What Does It Mean to Take God’s Name in Vain?
When I was growing up, I was told to use God’s name in church, prayer, or other spiritual contexts, but to say “God” in an irreligious way—after stubbing a toe or losing a game—was to break the commandment: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Exod 20:7). While I still refrain from saying “God” outside of religious discourse, this verse doesn’t mean what I was told growing up. When the Bible proscribes taking the Lord’s name in vain, it does not refer to saying “God” as an exclamation or expletive; instead, it prohibits invoking the divine name in an oath, and then failing to fulfill that oath.
In ancient Israel, an oath was a solemn statement that began חי־יהוה (chai Adonai)—“as the Lord lives”—and meant: “If I don’t fulfill the following oath, may the Lord who lives strike me dead!” For example, after Jonathan convinced Saul not to kill David, “Saul swore, ‘As the Lord lives (חי־יהוה; chai Adonai), he shall not be put to death’” (1 Sam 19:6). Saul’s oath means that if David dies at Saul’s hand, then Saul also deserves to die.
The Hebrew word commonly translated “take” in Exod 20:7 is נשא (nasa), meaning to “bear” or “lift up.” Invoking God’s “name” (שׁם; shem) means bearing it, just like Aaron was to “bear” (נשא; nasa) the names (שׁמות; shemot) of the Israelites” on his breastplate (Exod 28:29). As a bearer of God’s name, the oath-taker must accomplish the sworn oath, or else…. Yeshua protected his followers from taking God’s name in vain when he said to “not swear at all” (Matt 5:34) – that way, you’ll never swear an oath that you might not fulfill, so you can rest assured that you’ll never break the commandment!
Does Texting ‘OMG’ Amount to Blasphemy?
As texting and instant messaging became a way of life, a shorthand lexicon emerged to save time and stress on fingers. Acronyms like LOL and TTYL replaced “laughing out loud” and “talk to you later.” The letters OMG replaced “Oh, My God.” Or did it?
There’s debate on what the G in OMG really means. Does it stand for “gosh,” or “God”? If it stands for “God,” is using it a sin?
John Donvan spoke to a group of high school students from the Washington Hebrew Congregation youth group in Bethesda, Md., about OMG and how it relates to the third commandment, which says, according to the King James version of the Bible, “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7).
There are various interpretations of the commandment, but it is commonly defined as using the Lord’s name casually or irreverently. Saying “Jesus Christ!” in any way other than in praise is one example.
OMG has a number of meanings ranging from excitement to disbelief. For a vast number of American teens, it has replaced the exclamation mark. “You don’t think that you’re saying ‘Oh, my God,'” said Rachel Edelman, 15. “You’re just thinking ‘Oh!’ like it’s a surprise. OMG. It’s nothing to be thought about.”
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Lexi Levin, 18, describes herself as “an avid OMG user in text,” and she thinks using OMG is a long way from “Oh, my God.” To her, it’s akin to golly, gee and gosh. “That’s kind of how I think about it. I don’t know if that’s a fair way to think about it. But it’s how I make myself feel better.”
Julian Schneider, 14, agrees. “If you say something like ‘Oh my God,’ then you’re using His name in vain, but if you’re saying something like OMG it’s not really using the Lord’s name in vain because you’re not saying ‘Oh my God.’ It’s more like ‘Wow. Really?'”
For hundreds of years, people have found ways to avoid using the Lord’s name in vain. Words like gosh and golly, both dating back to the 1700s, served as euphemisms for God. It is a Jewish tradition to write “G_d” to show respect. Exclamations like “Oh, my God” and “Jesus Christ” were rarely used in polite conversation and drew rebuke when they were. But that has changed in recent decades and art is imitating life. The Parents Television Council reports that in 2007, the most recent year for which they have data, 95.9 percent of uses of the word God on primetime network television were in vain.
‘It No Longer Carries Any Weight’
Not surprisingly, texting slang, including OMG, has made its way into movies and television as well. On TV, teen dramas like “Gossip Girl,” which features an unseen blogger who stirs up trouble in the lives of a group of upper crust young people, OMG is a frequent part of the dialogue. The show, which airs on the CW network, caused a controversy in 2008 with a racy ad campaign showing characters locked in heated embraces and the letters OMFG. The F doesn’t stand for fudge.
Meghan Siritzky, 15, has a theory on the evolution of OMG. “I think originally the term ‘Oh, my God’ was probably a really heavy term. To say that carried a lot of weight, but I think that over time if you say a word enough times it’ll lose its meaning. If you say your name enough times, then it will start sounding weird. And I think that kind of happened with the phrase ‘Oh, my God.’ I think that people started using it so much that it no longer carries any weight and it doesn’t mean what it used to.”
How many times do you read or hear OMG in a single day? Do you think it constitutes using the Lord’s name in vain? If you’re not Christian or Jewish, do you temper your speech to avoid offending those who are?
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