Oaths Gone Bad

Have you ever promised something, only to regret it afterward? When you were a kid, did you ever assure someone with the words, "Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye"? Do you ever swear by anything? ("I swear on my mother's grave that…")

Between Bible studies and reading, I've been thinking about oaths in Scripture that have gone awry. For instance, going through Judges this one stood out:

And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, "If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord's, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering" (Judges 11:30-31, English Standard Version).

In the previous verse it says that "the Spirit of the Lord was upon Jephthah" (Judges 11:29) so it seems really odd that he would offer something that appears against God's command—sacrificing one's child (see Deuteronomy 18:10). Perhaps that's why after having success beating the Ammonites, our Lord allowed Jephthah's oath to come back and haunt him:

Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter. And as soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, "Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow (Judges 11:34-35).

This episode can be one of the hardest in Scripture to reconcile, because "at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow that he had made" (Judges 11:39a). Some believe all that happened is she wasn't allowed to marry (verses 38 and 39 mention her virginity), but regardless…a righteous man made a rash oath…and his child paid for it.

And it is pretty amazing how a foolish vow can hurt others much more than the foolish person who uttered it. Who can forget when Herod was so impressed by his daughter-in-law's dancing at his birthday party "that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask" (Matthew 14:7). We don't even trust our teenagers with credit cards, but Herod promised, "Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom" (Mark 6:23). The girl was no dummy, and goes to get some counsel:

And she went out and said to her mother, "For what should I ask?" And she said, "The head of John the Baptist." And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter." And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her (Mark 6:24-27).

Herod knew he had made a mistake…but, yet again, a bad oath was at someone else's expense. He had to save face with all the bigwigs who were there to share his birthday.

Now, not everyone in Scripture was as faithful in fulfilling a shortsighted oath. On a day when his army was having difficulties, Israel's first king, Saul, "laid an oath on the people, saying, ‘Cursed be the man who eats food until it is evening and I am avenged on my enemies'" (1 Samuel 14:24b). Problem? His son Jonathan never heard it and had some honey…but although he "deserved" to die, Saul relented. Now, in fairness to Saul, the people pressured him not to kill his son. However, there is a decent chance it's another indication of the king's weak character given he specifically said, "For as the Lord lives who saves Israel, though it be in Jonathan my son, he shall surely die" (1 Samuel 14:39) before he knew who the guilty individual was.

Or how about the more than forty Jews who "made a plot and bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink till they had killed Paul" (Acts 23:12)? In yesterday's Bible study George Bishop wondered if they all starved. The answer is probably not—as the English Standard Version Study Bible noted in its comment on Acts 23:31:

Since the plot was thwarted, one wonders if the conspirators died of hunger and thirst! Probably not: by rabbinic law, in the event a vow became impossible to fulfill, those under it were released from its terms (see Mishnah, Nedarim 3.3).1

Funny how we have ways of getting out of what we really don't want to do, eh?

The Bible has plenty more about oaths, but (as with other things) Jesus helps bring it all to a concise and clear head:

"Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.' But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes' or ‘No'; anything more than this comes from evil (Matthew 5:33-37).

If "anything more than this comes from evil," then why did the Bible give guidance for oaths? I suspect the same reason "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away" (Mark 10:4):

And Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment" (Mark 10:5).

As innocent as our childhood "cross my heart, hope to die" assurances were, now that we've grown up in Christ we should be wise enough, and have enough character, that our "‘yes' be yes and [our] ‘no' be no, so that [we] may not fall under condemnation" (James 5:12b).

Not to mention that it'll reduce the chance someone else has to pay for our rash vows, or that we will have to show our true character when we wiggle out of them…


1 Crossway Bibles. (2008). The ESV Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.


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