“So the servant put his hand under the thigh of Abraham his lord and he swore to him on these matters.”
Isn’t it interesting how there seems to be such a different emphasis in the Old and the New Testaments when it comes to swearing an oath. Here we find Abraham requesting his chief servant swear an oath to him regarding the journey that he will go upon looking for the woman we will later know as Rebekah. In fact, God himself commands that his people, if they swear, they shall swear by his name, Yahweh (Deuteronomy 6:13, 10:20). When the command is given about not taking the Lord’s name in vain (Exodus 20:7) it is not implying that God’s people should never use God’s name nor is it implying that we ought never swear by God’s name, but it is saying that we should not do so for vain (empty or thoughtless) purposes. The same command is given in Leviticus applying to all oaths taken (Leviticus 5:4) and clarified later that we are not to swear by God’s name falsely (Leviticus 19:12; Psalm 24:4). In fact, when it comes to God’s wrath in judgment, He puts those who swear falsely in the same category as sorcerers, adulterers, and those who abuse the widow and orphan (Malachi 3:5).
Yet, when we get to the New Testament, we find Jesus speaking these words:
“Again, it was spoken in ancient times, ‘You shall not perjure yourself, but you shall pay out to the lord your oath. But I say to you do not swear at all — neither by heaven for it is the throne of God, nor by the earth for it is the stool for his feet, nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great king. Neither should you swear by your head for you do not have the power to make one hair white or black. Instead, let your word be, ‘yes, yes’ and ‘no, no;’ anything more than this is from the evil one.”
So how do we reconcile these two things? Is this just a change in the way that God expects us to do business or is there something else going on here? The answer to these questions seems to be rooted in the context of what Jesus is teaching as well as in the use of the term “lord.”
In New Testament Greek, the term ku/rioß (kurios) or “lord” has both a general and a specific meaning. In terms of the general meaning, it can refer to anyone who is in authority over you — an employer, a master, a leader, etc… It can also be used as a simple term of respect, much like we would use the term “sir” today. Its specific use is essentially the superlative of the idea of lordship and is only used of God. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint or the LXX, the word ku/rioß (kurios) was used to translate both the Hebrew words yˆnOdSa (Adoniy — usually written as “Adonai”) and hwhy (Yahweh). Thus, when the specific use of the term ku/rioß (kurios) is applied to Jesus in the New Testament, we recognize it to be the application of the covenantal name of God to our Lord and Savior.
The practical question, though, is which use of the term ku/rioß (kurios) is Jesus intending in this passage? Typically, translations of the New Testament have seen this as a specific use of the term “Lord” thus have written it with a capital “L.” This is based on the references to the Third Commandment that are found in the Old Testament in terms of not vowing falsely when you use the Lord’s name (see references above). And while that might seem the plain reading of the text at the onset, the statement that Jesus makes is not implying that one is using the Lord’s name as part of the oath, but instead it is toward the lord that one is making said vow. Thus, it seems that it is better to understand this passage as a comment on the Ninth Commandment, not on the Third. In turn, the “lord” in reference, being the one to whom you are making an oath, is a human master or leader.
A reading focused on Jesus’ interpretation of the Ninth Commandment would also be consistent with the rest of this section of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus addresses the Sixth Commandment (Matthew 5:21-26), the Tenth Commandment (Matthew 5:27-30), the Seventh Commandment (Matthew 5:31-32), and the Eighth Commandment (Matthew 5:38-42) respectively. This covers Jesus’ interpretation of the second half of the Law (Commandments 6-10) if understood in this way. Jesus then teaches that we ought not ever be in a position where we need to take oaths to confirm the truthfulness of our words — in other words, because we build a reputation where our “yes is yes” and our “no is no,” there is no question of a need to swear an oath.
If that is so, then we are still left with a bit of a quandary. If Jesus is teaching us that we should never need to swear, why here is Abraham still demanding the oath from his servant? Surely Abraham knows the character of his chief servant by this point in his life. The easy out is simply to say that Abraham slipped in his faith and demanded something from Eliezer that he ought not have demanded. Yet that answer is a bit of a cop-out based not only on the context of Abraham’s request but also on the various teachings of scripture calling for oaths in God’s name. It is also tempting to draw a line of division between different kinds of oaths. It could be argued, and rightly so, that this oath that Abraham is swearing his servant to is an oath in connection with the covenantal promises of God, not simply a human transaction to which Jesus (and the Ninth Commandment) arguably is speaking. While at the onset, this might seem to be appealing, it creates divisions that seem a bit artificial to the reading of the text.
The better answer seems to be the way in which Jesus is interpreting the Ten Commandments in the Sermon on the Mount. He is deliberately intensifying them not only to show the intention behind the commandment, but also to make sure that none of us walk away from the Ten Commandments feeling as if we have somehow satisfied the command by satisfying the letter of the law. Thus, Jesus states that if you are angry with another person, you are guilty of breaking the law against murder; if you have lusted in your heart, you are guilty of adultery, and thus, if you have taken an oath by anything that is outside of your sphere of control (which, apart from your word is not much), you have broken the commandment about not bearing false witness.
And here we have an answer, I believe, that suits the context of Abraham’s action while also understanding what Jesus is trying to show us in the Sermon on the Mount. Abraham is a man of faith, but he is also a sinner — as we are all. Indeed, we should strive to live a sinless life, but the reality is, we all fall short of the mark in our daily activities and we need to take that principle and set it before us always.
So, then, what ought we do when making a contract with another? Should we take an oath or not? The best answer to that is first, never bear false witness against another so that they want anything more than a “yes” or “no” from you along with a handshake or a signature. Yet, if their conscience is burdened or if they do not know you and desire a greater assurance, said oath may be taken, but do not take the oath on heaven and earth or even on the hairs of your own head. First of all, you neither made them nor can control them. Second of all, there is someone higher and greater than the heavens and the earth — compared with whom the heavens and the earth are rather puny. Indeed, God states (and Jesus does not contradict) that we ought to swear an oath by the name of Yahweh, the God and creator of all things. He is the superlative of superlatives and you belong to him. It is not that your oath will compel Yahweh to complete what you cannot complete, but your oath, taken in holy reverence for the one in whose name you are taking it, ought to compel you to truth and action. May your word be your bond, but if you are compelled to swear an oath, do not do so by anything in creation for the earth and the stars cannot compel you to action; God can and will.