Tag Archives: Leviticus 22

The Challenge of Words

“You shall not profane my holy name….”
Leviticus 22:32 (NRSV)

Wall Street Journal columnist, Ben Zimmer, writes a weekly piece in the newspaper’s weekend edition that explores a different word or phrase that has been in the news that week. It’s one of my favorite columns to read over coffee on Saturday mornings.

I have become increasingly fascinated with words as I’ve continued in my life journey. I’m fascinated with their origin, how they become part of our vocabulary, their meanings, and how we use them. I’m intrigued with how our society perceives words as positive or negative, good or bad, acceptable or not acceptable.

Wendy’s and my adventures in community theatre often take us into debates about words. Should we use a word that will likely offend our audience here in rural Iowa? Can we legally change the copyrighted work by using a different word? If we do have the actor use a different word, will it change the play’s character and how the audience perceives him or her? Why would that word offend the audience? Should we risk the offense and challenge our audience to consider their notions about vocabulary? They are challenging questions that prompt fascinating and equally challenging discussions.

Toward the end of today’s chapter God tells the Hebrews not “profane” His name. I was given a definition of the word profane by a professor in college that I’ve never forgotten: “to empty something of its meaning.” I can still remember the word picture as the professor stood in front of the class and mimed turning a cup over in his hand, emptying the contents of the imaginary vessel on the ground.

I’ve always found that an apt understanding of God’s zealous protection of His name. It’s really no different than we as human beings. We don’t like people making fun of our name. We don’t want our name mocked or “drug through the mud.” In Arthur Miller’s classic play, The Crucible, John Proctor tells the witch hunters in Salem to go ahead and kill him unjustly but then begs: “give me my name!

Of course this opens a fascinating and challenging conversation about the name of God. As a child I was taught never to use the word “God” as in “Oh my god.” But, “god” is a impersonal noun that could refer to your generic pagan idol as it could refer to Yahweh (the name God gave Himself to Moses in Exodus 3). The name “Jesus” is much more specific and it packs all sorts of meaning and power. Jesus told His followers to do all sorts of things from prayers to exorcisms “in my name.” History records many signs and wonders that happened “in the name of Jesus.” If I then turn and use “Jesus” as an exclamation of disgust when the restaurant brought me the wrong order it certainly appears that I’ve taken something of spiritual power and authority, emptied it of its meaning, and used it for common swear word. I’ve profaned it.

This morning I’m once again thinking about words. It’s fun and challenging to debate the particulars of words and their usage. Despite the hairsplitting, it’s obvious that throughout God’s Message I’m reminded that words have power to heal, encourage, and build others up. They also have the power to sully, divide, tear down, and profane. I am reminded that the words we choose should be gracious, wise, and kind. May the words of my mouth always exemplify those basic guidelines.

chapter a day banner 2015

featured image by dorkmaster via flickr

Chapter-a-Day Leviticus 22

Philadelphia - Old City: Carpenters' Hall - Ca...
Image by wallyg via Flickr

“If anyone eats from a holy offering accidentally, he must give back the holy offering to the priest and add twenty percent to it.” Leviticus 22:14 (MSG)

I was never a “straight A” student. I did well in school, but was never overly concerned about having to have a perfect grade point average. I wanted to be a good student, but perfect grades didn’t matter that much to me. What mattered to me was not that I had memorized every factoid, brown-nosed every teacher, meticulously excelled at every class project. What mattered to me was that I was getting the big picture. I wanted to understand and internalize each subject and how it fit into the grand scheme of life.

Leviticus is a book that will drive a straight A student crazy. You can list out all of the rules and try to adhere to every one of them, but you’ll find yourself in a straight-jacket. Even God was giving the law so that the people would get the big picture: you can’t possibly live good enough lives to overcome the root problem of sin because rule keeping doesn’t change the condition of your heart.

By the time Jesus arrived on the scene some 1500 years later, the lesson had been completely lost. The straight-A, hard-core keepers of the law had created a religious class system based on who best kept all of the rules. They even went further to add rules to the rules which would ensure their power, profit and religious standing. Journey through the source accounts of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and you’ll find many example of Jesus calling all of the religious do-gooders to a legal point of order:

Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”

Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:

   “‘These people honor me with their lips,
   but their hearts are far from me.
   They worship me in vain;
   their teachings are merely human rules.’”

Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”

The point of Leviticus is not to get mired in the minutiae of the rules, but to see the larger truth(s) to which they point. Jesus made it clear that God’s great concern was not the keeping of the rules but the condition of the heart.

Enhanced by Zemanta