Monday, February 04, 2019

"Then Joseph was all like, OMP!" (Oh My Pharaoh)

Time to check in on Joseph, the man who as a boy owned a multi-colored garment, a coat of the affluent, a coat that played a pivotal role in redemptive history.

Here is Joseph, the second most powerful man in Egypt, talking to his unknowing brothers:

14 Joseph said to them, “It is as I said to you, you are spies; 15 by this you will be tested: by the life of Pharaoh, you shall not go from this place unless your youngest brother comes here! 16 Send one of you that he may get your brother, while you remain confined, that your words may be tested, whether there is truth in you. But if not, by the life of Pharaoh, surely you are spies.” (Gen 42:14-16, NASB)
The question arises, did Joseph sin when he swore by the life of Pharaoh? Or was it just idle (as opposed to idol) speech? An ancient Egyptian form of OMG that Joseph and his contemporaries would exclaim with nary a thought?

Here is Calvin's analysis:
From this formula of swearing a question is raised; for the law, we should swear only by the name of God, had already been engraven on the hearts of the pious; since this honor is to be given to God alone... If we should say that this was not an oath, but a kind of [invoking a witness], [Joseph] will be, in some degree, excused. He who swears by God wishes him to interpose to inflict punishment on perjury. They who swear by their life deposit, as it were, what they deem most valuable, as a pledge of their faithfulness. By this method the majesty of God is not transferred to mortal man; because it is a very different thing to cite him as witness who has the right of taking vengeance, and to assert by something most dear to us, that what we say is true. So Moses, when he calls heaven and earth to witness, does not ascribe deity to them, and thus fabricate a new idol… Notwithstanding, there is, in this form of swearing which Joseph uses, something deserving of censure; for it was a profane adulation, among the Egyptians, to swear by the life of the king. (Calvin commentaries on Genesis)
Hmm. Maybe. I think it is impossible to tell without knowing exactly how the phrase was used casually or idiomatically.

New Christians sense immediately that they are not supposed to swear. Now in my mind, swearing is a fascinating and I think a nuanced subject. There is no biblical list of "bad words", and when the bible discusses "swearing" it is warning about swearing an oath. If swearing applies to bad words, then we have a clear example of a non-absolute law that requires regional sensitivity, for the words that dour old blue-haired ladies don't want to find in the dictionary (when they search for them) vary from culture to culture. And even within a culture there would be no universal agreement on a list of swear words. Not all swear words are made equal, although it is also true that the very worst are likely universally condemned.

An absolute inhibition on swearing is, in a explicit sense, on shaky biblical grounds.1 Yet, like the constitutional "right of privacy", our gut tells us that it’s in there, somewhere, probably through an argument of this sort:

  • Christians are commanded to be on good behavior. 
  • Society generally regards swearing as bad or at least uncouth behavior. 
  • Thus, Christians should not swear, going the extra mile as it were. 

This is reasonable logic, but it is not on the same footing as a divine edict, such as to spread the gospel. Which brings to mind Christians and the dreaded phrase "Oh my god." OMG tends to be the last of the "no-nos" that get eradicated from the lexicon of new Christians. Usually, for quite some time after they learn to avoid George Carlin's list (if you don't know, don't Google), they will still blurt out an OMG to express surprise or shock, ironically causing surprise and shock among their more mature fellow believers.

I have to tell you, other than a diluted version of the chain of logic given above for swearing in general, I don't see the serious problem with OMG. I don't say it, because I know I'm not supposed to. But in the way it is typically used (surprise) I don't see how it is counter to any biblical admonition and I don’t see why it offends as powerfully as it seems to.

And I absolutely seethe when there is a disproportionate, ungracious response from mature Christians when they hear a noob utter "OMG." If they think it is a violation of the 3rd commandment, I'd suggest they go study the 3rd commandment (and sin in general). When a new Christian unthinkingly  uses OMG, a very gentle instruction is called for.  This is an area where mature Christians often puff themselves up. How easy it is to get on a pedestal about a new Christian who has yet to break a habit that we have long since conquered. You might as well say: Thank you God, that I am not like one of those Christians who utters OMG.

1 Eph 4:29 is talking about ungraciously putting your brother down rather than building him up--believe me this can be done with the sweetest of language. Eph 5:3-4 is the most overt prohibition, yet it appears to be narrowly focussed on "dirty jokes" and sexually related swearing.

1 comment:

  1. Thought-provoking, especially the last paragraph.