Laugh At God
In 2015, the state of Oklahoma made the news for a court case involving Satanists, the Ten Commandments, and the state constitution. A years-long campaign by a group called the Satanic Temple to place a monument of Satanic deity Baphomet at the state capitol failed; with the added consequence that a six-foot granite monument of the Ten Commandments would be removed from the capitol as well. As CNN Politics reports, the monument violates the state’s constitution, which bans the use of public funds or property to benefit any religion. Even though the Oklahoma supreme court’s ruling would affect the Baphomet statue as well, Satanic Temple spokesman Doug Mesner told the Washington Post that he saw it as a win: the ruling affirms the United States as “a nation that refuses to allow a single viewpoint to co-opt the power and authority of government institutions.”
Nevertheless, the ruling saw intense pushback, including from the Oklahoma state governor, who at first refused to order the Ten Commandments monument’s removal. The controversy generated intense debate over the relationship between church and state, with advocates for the monument arguing that the United States is already a Christian nation, featuring prayers in state and federal ceremonies, and the words “In God We Trust” engraved on all American currency. Clearly, for many Americans, the Ten Commandments – and the Christian values they represent – are vital to American identity.
Over the next three weeks, we’ll be taking a closer look at some of the Ten Commandments. Today, I want to start with a commandment that - in an interesting way - gets to the heart of what the Decalogue (a fancy word for the Ten Commandments) is about.
In Exodus 20:7, we find the third commandment, which follows two commandments about YHWH's identity over against other gods of the day. If you grew up in a Christian household, you’re probably used to hearing this commandment described as “taking God’s name in vain” – but in the New International Version, it’s phrased a little differently: “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.”
Christians often take this commandment to mean that using God’s name as a swear word is forbidden. Some extend this commandment to be an admonition against all crass and profane language, or even a command against swearing oaths “under God” in court. While these interpretations are both defensible, I would like to suggest that taking God’s name in vain can also mean misrepresenting his character: claiming an idea or message represents God or his will when it may not.
The NAME of God is a very important factor to consider when thinking about the Ten Commandments. This surprises many Protestants, but often in the Jewish and Catholic traditions, Exodus 20:2 is counted as the start of the first commandment: "I am the LORD your God, who rescued you from the land of Egypt, the place of your slavery." This opening statement to the commandments identifies God and uses his divine name, the LORD. In modern printed Bibles, when the word LORD appears in all capital letters, something very interesting is being done by the translators.
The English word "God" is not the proper name of the God of the Bible. "God" is a generic word that applies to the deity described in the Bible, but also can be used about Anubis, Zeus, or Thor. "God" is a generic word for deities. It corresponds to the Hebrew words "El" and "Elohim," which are used in the Hebrew Bible to indicate God, but also other gods and even sometimes angels. But God's proper name, that he revealed to Moses, is something different. Modern English sometimes will say Yahweh, or Jehovah, but these pronunciations are only guesses at a mysterious word written with four letters: YHWH, on in Hebrew, יהוה.
Because Hebrew does not have vowels, and because Jewish scribes through the ages feared breaking the third commandment by even speaking the holy name of YHWH, most Jewish people would use the word Adonai - Hebrew for "Lord" - instead of speaking the actual name. Thus, modern Bible translations use the word LORD to represent the four letters of יהוה, God's proper name.
This, of course, is the kind of moral commandment that could not be known apart from it being specifically revealed. God has to first reveal his name to people before he can command them not to abuse it. While some areas of morality have been written into the fabric of existence - what some people might call natural law or conscience - this is a command about relationship, about covenant. This command, and the whole of the Ten Commandments, hinges on knowing and respecting the identity of the God who sets slaves free from oppressors. God's moral code is fundamentally based on who He is.
Today, many people have taken the commandment about God's name to an extreme and won't even say or write the word "God," instead preferring to write "G-d" just to be safe from accidentally defiling the name of the creator. Others insist on using "Yah" and "Yahweh" as much as possible, claiming that it is the only acceptable way to speak about God.
A more problematic use of God’s name, however, goes back to the original controversy about the Ten Commandments and the state capitol. Politicians in many countries, including the United States, will invoke God’s name and blessings, or claim that they are living in a Christian nation – and then they’ll turn around and lie, cheat, embezzle, and pass legislation that may end up causing harm to people. Christian churches and schools might be found invoking the Bible as an excuse to hate their neighbors, build walls, and prioritize the bottom line over human lives. Isaiah has this to say about people who misuse the name of God: “The Lord says: ‘These people come near to me with their mouths and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught’” (Isaiah 29:13 NIV).
The greater problem in view in Exodus 20 is that God has called Israel to be his representatives. They quite literally all represent his name, his identity. Will they represent him will with the way they live, or will they make a mockery of him - taking on his name and claiming him as their God, and then living like all hell has broken loose? Will their behaviour cause people to revere God or laugh at God?
That is the question that faces us today too. Will we live in a way that is honorable or laughable? Will we live as though the world is ruled by a being who values life, fairness, and justice, or as though we live in a chaotic anarchy with no boundaries or safeguards against every evil impulse? What do you think it means to take God’s name in vain? Is there a right way to use God's name?
• Since the English word "God" is more equivalent to the Hebrew words "El" or "Elohim" - a generic word for God - and since the 3rd commandment about God's name primarily concerns the name YHWH / יהוה, do you think sayings like "Oh my God" are violations of the 3rd commandment? Why or why not? Does it matter if we take God's titles in vain? What about referring to or invoking God through other names, but in a disrespectful way?
• A lot of times people use euphemisms such as “gosh,” or “geez” instead of saying the words "God" or "Jesus". Do you think this makes a difference? Why or why not?
• Does the admonitions against taking God’s name in vain extend to other swearing? Do swear words serve a certain purpose within our language that is different than using God’s name in vain?
• Exodus 3:13-15 is the first time God reveals his name to Moses. Read this passage. Does it seem like the answer "I Am Who I Am" is God avoiding Moses' question, or does it tell us something about God?
• Exodus 34 is one of the most important and detailed times where God declares and explains his own name to Moses. Read Exodus 34:1-9. What does this passage reveal about God?
• Read the prayer in Daniel 9:1-19. The prayer ends with the heartfelt plea: " “O Lord, hear. O Lord, forgive. O Lord, listen and act! For your own sake, do not delay, O my God, for your people and your city bear your name.” Why do you think it mattered to Daniel that the people and city were called by God's name? What does this have to do with our current topic?
• What’s one belief about God or his character that you’ve seen Christians profess that misrepresents him?