Most aspects of religion confuse me. The Ten Commandments that are so important to the Jewish and Christian religions are no different. One of those commandments translates as “Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain!” The word vain meaning “the use of someone’s name in a way that shows a lack of respect”. So, it seems that knowing what God’s real name is and how to use it properly are extremely important.

The Two lists

There are two different lists of the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament. The first is in Exodus 20:2-17, when God inscribed the commandments on two tablets for Moses to present to his fellow Jews at Mount Sinai. God produced the second list in Deuteronomy 5:6-2, after Moses destroyed the first tablets by flinging them at his sinful companions. Depending on which list you use, the commandment about taking God’s name in vain is either the second or third commandment.

The differences between the two lists and other duplicated stories in the first five books of the Old Testament have led many Bible scholars to believe there were multiple authors for the Torah—those first five books. In fact, this has now become widely-accepted belief based on forensic study of those books, even though those books were called the “Books of Moses”.

Just like the others, this commandment depends on human translation and interpretation. Another commandment says we aren’t supposed to kill. Does that mean people or any living thing? If it means people, why do many Christians support Just War, or the death penalty? Is it justified to kill if people convince themselves that’s what God wants? You could have asked that question to both sides in many wars.

Another commandment says we’re forbidden from worshipping graven images, but we are allowed to “venerate” them.  The Church almost split over the interpretation of this one.

The name of God

The Jews of the Second Temple period refused to even say or write the name of their god, Yahweh. Instead, they abbreviated the name YHWH. No matter how people interpreted the second or third commandment in the past, today it’s understood as a prohibition of the abuse of God’s name, not its use.

Historian Winwood Reade has a very reasonable interpretation of the commandment. He wrote “the chief benefit which religion ever conferred upon mankind, whether in ancient or in modern times, was undoubtedly the oath. The priests taught that if a promise was made in the name of the gods, and that promise was broken, the gods would kill those who took their name in vain. Such is the true meaning of the third commandment. Before that time treaties of peace and contracts of every kind in which mutual confidence was required could only be effected by the interchange of hostages. But now by means of this purely theological device a verbal form became itself a sacred pledge: men could at all times confide in one another; and foreign tribes met freely together beneath the shelter of this useful superstition which yet survives in our courts of law.”

In other word, the commandment has nothing to do with how someone says God’s name. According to Reade, it really means acting honorably when you swear an oath on that name.

Common codewords

If someone is reluctant to offend God, which I totally understand, they often use thinly disguised codewords. Frequently when people are at a loss for words to voice their astonishment, surprise, or even disgust, they turn to religious words.

An extremely popular expression of amazement is Oh my God. Those who think it’s improper to use the word God in this situation say, Oh my gosh. Gosh is the codeword. I’ve read that Europeans find the American use of the word “gosh” amusing.

Does God take offense to saying the name God when you are astonished? How about OMG? One article I read said OMG is acceptable, but those first two examples may not be. And let’s not forget about the word golly.

Does God take offense to someone saying, golly, gosh darn, egads, good God, goodness gracious, for Pets’ sake, or good golly miss Molly?

Who’s to know what is acceptable to God? Extremes can be found on both ends of the spectrum. Those Christians who are reluctant to use the name God in order to play it safe are at one extreme and those who think God has more important things to be concerned with are at the other. No one will really know how their speech has pleased God until they show up at the Pearly Gates.

What about Jesus?

I had a friend who used to say jeezu or something to that effect when he was confused. Did that bother Jesus or was he just glad that people thought of him in difficult moments? There are plenty of other code words employed to keep someone from saying “Jesus”. Words like Geez, Sheez, Gee-wiz, Gee-willikers,Jeepers, or Jiminy Cricket. Using those words misses the point if someone misunderstands the commandment in the first place.

As with every subject, to truly understand it you must examine its historical background. In the case of this using God’s name in vain, at some time each society had to guess which expressions were harmless and which were deadly sins. Maybe they decided they could say Geez Louise instead of Jesus Christ and get away with it. Others may have decided that minor substitutions for God or Jesus were innocent, or maybe not.

We all also have heard euphemisms for Christ. There’s cripes, crikey, criminy, and others.

Heck and Holy

There are other play-on-words related to religion. One is heck, that’s used by those who prefer not to say the word hell. As in “Darn you to heck” as a substitute for “Damn you to hell”. Often, we hear the phrases “What the heck!” or “That was one heck of a putt”.

Another set of amusing utterances are “the Holies”. Those are well worn phrases like Holy Mackerel which only came into common use around 1803. Then there’s Holy Moses which led to Holy Moly around 1892. These were followed by other favorites like Holy Smoke also about that time, and Holy Cow in 1905.

There seems to be no end to the inventiveness of those who try to play it safe with regard to the second or third commandment. They can also combine God and Jesus into the collective expression of “golly gee wiz”.

Is anyone safe?

Now let’s really get into some confusion. One blogger brought up the issue of the actual name of Jesus. He doesn’t feel safe using the name “Jesus” because he thinks that’s not the Christian savior’s real name.

Jesus is the Latinized version of the Greek Iesous. That in turn is derived from the Hebrew name Joshua, Jeshus, or Jehoshua. Or that could be Yeshua, Yehoshua, or Yeshu. That would be Jesus’s real name in the Hebrew language. But Jesus used the Aramaic language. Luckily, the names are the same in Aramaic and Hebrew, but the name Yeshua is said to be reserved for Jesus Christ, not for other Joshuas.

The bottom line is that the real Yeshu or Yeshua was never called Jesus during his entire lifetime unless the occupying Romans called him that. So, does that make it disrespectful for us to refer to him as Jesus? Don’t ask me.

As far as the name Christ. Some think that Christ is Jesus’s or Yeshua’s last name. Christ, however is the Greek version of the Hebrew word Messiah, literally meaning “the anointed one”. The anointed one was a very important leader—a king or a military rescuer for the Jewish people. So Jesus Christ translates to Yeshua the Messiah, where Yeshua is his name and Messiah is his title. To be more accurate, his real name was Yeshua ben Yosef, meaning “Yeshua, the son of Joseph, or Yosef.

The final head-scratcher

The situation with God is somewhat different. Throughout history, there have been multitudes of gods—Zeus, Marduk, Freya, Jupiter, Krishna, Ra, and thousands of others. They all had names and qualities that distinguished them from each other. When Christians use the term “God” they are referring to the supreme god of the Jews. But that’s not his name, that’s a descriptive noun.

What is God’s name? Is it Jehovah, Yahweh, Elohim?  To figure that out takes even more cultural research. But saying the word “God” is not using a name. And if someone isn’t using a name, how can they take a name in vain? So, in that case is there anything at all sinful about saying “Oh my God” if you aren’t abusing the “name” of your God?

This entire discussion reminds me of saying “Bless you” when someone sneezes. It’s just something we do without thinking. We’re just trying to maintain our cultural identity. Most people accept those things and move on, but not me. If I have the time and interest, I try to tease elements out of our culture and figure out just where they came from. I seldom resolve my confusion, but it’s usually enjoyable to try.


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