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Shemot/Exodus 20:7 You shall not lift the name of the L-rd your G-d in vain, for the L-rd will not acquit one who lifts His name in vain.
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Our text is in Shemot chapter twenty, paralleled in D'varim chapter five: the third of the Ten Words thatHaShem revealed to the whole congregation of Israel at Mt. Sinai. We are now - according to rabbinic tradition - nearly two months out from Egypt, on or around the sixth day of the third month in the year (now called 'Sivan'), on a day that will be celebrated forever by the Jewish people as the festival of Shavuot, when we remember Matan Torah, the Giving of the Torah. After the first two commandments - to know that "I the L-RD am your G-d" (Shemot 20:2, NJPS) and "You shall have no other gods besides Me" (v. 3, NJPS), so make no idols or images nor bow down or serve them - this third command is to be taken very seriously. Ibn Ezra says that, "after idolatry, there is no sin worse than a vain oath."
We might have expected HaShem to use the verb , to swear, in this prohibition - "You shall not swear ..." - but the verb is used instead: the Qal 2ms prefix form of the root , to lift or carry. Nahum Sarna explains that while literally meaning "to take up", this is "an ellipsis for 'to take upon the lips', that is, 'to utter'" or "to say". As important as it is not to swear a false oath, this might be addressed by the ninth command, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour" (v. 13, NJPS), leaving "in vain" to cover the wider ways in which HaShem's name might be used or spoken. The same choice is also taken in the second half of the command, detailing the consequences; there - the Qal 3ms prefix form - is used to specify who HaShem will not acquit: the one who lifts His name "in vain".
But what does "in vain" mean? The word is the last word in both halves of the verse. . setting aside the preposition and the definite article, is an ms noun with a range of meanings from "evil, iniquity, wickedness" to "falsehood, lie"; in between, Davidson offers "worthlessness, vanity" with the comment that is always translated "in vain". The noun comes from a root that is not used in Tanakh, but is thought to be "to make a noise" or "to be evil". There's an immediate application for today: when we just make a noise with HaShem's name, it is worthless or worse; it may be evil! One only has to think of social media to see how that might be: shouting in a storm, competing with all the (valueless) noise out there, struggling to be heard against the cacophony of strident but usually meaningless trivia.
Sarna suggests that HaShem has used deliberately, using the ambiguity to "allow for the proscription of perjury, swearing falsely and the unnecessary or frivolous use of the divine name." The Talmud reports that "Raba, or as some say Resh Lakish, or again as some say, both Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yohanan, have said: Whoever says a blessing which is not necessary transgresses the command of 'you shall not take God's name in vain'!" (b. Berachot 33a). On the other hand, several verses in Tanakh appear to favour the use of G-d's name in oath-taking, providing it is done truthfully and sincerely: "Be is awe of the L-RD your G-d and worship Him alone, and swear only by His name" (D'varim 6:13), "if they learn the ways of My people, to swear by My name ... then the house of Judah shall be built up in the midst of My people" (Jeremiah 12:16), "the king shall rejoice in G-d; all who swear by Him shall exult, when the mouth of liars is stopped" (Psalm 63:12, NJPS).
Other options on vain oaths are listed by the Mishnah: "What is a vain oath? (1) If one has taken an oath to differ from what is well known to people - concerning a pillar of stone that it is made of gold, concerning a man that he is a woman, concerning a woman that she is a man; (2) If one has taken an oath concerning something that is impossible, seeing or not seeing a camel fly; (3) If he took an oath to nullify a commandment, not to build a sukkah or not to take the lulav;" (m. Shevuot 3:8). The Talmud extends culpability for vain oaths: "Samuel said: He who responds 'Amen' after an oath -- it is as if he uttered the oath with his own mouth" (b. Shevuot 29a.
In all these cases, whether unnecessary oaths - theRadak calls these 'needless' - or foolish talk, whether vain oaths or false oaths, the third commandment forbids us from invoking G-d's name. Ibn Ezra says that "one who invokes G-d and does not keep his promise is as if denying G-d's existence. For the point of mentioning G-d's name is to say, 'Just as G-d is truth, so is my word.'" The Chizkuni warns that "one who is accustomed to swear needlessly by G-d's name will end up, out of familiarity, swearing falsely by it." Richard Elliott Friedman reduces the scope: This does not mean that one cannot say the divine name in an exclamation ... It refers to falsehood: a false report and a false witness. This commandment means that one cannot make an oath in G-d's name and not fulfil it."
