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The Living Commandments by John Shelby Spong


John Shelby Spong was Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey. Among his bestselling books are Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Resurrection: Myth or Reality?, and Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile. He retired in early 2,000 to become a lecturer at Harvard University. This book was published by Seabury Press, New York, in 1977.


Chapter 6: God's Holy Name


You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that takes hisname in vain." This is the third great word which according to the Book of Exodus was uttered from the mysterious mountain of Sinai. It is spoken out of smoke and fire, cloud, thunder, lightning, and earthquake. The final editors of the Book of Exodus intended for this setting to remain awesome, wondrous, fearful; for these were the solemn words of the covenant which bound Yahweh to his people and his people to Yahweh.

Commandment number one announced the being of God: "I am Yahweh." Commandment number two exerted Yahweh’s claim to absolute sovereignty: Yahweh shares his preeminence with no one, with no thing. Yahweh alone is ultimate and true and real. Yahweh can be identified with no human enterprise, no nation, no clan, no way of life, no inner desire. The exclusiveness of Yahweh’s radical claim upon the people of the covenant calls us out of any symptom of manmade security. It calls us out of every system through which we define ourselves. It calls us to live in wondrous and fearful freedom under God alone. Yahweh makes less than ultimate every other allegiance we have.

Yahweh is one. Yahweh is holy. Yahweh is true. There shall be no other gods, and no images, religious forms, or traditions shall be tolerated as symbols through which we pretend that we have captured the essence of God. That is the second word.

Then the third word is heard: Yahweh’s name is holy. It must not be taken in vain. It must not be spoken in falsehood, for God will not hold guiltless one who takes that holy name in vain. This Commandment is generally thought to be straightforward and not complex like so many of the others. Seen simplistically, it has been the text for stirring oratory from many a pulpit on the evils of profanity, even though it has almost nothing to do with profanity.

One of my favorite stories is about the great American preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick. Dr. Fosdick was invited to speak to a very hostile and tough group of striking coal miners in West Virginia. The miners had a habit of baiting preachers. Fosdick had been warned that if he did not get the attention of his audience quite early, at the very beginning, he would be in for a most uncomfortable evening. So when Dr. Fosdick stood up in the public square to address his surly audience on a hot July night, he began his sermon in a rather startling fashion. "It’s goddamn hot today," be said.

Suddenly that tough crowd of coal miners fell silent, their mouths dropped open, and they focused to see if they had really heard what they thought they had heard. Then, holding their attention, Fosdick continued, "That’s what I heard a man say this morning," and from that beginning, Dr. Fosdick launched into a passionate denunciation of profanity as a violation of the third Commandment.

I daresay that if most people were asked to define the meaning of the third Commandment, they would think that it had to do with profanity, especially profanity that invokes the holy name of God. Yet the truth is that this note came into this Commandment very late in its history, and constitutes only a tiny segment of its meaning. But clearly the primary focus of this Commandment is not against profanity but against perjury. Its real significance focuses on the mystical meaning of a name in the mind of the Hebrews.

It was William Shakespeare who said "What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet." Nothing, however, intrigued the mind of the Hebrew people more than the concept of the meaning and power of a name. The word name appears in the Old Testament seven hundred and fifty times. Everything is in the name of Yahweh; this is one of the most-used phrases in the biblical vocabulary. In the Book of Psalms alone, the phrase "the name of the Lord" occurs ninety-eight times. To the Hebrew mind, the name of the Lord was holy and powerful. Beyond that, the Hebrews thought the name by which anything was called was significant, an omen. A name was not only a title; the name itself had mystery, power, and substance. It was a handle on the very being of the person.

Throughout the biblical story you will discover that the Bible is always careful to preserve a proper order about names, for to name someone or something was to assert that you had actual or potential power over that person or thing. Hence in the story of creation, God names Adam. Adam names the animals. Adam names Eve, for it was a patriarchal culture that wrote that story. Parents named their children. However, in the biblical story, no one could name God. Indeed, no one could even say that holy name. It was written as an unpronounceable set of letters—YHWH—and when a Hebrew came upon that holy symbol in his scriptures, he did not read "Yahweh," as we might do, but he said the word Adonai, which literally means "my Lord." Hebrews were taught to say Adonai when they came to that holy symbol, lest they defile the holy name Yahweh by seeking to pronounce it.

In the Hebrew view of things, one’s name participated in one’s being. It was a clue to one’s character. So in the biblical story, if your character changed, your name had to change also. When Abram was called out from Ur of the Chaldees to go into a strange land and give birth to a new nation, his name was changed from Abram to Abraham (Gen. 17:5). When Jacob wrestled with the angel of God by the brook Jabar, and crippled in that conflict became the father of a new people, his name was changed from Jacob to Israel (Gen. 3 5:10), and his descendants were called the "children of Israel." When Saul of Tarsus saw the light on the road to Damascus and had his life turned around, he became Paul, the apostle. ( s a Roman citizen, Saul the Jew was likely always Paul the Roman; but Luke, reflecting the Hebrew idea, changes Saul to Paul in his text.)

