The purpose of an oath in the biblical world was to assure the truth of a statement or the reliability of a promise. Persons who made an oath invited divine judgment on themselves if the statement proved false or the pledge unreliable (Thiselton, 2006, p. 309). Truthfulness was crucial to the stability of society, and those who would “swear deceitfully” represented a major moral problem (Ps 24:4). Thus, Hosea listed the misuse of oaths along with lying, murder, and adultery as examples of Israel’s sins (Hos 10:4). Oaths also play an important role in the modern Western world, especially in court testimony. A false oath brings a charge of perjury and legal punishment. In the world that produced the Bible, however, people thought God enforced oaths, thus bringing the force of the curse inherent in the oath that was sworn.

Vows were also pledges of faithfulness that used the well-being of the vow maker as collateral. Vows may be distinguished from oaths, however, in that they were made exclusively by humans to God. Whereas oaths entailed swearing loyalty or faithfulness and thus could be made by God (Gen 22:16–18; Jer 22:5; Exod 32:13; Ps 132:11–12), vows were pledges of specific actions by humans to God, often made in return for God’s help. Despite this distinction between oaths and vows, both terms could be used to describe a human pledge of faithful action. Thus, Psalm 132:2 includes both expressions in parallel to describe David’s intention to make a home for the ark in Jerusalem: “he swore [nišbaʿ] to the LORD and vowed [nādar] to the Mighty One of Jacob.”

Language and Logic of Oaths and Vows.

The Old Testament most frequently connotes oaths and oath-making with the Hebrew root šābaʿ, meaning “to swear.” Verbal forms of the root communicate the act of swearing (Gen 21:23–24), and noun forms connote what is sworn or pledged (šěbûʿâ; 2 Sam 21:7). Another term used to connote oath-making, albeit less frequently, is ʾālâ, “to swear” (1 Kgs 8:1), and its nominal derivative that means “oath” (Lev 5:1; Neh 10:30). This term is significant in that it can also mean “to curse” (Judg 17:2). Noun forms likewise often refer to curses, either divine (Num 5:23; Deut 30:7; Isa 24:6) or human (Job 31:30; Ps 10:7). This negative meaning illustrates the close relationship between swearing an oath and uttering a curse. Those who swore truthfulness invited evil upon themselves if the oath was not honored.

It was common to enhance the statement of obligation by making reference to God as the guarantor of the oath (Keller, 1997, p. 1294). Hence, full expression of an oath in the so-called oath formula takes several distinctive forms through which ancient Israelites placed themselves under the LORD’s potential punishment (“May the LORD do thus and so to me, and more as well if … ”; Ruth 1:17; 2 Sam 3:35) or enhanced the force of the statement (“As the LORD lives … ”; Judg 8:19; 1 Sam 14:39; 26:10, 16). When God pledged faithfulness God could only appeal to God’s own authority to back the promise. Isaiah 45:23 is typical: “By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.’ ” The writer of Hebrews makes this a major point in explaining divine faithfulness: “because he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself” (Heb 6:13).

Since swearing an oath meant binding oneself to an irrevocable pledge, it is not surprising that oaths were sworn sometimes at sanctuaries or sacred places (Gen 26:28–31; Hos 4:15). The level of commitment in oaths is indicated by the accompaniment of symbolic acts such as raising the hands (Gen 14:22 [Heb.]; Rev 10:5–6). Hence, when Psalm 144:8 speaks of right hands that are false, it refers to those who swear oaths with no intention to abide by them. Abraham requires his servant to place his hand under his thigh when swearing an oath, thus linking it with procreation (Gen 24:2–9).

Some scholars speculate that swearing an oath is related in meaning to the number seven since the number appears to derive from the same Hebrew root (šbʿ). The implication is that one who swears an oath “sevens” herself or himself, that is, binds the self by means of a complete self-imprecation (Lehmann, 1969). The association of the number seven with oaths, however, is not clearly supported by any biblical text. Genesis 21:23–31 and 26:21–23 do explain the place-name Beersheba (lit. “place of seven” or possibly “place of the oath”) with reference to the number seven and the making of an oath, but the connection is not explicitly stated and thus remains speculative (Keller, 1997, p. 1292).

