Swearing an Oath

“And Abraham said, ‘I swear.’”

(Genesis 21:24)

 

My mother always told me that it wasn’t nice to swear… Of course, she was talking about something a little different than what Abraham is doing at the moment. In this case, Abraham is taking an oath and promising an alliance between himself and Abimelek. Yet, doesn’t Jesus also say that we ought not take oaths (Matthew 5:34-37)? What shall we make of this action? Can we say that Abraham is sinning here and be done with the discussion? No, for in the very next chapter, we find God swearing an oath (Genesis 22:16, Hebrews 6:13), and we certainly don’t want to accuse God of sin, confusion, or otherwise making a mistake. So what do we do with this apparent contradiction?

The first thing that we must affirm is that Abraham is swearing an oath to a pagan leader. And, as we mentioned before, this is a mark of the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham (that the world will find their blessing in Abraham and in his seed). And along with that affirmation, then, we must conclude that what Abraham is doing is a good thing and indeed scripture never condemns him for this.

So what about Jesus’ statement that we should not swear an oath at all, but simply let our word be “yes” or “no”? The answer is found in the context of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus has been intensifying the Law of God so that we can begin to get a handle on how we are intended to live that lies behind the Moral Law and as to just how sinful we are. In verse 33, Jesus begins a section of his sermon that focuses not only on the 9th Commandment, but also the 3rd Commandment. Both of these commandments deal with a kind of false witness — one toward our fellow man and the other toward heaven, and both typically for personal gain. Often, people use the name of God as a way of getting others to believe that a contract will be fulfilled or that a promise will not be broken, and the 3rd Commandment says that this is sin. Jesus says, don’t do this, but let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no.”

Yet, in the case with Abraham, we do not find him swearing for his own gain — the same is true for the scripture that speaks of God swearing an oath. Neither God nor Abraham benefit, but the oath is designed to bless those who would hear the oath, those who would draw assurance from the fact that an oath was stated, not just a “yes” or “no,” but with the emphasis of an oath. Thus, in application, when we are debating where an oath might be permissible, the same principle holds true. Who will benefit from the oath? If you are the one who will benefit, then you are using God’s name for your own gain. But if others will benefit (as happens when you swear an oath to tell “the truth and only the truth” on the witness stand), then it does not stand out of accord with the teaching of Jesus and with the teaching of the rest of scripture.

Bottom line is that Abraham is choosing to bless Abimelek and in this blessing we find a partial fulfillment of God’s promise that the nations will find their blessing through Abraham and through Abraham’s children. As Christians, we are the descendants of Abraham (Galatians 3:9,29). The question that we must pose to ourselves is whether or not those who live in the midst of the Church would believe that we are a blessing to them. Would unbelievers say, “I never have any interest in becoming a Christian, but I am glad that the Christian Church is there because their presence is a blessing to me and to my community.” Sadly, my concern is that so many Christian churches have become inwardly focused and self-serving that this is not the case. May indeed we repent of our selfishness and live in such a way (individually and corporately) that unbelievers will come to us, as Abimelek did with Abraham, and ask for our blessings.

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