Dr. Richard S. Hess

Old Testament Questions from the desk of Dr. Richard S. Hess

How do you translate Deuteronomy 6:4?

Could you translate it as:

“Hear – – you who struggle/wrestle with the Master, the Lord God – – the Lord foremost.” 

Well, “Hear” renders the first Hebrew word.

“You who struggle/wrestle with the Master, the Lord God” is the rendering of what is customarily “Israel, the LORD our God.”  This is a paraphrase based on translated “Israel” as though it were a noun (God) and a verb (struggles). The name Israel probably means this but that does not suggest we should translate it every time it appears in the Bible. It is a proper name. Further, the Genesis etymology of “Israel” does express the sense “God wrestles,” with the understanding that God struggles or wrestles with Israel.  

The rendering of the third word in the Hebrew (YHWH, or Yahweh) should reflect that this is the personal name of Israel’s God, sometimes rendered Yahweh.  Most English translations use all capitals LORD.  The ancient pronunciation of this word is unknown.  The Masoretic Text, the standard Hebrew text of the Bible, indicates by its vowels that this should be read Adonai.  This means, “lord, master,” and I assume it is reflected in the suggestion, “the Master, the Lord.”  However, this is not part of the original verse.  Instead, it is a circumlocution of the unpronounced divine name that expresses respect.  

“God” has the first common plural pronominal suffix, “our.”

“Yahweh” is repeated and could again be translated as “Lord.” 

“Foremost” is an interesting translation of the common noun for the cardinal number “one.” There is an ordinal term for “first” which is not used here.  However, it is true that the “first day” in Genesis 1:5 is “day one.”  Some have noted that the use of cardinal “one” as the first of a number sequence where “second, third, etc.” are ordinals occurs here (and elsewhere?).  Therefore, “first” is not impossible but unlikely, given the absence of a sequence, and the lack of any specification as to what God is “first” in.

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