Saturday, March 21, 2009

Taking the Lord's Name in Vain

Make sure to read my newest essay on this topic, a sort of addendum to the essay below: Taking God's Name in Vain.


Growing up as I did in the Southern Baptist tradition, perhaps one of my earliest exposures to Biblical content as a child was the instruction from the Ten Commandments not to “take the Lord’s name in vain.”

I understood from a very young age that this was extremely important, and that “taking the Lord’s name in vain” involved using any name of God as a swear word – what a grammar teacher might call an “exclamatory interjection.” This, of course, included not only “God,” but also “Jesus,” “Christ,” and even “Lord.” Among true swear words, “goddamn” was without question the most blasphemous and evil, because it not only included a dirty word, but also tied the name of God into its nastiness. Even into adulthood, long after I gave up the belief that I was in danger of hell fire for saying a swear word, “GD” still remained taboo for me. This is certainly still true for many people who might otherwise say a swear word now and then.

But what does it really mean to take the Lord’s name in vain? Does it refer to using God’s name as a swear word – an exclamation – or does it mean something entirely different? What were the intentions of those Biblical authors who included that command in the Ten Commandments, or, if you prefer a more traditional approach, what did God mean when he instructed his followers not to take his name in vain?


Few Christians realize that there are actually several incarnations of the Ten Commandments in the Jewish scriptures – Christianity’s Old Testament. In fact, we are given no less than three “Ten Commandments” lists. The lists in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 are fairly similar, but the one in Exodus 34 – the “new” list that God gave Moses after the first set of tablets were destroyed – varies quite dramatically from the old list. This new list, interestingly enough, has nothing about taking God’s name in vain.

Why, then, do we tend to go by the “old” list in modern Christian circles, instead of the “new” list, given to Moses after the first chiseled list got broken? If we did, the issue of taking the Lord’s name in vain might not be an issue at all. It’s an interesting question, and it probably has something to do with the fact that this new list is way too “Jewish” for most Christian sensibilities. Among its ten commandments is a command to celebrate certain Jewish festivals; it instructs Jews to sacrifice all their first-born animals to God; it insists that the faithful may not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.

Be that as it may, what has come down to us as the “Ten Commandments” are those lists found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, both of which include the instruction not to take the Lord’s name in vain. The wording of both instructions is identical.

Exodus 20:7a/Deuteronomy 5:11a (KJV) – Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.

The more modern NIV uses a slightly different translation to get across the idea that this verse is dealing with petty things like using God’s name as a swear word: “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.”

With theologically-tinged translations like the NIV, and with centuries of Christian ideology that says this verse bans us from saying “God” as an exclamatory interjection, most Christians read this verse and probably can’t imagine how it can be saying anything else.


A number of discoveries about the meaning of this instruction can be found by looking at the verse in its original language. I don’t speak Hebrew, and I’m certain than few if any of my readers do, so I’ll take it one keyword at a time. I realize that this sort of linguistic exercise is cumbersome for most people, but I hope my readers will stick with me, because understanding what the original words are actually saying is vital to the point I will make shortly.


The first primary word in the passage is nasa’. This word is used some 600+ times in the Old Testament, and generally means to “take up,” or “lift up,” or “accept.”


This word means “name,” or “reputation.” It is the word used any time that an Old Testament writer referred to the name of someone or something.


The word “Lord” in the NIV and KJV translations is the Hebrew word Yehovah, which would actually have been written as YHWH, the tetragrammaton that was believed to be the literal name of God. It comes down to us in English as “Jehovah” or “Yaweh.” Just as Egypt had Horus, and Rome had Jupiter, the Hebrews had Yaweh.


This is the word in the passage that is translated as “God.” In ancient Hebrew, it was a catch-all word that generally referred to “the gods” or the “heavenly host.” When used together with YHWH, it was the official way of referring to the God of the Jews – Yehovah ‘Elohiym – much as Christians might say “Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” In English Old Testament translations, it is usually written as “The Lord your God.”


