In the Hebrew Scriptures two words are used to denote what we understand as an oath. Shevu·ʽahʹ, “an oath or a swearing,” is thought to be drawn from the word sheʹvaʽ, “seven” (from a root meaning “to swear”), which number is used in the Bible to indicate completeness, and would point to the sureness and sacredness of that which was sworn. Abraham and Abimelech swore over seven female lambs in making the covenant at the well of Beer-sheba, meaning “well of the oath.” (Gen. 21:27-32; see also Genesis 26:28-33.) Shevu·ʽahʹ has reference to a sworn statement on the part of a person that he will do or will not do a certain thing. The word itself carries no connotation of a curse upon the one swearing if he fails to fulfill the oath. Therefore this is the word used for the oath or sworn statement to Abraham by Jehovah, who never fails to fulfill his word and upon whom no curse can come.—Gen. 26:3.
The other Hebrew word used is ʼa·lahʹ, “a swearing, oath, execration, imprecation, curse.” It may also be translated “oath of obligation.” (Gen. 26:28) A Hebrew and Aramaic lexicon by Koehler and Baumgartner (p. 49) defines the term as a “curse (threat of calamity in case of misdeed), laid on a person by himself or by others.” In ancient Hebrew times it was considered the gravest matter to make an oath. An oath was to be kept, even to the oath taker’s hurt. (Ps. 15:4; Matt. 5:33) One was held guilty before Jehovah if he spoke thoughtlessly in a sworn statement. (Lev. 5:4) Violation of an oath would bring the most severe consequences of punishment from God. Among the earliest nations and particularly among the Hebrews an oath was in a sense a religious act, involving God. The use of the term ʼa·lahʹ by the Hebrews by implication made God a party to the oath and professed a readiness to incur any judgment he might be pleased to inflict in event of the oath maker’s infidelity. As stated, this term is never used by God with reference to his own oaths.
EXPRESSIONS USED IN MAKING OATHS
Often an oath was made by swearing by God or in the name of God. (Gen. 14:22; 31:53; Deut. 6:13; Judg. 21:7; Jer. 12:16) Jehovah swore by himself, or by his own life. (Gen. 22:16; Ezek. 17:16; Zeph. 2:9) Expressions of a formal nature were sometimes employed by men, such as, “May Jehovah do so to me [or, to you] and add to it if . . . ” I [or you] fail to do as sworn. (Ruth 1:17; 1 Sam. 3:17; 2 Sam. 19:13) The assertion might be made more emphatic by the individual’s pronouncing his own name.—1 Sam. 20:13; 25:22; 2 Sam. 3:9.
Pagans made similar appeals to their false gods. Jezebel the Baal worshiper appealed, not to Jehovah, but to “gods” (ʼelo·himʹ, with a plural verb), as did Ben-hadad, king of Syria. (1 Ki. 19:2; 20:10) In fact, because such expressions were universally prevalent, idolatry came to be represented in the Bible as a ‘swearing by some false god,’ or by what was “no God.”—Josh. 23:7; Jer. 5:7; 12:16; Amos 8:14.
In a few very serious cases or when strong emotional feeling attended the solemn declaration, the curses or punishments that would attend failure to fulfill the oath were specifically named. (Num. 5:19-23; Ps. 7:4, 5; 137:5, 6) Job, in contending for his uprightness, reviews his life and declares himself willing to undergo the direst punishments if he is found to have violated Jehovah’s laws of loyalty, righteousness, justice and morality.—Job chap. 31.
In the trial resulting from a husband’s jealousy, the wife, by answering “Amen! Amen!” to the priest’s reading of the oath and the curse, thereby swore an oath as to her innocence.—Num. 5:21, 22.
What amounted practically to an oath was often voiced by affirming, not only by Jehovah’s name, but, additionally, by the life of the king or of a superior. (1 Sam. 25:26; 2 Sam. 15:21; 2 Ki. 2:2) “As Jehovah lives” was a common assertion adding gravity to one’s attestation of determination or of truthfulness of a statement. (Judg. 8:19; 1 Sam. 14:39, 45; 19:6; 20:3, 21; 25:26, 34) A less forceful expression that may not have been intended to be considered an oath but that conveyed a very serious intent and that was given for the assurance of the hearer was a swearing by the life of the person addressed, as in Hannah’s words to Eli (1 Sam. 1:26) and in Uriah’s statement to King David.—2 Sam. 11:11; also 1 Samuel 17:55.
FORMS OR ACTIONS EMPLOYED
The most frequent gesture used in taking an oath seems to have been the raising of the right hand toward heaven. Jehovah himself is mentioned as uttering an oath in this manner, symbolically. (Gen. 14:22; Ex. 6:8; Deut. 32:40; Isa. 62:8; Ezek. 20:5) The angel in Daniel’s vision raised both hands to the heavens in voicing an oath. (Dan. 12:7) Of false swearers, it is said that their “right hand is a right hand of falsehood.”—Ps. 144:8.
