What the Bible says about
(From Forerunner Commentary)
In America and other places in the Western world, oath-takers raise their right hands and pledge to perform certain actions, sometimes placing their left hands on a Bible. On other occasions, people promise to do something—pay back a loan, perform a service, hold wealth in trust, etc.—by signing their names to a legal document before witnesses. Some promises are made with a Boy Scout oath. Young girlfriends make pinky promises.
These were not the norm four thousand years ago in the land of Canaan. As the Old Testament attests, oaths and vows were taken far more seriously than they are today in our winner-take-all, I'll-do-what's-best-for-me world. One's word was truly his bond, and oaths were not to be taken lightly or frivolously. In some modern Bibles, "oath" or "vow" is often accompanied by a modifier like "solemn," especially since they usually invoke God to bind them on the oath-taker.
The next two verses confirm Abraham's reason for requiring his servant's oath: "I will make you swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and the God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell; but you shall go to my country and to my family, and take a wife for my son Isaac” (Genesis 24:3-4). The patriarch desired to bind his servant to his wish to have his son marry a daughter of his own people, a woman from among those who had migrated with Terah and Abram to the area of Haran in Mesopotamia. There was no stronger way to bind him than to have him make an oath with his hand under the patriarch's thigh.
We see the same kind of oath in Genesis 47:29, when aged Jacob requires Joseph to promise to bury him in Canaan. In both situations, the instigators of these oaths are patriarchs of a clan, and it is this fact that provides understanding about the symbolism of placing a hand "under the thigh." The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament fills us in on what this placement represented: "by placing his hand inside Abraham's thigh (in the vicinity of or on the genitals), the servant ties his oath of obedience to the acquisition of a wife for Isaac and thus the perpetuation of Abraham's line."
Evidently, this kind of oath—called by some a "bodily oath"—was made for matters pertaining to the most important family and clan matters. Abraham's oath is easily seen in this light, as he desired his only son by Sarah, his heir, Isaac, to marry and have children from among his own people, those from the line of Shem and Eber (the progenitor of the Hebrews). He binds his servants actions on his behalf to considering young women only from that narrow ethnic group.
Jacob's demand for a similar oath is more difficult to explain, but he, too, requests it for the good of his clan. The patriarch knew the prophecy God gave to Abram in Genesis 15:13-21, that his descendants would "be strangers in a land that is not theirs. . . . But in the fourth generation they shall return here." Jacob's desire that his bones be buried in Canaan makes a statement that the land of Goshen, where the children of Israel were then living, was not the tribal inheritance of Abraham's people, but they must return to the land of Canaan, where the bones of Israel were interred. Later, Joseph also told the Israelites to "carry up my bones from here" (Genesis 50:25), passing to the next generations the expectation of returning to Israel's promised land.
Faced with fulfilling such a solemn oath, Abraham's servant, likely Eliezer of Damascus (Genesis 15:2), takes great care to choose a suitable mate for Isaac, placing his trust in God to lead him to the right woman. In fulfilling his oath, Eliezer is blessed by God and led directly to the family of Nahor, Abraham's brother. And so, in the course of events, Rebekah travels to Canaan with Eliezer, marrying Isaac, and perpetuating the line that ultimately leads to Jesus Christ.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
The mention of God colors and lifts the matter of deference far above mere social rectitude, making it part of our preparation for His Kingdom. This charge addresses our overall responsibility to God and thus to human governing officials because Paul shows them to be God's agents (Romans 13). In this context, it is the king.
Our responsibility is stated as obeying the king because of our oath to God. An oath is a formal declaration to do or not do something. Synonyms include “vow,” “pledge,” “swear,” or “promise.” Oaths are serious business. In Matthew 5:33-37, Jesus counsels us not to swear at all because of our weakness in keeping them. In this particular case, one may even bear greater responsibility than normal because the oath is made to God.
This oath could be one of three possibilities. Exodus 24:7-8 shows Israel's pledge to obey God by keeping the Old Covenant:
Then [Moses] took the Book of the Covenant and read in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that the LORD has said we will do, and be obedient.” And Moses took the blood, sprinkled it on the people, and said, “Behold, the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you according to all these words.”
The second oath is the covenant we have made with God to be obedient to Him. Jesus Himself says in Luke 14:26-27:
If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sister, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.
