Making Oaths in the Jewish World – Matthew 5:33-37

The Law permitted swearing oaths. In Matthew 5:33, Jesus quotes the first part of Leviticus 19:12 along with Numbers 30:2 and (possibly) Deuteronomy 23:21. Oaths were used in both legal and religious contexts. A promise between two people might include oaths. One vivid example is David swearing an oath to Bathsheba that her son would be the next king (1 Kings 1:29-30).

Witness swearing on the bible telling the truth in the court room

A vow often follows the form of “if, then.” A person might make a vow to God asking him for something. If God acts, the worshiper would then fulfill their vow. In 1 Samuel 1:1-11 Hannah makes a vow to God: If God gives her a child, she will dedicate that child to the Lord as a Nazarite.

The Law recognized the possibility of a rash vow. In Leviticus 5:4-6 the one who has made a rash vow can confess their sin and makes an appropriate sacrifice. The judge Jephthah is well-known for making a rash vow (Judg 11:30-31).

In the Mishnah, there is an entire section on vows, Nedarim. (The Hebrew word נֶדֶר, neder means “vow.”)

Nedarim 3:1 “Four [types of] vows did sages declare not binding: (1) Vows of incitement, (2) vows of exaggeration, (3) vows made in error, and (4) vows [broken] under constraint.”

This section of the Mishnah includes a series clarifications on how vows are interpreted, such as “He who vows not to drink wine is permitted to eat a cooked dish which has the taste of wine” (6:7) and “He who takes a vow not to have wine is permitted to have apple wine” (6:9). There is a discussion of loosing a vow in particular circumstances, such as “They unloose [vows] by reference to festival days and Sabbaths. At first they said, “On those particular days [the vows] are not binding, but for all other days they are binding” (9:6). A father may loose the vow of his betrothed daughter (10:1, the rest of the section discusses how that passed to various people if the father dies, lest the poor girl keep her own vows!)

There is a remarkable parallel in 2 Enoch 49:1-3. The writer of this paragraph emphasizes speaking the truth as opposed to swearing an oath. A potential problem with 2 Enoch is the possibility the text has been influence by the words of Jesus in the transmission process.

2 Enoch 49:1-2“For I am swearing to you, my children—But look! I am not swearing by any oath at all, neither by heaven nor by earth nor by any other creature which the Lord created. For ‹|the Lord|› said, ‘There is no oath in me, nor any unrighteousness, but only truth.’ So, if there is no truth in human beings, then let them make an oath by means of the words ‘Yes, Yes!’ or, if it should be the other way around, ‘No, No!’

The wisdom literature has much to say about keeping one’s word. For example, Ecclesiastes 5:8, “When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools.” Sirach 41:19 considers breaking an oath as shameful as bad manners: “Be ashamed of breaking an oath or agreement, and of leaning on your elbow at meals” (NRSV). Likewise, Sirach 18:22-23 says:

Sirach 18:22–23 (NRSV) Let nothing hinder you from paying a vow promptly, and do not wait until death to be released from it. Before making a vow, prepare yourself; do not be like one who puts the Lord to the test.

The Qumran Community reach a similar conclusion to Jesus. Lacy K. Crocker, points out “The Temple Scroll, however, based on an interpretation of Deuteronomy 23:21–23, emphasizes that it is better to abstain from making a vowing in order to avoid committing a transgression by failing to fulfill one’s vow” (see Josephus, JW 2.135 for the rejection of oaths by the Essenes.)

The point here is that there was an ongoing discussion at the time of Jesus over what constituted a binding oath and how one might get out of a vow if necessary. Some writers thought an oath could be made in such a way as to allow for a way out. Others warn against this sort of maneuvering as coming too close to breaking an oath to risk the wrath of God. Better to avoid making oaths at all.

But at the core of keeping one’s oaths is simple honesty. If someone does not keep their promises, they are dishonest. That Jesus would demand his disciples speak the truth is no surprise, he is standing on the Hebrew Bible. In Zechariah 8:17, the Lord himself declares “love no false oath, for all these things I hate.”

Before looking at the details of Jesus’s words on oaths, it is worth pausing and asking what it means to me “people of the truth.” Is telling the truth something which is non-negotiable for the disciple of Jesus? What about a foolish oath? Or a promise made without all of the information? What about saying something to win an argument which is not entirely true (but not totally false either). Can the true disciple of Jesus tolerate deception even if the results are positive? Think about the average Facebook post in these politically troubled times. Can the disciple of Jesus really resort to “alternative facts”?

