"The law of YAHWEH is perfect, reviving the soul." Psalm 19:7

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Bible Lesson on Taking Oaths

 

Jewish doctrine on oaths teaches:

Eschatological acceptance of God by non-Israelites is also expressed through an oath of allegiance to Him (Isa. 19:18; 45:23) (Jewish Virtual Library.)

Turning to Isaiah 19:18 and 45:23, they say:

18 In that day shall five cities in the land of Egypt speak the language of Canaan, and swear to the Lord of hosts; one shall be called, The city of destruction. (Ch. 19)

23 I have sworn by myself, the word is gone out of my mouth in righteousness, and shall not return, That unto me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear. (Ch. 45)

To this I would add Jeremiah 12:16-17, which reads:

16 And if they learn well the ways of my people and swear by my name, saying, ‘As surely as the Lord lives’—even as they once taught my people to swear by Baal—then they will be established among my people.17 But if any nation does not listen, I will completely uproot and destroy it,” declares theLord. (NIV)

Thus, what if someone tells you never to take an oath? Under these verses as apparently correctly interpreted at Jewish Virtual Library, you could never become accepted by God if you are a non-Israelite if you did not take an oath of allegiance to God.

(If applicable, which we are examining, then it suggests we should be taking an oath of allegiance to God-Yahweh. Probably at Baptism. And possibly regularly in prayer time, e.g., "As surely as Yahweh lives, I will do it." or "I swear my allegiance and fidelity to you, Yahweh.")

So be very careful in determining whether the Bible teaches you never to make an oath. As we shall explore here, it clearly does. There were two mistranslations in the NT that made it appear we should do otherwise -- one at Matthew 5:33 and the other at James 5:12, as we shall see.


 

The Original Testament from God to Moses

 

The Jewish Virtual Library lists many mandatory oaths in the Original Testament (OT):

The exculpatory oath, exacted by the plaintiff from the defendant to back the latter's plea of innocence when no witness to the facts was available; the oath was taken at the Sanctuary (Ex. 22:7, 10; the procedure is described in I Kings 8:31). If the defendant took the oath, the suit was decided in his favor (Ex. 22:10; cf. the effect of the exculpatory oath in the Old Babylonian lawsuits in Pritchard, Texts3, 218 [E, 1], 545 [no. 10]). On the other hand, if he refused to swear, his plea was automatically rebutted and he lost the suit (cf. Pritchard, Texts3, 545 [no. 11]). Such a self-convicted liar is referred to in Ecclesiastes 9:2 as "he who is afraid of the oath" (note esp. his position as the second, pejorative member of his pair, paralleling "the wicked," "the impure," etc. of the preceding pairs). A perjurer who repents and wishes to clear himself before God and man must follow the prescription of Leviticus 5:20–26. A special case of exculpatory oath is that of the suspected adulteress; its curse is effected through the ordeal of the "bitter waters that induce the spell" (Num. 5).

Thus, clearly the Bible required taking oaths at various times.


 

New Testament Passages On Oath-Taking

 

But some claim Jesus did away with this. And if so, does this mean every witness in our society who takes an oath is thereby violating God's Law?

Some claim yes, based upon Matthew 5:33 and James 5:12.

However, Matthew 5:33 dropped off the word "falsely" which the Hebrew-more-original version contained. So Jesus condemned "taking an oath falsely," not taking any oath. See The Original Gospel of Matthew by S. Rives -- source: Howard, The Hebrew Gospel of Matthew at Matt 5:33.

Nehemiah Gordon makes the same point. If Jesus taught taking an oath were wrong, then Jesus would contradict the Original Testament, and be a false prophet. Deut. 13:1-5. Hence, the variant that spares Jesus is valid; it derives from a Hebrew text that appears to have elements older than our Greek NT. See Howard, id. This text is the means of repairing the discord between the Greek version of Matthew 5:33 and the OT.

And as to James 5:12, commentators are aware that there is an excellent strain of variants that proves James was condemning taking a false oath too, not any oath.

