Adon Olam: Lord of Eternity
This is a very familiar liturgical hymn for Jews, dating back to the 15th century liturgies, and supposed to be from the 11th century or perhaps much earlier. The first line has often been translated “Lord of the Universe” since olam can mean either “eternity” “a very long time” or “the universe/world.” The transition from “eternity” to “world” happened some time in the last two millennia. So, in modern terms, “Lord of the Universe” but in the biblical sense, and in the sense of the poem itself, “Lord of Eternity.” Update: This is a translation by Esther Hugenholtz. And here it is in Hebrew script.
Adon olam asher malach
Lord of Eternity Who reigned
b’terem kol yetzir nivra
before anything was created
Le’et na’aseh b’cheftzo kol
In the hour of Creation, He willed all
azai melech shemo nikra
and so His Name is known as King
V’acharei kichlot hakol
And after all is completed
levado yimloch nora
only He will reign in awesomeness
V’hu hayah v’hu hoveh
He was, He is
v’hu yihyeh betifarah
and He will be in splendour
V’hu echad v’ein sheni
He is Alone, there is no second
lehamshil lo lehachbirah
to rule Him in fellowship
B’li reishit, b’li tachlit
Without beginning, without end
v’lo ha’oz v’hamisrah
and His power is not shared
V’hu eli v’chai go’ali
Yet He is my God, He is my life and my Redeemer
v’tzur chevli be’et tzarah
my rock in vanity in my hour of need
V’hu nisi u’manos li
He is my banner and my shelter
menat kosi beyom ekra
He is my Cup [of salvation] on the day I call
Beyado afkid ruchi
In His hand I place my spirit
be’et ishan v’a’ira
in the hour of my sleep and waking
V’im ruchi geviyati
And with my spirit and body
Adonai li, v’lo ira
the Eternal is with me, I shall not fear
Here are two arguments for “Master/Lord of the Universe.” There is a conservative/liberal split in Judaism on whether this prayer/hymn should open with “Lord of the Universe” or “Eternal Lord.” A bit complicated. I have my own issues with Artscroll.
However, we do know that in the Hebrew Bible El Olam means Everlasting/Eternal Lord. In French and German this was translated as “Eternel” and “Ewige” which are equivalent to “Eternal.” They morph easily into a name for God. In English, “Everlasting God” has not become a popular name for God. Here are various translations for El Olam in Genesis 21:33,
בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה, אֵל עוֹלָם.
the name of the LORD, the Everlasting God.
το ονομα κυριου θεος αιωνιος
nomen Domini Dei aeterni
le nom du Seigneur, Dieu éternel
dem Namen des HERRN, des ewigen Gottes.
I can’t help feeling that in Greek, Latin, French and German, the use of the word for “eternal” lead to using this as a name for God, in a more popular way than in English. “Eternal” is easily abstracted to “eternity” and the quality of being “eternal” in a way that “everlasting” is not. In any case, I don’t think that Olivétan really brought about a paradigm shift in using “L’Eternel” for the name of God. He had access to a great deal of material, scholarly and rabbinical works for his translation.
In short, this poem emphasizes that God existed before matter, a Platonic position, rather than an Aristotelian one. God shares power with no one at all. God is one. God is represented by many metaphors that somewhat represent the nature of God, but none that exactly represent this eternal being who existed before matter. God cannot be anthropomorphized. God relates to humans today. God is redeemer and sustainer of life.
Positioning God before the creation of matter, outside of the beginnings of mortality, distances God from sex. Sex is created for the necessity of continuing the propogation of mortal species. God exists entirely outside of that. However, the Kabbalah, deeply dependent on this tradition, did develop a strong gender theology, sometimes very negative to women and sometimes not so much. It seems that there is a strong human tendency to anthropomorphize God, and to make God in the likeness of humans. Such is life.
If you click on the tag “Eternal” at the top right of this post you should get all 7 posts in this series.