Thou Shalt Not Use the Name of the Lord in Vain

You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name. Exodus 20:7

Growing up attending Baptist Sunday School, I was under the impression that the third commandment referred to cussing. If you said “hell” or “damn”, particularly if “damn” was prefixed by “God”, you were in mortal peril of winding up in the lake of fire yourself. Other four-letter words that didn’t have anything to do with God were also included in the “cussing” category. My original interpretation of “Thou shalt not use the name of the Lord in vain” was “thou shalt not use bad words”.

As I grew older and began to read the Bible for myself, I began to understand that using the Lord’s name in vain had more to do with oath-taking than vocabulary choices. If someone invoked the name of God when making a promise, they had better follow through on their promise, no matter what. For this reason Jephthah, who foolishly promised to offer whatever or whoever first came out to greet him upon his return from a successful military campaign, believed he had to kill his daughter. Apparently the third commandment takes precedence over the sixth, or perhaps child sacrifice isn’t considered murder. Violating an oath made in God’s name was serious business, even if the person didn’t consciously break the promise. Samson was asleep when he got the haircut that caused him to lose his fabled strength. Interesting, women had an escape clause of sorts: their fathers or husbands could veto their vows.

As is usual with written laws, people who are motivated to do so will find a way around them. It’s quite possible to technically obey the law, but disregard its intent. Jesus gave one example of this kind of thinking when he castigated some prominent religious leaders of his time.Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.’ You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred?  You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gift on the altar is bound by that oath.’ You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? Therefore, anyone who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And anyone who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.” If you determine the principle behind the rule, you’ll have a better understanding of how God wants you to behave. “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” I understand Jesus to be saying that if you make a promise, you ought to keep it. Don’t try to wiggle out of your responsibilities on technicalities.

There’s another way I think humans use the name of God in vain, and I think it is perhaps the most dangerous transgression of all. There are people who self-identify as Christians, but their lives do not reflect evidence of the transformation a person connected to God is undergoing. It is difficult to see the fruits of the Spirit– love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control- in their lives. Sometimes they follow all the rules they demand others follow, and sometimes they don’t. They do not live by the law of love: they do not treat others the way they would want to be treated themselves. They appear to focus more on their own needs and wants than those of others; they are more self-aggrandizing than self- sacrificing. They are quick to judge the behavior of others but slow to see their own faults, let alone try to correct them. They have a tendency to say they are speaking for God, even when they say such demonstrably false things that it is clear that they are not. To put it bluntly, people like that give God a bad name, and if that isn’t “using the name of the Lord in vain” I don’t know what is. They are certainly on Jesus’s bad list, for he says of them, “You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” and “You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.” Whatever the “unforgivable sin” of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is, this kind of stuff comes perilously close to it.

Thou shalt not use the name of the Lord in vain” is just as important for those who profess to be on God’s team today as it ever was.

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Not All the Voices in Your Head Are From God

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” Genesis 22:1-14

This week’s Old Testament reading, the binding of Isaac, has always been problematic for me. I’m aware of traditional explanations for why God subjected Abraham to such a cruel test, but those explanations exacerbated rather than relieved my unease.  I’m also aware of some of the more liberal explanations of the story as an apologetic for the development of animal sacrifice and temple worship, but I’m not entirely comfortable with those either. Although I don’t necessarily take all the stories in the Bible literally, I do take them all  seriously. The best way I can understand troublesome passages like this one (and the story of Jephthah’s daughter, where God failed to intervene) is to remind myself that there are many times when people think God is saying something to them, and he isn’t. Not all the voices in your head are from God.

I don’t think God asked Abraham to kill Isaac (Ishmael in Islamic tradition) and offer his body as a burnt offering. I think Abraham thought God asked him to do that. Abraham lived in a time and place where child sacrifice was commonly practiced, and it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to think that Abraham might have thought that was something his God might have wanted him to do, too. If his God was greater than all the gods of the neighboring cultures, surely his God would require the same level of “skin in the game” from his worshippers. The son of Abraham was more fortunate than the daughter of Jephthah, because Abraham heard another message from God, countermanding God’s first order, and he stops just in time. Relax, says God. This was a test; it was only a test. I can’t help but wonder about how this experience must have scarred Isaac for life and how it must have negatively affected both his relationship with his father and with God. Isaac’s son Jacob later describes God as  “the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac,” which I find pretty telling. And what happened between Abraham and Sarah? Did they separate over this incident? In the chapter which immediately follows, Sarah dies in Hebron, and Abraham apparently has to to go some distance to mourn her passing and obtain a burial place. Apparently, there’s a lot going on between the lines of this story, with neither Isaac nor Sarah hearing the same voice from God that Abraham heard.

