The Ten Commandments

The 3rd Commandment

“You must not use the name of Yahweh your God in an empty way, because Yahweh will not excuse anyone who uses his name gratuitously.” 

In the days in which the Old Testament books were written, to know a name was to have insight into the essence of the name-bearer, and thereby to have a measure of power over them. In Genesis 2, for example, Adam’s naming of all living creatures is linked to his being given ‘dominion over them’. Jews, therefore, when they come upon ‘Yahweh’, God’s name, in reading their scriptures, don’t pronounce it, but substitute either a word which means ‘The Name’, or one that means ‘Lord’. it was Yahweh who gave his people their name ‘Israel’, not the other way round.

English Bibles likewise ‘hide’ the name ‘Yahweh’ by substituting the word ‘LORD’ with capital letters. It’s as if they’re avoiding reminding us that the Judaeo-Christian God began life as the tribal god ‘Yahweh’, before he ‘took off’ as the one and only creator of the entire universe. There are those, however, who really ought to remind themselves of this, when they try to apply some of the values of an ancient tribal god and people, to 21st century globalised society. 

As for the name itself, no one now knows how it was originally pronounced, because ancient Hebrew was written without vowels – ‘Yahweh’ is a best guess. In addition, no one knows what it actually means, because it’s a non-standard word form – ‘He is who he is’, or ‘will be who he will be’ is again a best guess.

Interesting, it seems to me, is the occasion when Moses (of ‘burning bush’ fame) asked God what his name was. In terms of the above, Moses could be seen as needing to ‘get a handle’ on God, and get some ‘leverage’ on him. In which case, God’s reply, “I am who I am”, might very well mean, ‘Mind your own business!’ On the other hand, God might be saying that he is the great “I am” – the eternal now, the still, silent, centre-point of the revolving universe which, happily in my view, is the ‘point’ at which western and eastern religion and mysticism begin to meet.

And as for contemporary relevance? At root, we’re talking here about using words in an empty way. We could go on to say that we’re talking about hollow slogans with no substance; that we’re talking about ‘word screens’ which, like smoke screens, are intended to hide some dubious state of affairs from scrutiny and disclosure. We’re talking about everything from bluff and bluster with flapping tongue and flailing arms, to graphic predictions of doomsday and/or utopian fantasies of a golden tomorrow. We’re talking about the farcical ‘alternative facts’ which disfigure our post-truth world, and I’m tempted to suggest that when Donald Trump, the master of the ‘alternative fact’, staged a show outside a church with Yahweh’s Bible in his hand, as an ongoing breaker of this 2nd commandment, he soon afterwards received his much deserved comeuppance.

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