This is the word that is translated as “vain” in the King James Version. In ancient Hebrew, it meant “falsehood,” or “emptiness,” or “nothingness.”

Now that we have looked at the Hebrew words making up the first part of the verse, it is instructive to take a look at what they are actually saying: “Don’t take up or accept the name of God with falsehood or emptiness.”


As the last phrase of the previous paragraph implies, I find that the original meaning of this familiar commandment is something entirely different than what most people suppose. But before making my argument, it is important to look at just what the logical consequences are of assuming that this commandment has anything to do with how someone physically utters the name of God.

In ancient Judea, Jews believed that God’s name – the aforementioned “Yaweh” – was so sacred and immortal that it literally should not be spoken, ever. It wasn’t used in everyday speech; it wasn’t used in the synagogue. It wasn’t even written out; as I have already illustrated, a tetragrammaton, or 4-letter code, was used instead – YHWH. Gentiles and pagans – like the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Romans, etc. – routinely referred to their gods by name. Since anything that stunk of paganism to the Jews was summarily rejected, it is not surprising that they developed a theology that said even the very name of God was untouchable and unworthy of being spoken by a human being. “God” (or, in Hebrew, “'Elohiym”), of course, was perfectly permissible, and would have been how God was referred to in everyday language. “Yaweh,” however, was not to be uttered.

So to suggest that this verse has something to do with not using God’s name as a swear word (i.e., an exclamatory interjection) is simply not supportable in the context of the ancient Hebrew kingdom. They wouldn’t have ever said the name, as a swear word or otherwise.

There are other issues, of course, with assuming such a meaning. First, if the commandment is talking about not misusing the physical name of God, then it is instructing us not to say “Aw, Yaweh!” when we stub our toe. It says nothing of “God,” “Jesus,” or “Christ.” “God” is not the name of God – “Yaweh” is – and Jesus, after all, was merely the human incarnation of God, and his name – Jesus – is not the name of God either.

One might argue, however, that as the human incarnation of God, Jesus’ name has the same sacredness as God’s name. Even if we take that as fact, “Jesus” was not Jesus’ name! “Jesus” is simply the English transliteration of a Greek transliteration of Jesus’ real Aramaic name. Jesus’ real earthly name was “Yeshua,” which is the same name that the successor of Moses in the Old Testament had – Joshua. In the Old Testament, our English Bibles translate “Yeshua” directly into English – thus “Joshua.” The New Testament, however, was originally written in Greek, so “Yeshua” first goes into Greek and becomes “Iesus,” and then into English as “Jesus.”

So, again, if we want to simplify the commandment in question, then we shouldn’t say “Yeshua!” when we burn our finger. “Jesus,” however, is apparently perfectly permissible.

Finally, “Christ” is at issue as well. “Christ” is – again – an English transliteration of a Greek translation of the Hebrew word Mosiah. That word meant “anointed one,” in Hebrew. In Greek, “anointed one” is translated as Khristos. From there, we get the transliterated word “Christ.” This word, of course, was not Jesus’ last name. “Jesus Christ” means “Jesus the anointed one,” or “Jesus the Messiah.” It was a way of differentiating who he was versus other people with his name. Jesus the Anointed One versus Jesus the Newspaper Man, as it were. A good comparison is to consider the name “John the Baptist.” No one supposes his last name was “the Baptist.”

Thus, yet again, there can be no reason why “Christ” is impermissible as a swear word.

I hope that my tone here has been clear: the point I am trying to make is not to downplay the sacredness of the names “God,” and “Jesus,” and “Christ” to modern Christians. What I am attempting to do is show how silly it is to make an argument that this instruction from the Ten Commandments has anything to do with the physical utterance of a sacred name for swearing or other unsacred purposes. Yet this is what the argument must boil down to if one wants to insist on understanding this Old Testament commandment in this manner.


We return once again to the meaning of the commandment in question, when understood in the original language: “Don’t take up or accept the name of God with falsehood or emptiness.”

