The Third Word (Exodus 20:7) prohibits Israel and the church from bearing (nasa’) the Name of Yahweh lightly. What might it mean to “bear” the name? The verb is used some thirty times in Exodus, with a remarkable range of meanings.
Exodus 6:8: Yahweh nasa’ to give the land to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. “Bear” means “swear,” and that seems to be part of the significance in the Third Word. As Patrick Miller points out (Ten Commandments, 65), Deuteronomy 6:13 summarizes the first three commandments, and renders the Third Word positively as “by His name you shall swear.”
Exodus 10:13, 17, 19: The verb is used three times during the plague of locusts. Twice it has a physical sense: First the east wind carries locusts to Egypt (v. 13) and then the west wind bears them away (v. 19). In between, Pharaoh asks Moses to nasa’ his sin and remove death from his land. The verb still has a quasi-physical connotation: Pharaoh wants Moses to “bear away” sin and death. There’s a symmetry, of course, in the different uses. So long as Pharaoh sins, the wind will bear plagues into Egypt; if his sin is borne away, so too will be the locusts.
Exodus 12:34: Again nasa’ has a physical sense. The people “carry away” the dough of the Passover bread before it is leavened. As they prepare to leave, the bear dough on their shoulders.
Exodus 18:22: Jethro advises Moses to appoint judges to assist him in ruling the people. They will help bear the burden of leadership.
Exodus 19:4: When Israel reaches Sinai, Yahweh reminds them that He bore them (nasa’) on eagle’s wings out of Egypt, a reference among other things to the pillar of cloud and fire, full of winged cherubim, who led them through the wilderness. This is the nearest use of the verb to the Third Word, and should be paired with it. There is a symmetrical exchange: Yahweh bore Israel from Egypt, so Israel should bear His name well. Being borne places a weight of obligation on Israel, which they have to bear. The borne become bearers. Because Yahweh carried Israel, Israel now carries Yahweh’s reputation/name before the world.
Exodus 23:1: nasa’ is used with reference to false reports. The texts isn’t simply concerned with uttering false reports. The verb suggests its concern is with carrying them about, spreading false reports.
Exodus 23:21: As in Exodus 10, nasa’ is used with reference to sin or guilt. Yahweh warns Israel not to rebel against the Angel – in whom is Yahweh’s name – because he will not “bear” you. This might, as many translations suggest, mean “pardon”; the Angel will not carry away your sin. Or it might refer to the Angel’s unwillingness to put up with Israel’s sin; the Angel will not continue to carry/lead Israel if they resist him. They will become unbearable.
Exodus 28:29-30: Levites carry furniture. Aaron bears the names of Israel before Yahweh. This is literally true. The names of the tribes are inscribed on stones that are placed on his shoulders. When he enters before Yahweh, he memorializes the tribes. The names are also inscribed on the gemstones on the breastpiece, though Exodus uses an odd circumlocution to describe it: Aaron bears the “judgment (mishpat) of the sons of Israel over his heart before Yahweh continually.” What is over Aaron’s heart isn’t the tribal names of Israel but their judgment (statute?). Here there is a notable symmetry with the Third Word: Israel carries Yahweh’s name, but Yahweh’s priest bears their names (and judgment).
Exodus 28:38: The function of Aaron’s golden crown is also described with the verb nasa’. He bears the iniquity of the holy things. More generally, Aaron and his sons wear vestments so that they will not bear guilt and die when they enter the sanctuary. Aaron is a sin-bearer, but his vestments also displace the guilt he bears so that he can come into Yahweh’s presence safely. Like the tabernacle, the priestly garments register the uncleanness and sin of Israel.
Exodus 32:32; 34:7: Moses intercedes for Israel after the golden calf, asking Yahweh to nasa’ the sin of Israel. It has the connotation of “carry away” or “remove,” but with the possible overtone of “bear the burden of.” Moses is asking Yahweh to take Israel’s sins on Himself. Yahweh does forgive, since that is essential to the name He proclaims before Moses. He is a God who bears iniquity (34:7). That is the name Israel bears, the name of a God of mercy and justice.
Exodus 35:21, 26; 36:2: Several of the late uses of the verb take “heart” as a subject. Those whose hearts are “lifted” bring contributions. The hearts of women with chochmah (skill, wisdom, like that of Bezalel and Oholiab) are lifted up to spin goat’s hair. Everyone with chochmah is inspired to perform the work.