Thinking blasphemy

While it is most usually true that in the Scriptures the object of mocking profanation and blasphemy is God’s name, rather than God’s self, the two cannot be separated. To blaspheme God’s name is to blaspheme God (Isa 37:23; Ezek 13:19; 22:26; Rom. 2:24 [quoting Isa 52:5; 1 Tim 6: Rev. 13:6; 16:9). Twice in Nehemiah 9, the Levites remind the returned exiles of their blasphemous past. The God who had ‘made a name for himself’ in the liberation of an enslaved people from an arrogant Egypt (9:10), had to in turn deal with an ‘arrogant’ people who refused to listen and obey. The epitome of their rebellion is illustrated ‘when they had made for themselves a golden calf’ and attributed to it their rescue (9:18). This and other great blasphemies’ were met by God’s forgiveness, grace, compassion and mercy which refused to ‘abandon them in the desert’ (9:17-19). Later on during this same time of the worship, the eight Levites recalled how Israel ‘captured fortified cities and a rich land, and took possession of houses full of all good things, cisterns already hewn, vineyards, olive orchards and fruit trees in abundance’ eating their fill, becoming fat and delighting in God’s goodness (9:25). Yet they were disobedient and rebelled against God, casting God’s law behind their backs and killing the prophets who had warned them with a view to turning them back to God. And, the Levites said ‘they committed great blasphemies (9:26b). This time their ‘great blasphemies were met by divine judgement expressed via the giving up of Israel ‘into the hand of their enemies, who made them suffer’ (9:27a), out of which they cried out again to the Lord who heard them, had compassion on them and, again rescued them from their enemies’ hand (9:27b). It would seem that it is not without significance that the Levites begin their praise in v. 5 with the words, ‘Blessed be your glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise’ (9:5b). Furthermore, because God has attached his name to Israel, to mock Israel is to blaspheme God’s name. ‘”Their rulers wail,” declares the LORD, “and continually all the day my name is despised” (Isa 52:5; cf. Mal 1:11-14). The LXX adds the phrase εν τοις εθνεσιν, an addition that Paul adopts in Romans 2:24, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles (εν τοις εθνεσιν) because of you’ (cf. Rom 1:5). Clearly, there is a link between God’s name and God’s self-witness to the nations. Blank notes, ‘Divorced from its context, the assertion that God’s name suffers profanation because of his people can mean either of two things, either a) that God is defamed by the shameful conduct of his people, or b) that God is disgraced because of the shameful condition of his people’. Sheldon H. Blank, ‘Isaiah 52:5 and the Profanation of the Name’, HUCA 25 (1954), 6. Blank contends that the context of Isaiah 52:2 ‘proves’ that the author intended the latter meaning, whereas Paul misquotes the text in order to critique the Jews’ behaviour.

It seems to me that both readings are not only possible, but intricately related and implied in both texts. However, even if Blank is correct, the significant thing is that God’s has so attached his name to his people that God is shamed by Israel’s conduct and so sends them into exile. But their being in exile also defames God’s name among the nations for in their defeat, the nations see the defeat of their God whose reputation, fame, prestige and recognition is concerned. As Blank asserts, ‘To profane the name of God is to do damage to God’s reputation, to defame him, to lessen his prestige, to retard the process by which he receives recognition, to put off the day on which it shall be known that he is God’. Blank, ‘Profanation’, 8. Likewise in Romans 2, Israel is again in exile (not only is Paul’s audience presumably in Rome, but even those Jews in Palestine strive under foreign occupation which is a sign of their being under judgement) and called in exile to be ‘a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness’ (2:19), that is to the nations, a calling that is apparently being undermined by their breaking of God’s law and so of dishonoring God’s name (as in Lev 18:21; 19:12; 20:3; 21:6; 22:2, 32; Jer 34:16; Ezek 20:39; Amos 2:7; Mal 1:12; cf. Ezek 13:19, 22:26).

[Image: Emil Nolde, ‘Dance Around the Golden Calf’, 1910. Oil on canvas. 88 x 105.5 cm. Staatsgalerie moderner Kunst, Munich]

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