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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


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OATHS. How the need of oaths must first have arisen can be seen in such a passage as Exodus 22:10-11 : ‘If a man deliver unto his neighbour an ass, or an ox, or a sheep, or a beast, to keep; and it die, or be hurt, or driven away, no man seeing It: the oath of the Lord shall be between them both, whether he hath not put his hand unto his neighbour’s goods; and the owner thereof shall accept it, and he shall not make restitution.’ As there is no witness to substantiate the innocence or prove the guilt of the suspected person no man seeing it God is called to witness. An oath is really a conditional curse, which a man calls down upon himself from God, in the case of his not speaking the truth or not keeping a promise. The use of oaths was not restricted to judicial procedure, but was also connected with a variety of everyday matters; to swear by the name of Jahweh was regarded as a sign of loyalty to Him (cf. Isaiah 48:1 , Jeremiah 12:16 , Deuteronomy 6:13 ).

There are two words in Hebrew for an oath; (1) shÄ•bû‘ah , which comes from the same root as the word for ‘seven’ ( sheba’ ); the Heb. word for ‘to swear’ comes likewise from the same root, and means literally ‘to come under the influence of seven things.’ Seven was the most sacred number among the Hebrews (cf. shâbûa’ , ‘week’ of seven days), and among the Semites generally. Among the Babylonians the seven planets each represented a god. Originally, therefore, there must have been a direct connexion between this sacred number and the oath. (2) ’âlah , which, strictly speaking, means a ‘curse,’ and was a stronger form of oath. The combination of both words was used on especially solemn occasions, e.g. Numbers 5:21 (cf. Matthew 26:72 of Peter’s denial).

There were various forms used in taking an oath, e.g. ‘God do so to me and more also if …’ ( 1 Kings 2:23 ); the punishment called down in the case of the oath not being observed is left indeterminate in this form; this is to be explained from the fact that there was a fear lest the mention of the curse should ipso facto bring it to pass; it is a remnant of animistic conceptions ( i.e . there was the fear that a demon might think his services were required). In later times, however, the nature of the curse is sometimes mentioned, e.g. ‘… saying, The Lord make thee like Zedekiah and like Ahab, whom the king of Babylon roasted in the fire’ … ( Jeremiah 29:22; cf. Isaiah 65:15 , Zechariah 8:13 ). Another form was: ‘God is witness betwixt me and thee’ ( Genesis 31:50 ), or, ‘The Lord be a true and faithful witness amongst us, if …’ ( Jeremiah 42:5 ); a more common form is: ‘As the Lord liveth’ ( Judges 8:19 ), which is sometimes varied by the addition of a reference to the person to whom the oath was made: ‘As the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth’ ( 1 Samuel 20:3 , cf. 2 Samuel 15:21 ). Another form was: ‘God … judge between us’ ( Genesis 31:53 ). God Himself is conceived of as taking oaths: ‘By myself have I sworn …’ ( Genesis 22:15 ). The usual gesture in taking an oath was to raise the arm towards heaven ( Deuteronomy 32:40 , Daniel 12:7 ), the motive being to point to the dwelling-place of God; to ‘raise the hand’ became an expression for ‘to swear’ ( Exodus 6:8 , Numbers 14:30 ). Another gesture is referred to in Genesis 24:2; Genesis 47:29 , viz. putting the hand under the thigh; the organ of generation was regarded as peculiarly holy by the Hebrews.

With regard to the breaking of an oath see Leviticus 6:1-7; and for the use of oaths in ratifying a covenant see Genesis 21:27-31; Genesis 26:28; Genesis 31:53 , Jos 9:15 , 2 Kings 11:4 .

W. O. E. Oesterley.

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These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Oaths'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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