The primary language of vow-making involves the Hebrew root nādar, “to vow.” The verb means “to make a vow,” and the noun refers to the “vow” itself (neder). The verb and noun appear frequently together in the expression “make a vow” (lit. “vow a vow;” Gen 28:20; Num 21:2; Deut 12:11, 17). This expression is used to pledge a gift or offering in the sanctuary (Deut 12:11, 17, 26) or, more generally, to devote oneself to service, as expressed in the Nazirite vow (Num 6:2, 5, 21).

Vows were sometimes part of an interaction with God in which the one making the vow did so in order to receive a favor from God. Two primary examples illustrate this use of the vow. In Numbers 21:1–3 the Israelites “made a vow” to the Lord as they prepared for war with the Canaanites: “If you will indeed give this people into our hands, then we will utterly destroy their towns” (v. 2). Israel vowed to put the Canaanites under the ban (thus, giving them as an offering to God instead of keeping them and their possessions as spoils) if God gave them victory. In a similar way and with the same pattern of speech, Hannah prayed for God to give her a son and vowed, in return, to give the child back to God for service at the sanctuary (1 Sam 1:11): “She made this vow [wattiddōr neder]: ‘O LORD of hosts, if [ʾim] only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then [] I will set him before you.” Judges 11:29–40 uses the same terminology and the same sentence structure when it reports Jephthah’s vow. He “made a vow” to the Lord saying, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand then whoever [or whatever] comes out of the doors of my house” (vv. 30–31) will be the Lord’s as a sacrifice. In each case the vow was for a specific situation in which the one(s) making the vow pledged to pay homage to God with sacrifice if God granted him or her success.

Inappropriate Oaths and Rash Vows.

In the biblical world oaths and vows were like blessings and curses in that they were powerful speech that had almost magical power. Once spoken, they went out like an arrow toward its target that could not be taken back (e.g., the blessing of the firstborn in Gen 27:27–35 that could not be retracted). Hence, the Bible warns against inappropriate use of such speech. The irrevocable nature of vows is apparent in the story of Jephthah. When he realized his vow bound him to sacrifice his daughter, he “tore his clothes” and said, “I have opened my mouth to the LORD and I cannot take back my vow” (Judg 11:35). Numbers 30 nuances this understanding of the power of vows in the case of vows made by women who are married or who live in the house of their father. Since the patriarch was ultimately responsible for any pledge made by a member of his household, he could nullify a vow made thoughtlessly or irresponsibly.

The primary regulations on oaths relate to the connection between oaths and truthfulness. It was reprehensible to utter an oath with no commitment behind it (Jer 5:2; 7:9). Deuteronomy 5:13 reveals the essence of the problem by placing as parallels swearing in the name of the Lord and fearing and serving him (Keller, 1997, p. 1296). To swear by a deity was to declare allegiance. Hence, to swear falsely was to make a disingenuous declaration of piety. The Third Commandment may be understood in this context (“You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God”; Exod 20:7; Deut 5:11). The second type of false oath is one that invokes the name of a foreign deity (Jer 5:7). Such an oath was problematic for reasons already stated, namely, that such an oath was an inherent declaration of faithfulness to the deity named in the utterance.

The Nazirite Vow.

