Hebrew In Israel | Oath In The Bible – Learn Torah

oath definition, oath meaning, oath taking, oaths in the bible, swear an oath, what is a vow, what is an oath,

Hebrew In Israel | Oath In The Bible – Learn Torah

Yoel Halevi No Comments

אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ תִּירָא, אֹתוֹ תַעֲבֹד; וּבוֹ תִדְבָּק, וּבִשְׁמוֹ תִּשָּׁבֵעַ.

You are to fear YHWH your God, serve him, cling to him and swear by his name”.  Devarim (Deuteronomy) 10:20

One of the most controversial topics in the Jewish world, and nowadays in the Christian Torah keeping world, is the use of the name in everyday life.  Regardless of the dispute about how to pronounce the name (something I will not touch on in this article), there is an important part of life where the name is to be used, and we are commanded by Torah to use it.

Ordeal By The Name

One of the ways peoples confirmed that one is speaking the truth, or is guilty or not guilty of a crime, is by putting the person in an ordeal.  The ordeal could be looking for signs in everyday life items, or even putting the person in question at risk by attempting to drown them (see code of Hammurapi 129- Malul, 2010, 137).  The Torah clearly objects to magic and life threatening situations, and hence prefers that a person will have accountability before God by making a vow in the name of YHWH.  By invoking the name, the person is taking a great risk by placing God as a witness to his or her deeds.


Vowing In The Name

The simple meaning of Deut 10:20 is that we are expected to vow/oath in the name of YHWH to affirm the truth of something.  Vowing that something is true or false was an act common in the ancient world, and survived for a very long time in Europe, and to this very day in the more watered down version of “so help me God”.

The idea behind this act is placing oneself at risk by invoking God’s name to attest to the truth of things.  In many cases one would only hint to the full oath/vow, and not actually invoke the threat on oneself.

Another important point, and this is the big one for our days, is that we are actually expected to say the name in these situations.  The command in the ten commandments not to take God’s name in vain is directed to this matter (Shemot 20:7).  However, when one is using God’s name in truth, there is no problem in doing such an act.  More so, the verse is encouraging us to use the name, and have His name on our lips.

Historically speaking, oath formulas were discovered in letters written in the first temple.  We find the formula חיהוה as a commonplace oath taken by the writers.  This form is found in the Tanakh as חי יהוה in a separated form, however in the first temple they combined the two Yuds together (assimilation) and spoke the phrase as one word.

The formula חיהוה literally translates as “As YHWH lives”.  One may argue that the idea standing behind this wording is to uphold the truth as an absolute the same way God’s existence is an absolute fact.


Using The Name In Everyday Life

Scribes living during the first temple would, in practice, write whatever the person who commissioned them to write would say.  This is evident for example from the farmer’s plight discovered in the fort of Hashavyahu which is near Yavne-Yam in the coastal plain of Israel.  In the letter, the speaker is complaining against a man to whom he owes a debt.  The letter rambles and repeats many words, showing that the speaker was in distress.  The important part to us is the fact that the writer is writing exactly what the speaker is saying, and not giving us an abridged or corrected version (Ahituv, 1992, 96-100).

The same can be found in the letters of Lachish (6th century B.C.E), and specifically in letter 3 line 9.

וכיאמר אדני לא ידעתה קרא ספר חיהוה אם נסה

“And if my lord shall say “I do not know (how to read) a letter, as YHWH lives if I am trained (in reading, which I am)”.

The speakers dictated to a scribe what was on their mind, and the writer placed on the clay letter everything which was said.  In the letters we see multiple times where the speaker uses the formula חיהוה, which should be understood as actually using the name to affirm the said words (Tor-Sinai, 1987, 53;71-72).


The Severity Of Vows And Oaths

Another oath formula common in the Hebrew text is בי נשבעתי– in myself I vow.  The idea behind this is that one vows in their own existence (and de facto their life) that they will do something.  בי is a compound preposition with the first person pronominal suffix indicating the principal which is the vehicle of the oath.  When an oath is made, something needs to be the collateral to make sure the oath stands true.  When one uses this oath they technically place their own life on the line.  Similarly, oaths in the ancient world would have a symbolic animal killed as a symbol that if the oath is broken, the breaker will die.  This principle demonstrates that oaths and vows were considered to be a very serious matter.  We find this principle in Qohelet 5:4

טוֹב, אֲשֶׁר לֹאתִדֹּרמִשֶּׁתִּדּוֹר, וְלֹא תְשַׁלֵּם

Better not to make a vow than to make a vow and not discharge it

Neder and Shevu’a

Just to complete the subject, one must attend to two important words in Hebrew.  The first one is Neder נֶדֶר which is an oath over something which will be done in the future.  The second word is Shevu’a שְׁבֻעָה (not to be confused with Shavu’a שבוע “Week”), which represents the idea of swearing something did or did not happen in the past.  A Neder is mostly common with people promising God or man that they will do or not do something.  A Shevu’a is commonly used in court sessions where one must take an oath about past situations which they are giving testimony on.  People would also give an oath to one another in everyday life to affirm that they did or did not do something.  However, a Shevu’a can be used to oath that one will also do or not do something for/to/with someone, which adds some obscurity to the difference between the two terms in common language in the past and even today.  We see this problem in Numbers 30:3

אִישׁ כִּי יִדֹּר נֶדֶר לַיהוָה, אוֹ הִשָּׁבַע שְׁבֻעָה לֶאְסֹר אִסָּר עַלנַפְשׁוֹ, לֹא יַחֵל, דְּבָרוֹכְּכָל הַיֹּצֵא מִפִּיו יַעֲשֶׂה

when a man makes a vow (Neder) to YHWH or formally obligates himself (Shevu’a) by swearing an oath, he is not to break his word but is to do everything he said he would do

We see from this text that the difference between the two terms in many cases in blurry.  Why this happened is unclear, but it is possible that the Torah is reflecting the linguistic issue in common language where people did not differentiate between the two terms.


אחיטוב שמואל, אסופת כתובות עבריות, ירושלים, מוסד ביאליק, 1992

טור-סיני נפתלי, תעודות לכיש, ירושלים, מוסד ביאליק, 1987

מלול מאיר, ״ואלה המשפטים אשר תשים לפניהם״ קובצי הדינים ואוספי משפטים אחרים מן המזרח הקדום, חיפה, פרדס, 2010

To expand on oath formulas in Biblical Hebrew:

Conklin, Blane, Oath Formulas in Biblical Hebrew, Linguistic Studies in Ancient West Semitics Vol.5, Winona Lake, Eisenbrauns, 2001

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