Oaths in Jewish and Christian practice (Hebrews 6)

Bilderesultat for oaths

By means of oaths people in the New Testament affirmed that they would keep their promises or that their words were true, and in oaths people called down curses upon themselves should their pledges prove false. These commonly took the form of executor-type oaths (“May God do such-and-such to me if I do not perform this act”) or surety-type oaths (“May my life be forfeit if this does not happen”).

In early Judaism people often substituted something else for the name of God when making a vow. Thus one might swear by the temple, by heaven and earth or by Jerusalem. This practice may have come into vogue in part to avoid the threat of divine retribution should the oath not be fulfilled. But there was also a concern to prevent God’s holy name from being tainted by association with rash oaths and false promises. Jewish writers like Philo, Josephus and Sirach all expressed concern about the use of God’s name in oaths and considered such oaths to be violations of the third commandment.

Considerable attention was also devoted to the means by which a person might be extricated from an oath that would prove difficult or impossible to fulfil. In light of the widespread abuse of oaths in His society, Jesus taught that it was best to avoid them altogether (Matthew 5:33-37, cf. James 5:12). The use of substitutes would not soften the blow of unfulfilled oaths, since sacred objects like the temple or Jerusalem shared in God’s holiness. Moreover, persons of integrity had no need to resort to oaths; others could trust that their “no” meant “no” and their “yes” meant “yes” without the invocation of a third party.

God’s oath, however, is wholly unlike that of a mere human being. Knowing that this word will be fulfilled, He can swear by the highest authority – Himself – that He will do something without any possibility of failure or change of heart. Therefore, the use of an oath in Hebrews 6:17 is a powerful way for God to express “the unchanging nature of His purpose“. God’s use of an oath can also be considered an accommodation to our weakness; He does not need to swear an oath, but the oath conveys strong assurance to weak and doubting humans.


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