The origins of forbidden speech lie too far back in ancient history for us to know for certain what instigated it. We can speculate, though, that the domestic setting of family life served as its early, and perhaps even its original, context. Parents warned their children of physical hazards – “Don’t go there!”, “Don’t eat that!”, “Don’t touch that, it’s hot!”
With the rise of superstitions, danger was also connected with non-physical phenomena, threats that in many cases were perceived by others within the same social groups. Certain numbers, for example, have been considered lucky or unlucky, such as 4, 7, 8, 13, 40, 108, or 786. Animals, such as black cats or geckos or owls, can also be freighted with superstitious significance. Practices like taking one’s own hair and nail clippings from the barber prevented them from being used in a curse. Even if one discounts such items as irrational and baseless, we know that many people behave according to them nonetheless. Probably in early periods of human history, not only parents but also peers urged other members of the social group to avoid ominous phenomena and seek favor from beneficent influences.
It must have been a small step, then, to attribute similar significances to what was considered otherworldly forces. The notion of demonic, evil spirits perhaps arose to explain bizarre, unusual, disastrous occurrences. Lilith, a female demon of the night, is blamed in some cultures for stealing infants or sexually enticing men. Jinns, supernatural beings that can be either good or evil, are believed to be able to disrupt human life, cause trouble, or provide guidance. The evil eye is another widespread tradition, and an extensive and imaginative assortment of amulets and talismans have been devised to protect against its malevolent power. Parents and other adults warned each other and especially children to evade their allure.
Such beliefs in dangerous as well as benevolent beings belong to what is called popular culture and religion – practices not instituted by established religions but more in keeping with notions among everyday people. Popular religion can transcend cultures, as in the beliefs in superstitions and demonic forces, or they can be limited to smaller groups and sects. Such forms of religion arise quite naturally from the general populace and are not necessarily advocated or supported by culture-wide institutions.
Just as power and control were executed on a progressive scale of influence – parents, elders, chiefs, princes, monarchs, emperors – believers perceived a hierarchy in the supernatural world as well, from local demons and deities, to gods and goddesses tied to nations or ethnic groups, to universal gods. In all of these contexts the adherents or believers place demands on others in their group to honor, fear, and serve these otherworldly forces, though the ultimate source for such demands is often projected onto the deities themselves.
While such circumstances can be seen in any number of traditions, here we will focus on one specific case, the religion and culture of the ancient Hebrews, the inhabitants of the area bordering the eastern Mediterranean Sea and known as Israel or Palestine. The Israelite people lived there during the first millennium BCE, and they left a literary heritage called the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. It remains an influential force today in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions, even though there are differences among its scriptural form in these traditions.
The touchstone text for blasphemy in the Hebrew Bible is the third commandment among the Ten Commandments, which is commonly translated “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (the Book of Exodus 20:7). The precise meaning of the phrase “in vain” is not clear to modern readers as this English translation, from the King James Version of the Bible, dates from 1611 and reflects language usage of that time. The Hebrew word actually has a meaning more closely connected to worthlessness, futility, evil, deception, or falsity. Thus a better translation is “You shall not use the Lord’s name in an evil or frivolous manner.” It is a strict prohibition against blasphemy.
While many of the laws in the Hebrew Bible do not have other texts that illustrate their application, this prohibition is used as the basis for a brief anecdote in the Book of Leviticus 24:10-23. There is virtually no narrative context for this incident, nothing about the time or place where it occurred other than the general desert setting for the whole Book of Leviticus. A man, who is the son of an Israelite woman named Shelomith and an unnamed Egyptian father, is engaged in a fight when he commits blasphemy. In describing the blasphemy, the text does not explicitly state the name of God, which in the Hebrew Bible is normally given as Yahweh. Instead, it refers in Hebrew literally to “the name,” which we might be inclined to capitalize in translation as a proper noun even though the Hebrew writing makes no distinction between upper- and lower-case letters. Thus the text states, “The Israelite woman’s son blasphemed the Name in a curse.” There is obviously a reluctance here to say something like “he blasphemed Yahweh.” Later in the text there is an allusion to anyone who “curses God” or who “blasphemes the name of Yahweh” (verses 15 and 16), but it also avoids the straightforward “curses Yahweh” or “blasphemes Yahweh.” It is difficult to know whether a theological or a magical impulse is at work in this phrasing.
There is a similar avoidance in the Book of Job. As the story unfolds in the first two chapters, God allows the pious Job to be tested severely, in the process of which all his children are killed, he loses all his servants and livestock, and his house collapses. Seeing his suffering, his wife then urges Job to “curse God and die,” which Job refuses to do (2:9-10). The Hebrew text, however, does not actually state “curse God” but “bless God.” Apparently the original Hebrew writers of this story found it unfathomable that one could put the two words “curse” and “God” next to each other, so they changed the word “curse” to a euphemism, “bless,” even though “bless God” does not fit this context at all. Actually, this round-about use of words has survived in a regional English expression still used today – to “bless someone out,” which avoids the more objectionable idea of “cursing someone,” even though in effect it is virtually the same.
