I’m continuing excerpts from my writing project, Ten Essential Words. This one is from chapter four.
Quick, in a single word, what is [the third] commandment prohibiting? As I child growing up in Sunday school, the answer to that question was clearly “swearing”. God was a God that did not like it when we used bad language. So growing up, the Third Commandment was repeatedly reduced to: “Do not swear.” At first, being a younger kid, I was not exactly sure which words were prohibited. I knew a couple of the more common ones, ones with more Biblical roots: saying the word god before anything other than bless you, using the word hell (even with the common adolescent defense that it is a word in fact, found in the Bible), or damning someone to that place found in the Bible. As I got older, I learned the rule of thumb that most swear words contained four letters (a rule probably originating from the word raca, found in scripture). The deeper the Christian sub-culture delved into this command, the more they resembled ancient rabbis writing midrashim – interpreting and re-interpreting Mosaic Law; the more the list was expanded to include words that were substituted or slang for those four-letter words. So now words like darn, dang, shoot, heck, geeze, gosh, and gall (as in gall-dang – a double whammy) were included under the prohibition of the Third Commandment.
I knew that it was a mortal sin to break other commandments, like murdering someone or stealing something. But I was not sure how this one worked. After all, I had heard even the best of people let one slip under their breath every now and then (God only knows I did as well). I know from playing in church basketball leagues, we sometimes instituted a technical-foul rule, resulting in two free throws for the opposing team, for any swearing that took place on the court (imagine that rule in the NBA!). So maybe God had some sort of cosmic technical foul assessment that we would only discover upon reaching the gates of heaven (hopefully, some sort of free throws would be involved as well – I was pretty good at free throws). Or perhaps God just relied on the tried and true swear jar, with reduced fines for words muttered under your breath or just thought, but not spoken. Come to think of it, maybe that is how God is financing the whole heaven project anyway (no wonder Revelation promised streets of gold).
But before you get too riled up examining your own propensity to “let one slip” every now-and-then, let me let you in on a little secret: the Third Commandment has nothing to do with swearing or using four letter words. At least not swearing in the way we use the term today. Now whether or not the language you are using is offensive to others or glorifying to God – that might be another story. So where did we get off track on this one? The short answer is, in Biblical language, the entire area of making promises, pledges, and oaths was referred to as swearing. This commandment has to do with that process of making oaths. So over time, it was sometimes shortened to the phrase, “Do not swear”. Only, also over time, the concept of swearing took on a whole new meaning.