Shebuah (Oath, curse)
We usually think today of the word ‘oath’ or ‘vow’ in a number of specific contexts. This could be, positively, the swearing of an oath in a court of law, swearing loyalty to a leader, or commitment to someone through a vow, as in a marriage ceremony, or negatively, when someone uses a profane expletive or offensive language. Some of these meanings can be detected in the use of the Hebrew word shebuah in the Old Testament, but this needs to be qualified. The word was never used of expletives in the Old Testament, unlike the New Testament, and while it was used in both human and divine contexts, the Bible to some extent makes a distinction between a vow and an oath. An oath was sworn by at least two parties who made a solemn promise to fulfil it, with a curse attached for non-compliance. A vow, however, might bear all the hallmarks of an oath, but usually was directed towards God. This distinction has been expressed as follows, ‘The vow normally includes an oath formula, but its direction is vertical. Not horizontal like the oath’.1 But this distinction may be more apparent than real, and, like many similar concepts, ultimately the ‘oath’ and the ‘vow’ became almost interchangeable terms.2
The word shebuah occurs about thirty times in the Old Testament, but, combined with the synonymous word alah, helps us to understand the import of binding oneself by an oath. One interesting point to note in passing is that the root of the Hebrew word shebuah is identical to the word meaning ‘even’ in Hebrew. This has led some scholars to believe that there is a correlation between the number seven and oath-taking, as illustrated in Genesis chapter 21 verses 22 to 34 when Abraham endorses an oath with Abimelech by giving him seven ewe lambs.3
We find oaths frequently referred to in the Old Testament in a variety of situations, and the principle behind the swearing of an oath was to confirm the integrity of a person’s word. God Himself had demonstrated this principle to Abraham in Genesis chapter 24, hence Abraham’s comments in verse 7 that God had promised to him on oath that the land of Canaan would belong to his offspring.4 So, if God kept His word, then it was incumbent upon anyone who swore an oath to keep their word and call upon God to bear witness to their oath. This mandatory requirement to comply with an oath, and the consequences of not doing so, are well illustrated by Vine when he states that, ‘An oath even to a heathen king was so binding that because Zedekiah violated his oath to Nebuchadnezzar, God dethroned him and gave him up to die in captivity (2 Chronicles 36. 13)’,5 cp. Ezek. 17. 18. False oaths were also condemned by God as they constituted an affront to His name, Exod. 20. 7; 1 Kgs. 8. 31, 32. Peace treaties between opposing factions were often sealed by an exchange of oaths, as seen in the pact signed between Abimelech and Isaac in Genesis chapter 26 verses 26 to 31, cp. Josh. 9. 15. Commitment to God was also expressed through taking an oath to the Lord, as for example in the case of Asa and Judah, 2 Chr. 15. 14, 15. This resulted in God giving them a period of respite from their enemies. An oath was also used to express love for some other person, as in the case of Jonathan for David, 1 Sam. 20. 17, effectively becoming his confederate, as many nobles of Judah did in taking an oath of allegiance to Tobiah the Ammonite, Neh. 6. 17, 18.
Oaths and vows were, therefore, not to be taken lightly by the children of Israel, and Moses prescribed laws surrounding such matters that had to be complied with, otherwise there were serious consequences, Num. 30. 2-16. Exceptionally, fathers and husbands were empowered to annul the oaths and vows of their daughters or wives, but only on the actual day that they found out about them, vv. 6, 8, 12, 13. If the husband annulled the vow or oath after the day he found out, i.e., he delayed doing anything about it at the right time, then he was deemed to bear the woman’s guilt and become liable for punishment, v. 15. Essentially, the let-out clause prevented young women from making rash oaths or vows, cp. Eccles. 5. 1-5. Most ancient people used some form of oath or vow sealed by an appeal to various deities. However, as one commentator explains, ‘For the Hebrews to swear (oaths) by other deities was to ascribe to them the power and position of Yahweh and thus amounted to idolatry (Josh. 23. 7; Jer. 12. 16; Amos 8. 14; Zeph. 1. 5; Jas. 5. 12)’.6
The Hebrew word shebuah is translated in the Septuagint (LXX) by the Greek word horkos and its related words. The verb horkizo is found in Genesis chapter 24 verse 37, and describes the taking of the oath by Abraham’s servant to ensure that he found the appropriate bride for Isaac. It also occurs in Nehemiah chapter 5 verse 12, where Nehemiah resolves an economic crisis by making the rich nobles swear an oath to stop them from exploiting the poor. The same verb is used of the oath that Joseph had sworn to his father Jacob, which Pharaoh later acknowledges, thus facilitating Jacob’s burial in the land of Canaan, Gen. 50. 5, 6.