It is noteworthy to point out that at least one other verse in the Old Testament uses similar language. Both nasa’ (to “take up” or “accept”) and shav’ (“emptiness” or “nothingness”) appear in the book of Psalms.

Psalm 24:4 (KJV) – He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully.

The key phrase there is “lifted up his soul unto vanity.” This phrase, in Hebrew, is identical to the phrase from the Ten Commandments, replacing only the noun “his soul” with the compound noun “the name of the Lord your God.” Clearly the meaning of this verse from the Psalms is that one should not give his soul over to emptiness or meaninglessness.

In the same way, I argue that “Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain” has a similar meaning. Do not meaninglessly take the name of God upon yourself. In other words: You can profess your faith all you want, but without living the lifestyle that comes with the acceptance of God’s name, your faith is meaningless and in vain.

This idea, of course, has numerous corollaries in the New Testament. In Matthew, Jesus assures us that not all those who say “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of God. James reminds us that faith without works is not just unpleasing to God – but actually dead. There is no such thing, James tells us, as faith without a changed nature accompanying it. Paul asserts in Romans that God will judge us by whether we do good or evil.

From where I stand, I see many Christians navigating this way through life. Christianity is just a “get out of death free card.” They’ve made their profession of faith, they “believe in Jesus,” and now they can get on with their life and have a little comfort about what happens when they and their loved ones die. Evangelical theology frequently supports this, with their plans of salvation and their promise that all God requires is that you “believe in him.” In fact, God requires a lot more. And God warns us against taking his name upon ourselves in vain.

I firmly believe that the “profession of faith” that is so common and so primary in many evangelical churches is meaningless and even unbiblical. Yes, the Bible stresses the importance of faith, but it stresses even more the importance of “faith in action.” I said it above, but it bears repeating: James even goes so far as to say that faith without action is dead. It’s non-faith. It’s meaningless. The profession of faith isn’t what matters; it’s how you act that counts.

Jesus called us to have life and have it more abundantly. He called us to new birth. He called us to a celebration of life and an experience of life at its deepest and most human levels. He never called us to get out of death free. The message of Jesus was imminently and forever about living, about breaking down the boundaries that divide us and reduce life, not about what happens when we die.

So a profession of faith – claiming God for yourself so you can have a little comfort – without actually living the life Jesus taught us to live…well, it’s taking the Lord’s name in vain.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

What Can We Know About the Prominent Women of the Bible?

As a regular Facebook user, I came across one of their myriad quizzes tonight which tests the user to find out which “mighty woman” of the Bible they are most like. I took it and discovered that, despite some obvious anatomical issues, I am most like Ruth, a figure from the Old Testament. Other users found that they are most like Sarah and Mary Magdalene.

The explanations given with these findings are curious. Consider, for instance, what is said about Mary Magdalene:

She was forgiven much & loved much, and you certainly love much! You are a passionate person, who loves God & life. You have a tendency to count your blessings and be very grateful, even in small things. You are an overcomer, and will not allow any life circumstances to hold you down.

This, naturally, caused me to wonder just where the authors of this quiz were coming up with their information. What, in fact, can we actually know about the prominent women of the Bible?

Because an in-depth look at the prominent women of the Bible could take up a whole book, I will instead focus in this essay on Mary Magdalene, since together with Mary the mother of Jesus, she is the most prominent woman in the New Testament.


Mary Magdalene appears exactly 13 times in the New Testament, with all occurrences happening in the four Gospels. Never is she mentioned in any other New Testament writing. In the Gospels, she appears almost exclusively in the death, burial, and resurrection accounts. In only one place is she ever mentioned being present during Jesus’ actual life ministry – that comes to us in Luke chapter 8, where Luke mentions that she had “seven demons” driven out of her (although Luke doesn’t say by whom) and that she was present there during Jesus’ teachings.

There are no scenes in the Bible that depict the living Jesus ever actually interacting with Mary. Mary’s interactions with Jesus are exclusively with the resurrected Jesus – and that only happens in one account.

