Monday, June 1, 2015

What's in a Name?

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In our culture, a name is mostly a means of identification, but in biblical times, a named told you something about a person's identity, about who they were, about their character or destiny. The name which God gives when identifying himself to Moses is YHWH, a form of the Hebrew verb "to be" which basically translates to "I am who I am." Because in Hebrew the verb "to be" denotes activity which defines a subject, YHWH or I AM could also be translated to mean, "I will tell you who I am by what I do." This is why we find so many stories and also so many names of God in our sacred scriptures. They are all revealing more to us about this God, YHWH.

In our faith community I am working through a series on what is commonly know as the Ten Commandments, and yesterday we talked about what's in a name. Exodus 20:7 reads: "You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain" (New King James). Another translation reads: "Never use the name of Yahweh your Elohim carelessly. Yahweh will make sure that anyone who carelessly uses his name will be punished (Names of God Bible). The Hebrew word, shav, translated "in vain" in the NKJV, means emptiness, vanity, emptiness of speech, lying. If I were to attempt a modern, colloquial interpretation of this directive, it would go something like this: Do not empty out the holy significance, character,and authority of the name of YHWH. 

Basically, there are three ways in which people trivialize the name of YHWH. First is by perjury and swearing, both of which have to do with improper use of oaths. To willfully tell an untruth in court after having taken an oath (invoking the name of God) to tell the truth reveals what a low respect one has for the name of God. Swearing has a positive, promise-making sense, such as the oath to tell the truth in court, as well as a negative sense. The negative aspect of swearing relates to using offensive words when one speaks. Basically, it is taking a word which is positive and using it out of context in order to add emphasis, usually in a negative, disparaging way. In Quebec, curse words are primarily church words (tabernacle, the host, the chalice) which reflect Quebec's bitter history and disrespect for the Catholic church. 

The second way is through breaking a promise or oath made to God, such as when the Israelites repeatedly dishonoured the covenant God made with them. I won't go into any more detail on that. The third way is probably the most applicable to our contemporary context, and that is speaking words on behalf of God which he has not spoken. We can use God's name in a way which is contrary to his character, we can invoke God's authority when he has not given it, or we can misquote God, attributing our ideas and words to God in order to legitimize them. R.T. Kendall has some strong words on this topic. 

"One of the hardest habits for some of us to break is saying, 'God told me this' or 'Here is what the Lord showed me.' Is this truly a bad habit? Yes. In fact, I believe it's one of the worst claims perpetrated in churches today, despite being a clear violation of the third commandment... How do we misuse God's name when we claim He told us something? With out intent. Most often we mention Him for one reason: to elevate our own credibility. It is not His name we are thinking of, it is our reputation. Adding the weight of God's name to our words gives us authority and respectability. But the truth is, we're not thinking of God's name and glory when we do this - we're thinking of our own. ... We quote people when we speak to give our own words a higher standing, a greater level of underlying truthfulness. That is certainly why I quote Scripture. In the same way, if I quote St. Augustine or John Wesley, it is to make you feel that I have a greater measure of reliability on my side. But no one likes a name-dropper. They're not a popular type. If I told you I know Oral Roberts or Billy Graham or the pope, who would I be trying to make look good? Not them. It's no different with God." [1]

So how can we go about honouring the intent of the third commandment and not becoming name-droppers? For me, it is helpful to think about how I use the names of people I love and respect most. When I was in college, my roommate had an interesting expression every time things were going wrong or she was frustrated. She would exclaim, "Oh, Martha!" And not in a pleasant tone of voice. That happens to be my name, so I found myself wincing every time she said it. I wanted my name to be associated with joy and goodness, with love and friendship, with truth and honesty, not with disappointment and frustration. 

One interpretation of the directive to treat God's name with respect developed during Second Temple Judaism (about 515 BCE to 70 BCE) when temple leaders decided to place a taboo on pronouncing the name of God (YHWH) and instead, replaced it with Adonai (Lord) or HaShem (the name). This was meant to keep people from trivializing the name of YHWH, but does avoiding the name altogether fulfill the intent behind the command? I don't think so. Though I respect the gravity with which the Jewish tradition approaches the law, I believe the reaction is one based in fear and not love. It does not move one towards intimacy and relationship. Going back to the story of my swearing roommate, I didn't want her to stop using my name, I just wanted her to use it properly. Likewise, if I stopped calling my husband by name, that would be odd, and indicate that something might be amiss in our relationship. Sometimes I say his name in frustration (Argh, Dean forgot to put his dishes in the dishwasher again!). I don't like it when I do that. I want to speak Dean's name with love in my voice, reflecting his kindness and generosity and commitment to me, with a sense of our many years of friendship and delight in each other. 

So how should we use God's holy name? Lovingly, respectfully, with delight, with joy, never emptying it of its wonderful and rich nature, but being mindful of the character revealed in the name, remembering the acts done by the God of this name. Let us sing, pray, and shout to our God. Let us tell of his wonderful mercy and kindness, let us proclaim the good news of his love, and let us call on his name to help us when we are helpless. This is YHWH. Hallelujah!

Matte (Martha) from Montreal

[1] R. T. Kendall,"God Told Me... Really?" in Ministry Today. You can find the whole article here.

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