Bearing Yahweh’s Name at Sinai: Rethinking the Name Command (Exodus 20:7)

Exodus 20:7 (or the “command not to take the LORD’s name in vain”) is usually interpreted as a prohibition against speaking Yahweh’s name in a particular context: false oaths, wrongful pronunciation, irreverent worship, magical practices, cursing, false teaching, and the like. However, it lacks contextual clues needed to support the command as speech related. Taking seriously the narrative context at Sinai and the closest verbal parallels, a different picture emerges—one animated by concrete rituals and their associated metaphorical concepts. The unique phrase used in Exodus 20:7 (“bear the name”)  is one of several expressions arising from the conceptual metaphor, election as branding, that finds analogies in high-priest regalia as well as in various ways of claiming ownership in the Ancient Near East, such as inscribed monuments, the use of seals, and the branding of slaves. The command presupposes that Yahweh has claimed Israel by placing Yahweh’s own name on her. In this light, the first two commands of the Decalogue reinforce the two sides of the covenant declaration: “I will be your God; you will be my people.” The first expresses the demand for exclusive worship and the second calls for proper representation. As a consequence, the command invites a richer exploration of what it means to be a people in covenant with Yahweh—a people bearing his name among the nations. It also points to what is at stake when Israel carries that name “in vain.”