Among the prophets of Israel, some would speak their prophetic word through the naming of their children. I think especially of First Isaiah (Isaiah 1—3 9). First Isaiah lived at a time when the enemies of Judah were about to crush this tiny nation. The little kingdom of Judah was wondering whether or not they would survive the Assyrian onslaught. So at that historic moment, Isaiah, the foremost prophet in Jerusalem, named his firstborn son Shear-jashub, which meant "a remnant shall return": God will not allow his people of his Covenant to be annihilated. A prophetic word was thus spoken through a name.

A name for the Hebrews was a powerful symbol. When you called someone’s name, you were claiming either superiority or equality. To have your name known by another was to reveal your character to another. All of this lies underneath the Hebrew attitude toward the name of God, the God who was mystery, the God who was ultimate, the God who was depth beyond penetration, height beyond perception, the God who was finally unknowable except that he chose to reveal as much of himself as his people could perceive. The Hebrews knew better than anyone else that the being of God was finally beyond every image, for he was reality beyond any godlike claim or any godly apprehension of his nature.

One of our hymns catches this Hebrew insight with these words:

Immortal, invisible God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessed, most glorious, the ancient of days,
Almighty victorious, thy great name we praise.

It should not be surprising, given this background, that one of the Commandments deals with an attitude toward God’s name. Nor should it be surprising that in the prayer Jesus himself gave us to pray, the very first petition says "Hallowed be your name."

This is necessary to understand as we turn specifically to this Commandment, for its primary focus, as I said earlier, is not against profanity but against perjury. It is an injunction against lying under oath.

According to the way a legal contract was made in ancient Israel, there was first of all a period of negotiation or bargaining—haggling might be a better word. When an agreement was reached the two contending parties would clasp hands and swear in the name of the Lord that they would be true to their word, that they would abide by their contract. Thus if they broke their word or if they violated their contract, if they did not live up to that oath, they had taken the name of the Lord in vain. That was the primary meaning of the Commandment. Basically this Commandment means, "Keep your word. Live up to your contracts. Don’t swear in God’s name to tell the truth and then tell less than the truth."

The word of a Hebrew, a member of God’s covenanted people, was given in the name of the Lord, and that name stood for the whole being of God himself. Every word a member of the covenanted people spoke, every word of every Hebrew, was spoken under the oath of that covenant. A Jew’s word was his honor, for it was bound by the name of Yahweh himself. To falsify one’s word under oath—and the Hebrew in the covenanted community considered himself under oath all the time—was perjury. It was itself a crime for which one could be prosecuted. The Hebrews recognized that human honor and the ability to trust the integrity and the word of another were critical necessities in the life of a society. Without these basic realities, life itself was no longer trustworthy; it was reduced to a jungle warfare. Falsehood, deceit, and outright lies in the public or private arena shatter relationships and tear at the very fiber of human life. Truth and the integrity of one’s word are essential to the hope of a nation, and leaders of that nation must embody that truth and integrity or the nation is morally bankrupt. Ability alone is not enough. Integrity is also required for the health of the people. A nation or a society in which truth cannot be assumed cannot long endure.

The basic issue in this Commandment is the integrity of one’s word when spoken in the name of the Lord: the people of Israel were a covenanted people at Sinai. God had chosen them to be his witnesses. Through this people was to come a light to lighten the Gentiles. They were called to be a holy nation, a royal priesthood; and they had been signed with the mark of Yahweh. Before the face of all of the people of the earth, they were to be the bearers of the name of their God; so every act, every word, every thought of a member of the covenanted people was a reflection of the God whose people they were. The third Commandment covered all of their life, for it covered all of their word, their honor, their integrity, their truthfulness. From the smaller specific area of an oath taken in the name of the Lord, it spread to cover every transaction of every person who was a member of the covenant nation.

Christianity took over this concept: Christians conceived of themselves as the people of the New Covenant or the New Testament. The way one entered into this New Covenant was through the act of baptism. It is not an accident that at baptism you receive a name by which you are known, and you receive that name by being baptized in another name, the name of God, now called by Christians not Yahweh but Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is with that name that you are marked at your baptism. The symbol of that name, the sign of the cross, is placed upon your forehead. This is the Christian Church’s, the New Covenant’s, way of saying, "The name of Christ thus becomes part of your identification. From your baptism on, everything you do, everything you say, everything you think is a reflection upon the name you wear." It is an all-encompassing concept, as indeed the biblical story is. Once more it makes almost ridiculous the sentimental claim of certain segments of our world that religion is a narrow area of life to which clergy ought to confine their attention, leaving the rest of the world to go by.

"You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain" expands even more inside the Christian revelation. Jesus, our Christ, says that the word of the Christian ought to be simply yea or nay, nothing more. Nothing more should ever be required of one who bears that name, no oath, no swearing by God or by holiness or by heaven above or by the earth beneath. For the word of a disciple of Jesus must always express the integrity that befits the name of Christ which that disciple bears. That is where the third Commandment touches your life and mine.