Moving into the New Testament, we find that the Hebrew word shebuah finds its dynamic equivalent in the same Greek word horkos that was used in the Septuagint (LXX). Whilst its frequency is limited, nonetheless, it is still an important word because of the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ. In Matthew chapter 5 verse 33, our Lord refers to the swearing of oaths in the Old Testament. It is not clear which texts from the Old Testament He is citing, so many scholars think that this is a combination of texts.7 Our Lord pronounces, in verse 34, His judgement on oaths in what is often termed part of a series of antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount. At first reading, our Lord seems to be deprecating the use of any form of oath, and stating that a person’s word should be the binding factor. This has given rise to the notion that a Christian should never swear an oath under any circumstance. The problem with this sort of blanket interpretation is that it ignores a number of other biblical texts, including the later fact that during our Lord’s appearance before the high priest, He replied to his question under oath, Matt. 26. 63, 64. Similarly, Paul invokes God’s name to corroborate his statements in Galatians chapter 1 verse 20 and in 2 Corinthians chapter 1 verse 23. We also find other examples of swearing oaths in the New Testament,8 so, before we draw any conclusion, we need to carefully consider our Lord’s words in verses 33 to 37.
First, notice the context of His pronouncements in verse 34 et seq – swearing or taking oaths by invocating heaven, earth, Jerusalem, or one’s head. Each of these is then qualified by the Lord as to why they would be inappropriate to swear or take an oath by, viz., heaven is God’s throne, earth is God’s footstool, Jerusalem is the city of the great King, and our inability to change the colour of our hair on our head. Now, taken with verse 33, it is clear that the intention of the Old Testament provisions was to ensure that men kept their word by preventing them from making false or perjurious statements. Whatever oath was taken, it was within God’s jurisdiction, so it was the integrity of the individual’s word that was at issue, not the fact that the oath had been sworn in God’s name.
The Pharisees, and later rabbis, introduced, without biblical authority, a large number of concessions in this area so that many forms of oaths or vows were not binding upon individuals.9 As Carson observes, ‘A sophisticated casuistry judged how binding an oath really was by examining how closely it was related to Yahweh’s name. Incredible distinctions proliferate under such an approach. Swearing by heaven was not binding, nor was swearing by Jerusalem, though swearing toward Jerusalem was’.10 Thus, our Lord’s rejection of oaths must be interpreted in this immediate context, cp. Matt. 23. 16-22. Whatever our view is on the subject of oaths, the salient point is that a believer’s word should never be impugned by others, Jas. 5. 12. Can my word be trusted unquestioningly?
Leland Ryken, J. C. Wilhoit, Tremper Longman III (eds.), Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, IVP, 1998, pg. 919.
T. W. Cartledge writes: ‘Rabbinic writings such as the Mishnah reveal that, in time, the boundaries between oaths and vows grew increasingly vague. Even a casual reading of the tractates Nedarim and Sebu’ot makes it clear that the rabbis made little real distinction between the two’. NIDOTTE, pg. 34 (Vol. 4).
This pact was concluded at Beersheba, hence its meaning, ‘Well of Seven’ or alternatively, ‘Well of the Oath’, Gen. 21. 31.
Cp. Gen. 26. 3; 50. 24; Exod. 13. 11.
W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of Old Testament Words, Revell, 1978, pg. 94.
Leland Ryken, J. C. Wilhoit, Tremper Longman III (eds.), op. cit., pg. 920.
E.g., Lev. 19. 12; Deut. 23. 21-23; Ps. 50. 14, 15; Zech. 8. 17.
E.g., Acts 2. 27-31; Rom. 1. 9; Heb. 6. 17.
Mishnah Nedarim (Talmudic Tract) 3. 1.
Frank E. Gaebelein (ed.), Expositor’ Bible Commentary, Matthew 1-12, Zondervan, 1984, pg. 153.