The Third Word

This is the second in a series of studies on the Third Word, and especially on the food laws of Deuteronomy 14.

In the second part of this series, I argue that Moses’ reworking of the Ten Words in Deuteronomy 5 includes adding nuance to the Third Word. This prepares the way for his sermonic application of the Third Word in Deuteronomy 14:1-21. The approach I take here was introduced by James Jordan in his brief introduction to the structure of Deuteronomy,[i] though my argument and explanation do not come directly from him.

Contrary to many interpreters, Jordan interprets the Third Word — “Thou shalt not take the name of Yahweh thy God in vain, for Yahweh will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.” — as if the Hebrew word translated “take” referred to something more than a verbal act. Though he does not defend his interpretation in detail, he seems to understand the word “take” in its meaning of “carry” or “bear,”[ii] rather than the more restricted sense of “lift up” as a verbal act: “The Third Word has to do with the character of God’s people, those who take up (wear) His Name. They are not to do so in vanity, in the sphere of death and impotence.”[iii]

The question, then, is: does the Third Word address the broader issue of how the Israelites bear God’s name in their lifestyle, as well as how they “lift up” His name in speech acts, such as oaths, prayers, and songs of praise? Does Moses intend that we read the word “take” as if the command suggests a fuller meaning — both the narrow notion of a speech act and the broader idea of “wearing” the name of God in daily life?

Let’s begin by considering the Third Word in Deuteronomy. The Hebrew of the Third Word in Exodus 20:7 and Deuteronomy 5:11 is exactly the same: “Thou shalt not take the name of Yahweh thy God in vain; for Yahweh will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.”

There is, however, something new in Deuteronomy. Even if we restrict our investigation to the text of Ten Words (Deuteronomy 5:6-21), we discover that Moses adds nuance to the Third Word in Deuteronomy in two ways. First, in Deuteronomy Moses revises the first five commandments so that the expression “Yahweh your God” appears nine times. Then, he also uses “Yahweh” alone once and “God” alone once, resulting in 10 occurrences of “Yahweh” and 10 of “God” in the first five commandments.[iv] The exact use of 10 times each for “Yahweh” and “Elohim” is, no doubt, intentional and suggestive. However, the last five commands (6-10) — and this is true both in Exodus and in Deuteronomy — never mention the name of God. In both books, this lines up the Ten Words in two sets of five commands that can be seen as parallel to each other, though in Deuteronomy the parallel is perhaps more emphatic because of the special use of the name of God. In either case, we are invited to compare each parallel command. For the present consideration, that would be the Third and the Eighth Words.

What would this imply? It would mean that understanding the Eighth Word would be aided by comparison to the Third and vice versa, just as understanding the Sixth Word would be aided by comparison with the First and so on. Exactly how would this work? Let’s consider the First and the Sixth Words since the relationship is clear and not as likely to be disputed. The Bible forbids murder because man is created in the image of God. To kill a man is to commit an act which defies God Himself, because it is an act which blatantly defiles His image. On the other hand, showing respect to other men because we believe they are created in the image of God is a way of honoring God as our God.

In the case of the First and the Sixth Words, it is not difficult to see how the two commands “exegete” one another. The structure of the Ten Words in Deuteronomy and the example of the First and Sixth Words should persuade us that similar comparisons with the rest of the commandments will bear fruit. There is well known Biblical precedence for this, since the prophets commonly associate the Second Word and the Seventh Word when Israel’s idolatry is referred to as spiritual adultery. Discovering the exact meaning for the relationship between the Third Word and the Eighth may not be as direct or clear, but I believe we can assume that a relationship is suggested, though it is beside the point to pursue that details of that now. What we see here is that in Deuteronomy, the division between the first five and last five commands is even more emphatically stressed, so that the invitation to compare the two sets of five commands also receives greater emphasis.

The second way Moses adds nuance to the Third Word in Deuteronomy is by changing the last word in the Hebrew of the Ninth Word so that he associates the Third and the Ninth Words. In Exodus 20:16, the last word of the command in Hebrew is the word translated “false.” But in Deuteronomy, Moses changes this to another word, which is also translated into English as “false” in the Ninth Word. The word “false” in Exodus is the Hebrew word often translated “lie,” whereas the Hebrew word in Deuteronomy is often translated “vain.” In Deuteronomy Moses takes the Hebrew word usually translated in the Third Word as “vain” and uses it again in the Ninth Word, which then becomes, literally, “You shall not bear ‘vain’ witness against your neighbor.”

