Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Carrying the Lord's Name in Vain

I don't often agree with Dennis Prager, but I did read with interest and agreement his recent essay about "the greatest sin", which he asserts is "carrying the Lord's name in vain". This is the Third (depending how you count) of the Ten Commandments. Prager provides a novel interpretation of this Commandment, and provides some persuasive scriptural evidence for his case (going back to the original Hebrew, as any good Torah scholar would do). He starts with the observation that this Commandment is commonly understood (or misunderstood) as having to do with swearing, as in "G-d d--m, that's a big SUV!" or similar remarks. He then poses the question why would making a coarse remark rank up in the "Top Ten", along with murder and stealing? And he compounds this conundrum with the scriptural observation that this Commandment is unique among the Ten: it is the only one that G-d says He will not forgive. (Look it up.) How could it possibly make sense, Prager asks, that G-d could forgive a murderer but could not forgive someone who says "My G-d, that was an awful movie"?

The sensible answer that Prager offers is that we are misunderstanding this fundamental Commandment to think it has to do with mere figures of speech. Going back to the original Hebrew, he translates the Commandment as "do not carry the name of the Lord thy God in vain". Not "take" or "invoke" the name, but carry it, lift it up. Like a flag. Prager's interpretation is that the Commandment proscribes committing evil acts in the name of the Lord. (The New International Version gets pretty close with their translation "You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God".) With this interpretation, Prager then points the finger at those who commit acts of terror in the name of religion. He notes that while the Nazis committed murder (violating the Sixth Commandment), Islamist terrorists violate not only the Sixth but the Third (the unforgiveable) Commandment, as they not only kill people but drag G-d's name into it.

His interpretation makes a lot of sense to me, especially in the context of the Bible at large. If you read the Prophets, one of the things they most railed against was religious hypocrisy, people going through pious motions and ostentatiously conforming to the "jots and tittles" of the Law while neglecting its fundamental spirit. Likewise, if you read the Gospels and the Epistles, one of the things that Jesus (and Paul) berated people for was religious hypocrisy. The Pharisees are called out for such hypocrisy so often in the Gospels that their name has become synonymous with it. It thus seems completely convincing that the Third Commandment -- the unforgiveable Commandment -- proscribes not swearing but religious hypocrisy.

No one should dispute that religious terrorism is the nadir of Third Commandment violations, and the lowest ring of Hell is surely reserved for them. But it seems clear to me that the Third Commandment applies not just to atrocities but to general religious hypocrisy. And G-d knows there are plenty of Pharisees running around, as many today as when Christ was on earth, equally involved in politics, but with their insidious influence compounded by modern media. Sadly, it's not hard to think of flagrant Third Commandment violaters among us. Just recently, Pat Robertson made headlines by advocating violation of the Sixth Commandment (recommending the assassination of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez), but it was his Third Commandment violation that made it a headline. And who can forget the appalling remarks of Jerry Falwell in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, blaming it on the ACLU, pagans, "abortionists", feminists, gays and lesbians. And surely there's a special place in Hell for the Rev. Fred Phelps and his followers, who are now picketing the funerals of soldiers. These so-called Christians do more violence to the reputation of Christianity (and by implication G-d Himself) than any pagan, feminist, or gay man ever could. I can see now how violations of the Third Commandment make even Saints and Prophets explode with anger, and how even G-d might find it impossible to forgive.


Jeff Hersh said...

Wow, that makes more sense -- i never understood why it was only okay to carry the Lord's name in our arteries.

Anonymous said...

My interpretation goes somewhat further. Organized religions use the name of God for financial gain and to influence the thinking, both moral and political, of their obedient adherents. I believe a supreme being would be insulted to the greatest degree by those who propose to bring the word of God to the masses simply to advance their own economic or social position. Television evangelists are a stark example of this. However, the violation of the Third Commandment is not reserved for those most obviously guilty of breaking it. It appears to me that all religions are indictable.

Anonymous said...

such a fabulous post, Tom! thanks for sharing it with us - it really provides serious food for thought :)

JM said...

Tom, that was amazing and that it came from Praeger initially just goes to show me that I should keep my hope alive inthe Right-conservatives, there are deep thinkers there too that will hopefully bring the party back from it's more fundementalist craziness.