There are a lot of people going around saying God told them to do this or that, and whenever I hear those kinds of statements, I am skeptical. They may think God told them something, but I question whether the voice they heard was actually from God. I am especially suspicious whenever money or politics is involved with such epiphanies. I do not think God told Oral Roberts he would die unless his supporters sent him a certain amount of money by a certain date. I do not think God told Harold Camping when the world would end.  I do not think God tells any of the innumerable candidates of office that they are God’s chosen one. If God was actually talking to all the people who claim he was talking, he would be a very irrational and disturbed deity.  I’m not sure how many of these people actually thought God was talking to them, but I’m pretty sure that, if there were voices in their heads, those voices weren’t from God.

When I first started reading the Bible, I used to wonder why God doesn’t seem to talk to people today as clearly and obviously as he seemed to do in the Bible stories. Recently I read a rather interesting article in the Atlantic, “Psychics Who Hear Voices Could Be on to Something”. The article was about the ways “healthy voice hearers” might help people with psychotic disorders, and seemed to have a lot in common with Julian Jayne’s much earlier book, “Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”. Both the article and the book postulate that what most of us perceive as our own thoughts, some people perceive as originating from an external source. Ancient peoples, some aboriginal cultures, children, and mentally ill people seem to be more open to the latter perception. I can vividly remember an experience I had in the third grade, when I was convinced the devil was tempting me not to believe in God. I now understand that experience as the immature perception of my own subconscious doubts, rather than any need for my parents to consult an exorcist. But at the time it was very real, very scary, and probably the origin story for why I have always been very interested in matters theological.

So does God really speak to people, and if so how do you know it is God and not your own thoughts doing the talking?  I think the answer to the first question is yes. As my friends in the UCC are fond of saying, “God is still speaking”. The answer to the second question is a bit more complicated. I think it takes practice, what is sometimes called spiritual formation, to learn to hear the voice of God correctly. As John wrote to some of the first Christians, Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God. For John, the main criteria for discernment seem to be (a) Jesus and (b) love. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God”.Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.Those work pretty well for me, too.  If you think God is telling you to do something that is incongruent with the character of Jesus, it’s probably not God doing the talking. If you think God is telling you to do something that is hurtful to yourself or others, it’s probably not God doing the talking. As James put it, “ No one who is tested should say, “God is tempting me!” This is because God is not tempted by any form of evil, nor does he tempt anyone but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.”

I also like the Wesleyan quadrilateral approach, which considers Scripture, tradition, and reason along with personal experience. I have found that the more I read and study the Bible the more I find verses float into my consciousness just when I will find them helpful. The same holds true for the words and melodies of hymns, as well as traditional prayers. I’m glad God expects us to use our minds, too. If you think that God is telling you to do something ridiculous like jump off a building as proof of your faith, it’s probably not God doing the talking. (as Jesus observed)  Deuteronomy is quite pragmatic about the use of reason, although helpful only in retrospect: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken.” 

Is it God speaking, or my own thoughts? Does it matter? I can’t help but think of Paul’s advice to the Roman Christians:  Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will. I understand this passage to mean that, as much as we will allow, God works to change our thoughts.

His mind to our mind, his thoughts to our thoughts, with the end goal that God’s mind and our mind become one.

I Solemnly Swear That I Am Up To No Good

Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King.  And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. (Matthew 5)

In the Harry Potter novels, the Marauder’s Map is accessed by the use of the passphrase “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good”. Rowling intended this to be a bit ironic, because generally her characters used the map for good, although possibly rule-breaking, purposes. In this passage from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus elaborates on the commandment  “Thou shalt not use the name of the Lord thy God in vain”. Jesus goes beyond the rule to the principles of honesty and loyalty that underpin it. Don’t promise something you have no intention of delivering, or can’t deliver.

When I was a child, I thought the Third Commandment referred to “cussing”, meaning using “bad words”, some of which strangely enough had more to do with bodily functions than with God. Adhering to that understanding of one of the Big Ten might have kept me out of trouble with parents and teachers, but that’s not at all how I understand that commandment now. Most modern translations of the Hebrew words phrase it “you shall not misuse the name of God”, and there are many passages in the Old Testament which give examples of the proper and improper use of oath-taking. Using God’s name to promise something was a kind of unbreakable vow, at least for men; a woman’s vow could be overruled by her father or husband. Whatever you promised in God’s name had to be done, even if it turned out to be a rash statement, as Jephthah learned to his sorrow. A modern parallel might be the courtroom custom of placing one’s hand on the Bible and swearing to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.”

