What’s in a Name?

I was reading Psalm 113 today, and I got stuck on one of the words: LORD.

by John Singer Sargent

In America, where there are no lords (or ladies), we vaguely associate the word with jolly old England and people dressed in Victorian clothing. We picture expensive, elaborate garb, symbols of status and wealth. We imagine a life free from want. A life filled with servants who cater to our every whim.

Lords, then, stand in stark contrast to the serving peasants, those masses who live one week’s wage – or less – from hunger and homelessness. Ultimately, the word LORD evokes images of injustice and inequality. And that’s where I got stuck.

Now, I understand that LORD is just a placeholder for a concept, namely God. But as you probably know, I get cranky about language which validates privilege. (Or violence. We sing Onward Christian Soldiers in tribute to Jesus? Really?) The word LORD bothered me, because it arises out of a caste system which believes some are more important than others.

But we’re talking about God here. God IS more important, right?

Honestly, I’m not sure that’s true. If God resides in us, if we are God stuff through and through, if we are images of God, then we cannot be less important, can we? Because in some intangible but real way, we ARE God. All of creation is an expression of Godself, and therefore as holy as the God we imagine to be external.

by Leon Lhermitte

In any case, the point I’m trying to make is that we’re using a word that reinforces a stratum perspective: namely, that one person – a rich lord, say – is more important than another, perhaps a peasant down to her last penny. Regardless of our perspective of God’s supremacy, using class-reinforcing words for God also informs our view of one another.

Let’s be honest. We do stratify. We glorify doctors. Or musicians. Or baseball players. Or whoever our LORD happens to be. It’s so not WWJD. Jesus commands us to love each other as equals, and I believe one way we can bring our perspective more in alignment is by being thoughtful with language.

Words matter. Words define and create our perceptions, and thereby our actions. That’s why I get my knickers in a bunch (what are knickers and how do they bunch?) when I run across a word like LORD.

What does the Hebrew word translated LORD really mean? Is it a word of hierarchy, or is it something else? It turns out, LORD is the English substitute for the word YHWH, which is the unpronouncable name of God. The word YHWH comes from the Hebrew word havah, which means to be, to become, or to come to pass.

Ah-ha! We follow the God who is. The God out of which all becomes and happens. Or, to jump back onto my We-are-all-God bandwagon, this is the God who is, who becomes all things (us and creation and all that we can’t imagine), and who is in all activities.

Because it was a name not to be pronounced, Hebrews in early centuries substituted the word haShem or the Name. Today, they use Adonai. When the Bible was translated into English, LORD was the substitutionary word.

That’s a relief. The original word has nothing to do with a caste system. That means I can validly substitute a reverent word/phrase that carries less baggage. Perhaps I might even use the root word, Havah.

Oh, did you know? The modern form of Havah is Eve. Wait, you say. The most revered name of God is a variation of….Eve?

art by Linde Mott

Ah, yup.

So, now I’ll return to Psalm 113 and rewrite it without the word LORD. If it wasn’t equally classist, I might consider substituting LADY. 🙂