Whether or not we fully grasped it, at the time of our baptism and laying on of hands, we were pledging our lives and activities to faithfulness to Jesus Christ.
The third possibility is the least likely to apply. It is swearing before a judge during a courtroom trial to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth “so help me God.” This used to be done with a raised right hand or with a hand on a Bible.
The sense of responsibility to obey God must be cultivated, despite the sometimes foolish, self-centered humans in between Him and us. Those people may have done something very damaging that directly affects us or someone we love. They may have spoken forcefully against God and His way. It is easy to feel oppressed by them because, in their unconversion, they have become enemies of God. Being self-controlled in such situations may even prove to be life-saving.
Giving deference is not a mere civil duty. Making the covenant with God and deferring to those in authority can become a difficult, sacred obligation. It becomes more difficult when we perceive their self-centeredness and feel oppressed by them but fail to see God and the working out of His purposes in the picture at the same time. It presents a situation where disciplined self-control may be absolutely necessary. We must firmly grasp that human nature is just below the surface in us; it always wants to regain its former enslavement of us.
So, being before the civil authority is not merely a civil matter. It presents a situation that is a personal matter between us and the unseen God.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Ecclesiastes and Christian Living (Part Fifteen): Deference
Jesus advises us not to swear at all, but to say simply, "Yes" or "No" (verse 37). If we are honest, we have no need to take an oath. He goes so far as to say that anything more than "Yes" or "No" has its source in the father of lies (John 8:44)!
There are several aspects to these verses. The overall statement Jesus makes is that we do not need to swear by anything to confirm that our statements are true. A Christian's word should be his bond, as the old saying goes. We should be so bound by the ninth commandment that nothing else is necessary.
The not-so-obvious meaning of these verses is that we should not lightly give an oath or make a vow to God to acquire something. We have many desires, and some might take it upon themselves to ask God for them, promising to perform a certain deed if He gives it to them. Jesus warns that once we get what we want, we may forget what we promised to perform. Numbers 30 shows that God does not take reneging on our promises lightly.
Should Christians make vows today? God tells us the best course to take in Matthew 5:34, "But I say to you, do not swear at all." James writes that it is best not to make them so we do not "fall into judgment" (James 5:12).
Though God advises us not to vow, we can still make vows if we so choose. In making one, however, we should consider the examples of Hanna and Jephthah. We should seriously contemplate what we are requesting and what we are promising, always asking ourselves, "Can I make good on what I've promised?"
We are a special people to God. He has called us, and has great love for us. He hears our prayers as we obey and love Him. We should give a great deal of thought to whether we need to make a vow when we have such instant and open access to the very throne of God. He does indeed hear our prayers, and He answers them according to what He sees is good for us. Why should we make vows when we know that He will give us or deny us what is best for us?
John O. Reid (1930-2016)
Should We Make Vows Today?
How James addresses this to his audience tells us he considers it an extremely serious matter. His use of "above all" suggests that we should be especially careful on this point. It is as if he is saying, "Make sure you catch this point because it may be the most important one." Swearing oaths is not a trivial matter!
In the Old Testament, taking oaths by God's name was more prevalent—even commanded (see Deuteronomy 6:13)—but God holds those He has called out of this present, evil world to a higher standard. The ancient Israelites were carnal human beings whose behaviors had to be constrained by statute. Knowing they would swear oaths, God directed them to take them honestly and only in His name, thus regulating and elevating the practice.
Christians, though, are to follow God's law, not just in the letter, but also in the spirit, a more in-depth and encompassing charge. The standard that has been set for us is that our word should always be true. Paul writes, "Therefore, putting away lying, 'Let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor,' for we are members of one another" (Ephesians 4:25; see Zechariah 8:16).
Our Savior puts it even more strongly in the form of an admonition: "But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned" (Matthew 12:36). Because God is with us, every word that we speak is spoken in God's presence and thus should be true, making oaths unnecessary.
As God's people, we are to represent Him in honesty and obedience and reflect Him in our conduct in every way. Because of this, we do not need God's name in an oath to back up our word. Therefore, a Christian should simply say "yes" or "no" according to what he honestly believes to be true, even in legal matters. As Jesus says, anything we try to add to the unvarnished truth is Satan's handiwork (see John 8:44). In short, a Christian's word should be his bond.
John O. Reid (1930-2016)
Find more Bible verses about Oaths:
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