Oath



OATH (אָלָה, H460, an oath, a curse, שְׁבוּעָה, H8652, an oath, a curse, to swear, the root form שׁבע, means to bind oneself by seven things, to seven oneself, שְׁבֻ֥עַת שֶׁ֖קֶר, false swearing, perjury, ὅρκος, G3992, oath, promise). A solemn appeal to God in attestation of the truth of a statement or the binding character of a promise.

The significance of an oath.

In situations where the truthfulness of an important declaration or affirmation is not readily accessible to empirical confirmation, the credibility of a claim is enhanced by the use of an oath (Exod 22:7, 10, 11; Num 5:19f.). When, for example, the evidence at hand failed to convince the Sanhedrin of the truth of Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah, Jesus accepted the last resort for strengthening His claim and acquiesced in the solemn charge of a judicial oath with its terrifying aspect of ordeal by death (Matt 26:63). Projected actions set forth by a promise are made somewhat more certain of coming to reality when covered with the sanctity of an oath with its threatening curse if the promise is broken, and with its hoped for blessings if the contemplated deed is accomplished. An oath had a performatory function of putting one’s promises or projected deeds under the agency and judgment of God, and hence could serve to bolster a will that tends to prevaricate, for in Biblical times it was universally accepted that all actions and intentions of men were under divine surveillance. A higher measure of integrity and prediction in social and political life undoubtedly resulted with the widespread use of oaths in human relationships.

The pragmatic value of the use of an oath constituted only a part of its meaning in a religious society, such as that of the ancient Hebrews. For the people of the OT, as A. Lelievre puts it, an oath throws into relief the solemn seriousness and efficacious power of the life and words of men when brought into vital connection with God (A Companion to the Bible, 312). The Heb., sensing the presence of God, took joy in making an oath before God (2 Chron 15:14, 15) and found peace and comfort in his holy vows taken in the name of God (1 Sam 20:42). In this way he expressed his faith and loyalty. Had not God Himself accompanied His words with an oath (Gen 22:16-18; Ps 110:4; Heb 6:13), guaranteeing the veracity of His declarations and the irrevocability of His promises (Num 23:19)? Eichrodt suggests also that the proclamation of the divine name in an oath was treasured as an act whereby God came forth and offered Himself in fellowship (Theology of the Old Testament, p. 206). Men would eagerly use God’s name when they wanted to be assured of His nearness. Undoubtedly for some the oath came to have magical power because of the divine name, but for the ordinary pious Heb. it remained a purely religious form with profound meaning and became an inseparable part of the redemptive plan of God as expressed in the covenant. (For a full treatment of this vital connection between oath and redemption via the concept of ordeal, see “Oath and Ordeal Signs,” Meredith G. Kline, WTJ [May 1965], 115-139 and WTJ [Nov. 1965], 1-37.)

Verbal structures used in an oath.


The oath and curses.

The ever-present possibility of perjury, i.e., a man swearing falsely for his own personal gain, made inevitable the form of the oath which included more explicitly an imprecation or curse, and clearly called upon God the witness to act as a judge who could, if necessary, exact the curse in the event of falsehood. By including a conditional curse in the oath the swearer meant to convey greater conviction that he was telling the truth, and undoubtedly he himself often was helpfully motivated to be as he wanted others to take him. The oath in this form may have been more for the purpose of calling man’s attention to God, rather than calling God’s attention to a human transaction. A common form that this type of oath took was, “May the Lord do so to me and more also if,” I do not do so and so (Ruth 1:17; 1 Sam 3:17; 14:44; 2 Sam 3:35; 1 Kings 2:23).

It is suggested by some that the punishment called down in imprecatory oaths is certain but deliberately not specified. Stinespring suggests that this is so because of a “fear lest the mere mention of the curse should ipso facto bring it to pass—a remnant of animistic conceptions” (HDB rev., 707). Undoubtedly many people felt this way about the uttering of a curse which was not associated with an oath and would even tend to feel the same way in using curses as part of an oath. On the other hand, it seems apparent that the pragmatic wisdom of actually mentioning the type of punishment that is deserved, if one is perjuring, would enhance the credibility of the claim or promise and overcome any reluctance to mention the actual curse.