Clarke in his commentary states that variants to James 5:12 have James condemning hypocritical (false) oaths:

Several MSS. join [a Greek word] and [another Greek word] together,  and prefix [another Greek word meaning] into, which makes a widely different reading: "Lest ye fall into hypocrisy."
Now, as it is a fact, that the Jews did teach that there might be mental reservation, that would annul the oath, how solemnly soever it was taken; the object of St. James, if the last reading be genuine, and it is supported by a great number of excellent MSS., some versions, and some of the most eminent of the fathers, was to guard against that hypocritical method of taking an oath, which is subversive of all moral feeling, and must make conscience itself callous. (See "Comment" tab at http://bible.cc/james/5-12.htm.)

Likewise, Gill writes in his commentary:

Lest ye fall into condemnation; by the Lord; for either false, or rash, or profane swearing; for he will not suffer it to go unpunished; see Exodus 20:7. Some copies read, "lest ye fall into hypocrisy"; or dissimulation, and get into a habit and custom of lying and deceiving, as common swearers do; and so reads the Arabic version. (See "Comment" tab at http://bible.cc/james/5-12.htm.)


 

Dissent To These Corrections

 

Others disagree nevertheless. For example, Mr. Thompson - a zealot on this issue - writes:

Why are the oaths used?  The intent of the oath, as all things that are against God, is to destroy mankind.  There is no other purpose for it.  The oath has a man violate God's law just by taking it.  The oath is an act of idolatry, and it is so commonplace, that its presence is hardly noticed.  Yet, it is present in almost all political and religious systems.  The only religious system that forbids it is true scriptural Christianity. (Swear an Oath, Tell A Lie (accessed 9/30/2012).)

As proof, Thompson first cites an Original Testament (OT) scripture that Thompson is unaware was poorly punctuated in the King James Bible. This is Zephanaiah 1:4-5 which simply says it is wrong to swear by Yahweh and a false god. It is not prohibiting swearing (taking an oath) by God's name alone ever. So the ESV correctly reads that God threatens to cut off:

"those who bow down and swear to the Lord
and yet swear by Milcom," ESV

Mr. Thompson cites the KJV which reads differently, and thus Mr. Thompson appears justified. However, the KJV put in a comma, and this changes the meaning. Plus the KJV is less clear. By the KJV, God threatens

them that worship the host of heaven upon the housetops; and them that worship and that swear by the Lord, and that swear by Malcham;  (Comma is highlighted in red.)

Thus, the KJV in our modern syntax creates an ambiguity. Does the verse mean God will condemn those who only swear by His name even if they do not swear by Milcom /Malcham? It is semantically possible in the English KJV that this is the case. However, because there is no comma here in Hebrew, it was wrong for the KJV to suggest it here, and this is what opened up an ambiguity. Second, because the OT demands various oaths be taken in God's name, one cannot easily accept a translation that makes it appear God is going to punish those who obey that command. The ESV therefore has the right meaning.

Mr. Thompson also cites in his favor Zechariah 5:3. In the KJV, it lacks the word "falsely" which other translations utilized, and thus it does support Mr. Thompson. The KJV reads:

Then said he unto me, This is the curse that goeth forth over the face of the whole earth: for every one that stealeth shall be cut off as on this side according to it; and every one that sweareth shall be cut off as on that side according to it. (Biblos)

However, the NIV, ESV, NLT, King James 2000, World English, etc. has the key portion:

everyone who swears falsely will be banished.

Expert commentators likewise render Zechariah 5:3 as "swear falsely." See Hinckley Gilbert Thomas Mitchell, John Merlin Powis Smith, Julius August Bewer, A Critical & Exegetical Commentary on Hagai, Zechariah (1912) Vol. 23 at 169. Bible.org provides a fresh translation, and it says the Hebrew means "swear falsely."

