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Monday, July 25, 2005

Translating Ex. 20:7a לֹא תִשָּׂא אֶת-שֵׁם-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לַשָּׁוְא

Today on the Bible Translation discussion list the question was asked: "What does it mean to take the name of God in vain?" At first I thought the question was about what constitutes taking God's name in vain and I answered that I felt typical examples are the ubiquitous "God damn it!" or "Oh my God!" Those words always bother me when I hear them, such was my church and family proscription against saying them. But it turned out the questioner was really asking whether it is the most appropriate English today to use the two words "in vain" when speaking of the verbal act prohibited by Exodus 20:7. The questioner suggested that a more appropriate contemporary translation of the Hebrew original might be "misuse God's name."

I had never paid attention before to newer translations of this commandment. I was just familiar with the traditional "in vain" phrasing. So I checked several English versions and, sure enough, there was that more descriptive, more comprehensible, more contemporary word "misuse" in a number of them: NIV, TNIV, NLT, CEV, ISV, and HCSB. The REB wording is synonymous, "not make wrong use of the name of the LORD your God," as is the NRSV "not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God." The traditional wording is retained by RSV, ESV, NASB, and NET. There is nothing wrong with the traditional wording. I would not consider it inaccurate. It just probably does not communicate the original meaning as clearly as does the more contemporary wording "misuse."

Knowing only the traditional wording of "take God's name in vain," I always assumed that the prohibition was against cursing which includes the word "God." But the newer wording of "misuse" required me to wonder if the prohibition of Ex. 20:7 was broader than what I have always assumed. What might it mean to misuse God's name? Apparently, it is any careless, thoughtless, or inappropriate use of God's name for any purpose, but especially when making oaths (such as legal promises), or referring to God in a frivolous way.

I find the NET Bible note on Ex. 20:7 helpful:
... The command prohibits use of the name for any idle, frivolous, or insincere purpose (Driver, 196). This would include perjury, pagan incantations, or idle talk. The name is to be treated with reverence and respect because it is the name of the holy God.
Also helpful is the footnote for Ex. 20:7 in the CEV:
Probably includes breaking promises, telling lies after swearing to tell the truth, using the LORD's name as a curse word or a magic formula, and trying to control the LORD by using his name.
I always enjoy getting a better understanding of biblical truth. That happened today when a question was raised about the traditional wording of Ex. 20:7 and I needed to look at other translation wordings. As far as I can tell, wordings which speak of "misuse" of God's name are more communicatively accurate than the traditional wording. The traditional wording was accurate, I think, for previous stages of English, but I suspect that the newer wordings are more accurate for today's Bible users. And, notice, it is not a matter of Dynamic Equivalent or more idiomatic translations using the newer wording. The HCSB is a quite literal translation. I think most Bible analysts today would consider it "essentially literal" along with the ESV. Even though the NRSV has been updated in its syntax and vocabulary, it is still quite a literal translation, as are the NIV and TNIV.

I am thankful for translators who are willing to use newer words in English Bibles when they believe that they convey the biblical meaning more accurately and clearly. The result is better Bibles.

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At Mon Jul 25, 11:15:00 PM, Blogger Talmida said...

Hey, Wayne! I was just looking at this same verse over the weekend!

I'm working on Psalm 24, and verse 4 uses the same expression as Ex 20:7, except instead of it being God's name (as in Ex 20), it is God's (probably!) soul or life (נֶפֶשׁ) being taken in vain.

I can't say I've really grasped the full meaning of the expression, but I thought of you when I read it. Many of the translations I looked at use the word "vanity" and some the expression "in vain" -- it had never occurred to me before that they were connected. They both mean empty, valueless (but I had to look them up to find that out!).

Anyway, if you're taking a peek at any particular translation of Ex 20:7, check out Ps 24:4 as well and see if the translators used the same expression -- although poetic licence does give greater leeway in psalms.


At Tue Jul 26, 11:55:00 AM, Blogger Tim said...

How about "Don't take Adonai's name lightly." I think to "take something lightly" works in English...? And it keeps the metaphor as well!

At Tue Jul 26, 05:19:00 PM, Anonymous rich shields said...

I like the GW translation of Ex. 20:7

Never use the name of the LORD your God carelessly.


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