The problem with attempting to regulate moral behavior with rules instead of principles is that it does not always work. People look for and find loopholes or twist the intended purpose of the law in order to benefit themselves, and that does not make God happy. In Matthew 23, Jesus gives one example of such behavior in his time, coupled with a strong warning that it is highly displeasing to God. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You traverse land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are. Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes it sacred?”  Today anyone who keeps up with the news is painfully aware of how often political figures distort the truth to serve their own purposes, make empty promises, and/or dance around the edges of perjury. And don’t get me started on people who claim that God wants you to send them money, or that God told them to run for political office, or that God told them to commit acts of violence and hate in his name. I think God gets especially mad when people use his name to say and do things that drive people away from God. As Paul put it, God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” 

Using God’s name in vain is serious business, and God’s name is used in vain when it is invoked to make promises that won’t be fulfilled, or when it is used to justify human behavior that it is self-serving or harmful to others. Just leave God’s name out of it, Jesus says. Say what you mean and mean what you say. A tree will be known by its fruits, and if you regularly practice the principles of honesty, loyalty, and commitment that will be readily apparent to others as well as pleasing to God.

 

 

 

 

Judges: When Will They Ever Learn?

Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. They forsook the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. They aroused the Lord’s anger  because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths. In his anger against Israel the Lord gave them into the hands of raiders who plundered them. He sold them into the hands of their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist. Whenever Israel went out to fight, the hand of the Lord was against them to defeat them, just as he had sworn to them. They were in great distress. Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands of these raiders. Yet they would not listen to their judges but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them. They quickly turned from the ways of their ancestors, who had been obedient to the Lord’s commands. Whenever the Lord raised up a judge for them, he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived; for the Lord relented because of their groaning under those who oppressed and afflicted them. But when the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their ancestors, following other gods and serving and worshiping them. They refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways.

The writer of Judges sets its stories in a time after Joshua had died, and its theme can best be summed up in the passage above. The cast of characters changes and some are better fleshed out than others, but the story never changes. Israel violates its promise to worship only YHWH; bad consequences ensue; they cry out for help; God raises up a deliverer; they fall back into their old ways; and the cycle begins again.

Baal, the rain god, and Ashtoreth, the mother/fertility goddess, were two of the main deities in the Caananite pantheon. As the Israelite people gave up their nomadic existence and settled into an agricultural lifestyle, it became a matter of life and death that crops and livestock were fertile, and that sufficient ran came at the proper time. Most likely their worship of these local gods was in addition to, rather than instead of, that of YHWH. It seemed logical: why not cover all your bases and placate the local gods as well as the one responsible for bringing them into the land? They really had not yet bought into the idea of monotheism.

Game of Thrones has nothing on some of the stories in Judges, and the judges themselves were often quite flawed people. Left-handed Ehud hides a double-edged sword on his right side, tricks the king of Moab into giving him a private audience, and buries the sword into the fat king’s belly so deeply that the flesh closes over the hilt.  Gideon seems to have been somewhat doubtful if God was really talking to him, and keeps asking for proof. Jephthah is the illegitimate son of a prostitute whose father’s family kicks him out, so he becomes what appears to be some kind of Bronze Age gang lord. His story ends when he feels compelled to sacrifice his only child, a daughter, as a burnt offering in order to fulfill a rashly made vow to God. Sampson, who is probably the best known of the judges, is alternately narcissistic and naive, and has a dangerously explosive temper, along with probably far too much testosterone. There’s the story of Micah’s priest-for-hire, not to mention the gruesome story of the Levite’s concubine. Unlike Lot’s daughters, she had no angelic protectors and is abandoned to her rapists. Her death becomes the flashpoint for an intertribal war with unfortunate consequences not only for the Benjamites, but also for  innocent women in Shiloh. Judges seems to end in complete anarchy, to the repeated refrain of “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit”

My favorite judge story is that of Deborah, who seems to be the most qualified and rational of the bunch. Her story begins in Judges 4, where she is described in the following way: “Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time.  She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided” It’s fascinating to me, because here is a woman in a patriarchal society who is its clear spiritual, temporal, and military leader. And she’s not the only female hero of the story: there’s Jael, who manages to rout an invading army by driving a tent peg through the skull of its general.

So where’s the good news in all these very bad stories?  As I see it, there is actually quite a bit of it. First, God doesn’t give up on us, no matter how awful we are to him and to each other. Second, it gives me hope to know that God can use even  very imperfect, error people to accomplish good purposes.  And of course, there’s Deborah, who reminds me that God’s divinely planned role for women isn’t limited to “in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant”.

And I think that’s good news.