Brand Confusion

For the week of June 26, 2021 / 16 Tammuz 5781

A gavel by a large gold registered trademark symbol

Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 22:2 – 25:9
Haftarah: Micah 5:6 – 6:8 (English 5:7 – 6:8)
Originally posted the week of July 5, 2014 / 7 Tammuz 5774 (revised)

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And Balaam said to Balak, “Stand beside your burnt offering, and I will go. Perhaps the LORD will come to meet me, and whatever he shows me I will tell you.” (B’midbar/Numbers 23:3; ESV)

One of the main purposes behind consumer and trademark law is the avoidance of brand confusion. I don’t know what it is like in your part of the world, but where I live the government has regulations in place to prevent individuals and companies from leveraging the popularity of competing brands. When a brand is already well-known and trusted, people more quickly notice it. The laws against trademark infringement are not simply because of ownership issues, but due to a desire on the part of our legislators to protect consumers. For example, Time, the weekly news magazine, is a very well-known brand that has been in existence for almost 100 years. As far as I can tell, more than once, other periodicals have attempted to implement thin red borders on their covers similar to the one used by Time since 1927. Courts have determined that the newer magazines could not use the red border design element because it creates confusion for customers due to an illegitimate association with Time.

The Bible makes a brand claim, so to speak, with regard to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Bible clearly asserts that he is the original God-the one and only Creator, Wonder Worker, Redeemer, and Savior. Among his trademarked products is the universe, including Planet Earth and all its vegetation, animals, and humans. He is the sole inventor, designer and implementer of every physical and spiritual property, known and unknown. Everything everywhere has been brought to you by the God of Israel. All other claims by any other entity, real or false, are guilty of infringement.

However, God doesn’t seem to be interested in applying the principles of consumer law to himself or his products. It’s not that he is okay with infringement. Doesn’t he say, “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain” (Shemot/Exodus 20:27: ESV)? Yet, he has allowed misrepresentation of his name to occur time and time again.

This week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion), is one of the most confusing uses of God’s brand in the whole Bible. King Balak of Moab, a territory in the vicinity of the Promised Land, was so intimidated by the people of Israel that he hired a diviner, by the name of Balaam (Hebrew: Bilam) to curse them. At first glance it seems that Balaam truly represented God. But what really happened was that God didn’t allow Balaam to have his way. His favorable use of God’s name occurred in spite of himself. Later on this same man will cause great damage to Israel through the use of sexual immorality (see B’midbar/Numbers 31).

So while how Balaam spoke about God in this Torah section doesn’t appear to infringe on God’s brand (God saw to that), unless we read Balaam in his full biblical context, we might easily regard his illegitimate methods as acceptable.

Just because something is reported in the Bible doesn’t mean that it is endorsed by God. God did not reveal himself in Scripture in such a way that always makes right or wrong immediately obvious. Unlike our consumer laws, he allows the misuse of his brand. This means that if we don’t take care in how we read the Bible, we will get confused.

Years ago, I took a biblical Hebrew course at Regent College in Vancouver with renowned scholar Dr. Bruce Waltke. I’ll never forget the time he said something to the extent of (this is not a direct quote): “The Bible is a sensitive book for sensitive readers. It doesn’t build walls around itself to protect itself. If people want to abuse it, they can. But for the sensitive reader, it is a book of life.” Dr. Waltke’s comments are insightful. Superficial and selective reading of Scripture can easily result in great misunderstanding. It is relatively simple to misquote and misuse it for your own purposes. But it is its lack of protective barriers that enables God’s written Word to powerfully impact our lives. God purposely allowed the possibility of brand confusion to occur, so that we can know him with a genuineness and intimacy that protective legislation would obscure.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version 


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