20 thoughts on “Making Oaths in the Jewish World – Matthew 5:33-37

  1. Since the Hebrew word for both “seven” and “oath” is “sheba”, and since Hebrews 6:13 says that God took an oath by himself when He made covenant with Abraham, do you (Dr. Long) think that the abundant use of “7’s” in the Bible relate to God’s “oath” ??

    • I had never really thought of it in that way before, and there may be some connection between the verb sb’ and the noun sheba. I double checked HALOT, “it has been suggested that in oaths the numeral seven plays only a passing role and that it is not a constitutive element” (p.1397). Did you make the observation yourself, or is there some writer who makes this point?

      My first thought was to say, there are many Hebrew words with the same three consonants, but there is not real relationship between the words. But in this case their could be.

      I assumed the prevalent used of sevens was based on the seven days of creation, but I am not quite sure why I assumed that.

      • It was my thought after reading some Bible-related literature.

        Beer-sheba, Bathsheba and Queen of Sheba all may relate to this. I know that Bath means “daughter”, hence the name for Bathsheba may mean “daughter of the oath”.

  2. Telling the truth matters. It is as simple as that. And we can most likely all agree that lying is a sin. Lying is as big of a sin as any other – God sees it all exactly the same – as sin. Proverbs 12:22 says, “lying lips are an abomination to the LORD, but those who act faithfully are his delight.” In one sense, this is why having oaths makes sense to me, because we are a corrupted race due to the Fall. It is impossible for us, even when we are born again in Christ, to be one-hundred percent truthful all of the time. That is an unrealistic goal to set for ourselves, because we will fail. I absolutely believe that Jesus knew this when He told the disciples to be honest with our thoughts, motives and attitudes. He knew that we were incapable of achieving pure honesty in our own strength, which gives us every more reason to press into the Spirit for guidance. However, I can also argue against having oaths. McKnight says, “since kingdom people are honest, they do not need to participate in oaths or scaling of one’s obligations” (119). If we are in Christ and pursuing a transformation of heart and mind, then wouldn’t honesty become more and more natural for us? Creating oaths would be unnecessary because of one’s stature of trust, loyalty, and honesty. McKnight also calls this “simple honesty” – basically stating that followers of Jesus are called to integrity. Of course I agree that believers should be striving to be more truthful, but I also agree that oaths form a sense of accountability.

  3. I’ve been looking into the Jewish practice of making vows lately. It seems to have been a common custom.

    There are several divorce regulations concerning the vows of wives and husbands in Ketubot 7 which makes for “interesting” reading. (But you probably already knew that.)

  4. Honesty and trust is a huge thing that is very important. “At the heart of the Bible’s ethic is telling the truth. Honesty mattered then and it matters now” (McKnight, pg.111). When I think of an oath or a vow it means some thing that can not be broke. If it is broken, you are being untrustworthy and dishonest and that it not what God wants for His people. One thing that comes to mind when I think of a vow or an oath is marriage. Two people making a vow to one another and that vow or oath is not to be broken. If we make a vow to God like Hannah did in 1 Samuel 1:1-11, we do not want to break that vow and let God down and be disappointed in us. Honesty is simple way we can keep an oath. Being one hundred percent honest all the time is impossible, but it is something that we can always strive for and work for.

    • I agree with your post especially when you say of course you will not be 100 percent honest for your whole life but it it is something to strive for. (McKnight 115) Jesus goes beyond the oath because he says there no need for oaths you will either be honest or not. People should display honesty any way because if you tell a lie you will also tell one under oath.

    • I agree how you started of talking about the importance of honesty and trust. In any relationship that you come into contact with you lack those two things you will be in constant disappointment. Having an oath is something that is unbreakable like you said. It is a commitment to one another, whether in a group or individually. I love the marriage aspect you took on from here. Two people coming together as one, surrounding their lives to one another and walking through life hand in hand under the commitment and oath they made each other to walk in love in all areas of their life. Serving God is a huge commitment, it is striving to become like him and shine his light during all moments of your life. You should be afraid to disappoint him because all of the mercy and grace he has given you.

    • I agree with you being honest and trusting are very important. God wants us to be honest and trust one another. Breaking oats would not be an issue if everyone just stayed honest. But because we are human and fight with our flesh daily I also agree that “Being one hundred percent honest all the time is impossible, but it is something that we can always strive for and work for.” We should strive to be better while also being realistic with ourselves before making oaths we know we probably wont be able to keep. Saying “NO” is okay sometimes. It is better to be honest than give someone false hope. So yes I agree trust and honesty would make the world more pleasing to God.