Why all this fuss about using the name of HaShem? Thomas Dozeman reports that "divine names in the ANE carry inherent power that provides access to gods ... A person's name penetrates to his or her very identity; thus to know the name gives one access and even power over another."1 That means, Terence Fretheim explains, that "this prohibition is basically concerned with the divine reputation. That is, it is designed to protect the divine name from being used in any way that brings G-d or G-d's purposes for the world into disrepute ... As people hear it so used, they may come to associate the name of G-d fundamentally with a cause they wish to avoid or reject"2 Brevard Childs agrees: "The early prohibitions of the misuse of Yahweh's name were an attempt to protect the divine name, which of course was identified with G-d's being itself, from abuse within and without the cult."3 An oath including G-d's name alters one's status before G-d as theMekhilta notes, "Before you obligated yourself to take an oath I am G-d to you. But after you have obligated yourself to take an oath, I am a judge over you."
Perhaps we have almost arrived now. Hear how Walter Brueggemann talks about this: "The 'name' of Yahweh bespeaks G-d's powerful presence and purpose. The utterance of the name is the mobilisation of the presence and power of G-d, an assumption that is still evident in prayers offered 'in the name of Jesus.' To misuse the name means to invoke through utterance the power and purpose of Yahweh in the service of some other purpose that is extraneous to Yahweh's own person."4 Leon Kass puts it this way: "The injunction's real target may be the attempt to live in the world assuming that 'G-d is on our side.' To speak the L-rd's name, unless instructed to do so, is to wrap yourself in the divine mantle, to summon G-d in support of your own purposes. It is to treat G-d as if He were sitting by the 'phone waiting to do your bidding."5 That really doesn't sound like a wise or a safe thing to do!
We don't find Yeshua praying in or invoking someone's name anywhere in the gospels; He doesn't make any needless, frivolous or "in vain" uses of G-d's name. He just prays and heaven answers! Yet it seems that He does make quite extravagant promises to the disciples about answering prayer: "If you ask Me for something in My name, I will do it" (John 14:14, CJB) or, even more, "whatever you ask from the Father, He will give you in My name" (16:23, CJB). How does this work? Let's se how else Yeshua uses the phrase "in My name". Matthew records, "Whoever welcomes one such child in My name welcomes Me" (Matthew 18:5, CJB), while Mark has, "no one who works a miracle in My name will soon after be able to say something bad about Me" (Mark 9:39, CJB). These are the words of representation - the ancient world understood the position of an ambassador or emissary (Hebrew, shaliakh, Greek, apostle) who represented their Master, who spoke and conducted business in the Master's name, as if the Master himself were present.
Now we can understand Yeshua's promises like this: if you request what I would request, the Father will answer you as He would answer Me. Put another way: if you do what I would do, then you will see the miracles that I did. Ah, you may ask, how do we know what Yeshua would do? The Bible tells us, the gospels show us, the Spirit assures us and gives us the same faith that Yeshua has. Let there be no more vain liftings of Yeshua's name to our lips, but only those prompted and directed by the Spirit so that our prayers may be answered as His prayers and the world may know that the kingdom of G-d is at hand!
1. - Thomas B. Dozeman, Exodus, Eerdmans Critical Commentaries, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmanns, 2009), pages 486-487.
2. - Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus, Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), page 227-228.
3. - Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), page 412.
4. - Walter Brueggemann, "Exodus", in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), pages 408.
5. - Leon R. Kass, Founding G-d's Nation - Reading Exodus (New Have, Yale University Press, 2021), pages 314.
Further Study: Matthew 5:33-37; James 5:12; John 15:16
Application: How can you move beyond simply quoting or using G-d's name to really representing Him and seeing the kingdom of G-d revealed in and through the name of Yeshua? Get fully signed up as an ambassador today and let the Spirit set your course in this world.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2023
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