In so doing, Moses is in fact editing the Ninth Word in a manner suggested by Exodus 23:1: “Thou shalt not take up a false (vain) report: put not thy hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness.” In Exodus 23:1, it is clear that the “vain report” in the first half of the verse is explained as being an “unrighteous witness” in the parallel section in the second half of the verse. This is obviously an application of the Ninth Word. Thus, in Exodus 23:1, the Ninth Word is reiterated in somewhat different language, referring to the false witness as a “vain report.”

Since the Hebrew word translated “vain” is only used four times in the Pentateuch and only one other time in Exodus (20:7), its use in Exodus 23:1 stands out and links this verse with the previous use in Exodus 20:7 in the Third Word. The only other two uses of this Hebrew word in the Pentateuch are in Deuteronomy 5:11 and 5:20, the Third and Ninth Words. In other words, in Exodus, the detailed laws in chapters 21-23, which expound the Ten Words, specifically associate the Third and Ninth Words. Moses took note of the association in the book of Exodus and repeated it in Deuteronomy by changing the word “false” in the Ninth Word to make it the same as “vain” in the Third Word — bringing the Third and Ninth Word together in a new way.

To restate this again, when Moses repeats the Ten Words in Deuteronomy, he follows the instruction of the laws in Exodus to slightly change the wording of the Ninth Word and thereby emphasize the link between the Third Word and the Ninth. This obviously implies that bearing false witness against one’s neighbor is taking the name of Yahweh in vain, since witnesses would take an oath in court. A false witness would be dishonoring the name of Yahweh whose name he called upon in his oath. But there is an additional significance here. Moses is also suggesting that to take the name of Yahweh in vain is to bear false or vain witness against Yahweh Himself. The notion of using Yahweh’s name in vain includes uses of His name which misrepresent who He is — a sin Israel frequently committed in the wilderness when the Israelites repeatedly claimed Yahweh brought them out of Egypt to kill them in the wilderness.

We see by this that in its narrowest meaning, the Third Word has to do with how one uses the name of Yahweh in one’s speech. This is borne out by further references in the Old Testament: “He that hath clean hands and a pure heart, aho hath not lifted up his soul to falsehood and hath not sworn deceitfully” (Psalm 24:4).[v] And, “For they speak against thee wickedly, and thine enemies take [thy name] in vain” (Psa. 139:20).[vi]

We should not conclude from this that the concern of the Third Word may be limited to Israel’s use of the name of God in speech acts, for the use in a speech act necessarily implies a broader meaning. The logic of the connection would be something like the following. In speech acts, an Israelite “lifts up” or “takes” the name of Yahweh rightly when he takes righteous oaths in His name, prays to Him, worships Him, praises Him. Such proper uses of the name of Yahweh are the opposite of taking His name in vain. But the righteous use of God’s name in a speech act such as an oath would necessarily imply that the oath must be kept. Not keeping what would otherwise have been a righteous oath would be taking Yahweh’s name in vain. The broken oath would be rendered unrighteous by the behavior that followed it. Praying to Him, worshipping Him, and praising Him, while at the same time disobeying His commandments would also constitute misuse of His name. In this way, the narrow meaning explicit in the command necessarily implies a broader meaning. An Israelite’s speech act in using the name of Yahweh must be consistent with a lifestyle that honors Him.

As we might expect, the logic implicit in the command is expressed relatively clearly in the law. Consider, for example, the following pair of laws, specifically tied together by the Hebrew expressions: “Thou shalt not steal, nor deal falsely, nor lie to one another. Thou shalt not swear falsely by my name, so as to profane the name of thy God; I am Yahweh” (Leviticus 19:11-12).[vii]

The juxtaposition of these laws implies that stealing, deceiving, and lying to one another would be forms of dishonoring the name of Yahweh. Similarly, Leviticus 18:21 includes idolatry as parallel to profaning Yahweh’s name: And thou shalt not give any of thy seed to make them pass through the fire to Molech; neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am Yahweh” (Leviticus 18:21).

A clearer and more remarkable example of the Third Word being associated with the behavior of the people of Israel is found in Deuteronomy 28, where Moses pronounces the blessings that accompany obedience to God’s commandments. Here Moses specifically alludes to Exodus 19:1-6, where Yahweh first brought the people of Israel to Himself at Sinai and offered them the grace of His covenant. In this promise, Moses indicates that obedience to the law would mean that Israel was fulfilling her calling to be Yahweh’s holy people. What is especially notable is that Moses says that keeping the commandments of God will testify to all the peoples of the earth that Israel is “called by the name of Yahweh”: “Yahweh will establish thee for a holy people unto himself, as he hath sworn unto thee; if thou shalt keep the commandments of Yahweh thy God, and walk in his ways. And all the peoples of the earth shall see that thou art called by the name of Yahweh; and they shall be afraid of thee” (Deuteronomy 28:9-10). Plainly, if Israel is the people who are called by the name of Yahweh, then disobedience to His covenant would constitute breaking the Third Word because they would be bearing/wearing His name in a vain manner.

