Continued from On the Name of God. Part I.
This is where we left off: The Hebrew Bible, the patchwork of myth and the ages and folktale and hindsight and inspiration and gut feeling and politics that it is, refuses to name God.
I like that.
But that is where I encounter a problem. Two problems, actually.
Sometimes a student’s hand goes up right away; most often this waits until we get back to Mount Sinai and Moses, shiny from his 40-day mystical experience, comes down carrying the weight of the Law literally on his shoulders, and we run into the Third Commandment.
First problem: If the Bible does not give God a name and YHVH is not really it, why pledge unrelenting wrath against those who would “take it in vain”?
Second problem: “The name of God is Jesus!” usually a Christian student will say, and if they don’t, I will propose so – because this is an entirely valid objection from the largest-in-the-world religious tradition that overwhelmingly believes that we have now experienced a manifestation of God among us concrete and touchable, with a particular human name.
Indeed. Considering that “God” is not the name of God but “YHVH” may be, after all, the closest we’ve come to gathering the essence of divinity into one word — and taking Christian beliefs into account — saying “Cheese and crackers” might be making more sense than “Gosh.” Or does it?
Let’s see what the Third Commandment might have been intended to do. The relevant part of it, when pretty literally translated, says the following: “Do not take up the name of I AM your deity for something futile (l’shua).” Broadly speaking, it means “Do not misuse the name of God.” And speaking particularly to the customs, culture, and language that produced the Law of Moses, it guards against a specific action – a common failing. A habitual sin. And there is a commandment in Leviticus that explains exactly what it means: “Do not swear falsely by my name and profane the name of your God.” (19:12).
It is my contention that in Exodus no more than in Leviticus is the biblical God concerned about the invocation of His Name per se. The profanation He is concerned about comes from oaths that will never be fulfilled. People have a habit of supporting their solemn promises by invoking the most sacred images they can think of: their mother’s graves, their children’s health. The name of God. And they used to do it more than they do now. But the more we do it, the more tempted we are to throw out an oath to gain someone’s trust and get what we need – and then see how it goes.
Empty promises – that’s the profanation. That’s the misuse. God is concerned with His reputation.
On a lighter side, the Israelite priests were probably worried that Yahweh Elohim wasn’t doing enough smiting of those who had broken their solemn oaths taken in His name. It might have started undermining their painted image of the jealous God. This is pure speculation, mind you – but note that the Third Commandment is the only one of the Ten that attends to consequences for disobedience (without reward for obedience) yet doesn’t threaten any smiting, just says vaguely that God will “hold no one guiltless” who takes His name in vain.
But I digress.
The reason my students and I have to make a stop at the Third Commandment is that over the course of centuries we have lost sight of what it’s really about. I turn around and hear what to me is a bizarre conflation of words and ideas, spanning the extremes of expletives from “Oh my f#@&ing God” to “Geez” in reaction to virtually anything, massacres and sunsets in one swoop. And if I exclaim, “My God!,” someone might ask me not to swear.
Except, “God” is not the name of God, and if I exclaimed it, I would not be swearing.
We have gotten so confused…
“To swear” comes from the root that means “to speak” and designates in English making a vow, possibly with invoking a sacred name. This word did not take on the meaning of “using bad language” until the 15th century, and the term “swearword” is an American invention – even that only since the 1830’s. But today, swear words and curse words are synonyms, as if calling on God and wishing damnation on someone were the same thing. And we’ve thrown into the same foul pile every ugly term we’ve created for human body parts and bodily functions. How did this happen? What are we thinking? Shouldn’t we keep in mind the difference between respecting the power of the sacred and refraining from casual insults to each other?
Here is something the Third Commandment makes me think about, especially in concert with the Ninth: both are about false oaths; both are about a specific kind of lying. The former – a vow on the sacred Name that’s not intended to be fulfilled – damages the covenant with the Divine; the latter – a false testimony that accuses one’s innocent neighbor of a crime – damages the covenant between people. This is what the Ten Commandments, all of them, were trying to define and preserve: the harmony of Humanity with its Ultimate Context and of Humanity with itself.
Two thousand years ago, a Jewish teacher of the Law from Nazareth tried to explain this harmony to his followers. He understood human nature very well, and he experienced broken oaths in his own travels – fickleness and betrayal and the changing of minds. He experienced also in his own being the confluence of all parties to the Covenant: the Creator and Creation, divine and human, the fabric of existence and all the particular patterns of it. And he was saying something like this:
“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 5:33-37 NIV).
