Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Taking God's Name in Vain

If you are a regular and long-time reader of my blog, or if you have purchased my book "Christianity is a Verb," you will know that I have written on this topic before.  Never fear, my intention is not to rehash my arguments, but to provide an "update" of sorts.

In that previous post, I broke down the individual Hebrew words of the 3rd Commandment and argued that it is not talking about using God's name as an expletive (i.e., stubbing your toe and saying "Goddammit!"), but rather, it is talking about not accepting the name of God upon yourself if you don't really mean it; in other words, don't claim to be Godly (a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim, etc.,) if you aren't really living the lifestyle that goes along with it.

Everyone is familiar with this sort of argument - within Christianity, the notion of someone claiming to be a Christian, but not living like a Christian, is so widespread as to be almost banal.  When we hear of someone committing murder in the name of Jesus, we say they aren't really a Christian.  When we hear of Christian priests and monks fighting in the Church of the Nativity at Christmas, we say they aren't acting like Christians.  On the other hand, when we see someone who is a good, upstanding, ethical person, we call them a "good Christian," and say they are truly living like Christ.

This is what the 3rd Commandment is talking about.  Claiming to be Godly, but not acting Godly; claiming to be a Christian, but not living like a Christian.  The focus of the commandment is to be sincere in your devotion to God.

It has nothing to do with using words like "God," and "Jesus," and "Christ" as cuss words or expletives.  Many people find such language offensive, but when they point to the 3rd Commandment to back up that view (i.e., "Don't take the Lord's name in vain!!" after hearing someone say "Goddammit!"), they are simply misunderstanding what that commandment meant in its original context.  Saying "Goddammit" is not taking the Lord's name in vain.  Saying you are a Godly person, and then doing ungodly things: that is taking the Lord's name in vain.

It's true, of course, that many people would consider "foul language" to be ungodly.  In that sense, then, you could argue that the 3rd Commandment encompasses using God's name as an expletive - as well as any other explicit or foul language a person might use.  But I've sure never heard anyone scold someone for saying "shit" by telling them not to take the Lord's name in vain.

The fact is, when you read what the verse actually says, there is simply no reason to assume it had anything to do with using God's name as an expletive.  It's interesting to point out that the verse does not say: "Do not use the name of the Lord in vain," or "Do not speak the name of the Lord in vain."  It says: "Do not take the name of the Lord in vain."

This is interesting because in many modern English translations of the Bible, they have done away with this King James phraseology ("take in vain") and translated the word as "misuse" - "Do not misuse the name of the Lord."  This is true in both the popular NIV and the favorite of New Testament scholars, the NRSV.

But the word in question didn't mean "misuse."  I can only chalk this up to the modern translations being influenced by modern notions of what this phrase means (i.e., that it teaches not to use God's name as an expletive).  If you read Strong's Concordance with Hebrew and Greek Lexicon - which is the authoritative publication on the translation of words and phrases in the Bible - it is very clear that the Hebrew word in question meant nothing like "misuse."  It means "to take" or "to carry" or "to lift up."  When you read this same word in other passages, it's meaning becomes perfectly clear.  To give just one example, Genesis 13:10: "And Lot lifted up his eyes and beheld all the plain of the Jordan."  This word absolutely does not mean "misuse."

If the writers of the Jewish scriptures (or, God, if you prefer) had meant for the 3rd Commandment to be talking about using God's name as an expletive, wouldn't have the sentence read: "Do not speak the name of the Lord in vain"?  But it doesn't say that.  It says don't "take" the name of the Lord in vain.  "Take" doesn't mean "speak."  It means to grab something, or carry something, or accept something.  If I say: "Congress is useless," would you describe that as me taking something about Congress?  Of course not; that doesn't even make sense.  I have said something about Congress, not taken something.

"Taking" God's name in vain has nothing to do with speech or utterance.  It means exactly what it says: "take" means to carry something or accept something.  Thus, the commandment is telling us not to accept the name of God, not to carry the name of God on our shoulders, while at the same time doing nothing to imply that we are actually people of God.  A Chicago Cub wouldn't wear a Cincinnati Reds jersey, because he's not a Cincinnati Red.  He's a Cub.  In the same way, a person shouldn't take the name of God upon themselves if they aren't really a Godly person.

This is what the 3rd Commandment means.

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