One recurring question that I’ve had while working on my “rereading the Book of Mormon” project is asking what should be understood by the common phrase “the Lord” in the text of this book of scripture. In Bible translations, this is a bit more straightforward: “the Lord” is often used as a euphemism for the divine name YHWH and could be read in that way. Before going any further with this discussion, I want to acknowledge that my writing out and speculating on the divine name here may (or will likely) be seen as disrespectful or offensive by many Jews (and even some Christians—I admire Wil Gafney’s approach to the divine name). In particular, my understanding is that Jews generally do not write out the divine name in the way that I have done so here. However, I also find that understanding the divine name as a personal name is important for Christians as they work to understand scriptural texts and that using the divine name effectively calls attention to this understanding. I have more thinking to do here, but in this post, I have (perhaps mistakenly) erred on the side of making a point that I think is important.
Indeed, I find that many Biblical passages make loads more sense when the reader understands “the Lord” as a replacement for the name of God. For example, the NRSV renders Exodus 20:2-3 as follows (or, if you prefer, here’s Martin Sheen’s Jed Bartlett’s take on it):
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
When the first clause is read as “I am YHWH your God,” the passage is read as a particular god identifying godself as being responsible for Israel’s liberation, and the prohibition against “other gods before me” makes more sense—there are other gods with other names out there, but Israel is charged with worshipping this god with this name Of course, though, this also points to the theological difficulties of having a god with a personal name. As the Germano-Swiss Biblical scholar Thomas Römer has written in his book L’invention de Dieu (also available in English as The Invention of God):
S’il n’y a qu’un seul dieu, pourquoi celui-ci devraitil avoir un nom propre ? (p. 38)
If there is only one God, why would he need a proper name? (p. 24 in English edition)
As an aside, I’ve been listening to Römer’s lectures at the Collège de France for a couple of years now and really enjoy them. My favorite fact about Römer is that he was the Biblical scholar that was eventually called on to provide context and understanding for Jacques Chirac’s Élysée when George W. Bush brought up Gog and Magog in private conversations trying to convince the French president to support the upcoming American invasion of Iraq.
Back to the point, though: Understanding that “the Lord” is a euphemism for the divine name changes how we read passages in the Bible and how we understand their theological implications. The Book of Mormon’s linguistic dependence on the Bible means that it inherits some of its language, including the euphemistic “the Lord,” but differences between the source texts of these two books of scripture makes this phrase much more ambiguous in the Book of Mormon than in the Bible. That is, in an English translation of the Bible, “the Lord” is a euphemism for the divine name, and we can understand that by consulting the source Hebrew texts, which combine the consonants of the name with the vowels of a Hebrew word translating as “Lord.”
In contrast, the Book of Mormon is purportedly a divinely-inspired English translation of an inaccessible source text in a language that is held to be close to Hebrew but that has not been proven to exist outside of the beliefs of more literally minded Smith-Rigdon religious movements. Thus, “the Lord” is the translation, but what is it a translation of? Should the equivalent phrase in the hypothetical source text be understood as the divine name? Should it be understood as the literal words “the Lord”? Should it be understood as Joseph Smith’s applying familiar 19th-century American langauge for deity to some untranslatable Nephite word? Or something else entirely?
The second option (that “lord” means “lord”) is particularly interesting, because the word used as a euphemistic replacement for the divine name is not the only word in the Hebrew Bible that can be translated as “Lord.” In her excellent Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne, Wil Gafney points out some of the complications this raises. For example, the word ba’al can also be translated as “lord.” Because ba’al also refers to slaveowners (and, further complicating the issue, to husbands), Gafney declines to use the euphemism “Lord” to refer to deity. However, readers may also recognize ba’al as the name associated with an oft-derided deity (or, more accurately, a number of derided deities) in the Hebrew Bible. Gafney highlights the difficulty inherent in pitting “the Lord God of Israel” against a given ba’al-god that, it turns out, also goes by the name “the Lord.” To translate adonai as Lord but keep ba’al in transliterated Hebrew is to pick sides in a way that the Biblical authors might agree with but hides important details from the reader.
In fact, the assumption that “the Lord” in the Book of Mormon is a necessary assumption for one of Grant Hardy’s most interesting arguments in Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide. Hardy provides a reading of the Book of Ether that argues that Moroni (the book’s purported editor) “Christianizes the Jaredite record” (p. 235). That is:
with a single exception, specific references to Jesus Christ apear only in Moroni’s editorial remarks [rather than Moroni’s purported source text, which is distinct from Joseph Smith’s purported source text and further complicates these hypothetical questions] (p. 235)
I like this reading a lot—in Rosalynde Frandsen Welch’s Ether: A Brief Theological Introduction, she expands on Hardy’s reading as part of a broader reading of Ether in a way that warns against a universal Christianity that avoids ethnocentrism (or, presumably by extension, ecclesiocentrism). However, this reading relies on “the Lord” not being a euphemism for the divine name because it—supported by the internal narrative of the Book of Mormon—assumes that the Jaredites whose story is told in the Book of Ether are not Israelite.
And yet, in so much of the Book of Mormon, “the Lord” is used in exactly the same ways that we would see in the King James Version, and the internal narrative of the Book of Mormon would suggest that the Nephite writers are familiar with the divine name. This is particularly compelling if we make the admittedly-dodgy move of combining this internal narrative with scholars’ assumptions that prohibitions on speaking or writing the divine name did not come until after the Nephite writers separated from Israelites. In short, it certainly seems like “the Lord” is a euphemism of the divine name in much of the Book of Mormon.
Of course, now is a good time to emphasize that I’m skeptical of Book of Mormon historicity; in fact, the best answer for all of this is probably that Joseph Smith, Jr. did what 19th century American Christians did (and what 21st century American Christians still do) and internalize the “Lord” euphemism for the divine name without much consideration for the divine name that was behind it (Smith eventually showed an obvious interest in the name of God, but that raises yet other questions).
Nonetheless, I also think that taking the Book of Mormon’s narrative at face value is helpful for producing good readings of the text—or at least challenging Book of Mormon readers to think more deeply about what the text means. Asking what “the Lord” means in the Book of Mormon not only challenges its readers to think more about this book but also their relationship with that same phrase in the Bible. As I’ve already pointed out, appreciating the divine name raises questions about theology and religious history that can be difficult to wrestle with. Despite the difficulty of these questions, I don’t see them as posing necessarily obstacles to faith generally or to particular beliefs—however, I do think that believers owe it to themselves to wrestle with these kinds of difficulties and appreciate the complexity of the texts and traditions that we hold to.
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