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Vayikra/Leviticus 22:32 And you shall not profane My holy name, and I shall be sanctified in the midst of the Children of Israel
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This text comes in the middle of the chapters 17-26 of the book of Vayikra, often known as the Holiness Code, following chapters about forbidden relationships and forbidden foods, and preceding the great chapter on the festivals and holy days. Part of a short block of verses urging obedience toHaShem's commandments before the subject changes, this text addresses the contrast between the paired terms holiness and profanity - the common or vulgar - rather than that between the "clean/pure - unclean/impure" pair that we explored in Parashat Sh'mini a few weeks ago.
Rashi tells us that the name of G-d is profaned "by violating His words intentionally." Ibn Ezra says that this command is being given to the priests: "You, the priests, shall not do so." The Ramban, however, disagrees: "Just as Aharon and his sons were instructed to be scrupulous in the way they handled the 'sacred donations' (Vayikra 22:2, NJPS) so must 'you', the Israelites, 'not profane My holy name.'" But what does the verb 'profane' mean? It isn't a word that occurs frequently in modern conversation. The Oxford Dictionary of English gives the definition, "to treat (something sacred) with irreverence or disrespect." Gunther Plaut explains that, "to profane the name of G-d means to impair G-d's reputation in the non-Israelite world. Ezekiel declared that when the people of Judah brought the punishment of exile upon themselves, they profaned the name of G-d. For the Gentiles regarded the defeat of Judah as a defeat for Judah's G-d as well. When they were back on their own soil, strong and prosperous, G-d's name would be 'sanctified in the sight of all the peoples' (Ezekiel 36:16 ff)."
Richard Elliott Friedman connects the clauses into a causal relationship, changing the 'and' into 'so': "And you shall not desecrate My holy name, so I shall be sanctified among the children of Israel." This leads on to whatNechama Leibowitz calls the great question: "How can man, an earthly creature, made of dust, profane or sanctify G-d, the source of holiness?" Surely that is impossible! "The answer," she continues, "may be found if we distinguish between the essential holiness of G-d which transcends time and place, unaffected and unchanged by them, and the holiness of His name, i.e. the propagation of human acknowledgement and recognition of His omnipotence and His holiness." This reflects something of Plaut's explanation above. The Baal HaTurim points out that "juxtaposed with this are the passages of the appointed feasts. When the people gather together on the festivals to pray and to praise the Holy One, 'In a multitude of people is the glory of a king' (Proverbs 14:28, ESV)." When G-d's people gather for worship, He is sanctified in their midst.
The ancient Sages recognised the important role of G-d's people in sanctifying Him. Starting with the text, "you are My witnesses -- declares the L-RD -- and I am G-d" (Isaiah 43:12, NJPS), Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai taught that it meant, "'only when you are My witnesses, am I G-d, but when you are not My witnesses, I' - if one dare speak thus - 'am not G-d'" (Pesikta de Rab Kahana, 12:6). Rabbi Hirsch elaborates on this to say that, "with the erection of His Sanctuary of the Torah in our midst, G-d has made us, the whole of our national and individual lives, to be bearers of His name, has declared us and all of ours to be His. He has deposited the proclamation of His will in our midst telling us how we are to behave as being His people, and how we are to justify the name we bear. This name of G-d, which we bear, is to be holy, the absolute highest in our midst, and it is also to be the central soul which, by the might of its power, holds us and all ours together, keeps us, stirs us to activity, animates and elevates us by holding us to our duty in His service."
Christian scholars too recognise the importance of community obedience as a key part of our lives in Yeshua. Samuel Balentine records that "the common denominator throughout [chapters 18-22] is the command to all Israel, priests and laity alike, to image G-d by being holy in every sphere of life - ritual, ethical, social and moral."1 I particularly like the way he uses the word 'image'; we reveal G-d to those around us because the holiness we show is an image of G-d Himself, as Rav Sha'ul wrote: "For it is the G-d who once said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' who has made His light shine in our hearts, the light of the knowledge of G-d's glory shining in the face of the Messiah Yeshua" (2 Corinthians 4:6, CJB). John Hartley adds, "G-d is to be treated as holy in the midst of His people by their enthusiastic, wholehearted observance of these decrees. Faithful observance honours G-d. When the people honour G-d, He is in their midst sanctifying them. Since He sets His name in the midst of His people, they must conduct themselves in a way that will not defile it."2 This surely applies today: when G-d's people honour Him and observe His commandments, He is in the midst of them and sanctifies them. This must be what Yeshua means when He says, "By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be My disciples ... If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love" (John 15:8-10, ESV).
