One of the most exciting elements of my Divinity School work this semester has been the opportunity I’ve had to study Hebrew with Dr. Barry Jones. I’ve never been very good in the foreign language skills department. In high school and college I dabbled in a couple of different languages, but simply trying to get a handle on the nuances and grammar of my own native tongue has been more than enough to push my linguistic abilities. For brevity’s sake, however, let me simply say that Hebrew is fun.
Working through scripture in its original language has been challenging and invigorating. Each little gain in understanding of these sacred texts opens up new truths and insight for me, but I still have a very long ways to go before reading a book, or even a sentence, in Hebrew is as natural and clear as it is in English. So why bother with trying to read the Bible in its original language? Aren’t there already enough English translations available? Haven’t hundreds of translators and scribes been pouring over these texts for thousands of years already? What can I possibly find in the original languages that hasn’t already been identified, dissected and translated by other, more qualified biblical scholars?
But that’s not really why we read the Bible, is it? It’s true that some people spend great amounts of time and effort scouring the letters and phrasings of scripture for secret codes, looking for hidden messages that supposedly reveal everything from the date of the apocalypse, to which candidate will win the 2012 presidential election in the United States of America. Others aren’t searching for secret codes, but they are reading the texts in hopes of finding a special verse or word that supports their own presupposed view of God and what he deems to be right behavior, as opposed to reading the lessons and stories of scripture with fresh ears, trying to understand them within the context of the overarching message of the gospel.
Whenever I move through the pages of the Bible, I know that I am walking down a path that many, many people have tread before me; I take comfort in that, and I do not for a moment hope to go one step further than anyone else has already gone. At the same time, I believe that God’s truths aren’t simply passed down from one generation to the next like genetic characteristics or inherited wealth. For scripture to have any real value for an individual, it must be read and understood by that person. If we hope to gain even a glimmer of understanding into the nature of God, we must, each one, seek him out. Knowing how God has worked among the human race in the past is a good place to start. The better informed we are as to the nature of God, of his relationship with mankind, of his movements in history and how he has revealed himself to others, the better equipped we are to identify his presence in our own lives as we seek to live within his will. This is the primary reason that I read the Bible — to know God.
One of the simple benefits of understanding the original language of scripture came through this week’s vocabulary lesson. Among our list of new words to learn for the week was the verb נשא (pronounced: nă•sá) which means to lift or to carry. This is the verb used in Exodus 20:7, the third commandment, translated in the NET (and similarly in the KJV) as “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain”. In my experience, most people have understood this to be an admonition against using a name for God as a frivolous slur or in conjunction with obscene language. The verb נשא certainly does support this interpretation. The commandment makes it clear that “lifting up” the Lord’s name to invoke a curse is a sordid thing to do — unless of course, you really, really mean it. However, נשא has another meaning here that, at least in this case, seems to fit this context better than the traditional understanding of “lifting up” God’s name alongside other language that is in poor taste.
The second meaning of the verb נשא, “to carry,” seems to fit in well with the rest of the Exodus story, and even with the rest of the Biblical narrative. Beginning with the exodus and continuing on for much of history, God’s people were not associated with a particular place; they were not known for their great wealth and possessions; they were not known for military superiority or for their hold on a valuable resource. They were known by the law they had been given, and by the God, Yahweh, who gave them that law. As they roamed through the wilderness, carrying all of their few possessions with them, they always found themselves to be strangers in foreign land. What kept them together — what set them apart from the other nations that surrounded them — was their identity as a people chosen by God, called by his name. This act of “carrying” God’s name was not a small thing for the Israelites — it was the most important thing they had!
In 2 Chronicles 7, during a relatively brief period of prosperity and national wealth in the history of Israel, God reminds Solomon, the great king, of this first treasure the Hebrew people had claim to, saying:
“If my people, who are called by my name, humble themselves, pray, seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”
When the prophet Jonah was sleeping onboard a ship in peril, the ship’s crew woke him up and asked him who he was. Jonah didn’t tell them his name. He didn’t tell them which town he was from, who is parents were or what he did for a living. He simply said, “I worship Yahweh.” This statement, of course, wasn’t entirely true. It was simply the latest in a string of mistakes Jonah had made. He claimed to be a worshipper of Yahweh, but in reality, he was caught in the act of fleeing from the Lord, of ignoring his responsibilities and following his own desires. Jonah was “carrying” the name of the Lord, but he was not living as one who truly belongs to God.
As Christians, we often divert our attention and make known our disapproval when we hear the name of Jesus used as a statement of anger or frustration, but are we as quick to hold ourselves accountable when our actions or words — though they may be perfectly acceptable by society’s standards — are not worthy of one who carries the name of Christ? How many Christians today pay lip service to God when it’s convenient, but don’t put forward any real effort to follow his commandments to honor the Lord in all we do, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves? Is it worse to ignore God altogether, or to acknowledge him in word but not in deed?
Let us strive to never carry the name of Christ in vain.