Shem – Name

by Lois Tverberg

He said to them, “When you pray, say: ‘Father, hallowed be your name…’ Luke 11:2

Throughout both the Old and New Testaments, we hear the phrase, “In the name of the Lord.” It is one of those Hebraic figures of speech that often is confusing for Christians. In Eastern, oral cultures a person’s name was connected with the person’s identity, reputation, or authority. So the phrase “in the name of” often means something like, “with the authority of,” or “for the reputation of.”

One phrase that raises questions is in the Lord’s prayer, “Hallowed be thy name…” What did Jesus mean by that phrase? An interesting insight comes from the Jewish understanding of what it means to “hallow” God’s name, and the opposite, to “profane” God’s name. These were considered the extreme opposites of the moral continuum — the absolute best possible action, and the absolutely most reprehensible action.

The phrase Kiddush HaShem (to hallow or sanctify the name) meant, to live in such a way as to bring God glory and praise — as when Jesus said, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Rabbis described it as one of three things — either to live a life of integrity, carefully observing the biblical commands; or to do some heroic deed, like risking one’s life to save another; or even to be martyred to honor God. Since the Holocaust, the emphasis has been on martyrdom, with the understanding that those who died to remain faithful were bringing God honor.

The opposite is Hillul HaShem (to profane the name) which means to act in such a way to bring God’s reputation into contempt. The rabbis said that a public sin, or a sin against a person who doesn’t know God is much worse than one against someone one who does, because it makes God himself look bad. Think of the damage that is done by TV evangelist sex scandals and how they harden non-Christians from believing in Christ. Their actions make the gospel look like a scam.

This gives us a clue as to what “Hallowed be thy name” means in the Lord’s Prayer. God’s name is already holy, but this is a statement of our desire that all people would know its holiness, and a commitment that we will do everything to sanctify it in our lives, to glorify God in the eyes of the world.


Further reading:

See Listening to the Language of the Bible, by Lois Tverberg and Bruce Okkema, En-Gedi Resource Center, 2004. This is a collection of devotional essays that mediate on the meaning of biblical words and phrases in their original setting.

For a friendly, bite-sized Bible study of five flavorful Hebrew words, see 5 Hebrew Words that Every Christian Should Know, by Lois Tverberg,, 2014 (ebook).