Actually the formula for many oaths explicitly specified the punishment in case of perjury. The classic example is the oath of God accompanying the promises of the covenant made with Abraham for Israel (Gen 15:7-21). In attestation of the truth and certainty of the covenant oath, animals were severed in two and the parties to the transaction passed between. Jeremiah’s words suggest clearly that the import of such a ceremony is that this is a specification of the kind of punishment that will be placed upon a violator of an oath, namely, he will be made “like the calf which they cut in two and passed between its parts” (Jer 34:18).

Some scholars like Oehler (Theology of the OT, p. 176) have insisted that the reference to punishment here is secondary and that the main stress is that the two halves of the sacrificed animals denote the two contracting parties in a covenant, while the flame (person) passing between denotes the union of the two by God, who alone is really constituting the oath of covenant. It is, of course, difficult to see how God could literally apply the curse of the oath upon Himself and even more difficult to conceive of the necessity of His having ever to apply the sanction to Himself. Evidently Moses is, at least, giving expression to his (and Abraham’s) persuasion of the absolute integrity of God. But the graphic enactment of the curse threat in connection with the ratification of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 15) is more than expressive of a human attitude and, as Kline puts it, is suggestive of Moses’ awareness of “a dispensation of grace and blessing guaranteed by a twofold immutability” (WTJ [Nov 1964], 4). According to Kline’s analysis, if Genesis 15 is taken with the institution of circumcision in an oathcovenant in Genesis 17, and the testing of Abraham as an oath-ordeal in Genesis 22, a more pervasive pattern of thought is indicated. Circumcision is looked upon as a sign of the curse to be applied if the oath of allegiance is broken, and therefore, in a positive sense, also as a pledge of the sincerity of the oath of allegiance. Such thoughts, so clearly symbolized, could not have taken root in the Heb. consciousness so readily without the background of a concept of oath which involved punishment as a part of its sanction.

In a mysterious fashion God was making use of the sign of circumcision accompanying the oath-covenant to disclose His intentions of redeeming the race by the sacrifice of His Son. In the NT Paul makes use of these OT principles to explain how union with Christ in His death is to taste of the wrath of God against sin and then also to be raised with Him in newness of life with God (Rom 6:3, 4; Col 2). Oehler’s interpretation seems to miss this pervasive Biblical pattern. Jeremiah’s words point correctly to an understood specification of the kind of punishment to be placed upon a violator of an oath, and upon Christ when He was made a curse on the cross for His people (Gal 3:13).

External gestures and actions accompanying an oath.


Judicial oaths.

Certain civil situations in Heb. life called for an oath. Where an innocent person might be charged with guilt on the basis of circumstantial evidence and any further investigation would be futile, an exculpatory judicial oath could be utilized to clear him. Moses’ law prescribed an oath in four such situations, as follows: (a) when goods deposited with someone were stolen or destroyed (Exod 22:10, 11), (b) when someone who has found lost property might be accused of having stolen the goods (Lev 6:3), (c) when a wife is suspected of adultery (Num 5:11-28), (d) when a community unwittingly is shielding a criminal, an oath taken by the members of the community frees them from complicity and places a share of the guilt of the offender upon whoever saves him from detection (Lev 5:1). Other kinds of civil relationships where an oath was used included promises in the performance of duty or business (1 Kings 2:43) and the highly specified pledge of allegiance by a vassal to a sovereign (Eccl. 8:2). Oaths such as this were common in non-Heb. cultures and furnished the pattern for the Heb. covenantal-oath of allegiance between God and His people. (See M. G. Kline, The Treaty of the Great King [1963].)

The oath and ordeals.

