What’s In a Name?

10 Now an Israelite woman’s son, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the people of Israel. And the Israelite woman’s son and a man of Israel fought in the camp, 11 and the Israelite woman’s son blasphemed the Name, and cursed. Then they brought him to Moses. His mother’s name was Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan. 12 And they put him in custody, till the will of the Lord should be clear to them.

13 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 14 “Bring out of the camp the one who cursed, and let all who heard him lay their hands on his head, and let all the congregation stone him. 15 And speak to the people of Israel, saying, Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. 16 Whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him. The sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death.

17 “Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death. 18 Whoever takes an animal’s life shall make it good, life for life. 19 If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him. 21 Whoever kills an animal shall make it good, and whoever kills a person shall be put to death. 22 You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the Lord your God.” 23 So Moses spoke to the people of Israel, and they brought out of the camp the one who had cursed and stoned him with stones. Thus the people of Israel did as the Lord commanded Moses. Leviticus 24:10-23 ESV

The entire book of Leviticus stresses the holiness of God and promotes a lifestyle of holiness among His chosen people. As His treasured possession, they were to emulate His divine nature by faithfully observing all the rules for holy living He had decreed and that were intended to set them apart from the rest of the nations. In obeying His commands, observing His holy days, and offering the ritual sacrifices He required, they would be honoring Him as the one true God. Their obedience was to be a sign of obeisance or homage. It was the primary means by which they could prove their submission to His will and reverence for His name.

Throughout the book of Leviticus, God is referred to by His name Jehovah, which means “the existing one.” In the Hebrew Scriptures, God’s name is recorded as YHWH because the vowels were not included in written form. This is what’s known as the tetragrammaton, which simply means “four letters.” Some versions of the Bible translate the tetragrammaton as “Yahweh” by adding in the missing vowels. Others choose to translate it as “LORD” using all capital letters. Others still, choose to replace YHWH with Jehovah.

“Any number of vowel sounds can be inserted within YHWH, and Jewish scholars are as uncertain of the real pronunciation as Christian scholars are. Jehovah is actually a much later (probably 16th-century) variant. The word Jehovah comes from a three-syllable version of YHWH, YeHoWeH. The Y was replaced with a J (although Hebrew does not even have a J sound) and the W with a V, plus the extra vowel in the middle, resulting in JeHoVaH. These vowels are the abbreviated forms of the imperfect tense, the participial form, and the perfect tense of the Hebrew being verb (English is)—thus the meaning of Jehovah could be understood as ‘He who will be, is, and has been.’” – http://www.gotquestions.org

The Jews developed such a reverence for the name of God, that they eventually stopped trying to say it aloud. Instead, they replaced YHWH with the word Adonai, which means “Lord.” While it is almost impossible to know the exact pronunciation of YHWH because we don’t know the identity of the missing vowels, we do know that the Jews treated the name of God with great reverence.

As we saw earlier, the book of Leviticus repeatedly identifies God speaking to His people by using the phrase, “The LORD spoke to Moses…” (Leviticus 24:1 ESV). This is the name YHWH or Jehovah and it is meant to accentuate the unique relationship between God and His people. This is not just any god, but the one true God, the self-existing one, and the people were expected to listen to what He had to say and do exactly what He commanded them to do. Their obedience would prove their reverence for His name.

That brings us to this section of Leviticus 24, where Moses includes a narrative involving a real-life situation that was meant to illustrate the sanctity and holiness of God’s name. In all the talk of feasts, holy days, celebrations, sacrifices, and sabbath rest, the people were never to allow themselves to treat God’s name with disrespect. What made the Tabernacle holy was the One who dwelled within it. What made the people of Israel holy was the One whose name they bore. And they were to treat that name with reverence and awe at all times.

So, at his point in the narrative, Moses includes an example of a young man who chose to take God’s name in vain, in direct violation of the third commandment: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7 ESV). God’s name was a representation of His divine nature. It embodied all of His attributes and was meant to convey the totality of His being, especially His glory. This led the psalmists to write:

O LORD, our LORD, how majestic is your name in all the earth! – Psalm 8:1 ESV

Holy and awesome is his name! – Psalm 111:9 ESV

In providing His disciples with what has become known as The Lord’s Prayer, Jesus opened with the words, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…” (Matthew 6;9 ESV). This might better be translated, “Let your name be kept holy” or “Let your name be treated with reverence.”

