translation is to transliterate foreign names (that is: to write them how they sound, not to write their meaning). For example: in English Bibles we always use “Ezekiel” (the sound of the name) instead of the meaning of the name which is: “May God Strengthen Him”.

I won’t go into details here regarding why the tetragrammaton is traditionally rendered “the Lord” in English translations of the Bible. However I will mention this: in all known copies of the New Testament documents in the original language (Koine Greek), Jesus and the apostles and the New Testament authors all always use the term meaning “the Lord” in place of the tetragrammaton. So: in Christianity using “the Lord” in place of the tetragrammaton is a convention that traces back to the very founders and foundational documents of our religion.

How the Tetragrammaton Is Rendered Affects Bible Translations

How the tetragrammaton is rendered significantly affects the clarity and sense of English translations of the Bible. I will explain below using examples, but the conclusion is this: any rendering more precise than “the Lord” (whether it is “Yahweh” or “Jehovah” or “Hashem” or something else) benefits the reader.

Psalm 110:1

KJVKing James Version The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.
NASBNew American Standard Bible The Lord says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand Until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet.”
NIV​-2011New International Version - 2011 Revision The Lord says to my lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.”
NJBNew Jerusalem Bible Yahweh declared to my Lord, ‘Take your seat at my right hand, till I have made your enemies your footstool.’

The above example is a simple case of a verse that includes both the tetragrammaton and the word meaning “lord”. The NJB is much more clear than the others even to a reader. For someone who is listening and not reading, the other versions are very ambiguous.

Isaiah 1:24

KJVKing James Version Therefore saith the Lord, the Lord of hosts, the mighty One of Israel, Ah, I will ease me of mine adversaries, and avenge me of mine enemies:
NASBNew American Standard Bible ¶ Therefore the Lord God of hosts, The Mighty One of Israel, declares, “Ah, I will be relieved of My adversaries And avenge Myself on My foes.
NIV​-2011New International Version - 2011 Revision Therefore the Lord, the Lord Almighty, the Mighty One of Israel, declares: “Ah! I will vent my wrath on my foes and avenge myself on my enemies.
NJBNew Jerusalem Bible Hence, the Lord Yahweh Sabaoth, the Mighty One of Israel, says this, ‘Disaster, I shall get the better of my enemies, I shall avenge myself on my foes.

In the first line of the above verse we see a real muddying of the wording in all but the NJB. If you look at that version first, you will see that we have three words for God present back-to-back: the word meaning “the Lord”, the tetragrammaton and the Hebrew title “Sabaoth” (traditionally and inaccurately rendered “of hosts”). A rendering of each individual word using the traditional methods would read “the Lord the Lord of hosts.” We can clearly see (in the KJV and NIV) how, despite the added comma, this dilutes the impressiveness of the multiple designations. Repetition of the word “lord” does nothing to add to the description of the majesty of God. This particular example shows that each of the translations uses a different mechanism in an attempt to convey the meaning of all three of these words. The NJB provides clarity and precision in this verse that is clearly superior to the others. More important, perhaps, is the sheer impressiveness of God in the verse when all of the designations included are rendered precisely and separately.

Isaiah 19:4

KJVKing James Version And the Egyptians will I give over into the hand of a cruel lord; and a fierce king shall rule over them, saith the Lord, the Lord of hosts.
NASBNew American Standard Bible “Moreover, I will deliver the Egyptians into the hand of a cruel master, And a mighty king will rule over them,” declares the Lord God of hosts.
NIV​-2011New International Version - 2011 Revision I will hand the Egyptians over to the power of a cruel master, and a fierce king will rule over them,” declares the Lord, the Lord Almighty.
NJBNew Jerusalem Bible And I shall hand Egypt over to the clutches of a cruel master, a ruthless king will rule them— declares Yahweh Sabaoth.
Here, interestingly, we see that the NJB lacks the title “the Lord” which, judging by the other three versions, appears just as in the previous verse. It may be that the NJB uses an alternate source text. Also interesting is the use of the word “lord” (lower case) in the KJV as a title for a human. That version of this verse allows us to see the textual differences in the three different (English) Biblical usages of the word “lord”:
  • “a…lord” - referring to some human lord.
  • “the Lord” - the word “lord” used as a title, in this case referring to God.
  • “the Lord“ - the traditional English rendering of the tetragrammaton

Isaiah 22:14

KJVKing James Version And it was revealed in mine ears by the Lord of hosts, Surely this iniquity shall not be purged from you till ye die, saith the Lord God of hosts.
NASBNew American Standard Bible But the Lord of hosts revealed Himself to me, “Surely this iniquity shall not be forgiven you Until you die,” says the Lord God of hosts.
NIV​-2011New International Version - 2011 Revision The Lord Almighty has revealed this in my hearing: “Till your dying day this sin will not be atoned for,” says the Lord, the Lord Almighty.
NJBNew Jerusalem Bible Then Yahweh Sabaoth revealed this to my ears, ‘This guilt will never be forgiven you, until you are dead,’ says the Lord Yahweh Sabaoth.

This last example lets us see some inconsistencies in the renderings provided in English Bible versions, including some that are otherwise excellent translations. The KJV renders “the Lord Yahweh Sabaoth” as “the Lord God of hosts” here, but as “the Lord, the Lord of hosts” in Isaiah 1:24 (above). The NIV is consistent throughout. The NASB, we see, renders “Yahweh Sabaoth” as “the Lord of hosts,” but renders “the Lord Yahweh Sabaoth” as “the Lord God of hosts” even though the difference between the two phrases is actually the inclusion in the second case of the Hebrew word meaning “the Lord,” not the addition of either the word “God” or the name of God! So in this case the NASB shows a surprising lack of literal translation by conveying a difference in meaning between the phrases other than the difference which actually exists in the original language! The NJB, like the NIV, is consistent throughout.

Why I Chose These Bible Versions

KJVKing James Version The KJV is historically the most popular English translation. It continues to be widely used and (as of 2016) remains one of the top five English versions in sales. The Oxford World Classic’s edition, which is what I use as a source here, employs the “Standard Text” (excluding the marginal notes).
NASBNew American Standard Bible The NASB is the most popular modern very word-for-word literal English translation available. Such a translation is very useful in analyzing the rendering of individual words.
NIV​-2011New International Version - 2011 Revision The NIV is the best-selling English Bible translation at the current time (2016) and has held that position for more than 10 years.
NJBNew Jerusalem Bible The NJB is my favorite translation and is particularly useful when discussing this particular subject.