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Father Richard Kunst: God’s name is important — treat it with respect

The very first thing we do when we meet someone is ask them their name. We do this simply to start a relationship with that person. It is the most basic thing to know about another person; it is how we start social interaction.

Father Richard Kunst

In the Old Testament, a lot of things happen prior to the third chapter of Exodus, a partial list being the fall of Adam and Eve; Noah and the great flood; the tower of Babel; the stories of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the story of Joseph sold into slavery by his brothers only to save them from famine decades later; and then the birth of Moses. All of these are very important, to say the least, but in the third chapter of Exodus we are presented with an event that we might call the watershed moment between our human species and our Creator. It is a story you are familiar with, though you may not be aware of the monumental nature of that story.

Moses is tending the flock of his father-in-law when he notices a burning bush, which was not being consumed. Drawn into this strange sight, he comes closer, only to hear the voice of God telling him not to come any nearer. The voice from the bush proceeds to tell Moses that he has been chosen to lead the Hebrew people out of Egypt when Moses askes the all-important question: “When I go to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers have sent me to you,’ if they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ What am I to tell them?” (Exodus 3:14).

Everything that happens in the Bible before this is obviously important, but it is only here that we learn of God’s name, so that we can initiate a proper relationship with him. It is with the revelation of his name that true intimacy with him can happen. And his name? “God replied, ‘I am who am.’ Then he added, ‘This is what you shall tell the children of Israel: I AM sent me to you’” (3:15). The name “I am who am” in ancient Hebrew is YHWH, or in our modern way of speaking “Yahweh.”

As you may know, the name Yahweh became so sacred to the Hebrew people that they refused to even utter it. They believed that we as a sinful people are not worthy enough to so much as say the name of God, so they came up with alternative names, most prominently Adonai. The ancient Greek equivalent of Adonai is the familiar Kyrie, which translates into English as “Lord.”

So here is the question: When we hear in the second commandment that we are not to take God’s name in vain, what exactly does that mean? If we exclaim “Oh, my God!” for some trivial or insignificant reason, are we, in fact, violating the second commandment? Dare I say this is an important question, since we are speaking of God’s commandments?

To answer this question, we need to look at the etymology of the word “god.” I have to come clean and tell you that I looked this next part up. From what I have found, the word “god” derives from the proto-Germanic word “gudan,” which is based on the root of the word “ghau,” which means “to invoke” or “to call.” So to be technical, the word “god” is what God is, it is not his name. In the Judeo-Christian world, the name of God remains YHWH or even Adonai/Kyrie/Lord. So when the commandment commands us not to take the name of God in vain, are we violating it by saying something like, “Oh my God it is hot out!”? Technically speaking, no.

In saying this we have to understand that there is the letter of the law and the spirit of the law, so to exclaim “Oh, my God!” is not a technical violation, but it is a violation of the spirit of the command, because in our culture we interchange the word “god” for what God is and his name. We don’t differentiate the two in our day-to-day life in 21st century United States.

All this being said, if it is your practice to use the phrase “Oh, my God!” in a trivial matter, then I would suggest you try to change that habit, because even though it is not a technical violation of the second commandment, it is trivializing God’s name as we use it in our own era. We need not be like the ancient Hebrews who did not dare utter the name, but we shouldn’t be flippant about how we use the word “god” either, since our Creator deserves much more reverence than what we usually give him.

Father Richard Kunst is pastor of St. James and St. Elizabeth in Duluth. Reach him at [email protected].