Before we address why, the Young's Literal is fascinatingly entirely different. Here is Young's Literal:

And he saith unto me, 'This is the execration that is going forth over the face of all the land, for every one who is stealing, on the one side, according to it, hath been declared innocent, and every one who hath sworn, on the other side, according to it, hath been declared innocent. (Biblos)

It turns out that Young's renders "will be purged" (niqqa) as "declared innocent," because there is a niphal . As Bible.org explains:

Another problem with the predicate “has been purged out” (hQ*n], niqqa), in addition to its tense, is the fact that the niphal usually connotes “to be free from guilt” or “exempt from punishment.” This would yield a meaning exactly opposite from that [we] propose here, for it would be saying that the thief and he who swears will be freed from guilt (or has been freed from guilt)

While Bible.org believes it should render this the opposite -- as a purge, what the verse appears to be saying is an "execration" is going forth because one who is stealing against the commands on one side of the scroll was found innocent. The reason why was because someone has sworn in violation of the other side of the scroll (the false-witness command, as we shall see), but was declared innocent. Meaning the false witness was accepted as true, and this deserves "execration." Hence, the execration is over a false-witness under oath, and not just any kind of oath in God's name.

This is bolstered by what other commentary says. The 10 Commandments were on 2 tablets originally. So the "one side" and "the other side" of the flying scroll in 5:1 of Zechariah symbolize the 2 tablets upon which were the 10 Commandments. One side of the scroll refers to "stealing" which coincides with the eighth commandment in Exodus 20:15 which originally was on Tablet 2. Klein then says "the false witness in the name of the Lord" in Zechariah 5:3 "transgresses the third" commandment from Exodus 20:7, 16 which was on Tablet 1 given Moses. (George Klein, New American Commentary Vol. 21B "Zechariah" (B&H: 2008) at page 172.) Hence this is why Zechariah 5:3 is referring to one side and the other side of the flying scroll -- it symbolized 1 command against stealing in the 10 commandments, and the other command against bearing false witness in the same 10 commandments.

Thus, this "swearing" in 5:3 was an allusion to the false swearing command on Tablet 1. It was not a new command to stop taking any oaths in God's name at all.

Gill's commentary exposes the underlying Hebrew which points to the meaning that "false swearing" from one of the tablets given Moses is what is intended in Zechariah:

this curse also reaches to the whole world, and the inhabitants of it, who lie in wickedness; and to all sorts of sinners, particularly those next mentioned:

for everyone that stealeth shall be cut off as on this side, according to it; as it is written and declared on one side of the roll:

and everyone that sweareth shall be cut off as on that side according to it; as is written and declared on the other side of the roll; which two sins of theft and false swearing, the one being against the second, and the other the first table of the law, show that the curse of the law reaches to all sorts of sins and sinners;  (Biblos)

Hence, no matter how one looks at this, the command was against false swearing rather than against taking any oath in God's name. Zechariah 5:3 was against the one who swears and is declared innocent (of lying) about the thief who gets off because of the false testimony. There is no prohibition on all forms of swearing -- it only condemns false swearing.

 

Jesus' Point

 

The command Jesus is repeating in Matthew 5:33 is from Leviticus.

"'Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the LORD. http://bible.cc/leviticus/19-12.htm

 

Interpretive Confusion

 

Furthermore, there is a problem of English translation. Cursing is also translated in English as swearing which also means taking an oath. So the translation 'swearing' is an ambiguous English term, and unless we know whether the underlying language speaks of 'cursing' or 'taking an oath,' we must be careful not to think condemnation of swearing is condemnation of taking an oath. It may be a condemnation of merely cursing.

 For example, the Didache, an early Christian writing from 200 AD attributes to Jesus: "you shall not swear, you shall not bear false witness,...." http://www.essene.com/History&Essenes/didach.htm

Well, not bearing a false witness would require a witnesses who took an oath to tell the truth in the OT (see above). Thus, the command not to bear false witness is the same as telling someone not to make a false oath but only a true oath. It did not abolish the duty to give an oath in certain situations.

Thus, the phrase "not swearing" in this verse from the Didach, if truly from Jesus, is not a command not to take any oath. If it meant not to take any oath, then why does Jesus in the next breath condemn giving "false testimony," which is based upon an oath? Hence, "swearing" in the Didach passage, if an authentic quote of Jesus missing in the NT, would still have to fit the context, and thus only could mean "cursing" is prohibited.

We cannot allow interpretative confusion in an English translation to mislead us to deny the duty to give an oath when the Law requires. And in fact, it appears we Gentiles must swear allegiance to God-Yahweh as a condition of our acceptance by Him, as discussed at the outset. See Isaiah 19:18 and 45:23. Again, this likely is at baptism.