  5. Ultimately, Jesus is trying to get across that honesty is what people should be striving for. If you keep your word, than your word will mean just as much as an oath. The problem is that so many people do not keep their word, so some people feel the need to overemphasize what they are saying with an oath or promise. Telling the truth is a critical aspect of being a follower of Jesus Christ. We should be careful with what we say; making sure that whatever we say, we will do. McKnight talks about how kingdom people should be so honest that they do not need oaths. “They always tell the truth because they indwell the kingdom now” (McKnight, p. 115). Flippant oaths are exactly what Jesus is trying to get rid of. Telling partial truth is almost the same as lying. If you are knowingly withholding information, you are deceiving the other person. As Christians, we should not be looking to deceive those around us; but rather we should be completely open and honest with those we cross paths with. A true disciple of Christ should not be able to deceive those around them and feel good about themselves. All Jesus is asking from us is to be honest. Is that too much to ask for?

    • Nick, you are so right about doing what we say and saying what we mean. It is important to keep one’s word, or oath. McKnight states it clearly that “honesty in words should be invariable” (p.110). I would take what you said about telling a partial truth being almost lying a step further. I would say telling a partial truth is lying. I think about this as there is no partial sin, there is sin or there is not sin. If there is even one hint of lying or untruthfulness, it would be qualified as sin.

  6. I think that all of these questions that we are asking to dig into the scripture a little too far for our own purpose. I think when reading the Bible we need to be careful not to eisegete the passage too much. I think for this passage we need to be careful because these are the words of Jesus, God robed in flesh, so we need to be careful to take it at face value. I think what Jesus was trying to say here was that we need to be careful not to promise thing because He knows often times for us humans it is to easy for us not to follow through with things, and then next thing you know we have broken our vow. we know that culture is based on trust says McNight “From the beginning honesty was the assumption for human interaction. without that assumption, trust breaks culture down into chaos”. Jesus knows that we need to tell the truth for our relationships to work. I think the biggest thing that we can pull from this teaching I that we need to be honest, saying an oath is not the sin, but rather your word should be enough for people to believe you.

    • I agree, in that humans do make too many promises that we cant keep. and that we need to take the word of God at face value. I do think in todays time it hard for us to take others word at face value, because of the distrust in society.

  7. Keeping an oath you make is the same as keeping your word. When God made a promise to Abraham that from him God would “I will make you into a great nation and bless you (Gen. 12:2)”, God did what he promised. An oath and a covenant are almost the same thing. “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made (Matt. 5:33).” I was raised on the philosophy that if you say your gonna do something then you do it. To me that’s the same thing God’s saying here that if you make a oath especially to God then you MUST fulfill that oath. So be careful you make an oath to do something because if you make an oath then no matter what you have to fulfill that oath.

  8. In today’s world it is very hard to decide what is true or not. The internet plays a big role in society believing false statements. An important thing to remember is that we know where the ultimate truth comes from. The Bible and the Holy Spirit provide a means for us to sift through what is true and what is not. If it does not line up with God’s teachings then we do not need to believe it or comment on it (unless the Spirit leads us to project truth).

  9. A persons word is suppose to be solid and true. Oaths and vows are like a extra secure promise. Vows and oaths are broken but should never be made with breaking them as the underlining motive.For example people fall in love and make a vow before God and their witness but years later they divorce braking that vow. I am certain that most people do not get married with the intentions for divorcing years later. I think God is telling us in Matt 5 33-37 that we should make oaths in his name or others because lying and involving God or others to increase the credibility of that lie is wrong. God just wants our yes and no to be enough. there is no need for extra oaths or vows just follow through on our yes and no.

  10. Be honest, it all comes down to being honest. in todays day and age, words are simply meaningless. but in the olden days per say a mans word was everything because most of the time he had nothing else to offer. Mcknight even goes to say” without trust or honesty it will break down culture into choas”(111). the serpent put words in Gods mouth to trick eve into eating the forbidden fruit and in return she did the same to Adam, destroying the perfect bond they had with each other and with God because the serpent wasn’t an honest being, he played with the words of God to get his way. sometimes in todays age humans do the same.

  11. I struggle with OCD in the theme of vows, meaning I compulsively make vows (like an intrusive thought). It’s tough, because it attacks things that I value, like marriage (abstaining from marriage). Sometimes, I just can’t discern whether it was intentional or not. I know integrity’s important, but I can’t live my life assuming that I’m in this bondage of celibacy, when perhaps I haven’t made any vows. It’s tormenting. Would Leviticus 5:4-5 (or even Proverbs 6:2-5) apply to me? Can I confess it in order to be released and move forward, knowing that God has forgiven me (1 John 1:9)? And, the new testament talks a lot about Christ setting us free. Would that also apply to this case? Your reply would be much appreciated, thank you in advance.

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