One requesting an oath from another might ask him to place his hand under his thigh or hip. When Abraham sent his steward to get a wife for Isaac he said to the steward: “Put your hand, please, under my thigh,” after doing which the steward swore that he would get the girl from among Abraham’s relatives. (Gen. 24:2-4, 9) In the same way Jacob exacted an oath from Joseph not to bury him in Egypt. (Gen. 47:29-31) Regarding the significance of this practice, see ATTITUDES AND GESTURES, page 164.
Frequently an oath was connected with the making of a covenant. A common expression in such cases was: “God is a witness between me and you.” (Gen. 31:44, 50, 53) Such an expression was also made to strengthen a statement of fact or truth. Moses calls on the heavens and the earth as witnesses when discussing Israel’s relationship in their oath-bound covenant with Jehovah. (Deut. 4:26) Often a person or persons, a written document, a pillar or an altar stood as a witness and reminder of an oath or a covenant.—Gen. 31:45-52; Deut. 31:26; Josh. 22:26-28; 24:22, 24-27; see COVENANT.
UNDER THE LAW
Instances in which oaths were required of certain persons under the Mosaic law were: of a wife in the trial of jealousy (Num. 5:21, 22); of a bailee when property left in his care was missing (Ex. 22:10, 11); of the older men of a city in the case of an unsolved murder. (Deut. 21:1-9) Voluntary oaths of abstinence were allowed. (Num. 30:3, 4, 10, 11) Servants of God were sometimes adjured by one in authority, and they told the truth. Likewise a Christian under oath would not lie but would tell the whole truth called for, or he may refuse to answer if it jeopardizes the righteous interests of God or of fellow Christians, in which case he must be ready to suffer any consequences that might result from his refusal to testify.—1 Ki. 22:15-18; Matt. 26:63, 64; 27:11-14.
Vows were regarded in Israel as having the strength of an oath, as sacred and to be fulfilled even though they resulted in loss to the vower. God was viewed as watching to see that vows were carried out, and as bringing punishment for failure. (Num. 30:2; Deut. 23:21-23; Judg. 11:30, 31, 35, 36, 39; Eccl. 5:4-6) The vows of wives and unmarried daughters were subject to affirmation or cancellation by the husband or father, but widows and divorced women were bound by their vows.—Num. 30:3-15.
Jesus Christ, in his Sermon on the Mount, corrected the Jews in their practice of light, loose and indiscriminate making of oaths. It had become common among them to swear by heaven, by the earth, by Jerusalem and even by their own heads. But Jesus said: “Just let your word Yes mean Yes, your No, No; for what is in excess of these is from the wicked one.”—Matt. 5:33-37.
Jesus Christ did not hereby prohibit the making of all oaths, for he himself was under the Law of Moses, which required oaths under certain circumstances. In fact, when Jesus himself was on trial he was put under oath by the high priest, yet he did not object to this, but gave an answer. (Matt. 26:63, 64) Rather, Jesus was showing that a person should not have two standards. The keeping of one’s word, once given, should be viewed as a sacred duty and should be fulfilled just as an oath would be; the person should sincerely mean what he says. He shed further light on the meaning of his words when he exposed the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees by saying to them: “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is under obligation.’ Fools and blind ones! Which, in fact, is greater, the gold or the temple that has sanctified the gold?” He went on to say: “He that swears by heaven is swearing by the throne of God and by him that is sitting on it.”—Matt. 23:16-22.
By the false reasoning and hairsplitting casuistry of these scribes and Pharisees, as here pointed out by Jesus, they justified themselves in failing to carry out certain oaths, but Jesus showed that such swearing on their part was falsity toward God and was actually reproaching his name (for the Jews were a people dedicated to Jehovah). Jehovah plainly states that he hates a false oath.—Zech. 8:17.
James corroborates Jesus’ words. (Jas. 5:12) But these statements of Jesus and James against such indiscriminate practices do not apply as preventing the Christian from taking an oath when necessary to assure others of the seriousness of his intentions or of the truthfulness of what he says. For instance, as Jesus illustrated by example before the Jewish high priest, a Christian would not object to taking an oath in court, for he is going to speak the truth whether under oath or not. (Matt. 26:63, 64) Even the Christian vow to serve God is an oath or a swearing to Jehovah, putting the Christian into a sacred relationship. Jesus put swearing and vows in the same category.—Matt. 5:33.
Also, the apostle Paul, in order to strengthen his testimony before his readers, makes what is tantamount to an oath at 2 Corinthians 1:23 and Galatians 1:20. He further refers to an oath as a customary and proper way of putting an end to a dispute and calls attention to the fact that God, “when he purposed to demonstrate more abundantly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of his counsel, stepped in with an oath,” swearing by himself, since he could not swear by anyone greater. This added to his promise a legal guarantee and gave double assurance by means of “two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie,” namely, God’s word of promise and his oath. (Heb. 6:13-18) Furthermore, Paul points out that Christ was made High Priest by oath of Jehovah and has been given in pledge of a better covenant. (Heb. 7:21, 22) The Scriptures make upward of fifty references to Jehovah himself as making oaths.