That may seem rather simple in our complex world. It may be rather old-fashioned, and some may consider it out of style, but that is nonetheless the claim of the Christian Lord upon you and me. That is the Christian position to which we are bound by our baptism.

Finally, the name of God and consequently this Commandment did get involved in a very secondary way with the human phenomenon of profanity. There are some implications here that are important to understand. I suspect that I am less than objective in this area, for here again I cannot escape my early training in my rigidly moralistic home, where the attitudes were shaped and formed by my very bluestocking Presbyterian mother. I suspect that this training was more evident in the area of profanity than in any other area. I can remember being punished as a child for saying such profane words as gosh and darn. I never have liked the taste of Life-buoy! I don’t suppose I used my first hell or damn until I was fully grown, and I must confess that I still wince—something inside me is triggered—when I hear the holy name of God said in an oath. Goddamn is an expression that offends me even today. And Jesus Christ shouted as an expletive always hits a jarring note in my emotions. I am not certain whether I can attribute this reaction only to my early training which created emotional tapes still in my head, ready to play whenever certain buttons are pushed. Beyond that training there is, I believe, an objective response. The names God, Jesus, and the Christ represent the holiest realities my life knows; and hence the profane use of these holy words, to me, constitutes an insensitive offense.

I have tried to analyze profanity, and I must say that it means different things to different people. For some people, profanity trips off their lips with such ease and with so little meaning that it is clearly of little significance to them. For still others, it is the only legitimate vocabulary of anger, and nothing else quite serves the purpose. For still others, and I guess that I am one of them, it almost constitutes blasphemy. I find it interesting that most of our oaths and our obscenities have either a religious or a sexual content. Sometimes the sexual content is a bit retarded and centers on certain body functions. It is interesting to me that the most intimate human experiences, namely tile object ot our worship ana the object or human love, provide the vocabulary of profanity.

Look for just a moment at the religious symbols used in profanity, for these symbols have come to be viewed as covered by the third Commandment: "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain." What are we really saying when we say "goddamn" or "Go to hell"? Both indicate, if we literalize them, that we have usurped the place of God and that we are in a position to decide what another’s eternal destiny is to be, based upon our assessment of exactly what another is worth. That is really not profanity so much as it is blasphemy. I have taken the place of God when I can assign you to hell.

The expression "for Christ’s sake" assumes that I am on the side of the angels, and unless you act out my will, you must be doing wrong. So "for Christ’s sake" get with it and be like me. My sake and Christ’s sake have become identical, and that is nothing less than self-idolatry.

Even the mild oaths, "gosh," "my goodness," "merciful father," all are forms of "my God." The word "gee" is nothing except shorthand for "Jesus." Even the phrase "for crying out loud" originally was a reference to Jesus on the cross.

Profanity ultimately expresses a kind of bankruptcy of language, for our profane symbols lose their meaning in very loose Context. For example, I have heard people called "stupid as hell" and "smart as hell." You cannot be both! I have heard things described as "big as hell" and "little as hell." The weather is called "hot as hell" and "cold as hell," and the symbol really is violated there. Language that loose and that imprecise is, frankly, dumb as hell!

Sometimes, when the symbol is literalized it has a startling effect. A story is told about a man in a bar who looked up and saw a fellow drinker who seemed familiar. "Where in hell have I seen you before?" he inquired. To which the stranger responded, "I don’t know. What part of hell do you come from?"

I suppose profanity has some therapeutic value. We get a great deal of emotion, hostility, and anger out with our expletives, and probably it is better to express these feelings verbally than physically. I suppose that it is inevitable that the most intimate human experiences, such as worship and sex, will supply the basic content for our oaths. I recall one occasion when I was playing tennis in Lynchburg, Virginia. My partner’s wife missed a shot. She stopped and hit her racquet on the ground and shouted "Richard Nixon!" I thought that a rather innovative kind of profanity.

On other occasions in Lynchburg, I played a good deal of squash with an orthopedic surgeon. He was a violent man who looked something like a gorilla. He was huge, hairy, and given to the fullest possible expression of verbal abuse. He knew absolutely no finesse in life or on the squash court. In squash he only wanted to hit that ball as hard as he could, and when he missed a shot, he would hurl an oath out that you could hear a city block away. All of his oaths began with "Goddamn!" About midway through a match that I was playing with him, I stopped the game and said, "Bob, how about swearing at your profession instead of mine for a while. Next time you miss a shot, instead of taking it out on God, scream ‘I hate aspirin.’" He agreed to try. A minute later, when his ball hit the tin, he shouted. "Goddamn it, I hate aspirin!" It was a partial victory.

Profanity is not an important area of human behavior. We all have different feelings about it. The real substance of this Commandment, the whole area of perjury, the truth, the integrity, the validity of one’s word—that is important, for the very matrix of society is built upon the assumption that a man’s word is good and truth can be expected in human interchange. That is as important as any other moral injunction to which the Commandments address themselves.

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