Mary enters the Christian canon in the Gospel of Mark, written around 70 C.E., or 40 years after Jesus’ death. Mark mentions that she and other women were present at the crucifixion, and that this group of women were followers of Jesus who “cared for his needs.” The writer tells us that Mary and the other women saw where Jesus was buried, and then later went to the tomb to anoint his body. While there, they were met by a “man in white” who announced the resurrection to them, instructing them to go and tell the others that Jesus would meet up with them in Galilee. Mary and the others, however, are scared and instead “said nothing to anyone.” Mark’s Gospel actually ends right there, without any appearances of the risen Jesus to anyone.

Mary next appears, chronologically, in the book of Matthew. Using Mark as a source, Matthew simply repeats Mark’s assertion that Mary Magdalene and the others were followers who cared for Jesus’ needs and who were present at the crucifixion and then saw the burial.

However, Matthew veers from Mark’s account of Mary’s actions on Easter Sunday. Instead of coming to anoint Jesus’ body, Mary and the other women are simply coming to “look at the tomb,” as though to check up on it. This fits with Matthew’s account of the guards who were stationed at the tomb to ensure that no one tampered with the body – a story that only appears in Matthew’s account. When the women arrive, instead of seeing a man in white, there is now a great earthquake, and an actual angel of the Lord comes down from heaven, causing the guards to drop dead with fear. The angel gives an instruction to the women that is similar to Mark’s (“Go tell everyone; Jesus will meet you in Galilee”), but unlike in Mark’s account, the women actually follow the instructions, heading off to tell the disciples. On their way, however, Jesus actually meets them on the road, and they “clasped his feet and worshipped him.” Afterward, Jesus meets the disciples as promised in Galilee, giving them what is now known as “the Great Commission.”

Mary’s next appearance is in the aforementioned Luke chapter 8, where she is noted as being present as Jesus went around teaching, and that someone (not necessarily Jesus) had driven seven demons out of her. After that, she is absent again until the resurrection (Luke mentions only that “the women” who had followed Jesus were there at the crucifixion – one would assume Mary was included in this). For Luke, Mary and the others are once again heading to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. For the first time, the women actually see for themselves that the tomb is empty – in both Mark and Matthew’s accounts, the women never walk in to see the body missing. After this, two angels appear instead of one, and there is no accompanying earthquake. Their speech to the women is different from that of Matthew and Mark, and there is no instruction to go tell anyone. The women, however, do head straight off to tell the disciples – with no subsequent meeting of Jesus on the road, as we find in Matthew. The disciples don’t believe the women’s story, and Peter goes to see for himself. Mary and the other women are not mentioned again after this.

Mary’s final appearance in the Bible comes in the book of John. John agrees with the other three writers that Mary and the other women were present at the crucifixion; however, there is no mention of them necessarily seeing the burial place. On Easter Sunday, Mary goes by herself, instead of with other women, to the tomb. John does not tell us why she went. When she arrives, there are no angels or earthquakes, but Mary simply sees that the stone has been rolled away. She does not look inside, but immediately runs to tell the disciples.

After Peter and the unnamed disciple see the empty tomb for themselves, they go back home, leaving Mary there at the tomb, crying. At this point, two angels appear, asking her why she is crying. “They have taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they have put him,” is her famous response. At that moment, Jesus appears to her, but she mistakes him for the gardener. She assures the gardener that if he knows where they’ve put Jesus’ body, she’ll go and retrieve it. Jesus then says her name, and she realizes it who it is. Jesus, however, instructs her not to touch him (unlike the scene in Matthew, where Mary and the other women clasp Jesus’ feet when they meet him on the road). After this, she goes back to the disciples and tells them that she has seen the resurrected Jesus.

And that’s the last we hear in the New Testament of Mary Magdalene.

From these accounts, we can take only a very few things about Mary.

1. She was a follower of Jesus who, among other things, “cared for his needs.” This is probably a way of saying that she and the other women helped to finance his ministry. If true, then she was a woman of financial means.

