Friday, February 13, 2009

Swear Words

As a nation, we in the U.S.A. paradoxically have a policy of separation church and state while insisting on having certain people swear an oath on the Bible prior to fulfilling certain duties. The original intent behind the separation of church and state was to apply the learned lessons from history, such as the infamous tale of King Henry VIII of England. But those lessons don't extend to oaths. From the presidential office down to witnesses in trials, these oaths are ubiquitous in American culture.

Presumably, swearing on the Bible is supposed to remind people that their oaths are accountable to the Christian God, and that the consequences of breaking the oath would be eternal, regardless if the breaking of the oath was discovered during their lives. What's strange is that it doesn't take into account those people with different faiths, or without faith altogether.

With an upcoming summons for jury duty in my future, I will soon have to swear on the Bible to do my duty with honesty and integrity. Would Jesus approve of swearing on the Bible? What would Jesus do? We find out in this study.

Swear Words
Swearing an oath is an act that has been around since the dawn of history. It's an oddity of human nature that we place more credence on a vow, a swear, a promise, or an oath than we do when someone simply claims something. “I swear to tell the truth” seems to have more value than simply “I will tell the truth”.

In a sense, swearing an oath constitutes a verbal contract. Meanwhile, speaking the same words without the addition of swear words seems to merely imply the intent of the speaker, but it is not necessarily binding. Perhaps that's why we marvel when someone is “a man of his word” because he actual does what he says he will do, usually without the addition of “I swear”, “I promise”, etc. in his speech.

God has quite a bit to say about oaths in the Old Testament. Besides swearing promises to some of the Patriarchs and soliciting oaths from them at times, God also gives the Israelites through Moses several laws pertaining to vows and oaths; such as Leviticus 5:4 that warns about making careless oaths, and the entire chapter of Numbers 30 which largely describes how the oaths of women can be overturned by their husbands or fathers (excepting widows and divorced women, of course), and Deuteronomy 6:13 which says to make oaths in God's name, and Deuteronomy 23:21-23 reminding the Israelites how important it is to fulfill vows. Numbers 30:1-2 puts it fairly plainly:
Moses said to the heads of the tribes of Israel: "This is what the LORD commands: When a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said." NIV
Jesus does not agree with God's instructions on oaths. Just like we discussed in a previous post about several other issues, Jesus seems to disown and discredit what God had previously instructed. Jesus says in the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:33-37:
"Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.' But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; or by the earth, for it is His footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the Evil One." NIV
In this single passage, Jesus appears to take no responsibility for the previously instructed law (which is misquoted by Jesus) despite that fact that He is God (as part of the Trinity), instructs people not to swear at all despite what God had commanded, and even goes so far as to claim that swearing or taking vows is from the Evil One, a.k.a. Satan! Jesus says that carrying out this part of God's Law is Satanic! If that's not an irreconcilable contradiction, I don't know what one is.

Curiously, this condemnation of swearing is not recorded in any of the other three Gospels. Yet there is an echo of the emphasis that at least one of the early Christian sects put on the prohibition of swearing that is recorded in James 5:12, included in an epistle sent to the dispersed Jews:
Above all, my brothers, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your "Yes" be yes, and your "No," no, or you will be condemned. NIV
This line comes near the end of the epistle; the third paragraph from the end to be precise. So the “Above all” carries a fairly significant amount of weight in its meaning. It suggests that this teaching was of critical importance; this teaching which was left out of three of the Gospels and which directly contradicts God's Law.

So, from our study here, we find that Jesus would frown upon swearing an oath, but God would be quite happy with an oath as long as you were to fulfill it. Where does that leave me? I guess I'll have to flip a coin when I step into the jury box. :-)


  1. so the trinity is a single entity that is bipolar?

  2. In your defense you will only need to say "yes" or "no" which I think fulfills both passages rather nicely. Heh.

    You are right though. Jesus 1ups God's law so many times in the NT it makes you wonder how he even got away with being associated with God at all.

  3. Ha! Bipolar! Although I don't know if that's right, because we don't see much about God being excessively happy anywhere. ;-)

    I think that the 1ups point to something of the origin of these teachings; perhaps an ascetic prophet who thought the Law was too relaxed, and/or maybe John the Baptist. It seems like someone was unhappy with where the Law had gotten them. That someone couldn't be God, because God knows the future and accordingly would have fixed things from the beginning.

  4. Yeshua (Jesus) never contradicted or "misquoted" His Father; in fact He came to tell those disobeying His Father to REPENT, LISTEN TO MY FATHER!! Yeshua responds to the numerous lies associated with the oaths humans are making - rash, careless oaths that are clearly not of Yahweh (God), but of Satan. His example of one being able to change one hair white or black shows that 'your ego is making promises your body can't keep.' Be careful not to seek or enlarge supposed contradictions pitting Yeshua against His Father. That alone reveals man's evil nature.

  5. Thanks for the comment Anonymous. I certainly try diligently to ensure that I do not seek or enlarge supposed contradictions, but only point out actual ones. Of course, some verses are left up for interpretation, and I may bias towards finding contradictions in those cases. That's why I appreciate rebuttals such as yours to help keep me honest.

    God had already spoken out about making careless oaths in the OT in Leviticus 5:4 and Numbers 30. Jesus could have cited these, or simply mentioned that they were too careless with their vows, but He didn't. Instead, Jesus instructs not to take vows at all.

    You are right in pointing out the example of changing a hair's color as being a blast to man's ego. However, I would say that this is from the aspect that Jesus is saying that God is in charge of everything, and therefore your promises will only be allowed to be fulfilled if God wills that to be the case. Jesus, or at least some of the NT authors, apparently view oaths as matters of hubris, marked by unjustified confidence and determination which could so easily be usurped by God's will. The quotes from Matthew and James in the blog entry above, as well as 1 Corinthians 4:19 "... if the Lord is willing ..." unite in common accord: man's plans mean nothing unless they correspond with God's plans.

    This message is 100% different than the laws regarding vows in the OT. That is why I feel my position is justified.

    I am interested to hear another rebuttal if you have one.