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Why Does the Old Testament Sometimes Capitalize Lord or God?

Author: Geoff Ashley Category: Theology

You may have noticed that the words “Lord” and “God” receive different capitalization in various contexts. Consider the following passages for reference:

  • Genesis 1:1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
  • Genesis 2:18 Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”
  • Psalm 23:1 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
  • Genesis 23:6 (ESV) “Hear us, my lord; you are a prince of God among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will withhold from you his tomb to hinder you from burying your dead.”
  • Exodus 4:13 But he said, “Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.”
  • Genesis 15:2 But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”
  • Deuteronomy 4:28 And there you will serve gods of wood and stone, the work of human hands, that neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell.

Most English versions of the Bible will explain their translation principles in the preface so I would encourage you to read the particular guidelines that the editors used within your preferred version. Given that The Village uses the English Standard Version (ESV), here are some thoughts on the distinctions as used within that translation.

Helpful Background:

Within the Old Testament, God reveals His covenant name as יהוה (Exodus 3:13-15). When transliterated1 into English, the four characters are rendered as YHWH. This is known as thetetragrammaton in theological realms (in Greek: tetra means four; gramma means letter). Related to the Hebrew verb “to be,” the name expresses the reality that God simply is (see Exodus 3:14). He is absolute and unchangeable.

It was this name which was subject to the most intense restriction by Hebrews in light of the third commandment’s preservation of the sanctity of God’s name (Exodus 20:7). To avoid misusing the LORD’s name, the Hebrews would instead pronounce it as adonai which was a Hebrew term meaning lord or master. As Hebrew was originally written only with consonants, the actual pronunciation of the divine name has been subject to some degree of debate, but most modern scholars believe that the best option is Yahweh.

In time,2 the ability to pronounce Hebrew waned as the population gradually became more accustomed to Aramaic and eventually Arabic. Therefore, “vowel points” were added to aid in pronunciation. Given the desire to pronounce adonai instead of Yahweh, the vowels of the term adonaiwere inserted into the consonants of YHWH to render it YaHoWaH. Early English translators, having little knowledge of the background of the term, simply assumed YaHoWaH as the proper pronunciation and rendered it “Jehovah.” Though Jehovah was not the original pronunciation, it has retained some degree of familiarity in the English language even to this day.

General Guidelines:

Capitalization distinctions in the English text are due to the particular Hebrew words and the subject to which those words refer. In particular, the Hebrew words which are used in these ways are: YHWH,adonaieleloah, and elohim.

Here are some helpful hints as to the meaning of those terms:

  • YHWH is always used of the one true Creator God.
  • Adonai is a generic term which simply means lord or master. It can be used of a human master or the one true Creator God depending on the context.
  • Elohimel, and eloah are all generic terms which simply mean god or gods. They can all be used of idols, spiritual beings such as angels and demons, or the one true Creator God depending on the context.

In general:

  1. When you see LORD, the specific name YHWH is used and it always refers to Him.
  2. When you see lord, the word adonai is used in such a way as to refer to a human master or lord.
  3. When you see Lord, the word adonai is used to refer to the true God.
  4. When you see God, the Hebrew words elohimel, or eloah are used to refer to the one true God.
  5. When you see god or gods, the Hebrew words elohimel, or eloah are used to refer to idols, spiritual beings, the objects of other nations’ worship, etc.
  6. When you see Lord GOD, the author has used both adonai and YHWH together.

Footnotes

1 Unlike translation which involves the expression of a concept across languages, transliteration simply changes the characters of one language into the characters of another. For example, the Greek word Χριστός can be translated as “the anointed One” or transliterated as “Christos.” The former expresses the concept while the latter preserves some degree of pronunciation. The word appears in the New Testament as “Christ.” 

2 Probably around the 6th or 7th century A.D. 

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