Let's take this on another step. As believers in Yeshua, His name is the name we bear, His name is "the name that is above every name" (Philippians 2:9, ESV), His is the name "by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12, ESV). It is by believing in His name that we are given "the right to become children of God" (John 1:12, ESV). How much more should we treasure and sanctify His name.
As far as we can tell, the congregations that Rav Sha'ul wrote to in Rome had both Jewish and Gentile members. Certainly Sha'ul uses the phrase "the Jew first and also the Greek" three times in the first chapter and a half of his letter. After pointing out that "when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires ... they show that the work of the law is written on their hearts" (Romans 2:14-15, ESV), he rebukes the Jewish believers for boasting about being Jewish, yet not observing Torah faithfully: "You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, 'The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you'" (Romans 2:23-24, ESV). These Jewish believers were making much of their Jewish identity, which implied that they valued Torah as G-d's words and commands for their lives, but were then not living according to the Torah themselves; this dishonoured G-d by their inconsistency and their disobedience.
Peter addresses the other side of the coin - sanctifying the name of G-d - when offering guidance for servants or slaves who were known to be believers in Yeshua. He tells them to obey their masters respectfully, regardless of whether the master is a fair and just master or not. Drawing on Yeshua's own example of suffering for us even though He had committed no sin, Peter says, "For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God" (1 Peter 2:20, ESV). "If you are beaten for doing something wrong, so what? You deserved the punishment," he says. The servant has dishonoured G-d by disobeying his master. It is by putting up with punishment where none was deserved that we honour G-d and bring glory to His name: "For to this you have been called, because Messiah also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps" (v. 21, ESV).
Away from the hubbub of the first century, how are we to avoid desecrating or profaning G-d's name in our midst today? I believe the answer is very similar to those given above and comes in two parts: firstly, be certain not to do anything that would reflect badly on G-d or image Him badly; secondly - and conversely - be faithful and consistent in what we do and our relationships with those around us. Of course, that needs a few nuances smoothed out, otherwise we will find ourselves in some difficulty. We cannot do, in obedience to others, what G-d has forbidden; it doesn't matter how strange, out-of-date, old-fashioned or simply weird that makes us or G-d look. He is big enough to take care of that and us in those circumstances; think of Shadrach, Mishach and Abed-nego - "If so it must be, our G-d whom we serve is able to save us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will save us from your power, O king. But even if He does not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your god or worship the statue of gold that you have set up" (Daniel 3:17-18, NJPS). Further, while we are responsible for the image of G-d that we show or project through our words and actions, we are not responsible for the way others see that; they may only be capable of seeing through filters or lenses that distort everything they see due to past hurts, disappointments and damage. With time, prayer and a consistent witness, G-d can use our love and faithfulness to break through and bring the healing that they need, but that is His call and not ours.
If we truly love Yeshua and value His name, then we must act each and every day to be sure that we do not profane it or bring Him into disrepute. More, we must do all that is in our power to sanctify it - to have the name of Yeshua recognised as holy and precious, for Yeshua to be respected and honoured. We can do neither of these things in our own strength, but if we listen for - and pay attention to - the voice of the Spirit, He can and will nudge us to get this right. May our eyes and ears be open to see and hear.
1. - Samuel E. Balentine, Leviticus, Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), page 171.
2. - John E. Hartley, Leviticus, Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1992), page 362.
Further Study: Luke 11:1-2; John 17:15-19
Application: Is there some part of your life that dishonours Yeshua or brings His name into disrepute? Now is the time to get that sorted out so that we can lift up and honour His name both in private and in the public sphere.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2020
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