Oaths Formulas in Biblical Hebrew (Part 1)

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The following is Part 1 of a two-part guest post by Josh Westbury (PhD, Stellenbosch), a scholar-in-residence at Logos Bible Software.

What comes to mind when you hear the word “Oath”? Perhaps you think of a politician taking an oath of office, or a physician taking the Hippocratic Oath, or even someone who offers a testimony under oath in a court of law. But what exactly does the word oath mean? We might intuitively say that an oath refers to a promise. Yet an oath seems to imply something stronger. After all, whenever we make a promise we may not necessarily consider it to be an oath. In his recent book, Oath Formulas in Biblical Hebrew (Eisenbrauns, 2011), Blane Conklin provides a helpful distinction between promises and oaths:

An oath is more than a mere assertion or a mere promise. It also includes a statement of sincerity or earnestness: the person who swears the oath is committed to certain consequences or sanctions. At the very least, an oath (whether assertory or promissory) must satisfy the stakeholders that the person uttering the oath really means what she is asserting or promising (Conklin, 2).

In the Hebrew Bible, oaths served an important function, much like they do today. Although we might question what he means by a “mere” promise, Conklin is right to state that an oath provided a guarantee to the recipient that the oath-taker would fulfill his or her commitment. Failing to do so would put the oath-taker at risk of incurring punitive consequences (Conklin, 13).

Conklin observes that oath formulas consist of two basic elements: 1) a statement of sincerity, or an “authenticating element” and, 2) the content of the oath (Conklin, 4). So for example, in the familiar oath, “I solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” the authenticating element is “I solemnly swear,” while the content of the oath is “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

The authenticating element involves language and imagery that both the oath-taker and recipient/witness believe to be uniquely authoritative, thereby confirming the truthfulness of the oath’s content. In short, the authenticating element is the distinctive piece of the formula that makes an oath more than merely a promise. Conklin identified five oath formulas in the Hebrew Bible, each distinguished by a unique authenticating element. Let’s look at these briefly.

Raising of a Hand

Today, when witnesses swear an oath to tell the truth in a court of law, they typically raise their right hand. Likewise, the raising of hands serves as an authenticating element in Biblical Hebrew oath formulas. Consider Abram’s oath to the king of Sodom in Gen. 14.22-23 (English translations from Conklin. Content inside brackets […] represents elided material):

Gen. 14.22-23

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The origin story of how raising one’s hands came to be used as an authenticator remains unclear. It could have originated from the legal realm (e.g., raising one’s hands to testify), or, perhaps more likely, from the act of prayer (cf. Ps. 63.5, Dan. 12.7) (Conklin, 14). Whatever the case, by raising his hands in Gen. 14, Abram confirms to the king of Sodom that the promise that follows will be fulfilled (i.e., I will not take anything of yours, from thread to sandal thong).

Swearing

Verbs of swearing are another means for authenticating an oath, in particular the verb שָׁבַע. According to Conklin, “The explicit use of a verb of swearing in the appropriate context puts the oath-taker in a legally binding state, subject to the penalties and sanctions for breaking an oath” (Conklin, 18).

Jer. 22.5

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Verbs of swearing virtually always involve the oath-taker swearing “on” or “by” someone or something else (i.e., “I swear by X”). Moreover, Conklin notes that “… swearing ‘on’ or ‘by’ X, when the preposition בְּ is attached to X, signifies that X is being put at risk for the sake of affirming the veracity of the oath” (Conklin, 19–20).

Invocation of Witness(es)

One may also authenticate an oath by invoking a third party as witness to the oath. Consider the oath in Jer. 42.5:

Jer. 42.5

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Although most oaths of this kind invoke Yahweh as witness, Conklin notes that this authenticating element likely finds its origin in treaty curses, as seen in the cognate literature (Conklin, 18). In other words, a third party is called on to bear witness to the actions of the contracting parties in a treaty, thus motivating them to keep their oath under threat of committing perjury (Conklin, 17).

“(By) the Life of X”

The most common authenticator used in the Hebrew Bible uses the expression “X חַי” or “(By) the life of X” (lit. “life of X”), where X stands for the life of a sacred entity. This authenticating element is related to the previous type–“Invocation of Witnesses”–in that the expression “(By) the life of X” invokes a third party as witness to the oath. However, unlike the previous type, the witness is always a sacred entity when the expression “X חַי” is used (Conklin, 24).

1 Sam. 14.39

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Although most of these oaths invoke the life of Yahweh, this is not always the case, as in Gen. 42.16.

Gen. 42.16

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“Thus Will X Do to Y, and Thus Will X Add”

Finally, twelve oaths in the Hebrew Bible employ the enigmatic expression, “Thus will X do to Y, and Thus will X add”, where X is typically a deity (usually Yahweh/Elohim), and Y is either the receiver/witness of the oath, or more commonly, the oath-taker himself.

1 Sam. 3.17

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The content portion of the oath (highlighted in blue) may be introduced by a particle אִם, as in 1 Sam. 3.17, or more commonly, with the particle כִּי, as in Ruth 1.17, below.

Ruth 1.17

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Conklin highlights that this oath formula in particular presents Hebrew grammarians and translators with a few linguistic puzzles, which, when not pieced together properly, may lead to misunderstanding and even mistranslation.

In a follow-up post, I will showcase some of these linguistic problems by looking at the example of Ruth 1.17 in more detail. Moreover, I will also present some of Conklin’s creative solutions to these problems, solutions that he argues provide improved interpretations to this and other difficult passages in the Hebrew Bible.

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