The indirect way of speaking of the deity Yahweh by saying “the Name” has survived in Jewish tradition until today. The early rabbis and scribes were of the opinion that the name Yahweh was too sacrosanct even to be uttered, and so they developed the practice of substituting another word for the name. Most common was the word Adonai, meaning “lord”; thus whenever someone of the Jewish faith read then or reads today the name “Yahweh” in the Hebrew Bible, the word “Adonai” is often spoken, not “Yahweh.” Even writing the name of Yahweh was carefully guarded, and so emerged the custom of writing the name using only the four consonants YHWH together with the vowels from “Adonai.” The other very common substitution involves simply saying the Hebrew word Hashem, meaning “the Name.” For example, instead of saying “May YHWH bless you,” one would intone “May Hashem bless you.” This, of course, is reminiscent of the way “the Name” occurs in the text of Leviticus 24:10-23 discussed above.
There is something else at work in the word “name.” Many cultures today, though not all, do not attach much significance to a person’s name. Yes, it may identify someone, both socially and legally, but it is not understood to represent the very essence of the person. Rather, It functions as little more than a label, an arbitrary phoneme that might just as well have been something different. In a culture such as that of ancient Israel, however, a name seems to have represented the very being, essence, and character of a person. When considered in this light, the prohibition against misusing the deity’s name is tantamount to directing others not to treat or speak of the deity frivolously, carelessly, without due honor and respect. In a sense, the Muslim practice of following the name of the Prophet with “Peace be upon him” accomplishes the same effect of emphasizing the veneration due to him.
Who created such stipulations and principles? Our discussion above about those in society who held the authority to issue commands begins to provide some answers. Parents and local leaders had a more immediate but also a more limited range of authority than did national or imperial powers. While the local practices of religion and moral customs were also mainly restricted to their own environs, the national religion and laws had a much broader scope and purview, precisely the environment in which the persons at the top of the hierarchy operated. A similar dichotomy prevailed with regard to literacy. In cultures around the world and until modern times, reading and writing have been much more present in urban than in rural contexts. In ancient Southwest Asia it was much the same: several recent studies have argued that fewer than 1-2% of the population of early Israel, Babylonia, Assyria, Egypt, Persia, and other cultures were literate. Writing was primarily a skill of the scribal profession, not of everyday people. The Hebrew Bible, as also the grand literatures of other cultures, stems from such specialists, who were supported and steered by the wealthy and powerful.
The prohibitions against blasphemy, such as those illustrated from ancient Israel, were issued under the guise of divine authority. In reality, it was humans who developed the traditions and wrote the text of the Hebrew Bible and related documents. At the national level, these persons included the monarch, royal counselors, provincial governors, officials, military officers, elites, judges, priests, scribes, and various administrative figures. They determined the laws, state policies, economic affairs, cultural narratives, religious rituals and practices, and more. They also prohibited certain types of behavior and speech, including blasphemy. The determination of what is considered offensive and taboo may have its roots in popular practices, but the leaders and elites were the ones with the power and the means to codify and promulgate it. The priestly class was especially effective in this process, not the least in elevating it to canonical status. Where a demand exists to forbid the trivializing of God’s name, it implies that the purveyors of this tradition, namely the priests and others in the powerful establishment, are also not to be trifled with or challenged. Respect transmogrifies into obedience and submission. Forbidden speech, seemingly a small and simple matter, is thus actually part of a larger scheme of power and control within social, political, and religious contexts.
Douglas Knight is Drucilla Moore Buffington Professor Emeritus of Hebrew Bible and Professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee. He has lived, studied, taught, or lectured in several countries, including Israel, Norway, Denmark, Germany, France, Japan, and Hong Kong. He is the author of numerous books and articles dealing with ancient literatures, cultures, social history, laws, politics, and religions.
Descriptions of Egyptian Figurines
Thoth, depicted as an ibis bird. The moon-god and the patron of writing and knowledge, Thoth – “the mightiest of gods” – was represented in ancient Egypt as an ibis. Thoth was the god of scribes, and the hieroglyphs they wrote could thus carry magical force. His skill with words allowed him to serve as arbiter among warring gods. For the ancient Egyptians Thoth embodied all of the literary and scientific achievements of their culture.
Bes. To ancient Egyptians, the dwarf-god Bes appeared fierce and often grotesque but was actually benign in character. He served as the protector of the family, especially of children and of women in hard labor. His ugliness was considered a deterrent to evil spirits, and he was often imaged in an aggressive posture with knife held high to fend off threats against the family. At the same time, he was also associated with music and merrymaking, and in other contexts was the patron deity of war and hunting. Bes was depicted with a plumed crown and the mane and ears of a lion. He was usually, as here, sticking out his tongue in a playful or aggressive manner.