Bearing God’s Name
‘You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain’ (Exod. 20:7). It’s a commandment we know well, but what does it actually mean? Most assume that the command prohibits the use of God’s name as a swear word, but in her book, Bearing God’s Name: Why Sinai Still Matters, Carmen Joy Imes offers a different reading which might also help us to better understand the whole of the Ten Commandments.
Drawing on her doctorate research, Imes suggests that the answer to understanding the name command starts with a new translation of Exodus 20:7: ‘You must not bear (or carry) the name of Yahweh, your God, in vain, for Yahweh will not hold guiltless one who bears (or carries) his name in vain.’ The language of bearing or carrying is a good literal translation of the verb nāsāʾ (elsewhere in Exodus, for example, is it used of the people lifting bread dough (Exod. 12:34), the chiefs bearing the burden of judging the people alongside Moses (Exod. 18:22), the carrying of the Ark (Exod. 25:14), and the bearing of guilt (Exod. 28:38)). But the meaning of bearing God’s name has been deemed unclear. To solve the problem, some concept of speaking is usually assumed, hence the common translation ‘take the name of the Lord’.
However, Imes observes that the bearing of names reappears in Exodus, not much later, when Aaron ‘bears the names of the sons of Israel’ on his breastpiece ‘to bring them to regular remembrance before the Lord’ (Exod. 28:29). Here, to bear the name of someone means to represent them before another. Applied to the name command, this insight suggests that the command is a call to faithfully represent God to others. This fits nicely with Israel’s calling to be ‘a kingdom of priests’ (Exod. 19:6), representing God to the nations, itself an outworking of God’s promise that the election of Abraham and his descendants was ultimately for the good of the nations (Gen. 12:3).
Imes suggests that this understanding may help us to better understand the Ten Commandments as a whole. Viewing the name command as the second (with Exod. 20:2-6 all understood as the first command), she proposes that the remaining eight commands all flow from the first two. The first two commands – (1) worship only Yahweh, and (2) represent him well – are comparable to the classic covenant formula ‘I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God’ (Exod. 6:7). The remaining commandments are an explanation of what this looks like in various areas of life.
None of this means that it’s wise to use God’s name as a swear word, but it does seem a good way to read and understand a tricky text. To see how the theme of bearing God’s name then continues through the rest of the Old Testament and into the New, you’ll have to read Bearing God’s Name yourself.