The Serpent Refuses to Call God By His Name •
A variety of Hebrew words and ancient language loan-words are used in the Old Testament to refer to God by attribute or title or name. These in turn have been turned into English language words without always a one-to-one match up of Hebrew to English. Instead of a straight rendering of Hebrew to English, the various English language translators made their own choices to abandon Hebrew words and transliterations and use substitute terms, follow Latin lettering, and use the word “God” which doesn’t sound anything at all like anything Hebrew. Underlying all this is the difficulty of nailing down the exact accurate name of God in the first place, assuming He even has a name. And then, underlying this, is the hesitancy of ancient and modern Jews to write or speak the personal name explicitly, and the use therefore of substitute words.
We are not going to wade into all this here in this Bible Bit.
Instead, we’ll see the curious case of the serpent and Eve in the garden having a conversation about God,using only two words to refer to our almighty father.
Here is Genesis 3:1-8 in the NET translation. We have highlighted our words of interest:
Now the serpent was more shrewd than any of the wild animals that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Is it really true that God said, ‘You must not eat from any tree of the orchard’?” 2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit from the trees of the orchard; 3 but concerning the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the orchard God said, ‘You must not eat from it, and you must not touch it, or else you will die.'” 4 The serpent said to the woman, “Surely you will not die, 5 for God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will open and you will be like divine beings who know good and evil.” 6 When the woman saw that the tree produced fruit that was good for food, was attractive to the eye, and was desirable for making one wise, she took some of its fruit and ate it. She also gave some of it to her husband who was with her, and he ate it. 7 Then the eyes of both of them opened, and they knew they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. 8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God moving about in the orchard at the breezy time of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the orchard. (NET)
Observe that when the narrator speaks, this English translation uses “Lord God.” When the serpent speaks he uses “God” but not “Lord God.” True to character, Eve takes the serpent’s bait, and follows the serpent’s use of “God” but not the narrator’s “Lord God.”
The NET translation above chooses “divine beings” to interpret what most other translators translate as simply “God” and occasionally “as gods.” Here are two examples of other translation choices:
“For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (NASB)
For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. (KJV)
In the Hebrew of this passage, only two words are used for these English choices of Lord, God, and gods. These are:
The first, יְהוָ֣ה, is the so-called four-letter Tetragrammaton. It is the abbreviated, unpronounceable, non-voweled, consonant-only, and problematic personal name of God presented in uppercase English lettering as YHWH.
There is much to unpack regarding the Tetragrammaton, but we will not attempt that here.
Instead, we will say that even though יְהוָ֣ה is not pronounceable, this hasn’t stopped Christians and Jews from speculating on how to do so. Or rather, we have speculated on the pronunciation of the lost original Hebrew word. The best we’ve come up with in English is “Yahweh.” “Yahweh” (and sometimes the Latin’ized “Jehovah”) is our attempt to spell and write down and pronounce, in English, the personal name of God.
The English word “God” is a reasonable choice as a translation for “Yahweh,” but Bible translators often use the English uppercase lettering “LORD.”
The second,אֱלֹהִ֑ים, is a variation on a Mesopotamian generalized word for “god” applied to the most-high God of Hebrews. The English transliteration of אֱלֹהִ֑ים is “Elohim.” The English word translators use most often for “Elohim” is “God.”
There is likewise much to unpack regarding אֱלֹהִ֑ים and “Elohim,” and again, we will not attempt to do so here, other than to point out that “el” is a Caananite loan-word and generic label for our English “god.” Thus, “el” may be and is attached to other words, forming “god of this” and “god of that.” “Elohim” is one of these.
But let’s stick to Genesis 3:1-8.
The serpent refuses to use the word “Yahweh.” The narrator of the story uses “Yahweh Elohim,” while the serpent uses only “Yahweh.”
Eve follows the serpent’s lead and also drops the “Elohim.” We point to the locations of “Yahweh” and “Elohim” here:
What do we make of this? We aren’t sure. Our commentary sources are silent on the serpent’s choice of references to God. We’d like to find some significance in the serpent’s —- and therefore Satan’s — willingness to refer to God by his personal name but not to an expression of God’s powerful godliness.
What are the possibilities? Perhaps this is simply innocuous wordsmithing by writers and editors. Perhaps this is what source-critics see as the mixing of various pre-existing documents, and points-of-view, into a combined document. Perhaps we are incorrect regarding Yahweh being, in this particular case, recognized by the serpent as the personal name of Go. Perhaps Yahweh is instead used by Satan as a generic label for God.
Perhaps the serpent refuses to acknowledge God’s power in his words. But this would require some assumptions and reasonings we do not have in hand.
Does your commentary weigh-in on the matter?
Thank you to the Deutsche Bibel Gessellschaft and their academic-bible.com website for the image of the Hebrew text we used above.
May God bless you. Please read the actual Bible for yourself.