OF ALL THE old-and-dusty-sounding commandments in the Hebrew Bible, the commandment to not “take God’s name in vain” seems oldest and dustiest. We can’t help but picture nuns rapping school kids on their knuckles for the sin of swearing. And yet if we look deeply into this commandment, it’s not about four-letter words at all. This commandment is truly among the most radical. It calls us to earn our own rewards and admit our own failings without dragging God into it.
In his beautiful series on Jewish ethics, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin points out that the Third Commandment was violated routinely by the nineteenth-century Southerners who justified slavery by saying that it was approved of in the Bible and by God. Yet to say that the Bible approves of slavery is a manipulation of the truth, which is that the Bible does not explicitly allow or disallow slavery—it assumes slavery. And there were biblical laws protecting the rights of slaves that did not exist in the American South. For example, while biblical law forbids forcibly returning a slave who has run away, this practice was ruled legal in the United States with the Dred Scott decision in 1857. And yet this idea of the Bible condoning slavery was used to great effect. And so God and the biblical tradition were unfairly associated with something evil.
In the actual biblical tradition, this, the appropriation of God and the Bible to justify something horrific, is considered unforgivable. The second half of the biblical commandment not to take God’s name in vain says, “for God will not acquit a person who takes God’s name in vain.” It doesn’t say anything like that about murdering. It doesn’t say that about stealing or committing adultery. It doesn’t say that about any of the other nine commandments. It seems that, to the biblical author, there’s something particularly unforgiveable about violating this particular commandment. As though this is the one that God takes personally. Violations of any of the other commandments merely reflect badly on the human who did them. This one, when violated, reflects badly on God. This one is about God’s reputation. This one imputes sins to God—sins of which God is innocent.
The Theft of a Name
The word “take” in “take God’s name in vain” is a translation of the Hebrew verb nasa. A better translation may be “pick up and carry off.” It was used in transactions in the ancient Near East to indicate the sealing of a deal. When you buy something and pay for it, it’s the moment that you nasa—pick it up to carry it away—that the deal is final. It connotes ownership. So in the case of this commandment, there’s a sense of picking up and carrying away God’s name. Of claiming ownership, appropriating it. “In vain” is another key term here. The Hebrew word is lashav, which means “without meaning”—outside a proper meaning, common or unimportant, or without the sanctity that should be there. So we could rewrite the commandment: do not appropriate God’s name in a way that nullifies the sanctity that should be there, because God’s reputation is at stake. It’s a kind of libel.
So then the question becomes—why not? So what if God’s reputation as a good and loving and just God gets tarnished? What happens then? What happens is that people lose faith. Not only the perpetrator, but also everyone around the perpetrator. Faith gets injured when the concept of God is used opportunistically to justify evil acts. Faith gets injured when religious institutions or representatives of God act badly themselves.
Extreme examples of this abound. LGBT people have become alienated from religious life in this country because of the supposedly biblically based claims about the sinfulness of their relationships. Muslims describe fleeing Islam because of the association of their tradition with terrorism in God’s name. Jewish women have become alienated from the persistent image of an angry, patriarchal God, plastered with masculine pronouns.
And the Catholic Church, in the clearest example of all, has been hemorrhaging members since the child sex abuse scandals emerged. That the abuse was so pervasive and systematically concealed, and that the perpetrators still called themselves God’s representatives (called “Father” in a tradition that calls God “Father”) has been soul crushing to Catholics around the world. The loss sustained is painful, even traumatic, because in most of these cases, the defamation of God’s character alienates the believer not just from the person or institution that did it, but from God itself. Our notions of God are intimately interwoven with the people and institutions that teach about God. It’s hard for anyone to disentangle them.
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