The Nazirite vow was a distinctive pledge of a person who dedicated himself or herself to holiness before God. Numbers 6:2 characterizes this as “a special vow” or perhaps better “an extraordinary vow” (pālāʾ; my translation; see Noth, 1968, p. 55). The term nāzîr means “one set apart.” During the time of the vow the Nazirite was essentially divine property (Dozeman, 1994, p. 64). Thus, one who took the Nazirite vow pledged to separate himself or herself for a period of time by not drinking wine or strong drink or tasting anything made from grapes, by not cutting the hair, and by not touching a dead body (Num 6:3–8). The separation from all products of the vine may reflect a concern for the Israelites to separate from Canaanite culture, which was associated with wine and drunkenness (see Gray, 1903, pp. 61–63; Gen 9:18–29). Whether this association is correct or not, the Nazirite vowed to maintain holiness much like a priest (see Lev 21:10–15), but ordinary Israelites took the Nazirite vow and maintained priest-like holiness for a specific period of time. Samson and Samuel are unique in that their mothers gave them as Nazirites for life (Judg 13:7; 1 Sam 1:11).

Oaths in Wisdom Literature and the New Testament.

The virtual absence of references to swearing oaths in the Wisdom material is striking. This is due most likely to wisdom’s cautious view of the matter. Sirach 23:9 counsels, “Do not accustom your mouth to oaths, nor habitually utter the name of the Holy One” (cf. Eccl 9:2). James 5:12 is similar: “do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath.” It has a close parallel in Matthew 5:33–37, in which Jesus refutes the conventional idea of not swearing falsely by stating that one should not swear at all, either by heaven or by the earth or by Jerusalem. Matthew 23:26–23 does not so much renounce the practice of swearing oaths as it refutes the pharisaical ranking of oaths and making some lesser oaths more binding. This teaching highlights again the seriousness of the oath and the caution with which it should be used.

Despite the New Testament emphasis on not swearing, it remained an important part of the New Testament world, as it continues to be used in contemporary society. The story of Peter’s denial of Jesus gives evidence of the ongoing role of oaths and the curses that accompany them. When Peter was identified as one of Jesus’s followers, Peter first offered a simple negation (Matt 26:70). On the second such identification he made a more emphatic statement by swearing an oath (Matt 26:72). Finally, he swore an oath and uttered a curse (Matt 26:74). The oath and curse gave greater weight to Peter’s denial and invited harm upon him if he was untruthful. Thus, the story of Peter illustrates the continuing role of swearing truthfulness or imposing a curse, but it also provides direct support for the sages’ warning against swearing falsely.

[See also AUTHORITY AND ORDER; BLESSINGS AND CURSES; COVENANT; CULT AND WORSHIP; DECALOGUE; DEUTERONOMY; ELECTION; ETHICS, BIBLICAL; FESTIVALS AND HOLY DAYS; LEVITICUS AND NUMBERS; PRIESTS AND PRIESTHOOD; and SACRIFICE AND OFFERINGS.]

Bibliography

Bibliography

  • Davies, G. Henton. “Vows.” In The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, edited by George Arthur Buttrick, Vol. 4, pp. 792–793. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1962.
  • Dozeman, Thomas. “The Book of Numbers.” In The New Interpreter’s Bible, edited by Leander Keck, Vol. 2, pp. 1–268. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1994.
  • Floyd, Michael H. “Vow.” In The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, edited by Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, Vol. 5, pp. 793–794. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 2006.
  • Gray, George Buchanan. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Numbers. International Critical Commentary 4. New York: Scribner, 1903.
  • Keller, C. A. “שבע šbʿ ni. to Swear.” In Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament, edited by Ernst Jenni and Claus Westermann, Vol. 3, pp. 1292–1297. Translated by Mark E. Biddle. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1997.
  • Lehmann, M. R. “Biblical Oaths.” Zeitschrift für Alttestamentlich Wissenschaft 81 (1969): 74–92.
  • Noth, Martin. Numbers: A Commentary. Translated by James D. Martin. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1968.
  • Pope, M. H. “Oaths.” In The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, edited by George Arthur Buttrick, Vol. 3, pp. 575–577. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1962.
  • Thiselton, Anthony C. “Oath.” In The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, edited by Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, Vol. 4, pp. 309–312. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 2006.

Jerome F. D. Creach