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For Bible Study Nerds

In ancient Israel, an oath was both a ritual act and a binding promise.

Oaths were invoked in court cases to (supposedly) ensure that witnesses would tell the truth. They were also given as proof of an unbreakable pledge of loyalty, or as a guarantee that a person would fulfill some obligation being incurred (such as a promise to repay a loan).

People swore oaths by that which was valuable to them, such as families or personal wealth and security, and even their own lives (swearing “by my head”). The assumption was that failure to keep such an oath would either bring shame or personal loss. The highest, most binding ritual oath was one that brought God into the transaction because, it was assumed that God himself would inflict a curse upon any who failed to fulfill an oath made in his name.

By the time of Jesus, though, the Pharisees had used an array of semantics to skillfully excuse themselves from the duty to keep most oaths.

In much the same ways that disreputable lawyers today appeal to the “fine print” to get out of obvious obligations, Pharisees were experts at dissecting the oath ritual in order to find loopholes that justified their dishonest promises. For instance, in their reasoning, an oath sworn “by the temple!” in Jerusalem could be considered frivolous and assumed to mean nothing. A promise made “by the gold of the temple,” however, was binding and failure to fulfill that would incur punishment. (See Matthew 23:16)

When Jesus preached against making oaths in Matthew 5:33-37, he was also indicting this kind of Pharisaical hypocrisy—and calling all God followers to a higher standard of authenticity and integrity. As one theologian describes it, “Christ teaches that form is irrelevant…In the fellowship of honest people, a person’s word is as binding as a sacred oath.”

 

Works Cited:

[HBD, 716; RBD, 742-743]

 

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