You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
In January President Biden and Vice-President Harris took oaths of office ending “so help me God”. Both also rested a hand on chosen Bibles to underscore the solemnity of their oaths. This is a tradition, despite the strict separation of State and Church in the USA.
In Exodus the people were warned against wrongful use of God’s name, not against using God’s name at all. So when could they call on God’s name and God’s power, for the name of God is powerful? Disclosed to Moses in Exodus 3.13-20 as “I AM” or alternatively interpreted as “I will be what I will be” the name shows that God’s freedom could not be constrained. God chooses to be present in the name and trusts fallible human beings to use it rightly. God’s name was to be used by Israel alone, for blessings, solemn undertakings and, sometimes, overcoming enemies. Improper use would be in lying, bearing false witness, or trying to bind God to human purposes. Breaking the duties of a promise taken under oath invoked divine punishment. “So help me God – you can punish me if I fail.” How many violent intentions have been carried out to their conclusion because of a promise made in fear of God?
The early Church was clear on the point of not using God’s name for oaths. Matthew 5. 33-37 and James 5.12 state “let your ‘Yes’ be yes and your ‘No’ be no”: integrity as a Christian and as a human being was enough, without bringing God overtly into the matter. The divine was already present in a life lived in reliance on God.
So when encountering systems of justice Christians should perhaps choose to “solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm” the truth of their testimony rather than swearing by Almighty God.
Prayer God who is and will be, source of truth, expression of complete integrity, give us the courage to face whatever must be endured relying on you so that your name will be known whether we use it or not.
Revd Fiona Thomas, freelance facilitator, member of Christ Church, Bellingham.