I like this passage very much. It occurs in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, as Jesus is going through the Commandments, teasing out their spirit from under the plaque of centuries of letter, and my reading of this one, as you can see, is consistent with his. Nowhere does he talk about invoking God’s name. He talks about oaths. And I find two life-guiding teachings here for myself.
One teaching is that of profound yet habitual, cultivated everyday responsibility for ourselves – a consistency between our words and actions that must become a basic, all-permeating honesty of our lives. We must not think of whether or not we make a solemn enough oath to back it up, with anything. We must tread on our every word as the truth of our paths. When we say, we do. What we do, we say. We must not be tempted to impose a hierarchy on the truths of our lives. This teaching demands the simplicity that is not opposed to complexity but to opaqueness. It is a shining transparency that lets the light through. We don’t need to make vows if we fully intend our every promise, no matter how casual. If we will do our absolute best to follow through. It is then and only then that we will be held “guiltless” if we can’t deliver – by ourselves, hopefully by others, and certainly by the grand scheme of things the Bible calls “God.”
The other teaching in this passage that takes my breath away is the same that I find in the Exodus’ “I AM”: an existential statement that mingles transcendence and immanence. A reminder of the divine nature of the world. A reminder that no word, no matter how sacred, is entirely opposed to the profane, for God is in all things, and so all things are to be treated as sacred. Both on heaven and on earth God rests His divine essence. All things are a mixture of what we control and don’t: God’s Name and our own heads, for we can spoil them and yet we cannot change them.
Speaks Jesus of Nazareth and means, I think, something like this: “Understand yourselves an inseparable aspect of the reality of God. Look around in wonder and awe and see the reality of God in every single thing and in each other. Do not misuse the sacred words we use to speak of the mystery of this reality – they are all the words we use. Hear the Name of God in every sound of the world. Do not misuse words by divorcing them from reality but live your divinity and your humanity in the harmony of the Covenant of Truth that is Love.”
I dare not say how I fare on this path, but I try. I won’t go on to count – nor does it matter here – how many times I have failed to deliver on a promise or changed my mind. What matters here, I think, is that I feel wholeheartedly free to spell out “YHVH” and to speak of God. And I don’t hold myself back from exclaiming, “Jesus Christ!” when a startling development arises before me on my life’s path. Because in the depth of my heart and on the surface of my mind at that moment I am not swearing and certainly not cursing – rather, I am calling on the One I love to be witness to all that is in and around me, as I know He is, but just then in a special way of which I am aware.
And I think that is all right.
So let me bring you back to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” line by line. This is what I read in the verse I have quoted:
You say I took the name in vain.
The Third Commandment in all its stilted glory reigns misunderstood in the modern world, instead of guiding our responsibility to each other, making the most sacred and best words in our language equivalent to curse words, peppering our speech with euphemisms, as if holy names were dirty.
I don’t even know the Name.
Yet every sacred name we have is a euphemism. An approximation. For we don’t know the name of God – He is mystery and transcendence, He is reality itself. What is it we are policing anyway? What certainty of what damage to what holiness do you have should you hear me utter some word or another?
But if I did, well, really, what’s it to you?
And those names that are as sacred as they get to their believers – perhaps, YHVH; perhaps, Jesus… No commandment had intended for us to stop speaking them, only to revere them and treat them with the care due them. Not to misuse them. Not to invoke them to hold up lies. My uttering of sacred words defines my harmony with the Divine, and no one can quite know what that thread is like.
There’s a blaze of light in every word.
The sacred, you see, is not limited to the list in anybody’s book. The immanence of the transcendent – the dual nature of the universe – makes every word sacred, every thing divine, every sound the Name of God. Once you become aware of the all-permeating divinity of Reality, refraining from speaking the Name would render you mute. It’s all the Name.
It doesn’t matter which you heard –
Sacredness comes to us by many paths, and there may be an infinite number of them – and as long as they lead into the blaze of light that is the Ultimate Love, they all are good, and they all are holy. There is not one single word.
The holy or the broken Hallelujah.
Let us sing our song, let us say our holy words. Neither we nor they are perfect, and they may be joyful or sorrowful, hopeful or desperate, full of love or full of wrath. But it all is Hallelujah, which means “Let us praise YHVH.” It doesn’t matter what you see or hear, where you are or who you are – the world around you, bursting into you, is God, filling you with divinity, filling you with being. Because God is I AM, reality itself.