2. She had demons driven out of her. We can take this one of three ways: A) it is a 1st century legend born from ignorance about illness or prejudice against women; B) Mary had a legitimate illness (such as epilepsy or porphyria) which she overcame, and was thus said to have been cured of demon-possession; or C) we can take it as a literally true statement – Mary had literal demons inside her, which someone exorcised. Either way, beyond Luke’s parenthetical statement, we know nothing of the circumstances surrounding Mary’s demon possession, or who cured her.

3. Mary was present at the crucifixion, and may have witnessed the burial of Jesus. All four Gospels agree that Mary and the other women were at the crucifixion. This is significant not only because all the Gospels agree (often a rarity, especially in the crucifixion and resurrection stories), but also because the disciples were not present. It was clearly well-remembered in the Christian community that the male disciples had fled and abandoned Jesus. His female followers, however, stayed by his side. This would not have been a happy thing to admit – that the women, who were second class citizens, were more faithful than the men – so it seems likely to be historically accurate.

4. Mary went to the tomb on Easter Sunday, perhaps to anoint Jesus’ body, or perhaps simply to check on the tomb. Again, all the Gospels agree on Mary’s presence on Easter Sunday, implying that whatever the resurrection was (physical or metaphorical), Mary and the other women were at the center of it. This, of course, has dramatic theological implications that are beyond the scope of this particular essay.

5. Mary, along with other women, was the first to discover the resurrection, and may have been the first to see Jesus in resurrected form. Again, this has dramatic theological implications that I won’t go into here.

Based on these things, consider again what the Facebook quiz had to say about Mary Magdalene:

She was forgiven much & loved much, and you certainly love much! You are a passionate person, who loves God & life. You have a tendency to count your blessings and be very grateful, even in small things. You are an overcomer, and will not allow any life circumstances to hold you down.

1. She was forgiven much and loved much. Nothing in the Bible would support the idea that Mary was any more “forgiven” or any more “loved” than anyone else. Medieval theology suggested Mary was a prostitute, which is in no way supported by the earliest texts, and this, no doubt, is where the idea comes from in modern Christian circles that Mary was somehow “forgiven much.”

2. Mary was a passionate person, who loved God and life. Mary’s crying scene in the Gospel of John might support the claim that Mary was “passionate,” but such a claim is tenuous at best. “A weak-willed woman” would probably make more sense in the 1st century context. Otherwise, there is no evidence to suggest that she loved God and life any more than anyone else.

3. Mary counted her blessings and was very grateful even in small things. Again, nothing really exists in the Biblical text to support this as a description of Mary Magdalene. It’s simply an idea that seems like a pretty way for a good Christian woman to act.

4. Mary was someone who overcame adversity and would not allow life circumstances to hold her down. This is perhaps the only thing in the quiz that might be linked to something in the text. While I think that this impression of Mary comes, again, primarily from the medieval idea that Mary was a prostitute-turned-Christian, one could argue that overcoming demon possession (whether that should be understood as a physical illness or an actual spiritual attack) indicates that Mary indeed overcame adversity and bettered herself. The problem, of course, is that we have only one source for this demon possession story – the parenthetical remark that Luke makes in chapter 8. No other Biblical writer says anything about Mary having been cured of demon possession, even though this seems like a rather important nugget to leave out.

All in all, it seems apparent to me that what Christians commonly suppose about Mary Magdalene comes more from Church imagination rather than from the New Testament. In the New Testament, there is very little we can know about Mary, with the primary things being that she was a close follower of Jesus who may have been financially sound, she was somehow intricately involved in whatever the resurrection was, and she may have overcome a serious illness earlier in life.

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Mary Magdalene is that she – along with Jesus’ other female followers – did not abandon him at his crucifixion, like his male disciples did. This sends me the message that Mary may have been a woman of great devotion, fearlessness, and faith.

Ironically, yet not surprisingly, none of these traits are included in the Facebook quiz’s explanation of what Mary Magdalene was like.