Thursday, October 5, 2017
Recapturing God's Holiness
On Sunday, those of us who use Track 1 from the RCL will hear some very familiar words: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me..." The first reading is the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20. I may not have them written on my heart as clearly as they have been engraved in tablets of stone monuments, but I know them pretty well. It's funny to me, then, when I encounter the NRSV language of Commandment #3, which makes perfect sense but is missing some of what I expect from the KJV in my memory.
When I think of #3, I usually think of, "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain," but we will hear, "You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God." That's right, of course. That's what it means to take the Lord's name in vain--to misuse it--but this is one of those biblical specificities that has lost its significance and that most modern retranslation don't fix.
What does it mean to take God's name in vain? Or, more importantly, what is it that God is asking God's people to do or not do? Why is this important? Why is this one of the big ten?
Back when I was newly ordained, I wanted to show a video clip in a Sunday school class I was teaching, but the clip had some profanity in it. I went to my boss and told him about it. I explained that I could bleep out some of the words but wanted to be sure that a missed "shit" or "damn" wouldn't get me (or him) in trouble. "I'll be sure to cut out all the F-words and GDs," I reassured him. "That's a shame," he said, "because goddammit has always been one of my favorites." I laughed nervously.
Does Commandment #3 prohibit us from saying GD? When my child says "Oh my gosh!" instead of "Oh my God!" is she doing the right thing, or does it even make a difference? Is "God" the issue here? Or is it "Yahweh," the supposed "name of the Lord" that we should be worried about. Is there a difference between saying, "Yahweh damn it!" and "Goddammit!?"
In the Orthodox Jewish tradition, saying or writing the name of the Lord is forbidden. That's why the Bible has LORD instead of Lord. When we see the all-caps, we know that's a moment when the actual name of God would have been meant. In the biblical manuscripts, they didn't write out the name for fear of breaking the commandment, so they sometimes used the four-letter abbreviation YHWH. For some, that's still too close for comfort, so other designations like "Adonai" and "Jehovah" and "Elohim" were used. We do similar things in English, of course, using "Lord" and "God" and "Almighty" and "Holy One" to all mean God...whatever God's name is. Now that the English tradition of capitalizing the first letter of God to mean specifically Israel's god is widespread, many Orthodox Jews won't even write that word out and instead us G-d to avoid violating #3. Is that what G-d really wants us to do?
The real point is that God is holy. God is not like us. God is unfathomably other. In the ancient near east, there was power in a name. To give or say a name is, in effect, to own something. To call explicitly upon the name of the Lord is to wield the power and holiness that the Lord possesses. One cannot use that power carelessly.
In some ways, we still have echoes of this in our own culture. Parents give their children names. No one else gets to do that. As an adult, a child might choose his or her own name, but the formative years of one's life are spent being known as whatever your owning parents have chosen to call you. We don't call people of respect by their first name. Our elders are "Mr. Washington" or "Mrs. Atkinson." The President of the United States is "Mr. President" or "President Trump" and not "Donald." (Over the last decade, that politeness has eroded in the media as "Obama" became a sufficient way for journalists and pundits to refer to the President, a tradition that continues with "Trump.") How many people do you think call the Queen of England "Elizabeth" and not "Your Majesty?" For a long time, senior African-Americans were denied the courtesy of being called by their last names as white children were taught to call them "Miss Tammy" or "Mr. Bill," which was a not-a-subtle reinforcement of the class structure.
Maybe it's time for us to recapture the elegance of a name. Maybe I should ask people to call me "Mr. Garner" and not "Evan." Maybe I should drop the casual way I refer to parishioners by their first names and only call them "Mr. Dunn" or "Mrs. Charlton." I wouldn't want to do that to instill a formality between us. I enjoy the intimacy that comes from exchanging first names. But maybe that would remind us something important about who God is. It's important to remember that the Holy One who Inhabits Eternity isn't just "Fred" or "Jenny." God is God. God is holy. God does not lend his name for casual use. God commands our respect and worship and adoration at all times. We may not need to abbreviate every time we use G-d's name, but, by restricting its use to those occasions that befit the fullness of God's holiness, we learn to think of God as holy.
Consider, then, the CEB's version of Commandment #3: "Do not use the Lord your God’s name as if it were of no significance." The remarkable thing about God is that God allows God's people to use God's name. It is given to us. God speaks it. We receive it. We communicate it. But we cannot do it casually. There is power in it. It is significant. Let's recapture not the legalistic observance of "thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain" but the spirit of respect that Commandment #3 inspires. God is holy. We are not. But, with care and reverence, we are invited to call upon the name of the one who saves us--God himself.