Oaths (in the Bible)

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The custom of swearing, or taking oaths, that is, of putting a curse on oneself if what is asserted is not true or if a promise is not kept, has always been widespread among all people who believe either in the magical power of such self-maledictions or in the avenging justice of a deity who punishes those who swear falsely. This article is concerned with the taking of oaths as mentioned in the Bible.

In the Old Testament. Anthropomorphically, God Himself is often presented in the Old Testament as taking oaths, especially in regard to His covenant [see covenant (in the bible)]. Thus, "he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" (Gn 50.24) to make their descendants a great nation and to give them a special land (Gn 22.1618; 26.34; 35.12). He renewed this sworn promise to Moses (Dt 1.8). Later, "the Lord swore to David a firm promise" [Ps 131 (132).11] of an everlasting posterity and rule [Ps 88 (89).45, 3637] and an eternal priesthood [Ps 109(110).4]. It is these promises that are reaffirmed by the prophets (Jer 33.2122; Mi 7.20). Besides these oaths that promise great blessings, there are the oaths that threaten with punishment the Israelites who revolted in the desert (Nm 14.2835).

Whether men swore by God explicitly (Gn 21.23; Jos 2.12) or implicitly (Gn 42.15; 1 Sm 1.26), an oath was a serious matter (Ex 20.7), for the oath always involved a conditional or contingent curse. Moreover, the oath was ever regarded as a sign of loyalty to God (Dt 6.13; Is 48.1), and therefore a false oath was basically a profanation of God's name (Lv 19.12; Ex 20.7). Oaths were employed both in judicial matters and in a variety of everyday affairs. Thus oaths were taken to certify the truth of an utterance and to pledge fidelity to one's word (1 Sm 14.44; 20.13; 25.22; 2 Sm 3.9; Gn 25.33; 47.31); to ascertain the guilt of a person suspected of a crime, e.g., in the trial by ordeal (Nm 5.1628); and to ratify an alliance (Gn 21.24, 26, 31) or a friendship (1 Sm 20.1617).

In the New Testament. It is only in the New Testament that the oaths made by God in the Old Testament attain their perfect fulfillment: by sending the Messiah God has been faithful to "the oath that he swore to Abraham our father" (Lk 1.73), His promise to David has been fulfilled by Christ's Resurrection (Acts 2.2935), and it is God's solemn oath that ratifies Christ's eternal priesthood and guarantees the reality and efficacy of the New Covenant (Heb 7.21, 25).

Respect for oaths seems to have been carefully preserved by the ancient Israelites, but by the time of Christ's coming the Pharisees had distorted this traditional respect through their casuistry. Christ energetically attacked these legalistic abuses, demanding absolute sincerity of his disciples (Mk 23.1622). He proclaimed a new ideal: "But I say to you not to swear at all" (Mt5.34). St. James restates this teaching: "Let your yes be yes, your no, no" (Jas 5.12). Yet Christ did not absolutely abolish or condemn the use of the oath; His demand set the Christian ideal, but did not rule out the possibility of an oath on certain occasions. Thus, e.g., St. Paul often employed oath formulas in order to testify to the truth of his assertions (Rom 1.9; 9.1; 2 Cor 1.23; 11.31; Gal 1.20).

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) 165658. j. pedersen, Der Eid bei den Semiten (Leipzig 1914). s. h. blank, "The Curse, Blasphemy, the Spell, and the Oath," Hebrew Union College Annual 23.1 (Cincinnati 195051) 7395. f. horst, "Der Eid im AT," Evangelische Theologie 17 (1957) 366384.

[j. v. morris]