It is because the people of Israel were to be called by the name of Yahweh their God that they were commanded to be holy, for it was imperative that they be like the God they represent:

For I am Yahweh your God: sanctify yourselves therefore, and be ye holy; for I am holy: neither shall ye defile yourselves with any manner of creeping thing that moveth upon the earth (Leviticus 11:44).

Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them, Ye shall be holy; for I Yahweh your God am holy (Leviticus 19:2).

Sanctify yourselves therefore, and be ye holy; for I am Yahweh your God (Leviticus 20:7).

 Leviticus repeats a characteristic refrain, though the language varies slightly (Leviticus 11:44–45; 18:2, 4–6, 21, 30; 19:3–4, 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, 25, 28, 30–32, 34, 36–37; 20:7–8, 24; 21:12, 15, 23; 22:2–3, 8–9, 16, 30–33; 23:22, 43; 24:22; 25:17, 38, 55–26:2; 26:13, 44–45). In some cases, a command is followed by the simple expression, “I am Yahweh.” In other cases, the fuller expression appears, “I am Yahweh your God.” In Leviticus 18:4-5, the two expressions follow one another in consecutive verses: “Mine ordinances shall ye do, and my statutes shall ye keep, to walk therein: I am Yahweh your God. Ye shall therefore keep my statutes, and mine ordinances; which if a man do, he shall live in them: I am Yahweh” (Leviticus 18:4-5).

What is clearly implied here is sometimes stated more fully with the expression “for I am Yahweh” (cf. Leviticus 11:44–45; 20:7; 21:15, 23; 22:16; 24:22; 25:17; 26:1, 44). Even when the declaration of God’s name is not prefaced by “because,” we cannot miss the point. Israel is to obey God’s commandments because Yahweh is their God and they are His people. They represent Him in the world and are called by His name — the name that is manifested in the commandments that He gives to His people. His holiness is revealed in the law itself and through His people when they walk in His ways.

With this larger context of the law of Moses in mind, James Jordan’s interpretation of the Third Word in Deuteronomy seems justified. Though the command especially addresses speech acts, the verb used seems to suggest the broader meaning which the laws of Moses spell out. In other words, if I understand Jordan correctly, he is suggesting that though Exodus 20:7 and Deuteronomy 5:11 could have employed different verbs, they both use the verb often translated “carry” to refer to speech acts because this verb also has a broader use. This particular verb was chosen in order to imply the broader meaning. Given the evidence I have pointed to in this part of the essay, it seems to me that an ancient Israelite meditating on the law could think both of “lifting up” the name of God in an oath or prayer and also of “carrying” (being called by, or wearing) His name in everyday life.

Ralph Smith is Pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church in Tokyo, Japan.


[i] Covenant Sequence in Leviticus and Deuteronomy (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1989).

[ii] This verb is used, for example, in Exodus 19:4 where Yahweh says that He “carried” Israel to Himself on eagles’ wings.

[iii] Covenant Sequence, 62. He does not explain his interpretation of “vanity” as the “sphere of death and impotence” either.

[iv] Actually, the word elohim occurs 11 times in the first five commands, but once (Deuteronomy 5:7) it refers to false gods, so I have not counted it. In Exodus 20:2-12, the name “Yahweh your God” occurs 5 times, the name “Yahweh” alone occurs 3 times, and the name “God” alone occurs 1 time.

[v] If we compare the Hebrew of Psalm 24:4 with that of Exodus 20:7 and Deuteronomy 5:11, it becomes quite clear that the Psalm is referring to the Third Word. The exact Hebrew from the Third Word translated “not take” appears in Psalm 24:4 as “not lifted up” and the Hebrew word translated “in vain” in the Third Word appears in Psalm 24:4 as “to falsehood.”

[vi] The allusion to the Third Word here is also undeniably obvious. What the Third Word forbids — taking the Name in vain — is what God’s enemies are said to do. Note that in the original the expression “thy name” is implied rather than being stated.

[vii] Note that this verse specifically puts the Third Word into relation with the Eighth and Ninth Words. The verse quoted next puts the Third Word together with the First and Second Words.