In many early cultures it was assumed that an exculpatory oath could be verified before a law court by submitting to an ordeal or test that often was severe enough to take one’s life. It was believed that God would protect the innocent from death and permit the guilty to succumb in the ordeal. Thus, it was really God who made the judicial decision of “guilty” or “innocent.” The ordeal is applied directly in the OT only in the case of a wife suspected of infidelity (Num 5:11-31). The woman is obliged to consume “the water of bitterness,” a concoction of holy water and dust from the floor of the Tabernacle into which has been washed the writings of the imprecations laid upon her. If she is not affected by this drink, it can be assumed that God has vindicated her oath of innocence. For the most part, the OT has utilized the concept of the ordeal in connection with God’s covenant-oath of redemption, in which circumcision was a symbol of the ordeal, and as a partial explanation of outstanding events in the life of Israel which are pictures of the salvation to come, such as the Noahic deluge, the passage of Moses through the Red Sea and Joshua through the Jordan. These incidents can be seen as representations of an ordeal by water through which Israel passed in safety by the hand of God and which are referred to as a “baptism” in the NT (cf. 1 Cor 10:2; 1 Pet 3:21; 2 Pet 3:5-7). Likewise, when Jesus speaks of His redemptive work as a “baptism to be baptized with” (Luke 12:50; cf. Mark 10:38) one can see how the same conceptualization is utilized in presenting His work on the cross as a validation by ordeal of an oath taken before God to redeem mankind. The Resurrection is God’s attestation to the validity of the oath taken by Christ.

Perjury.

The willful taking of an oath in order to tell or confirm anything known to be false was a serious act since it profaned God’s name by using it in vain, and irreverently defied and disregarded God’s omniscience (Lev 19:12). Perjury could not go unpunished (Exod 20:7; Jer 34:18; Ezek 17:16-19;), for both falsehood and profanity were involved in this act of deliberate deceit. In later times some men sought to condone lying on the grounds that if no oath had been taken, no violation of trust or of God’s law was involved. Jesus clearly saw this as an intrusion of pretense and casuistry into the language that God had given for the expression of truth and meaning; with His words, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matt 5:37), He preserved the basic thrust of integrity of language, before God and man, that the oath sought to enshrine.

Bibliography

J. E. Tyler, Oaths: Their Origin, Nature, and History (1835); G. F. Oehler, Theology of the OT (1883), 176, 230, 248-250; S. A. B. Mercer, The Oath in Babylonian and Assyrian Literature (1912); C. H. W. Johns, The Relation Between the Laws of Babylonia and the Laws of the Hebrew People (1914); A. E. Crawley, “Oath,” HERE, vol. 9 (1917), 430-438; D. Daube, Studies in Biblical Law (1947); S. Blank, “The Curse, Blasphemy, The Spell and the Oath,” HUCA, vol. 23 (1950, 1951), 73-95; A. Lelievre, A Companion to the Bible (1958), 312-314; W. Eichrodt, Theology of the OT, I (1961), 206, 219; M. H. Pope, “Oaths,” IDB, vol. 3 (1962), 575-577; M. G. Kline, “Law Covenant,” WTJ, vol. 27 (1964), 1-20; M. G. Kline, “Oath and Ordeal Signs,” WTJ, vol. 27 (1965), 115-139, WTJ, vol. 28 (1965), 1-37; M. G. Kline, Structure of Biblical Authority (1972).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(shebhu`ah, probably from shebha`, "seven," the sacred number, which occurs frequently in the ritual of an oath; horkos; and the stronger word ’alah, by which a curse is actually invoked upon the oath-breaker Septuagint ara)): In Mt 26:70-74 Peter first denies his Lord simply, then with an oath (shebhu`ah), then invokes a curse (’alah), thus passing through every stage of asseveration.

1. Law Regarding Oaths:


2. Forms of Swearing:


3. The Formula:


Philo expresses the desire (ii.194) that the practice of swearing should be discontinued, and the Essenes used no oaths (BJ, II, viii, 6; Ant., XV, x, 4).

4. Oaths Permissible:

That oaths are permissible to Christians is shown by the example of our Lord (Mt 26:63 f), and of Paul (2Co 1:23; Ga 1:20) and even of God Himself (Heb 6:13-18). Consequently when Christ said, "Swear not at all" (Mt 5:34), He was laying down the principle that the Christian must not have two standards of truth, but that his ordinary speech must be as sacredly true as his oath. In the kingdom of God, where that principle holds sway, oaths become unnecessary.