Yet, Moses describes a real-life scenario where a young man chose a different tact. The son of an Israelite mother and an Egyptian father, this young man got into an altercation with another Hebrew. Moses provides no details regarding the cause of their fight but it would be easy to assume that it had something to do with the young man’s mixed-race background. But whatever happened between these two men, Moses did not include the cause because there was no justification for the young man’s actions. Moses simply states, “the Israelite woman’s son blasphemed the Name, and cursed” (Leviticus 24:11 ESV).

In the heat of their argument, the young man “blasphemed” God’s name. The Hebrew word, nāqaḇ, can mean “to bore a hole, pierce” or “to declare distinct by specifying the name.” It seems that this young man used God’s name in an unholy and derogatory manner. He treated it with contempt. And not only that, he “cursed.” The Hebrew word is qālal, and it means “to curse, treat lightly, treat with contempt, consider unimportant.” In his anger, this young man denigrated the holy name of God. He used it as a weapon against His Israelite opponent. And for his actions, the young man was condemned to death.

“Bring out of the camp the one who cursed, and let all who heard him lay their hands on his head, and let all the congregation stone him. – Leviticus 24:14 ESV

Evidently, this altercation took place before witnesses and these individuals were not only expected to testify against the guilty party but to take part in his execution. They were to stand before the entire congregation and lay their hands on the young man, signifying his guilt and justifying his death. While this story may offend our modern sensibilities, it should provide us with a powerful lesson on the holiness of God. Even the misuse of His name is grounds for judgment because everything about Him is to be treated with appropriate reverence and awe. In God’s economy, the punishment fit the crime. This young man had chosen to treat God’s name in a disrespectful manner and he paid dearly for it. And his death served as a stark reminder to the rest of the nation of Israel that YHWH demanded that He be treated with the reverence He so rightly deserved. And anyone who chose to disregard this command was to suffer the consequences.

Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin – Leviticus 24:15 ESV

This story provided a natural segue to the next section, in which God outlines the law of retribution, also called the law of retaliation or lex talionis. It is sometimes referred to by the phrase, “an eye for an eye.” These verses outline God’s divine principle concerning justice: The punishment should fit the crime.

When it came to the unlawful taking of life, God prescribed a just punishment for such a crime.

“Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death. Whoever takes an animal’s life shall make it good, life for life.” – Leviticus 24:17-18 ESV

Anyone who willfully took the life of another human was to pay with their own life. If they caused the death of another individual’s livestock, they were to make restitution by providing a substitute animal. When it came to other crimes or abuses, God outlined a principle of equitable recompense.

“If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him.” – Leviticus 24:19-20 ESV

These verses seem to be teaching a need for balance in all things. In truth, they were designed to prohibit unlawful and unbalanced vengeance. Capital punishment would be an unjust punishment for bodily injury. Anger over an injustice suffered could easily result in payback that was way out of proportion and a sin in its own right. These regulations were meant to control unjust vendettas and police vigilantism. Back in chapter 19, Moses records God’s admonition concerning improperly motivated revenge or retribution.

“Do not nurse hatred in your heart for any of your relatives. Confront people directly so you will not be held guilty for their sin. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against a fellow Israelite, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” – Leviticus 19:17-18 NLT

After the rather strange aside involving the young man who blasphemed and cursed God’s name, Moses concludes chapter 24 with the stark summary: “and they brought out of the camp the one who had cursed and stoned him with stones. Thus the people of Israel did as the Lord commanded Moses” (Leviticus 23:23 ESV). The guilty party was dealt with according to God’s command. The people obeyed and gave the young man what he justly deserved. And this difficult assignment must have made an indelible impact on the entire Hebrew community. It would have been impossible to walk away unmoved or unimpressed by the severity of the judgment and the seriousness with which God took the holiness of His name. All the laws, rules, regulations, and religious rituals they had received from God would mean nothing if they failed to honor and revere His name. Without a proper respect for His character, as displayed by His very name, the peoples’ obedience would be meaningless and their observance of His feasts and holy days would be in vain. One of the greatest demonstrations of obedience is a reverence for the character of God as illustrated by His very name.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

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