How to Speak God's Name

How to Speak God's Name
Black and white image of lips with the letters Shhh illustrating a post about how to say God's name

The Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, is a weird and wacky work of literature. It’s a bit like a kaleidoscope. You know the little tubes with mirrors in them, that you look through. Some kaleidoscopes have a box of beads at the end. You turn the box, the beads move, and you just keep seeing different patterns reflected in the mirrors.

The Tankah is like that: fragments of stories, poems, law codes, histories, arranged according to someone’s logic. But shake the fragments, and they rearrange themselves. You see new patterns and shapes.

Much of the Tanakh was once oral tradition: stories, songs, oracles. So, there’s a lot to listen for, too. When you shake up the pieces, you hear new themes, new soundscapes. And you hear them echo across the Tanakh.

Today we’ll listen together—especially to the sounds shhh and sss.

Shh is the first sound in the Hebrew word for “name”—shem.

Shh is a powerful sound.

It can be healing. Shhhhhh.

It can be hurtful. Sh!

The sound of God’s name can heal, or it can hurt.

It all depends on how we speak it.

You know what I’m talking about. You’ve heard God’s name invoked for healing—in spiritual care, open-hearted study, practices of Reconciliation. And you’ve heard God’s name invoked for harm—by grifters, abusers, and militant religious nationalists.

The Torah tells us how to speak God’s name. And it tells us how not to speak it. And also why it’s so hard to get it right.

The priestly blessing tells us YES how to speak God’s name.

The priestly blessing, in the book of Numbers, is a three-line poem. God tells Aaron to bless the people and place God’s name upon them.

Listen to the Hebrew. Just the third line and the coda, the closing instruction.

Yisah Adonai Panav Eleicha / v’yasem licha shalom / V’samu et shemi al bnei yisrael

“May God turn the divine face towards you and give you peace. Thus you shall place my name upon the people Israel.”

Listen again to the most important part:

V’samu et shemi…v’yasem lecha shalom

The shem, God’s name, should be used as a healing sound, to create shalom, peace.

The third commandment tells us how not to speak the name of God.

Listen to its three line teaching:

Lo tisa et shem Adonai Elohekha la shav / Ki lo yinakeh Adonai / et asher yisah et shmo la-shav

I’m going to translate this one slowly, line by line.

First line:

Lo tisa et Shem Adonai Elohekha la-shav

Do not carry the name of the LORD your God for purposes of shav

What is shav? It sounds like the Biblical Hebrew word for swearing an oath. But it’s not. Its spelling tells us it’s the Biblical Hebrew word for emptiness. Which is closely related to the Biblical Hebrew word for destruction, shoa, which you might recognize as a modern name for the Holocaust.

So, here is the translation so far:

Do not carry the name of the LORD your God in order to destroy

Let’s add the second line:

Ki lo yinakeh Adonai

Because the LORD will not clean it up.

At least, the LORD will not clean it up with a miraculous whoosh. Because healing from destruction is slow. Trauma is intergenerational. Restoration—as the second commandment tells us—can take three or four generations.

Let’s add the third line:

et asher yisah et shmo la-shav

aSHER yiSAH et shmo la-SHAV

One who carries God’s name in order to destroy.

The shem, God’s name, should be NOT be carried as a weapon, to create shav, destruction. Because the damage reverberates through the generations.

But it can be hard, in this broken world, to always speak peace.

A story from the book of Leviticus tells us why it’s so hard to get it right.

A man, son of an Israelite women and an Egyptian man, goes for a walk in the Israelite camp. A fight breaks out. This man curses an Israelite in the name of God. Someone brings him to Moses. The man’s mother’s name is Shlomit bat Divri. He is detained until God sentences him. To death.

All of our commentators say this is a heartbreaking story. Here’s what they hear between the lines:

A man is born into an ethnically mixed family. So, he does not easily fit in anywhere. One day, a bully attacks him, and makes fun of his father. He defends himself with words. But his words are so powerful, the bully dies. The authorities arrest him.

He is the child of Shlomit bat Divri, whose name means “The Peace that Comes from Words.” Maybe his mother was a master communicator. And maybe she taught him how to speak God’s name to create peace. But, a bully, who hates the old Egyptian enslavers, provokes him. So, he’s afraid and angry, and he loses control. He acts in self-defense, and uses the name as weapon. Maybe he doesn’t mean to kill. But because he is an outsider, the court has no compassion for him. So they say: by God’s law, you deserve to die.

How could Shlomit’s son speak the divine name, for shalom and not for shav, for peace and not for destruction, in the world as he knew it? A world full of provocations. Discrimination, violence, and unequal justice.

He could not.

Not unless he was part of a chorus working to speak a different world into being. 

A world where—as the prophet Zechariah says—communities protect strangers, orphans and widows. Hold the corrupt accountable. Encourage living in integrity. Come together across traditions to pray for rain in its proper season. Bring healing water to all who need it.

When that world begins to emerge, the prophet Zechariah says, “On that day, God will be one and God’s Name will be one.”

Bayom Hahu yihiyeh Adonai Echad u’shmo Echad

Originally prepared for a faculty sermon series on the Ten Commandments at the Vancouver School of Theology.

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