From Slaves to Soldiers

Chapter 30

In the archaic scheme of things – the economy of mutual giving – the objects exchanged have both an objective and a subjective significance; they not only create a partnership, they also serve to insure it. They give rise to rights and obligations. They are pledges. Vows and oaths have the same archaic structure. They create and solidify partnerships based on reciprocal giving. One swears by specific things, and in the exchange these pledges become extremely important. They guarantee the peace, subjectively and objectively. The bond of order they establish is affirmed in the oath itself, so that the oath, like the things by which it is sworn, is part blessing and part curse: it obligates one to a bond, and binds one to an obligation. A vow is an unconditional promise to do something specific—good or evil.[1]

Moses repeated Yahweh’s instructions to his chosen people about oaths and vows. Yeshua/Jesus[2] told his followers not to take an oath at all because they didn’t take into account the Supreme Being and his place in our lives. Moses told Israel that when someone made a vow or bound himself with an oath that person was obligated to keep his word. “Honesty is important because it creates peace of mind and promotes relationships of trust. The benefits of honesty extend to personal health, relationships and society at large. The opposite, lying, leads to distrust, conflict, corruption and anxiety.[3]

When a young girl still living in her father’s house made a vow and her father didn’t object, she was bound to her vow or pledge, but if her father did object and forbid her to keep the vow Yahweh wouldn’t hold her responsible. If she married after she made a vow or some impulsive promise or pledge, and her husband heard of it but didn’t say anything to her, then she had to make good on whatever she vowed or pledged. However, if her husband interceded when he heard of it, he could cancel the vow or rash promise that bound her and she was released from keeping her word.

A widow or divorced woman didn’t have the privilege of a man to intercede for her and must keep her word. However a woman who lived with her husband and made a vow or swore to do something her husband could stop it immediately and neither would be guilty. If he heard about her vow or oath and it was okay with him at first but decided later to object and not allow her to fulfill the vow or keep her word he would be guilty before Yahweh. When a man consented to his wife’s vow or oath – by either word or silence – he was binding her to the oath or vow.

“These are the things that you shall do:  Speak the truth to one another; render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace; do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath, for all these things I hate, declares the Lord.”[4]

A reformed Bible study says it very well. “Oaths and vows are commended in Scripture, but not every oath or vow is legitimate. Certainly, a vow to commit a sin must not be kept, for we are never to break God’s law. David realized this when Abigail’s actions kept him from his vow to kill Nabal[5]. Moreover, no one should swear an oath indiscriminately or frivolously. The Westminster Confession of Faith says oaths are appropriate only in “matters of weight and moment”[6]. This reflects a biblical pattern wherein oaths are commonly associated with covenants[7]. We should make vows only in matters of great and lasting consequence, such as marriages or court proceedings. Yet, we are left with some New Testament texts that, on first glance, seem to forbid oaths in our day. Understanding common first-century Jewish practices helps us see what our Savior was getting at in His teaching on oaths and vows. To keep people from breaking the law’s rules regarding our promises[8], Jewish teachers and leaders invented a system by which they could determine whether a vow had to be kept. Extrabiblical literature indicates that many rabbis did not consider it a sin to break a vow if it was not made explicitly in the name of God. Oaths made in the name of heaven or even the gold of the temple were not regarded as ultimately binding. As we might expect from sinners, this led to people making oaths by persons or objects other than God to give them an out in case they did not keep their word. Jesus[9] pointed out the foolishness of this teaching by reminding His audience of God’s omnipresence. People might think they can get out of their obligations because they did not swear an oath in the name of the Lord, but the Creator is present with those things by which people might swear, and He is the sovereign Creator of all. All things exist by His authority, so to swear an oath at all is to finally swear an oath in His name. A mere change of words does not give one a “get-out-of-oaths-free” card. Jesus’ teaching leads us to conclude that it is better not to make a vow than to swear an oath that we have no intention of keeping. It also reinforces the point that oaths and vows should not be made on just any occasion, but they should be reserved only for occasions of great import and lasting significance. In all circumstances, we must strive to keep our word.”[10]


Summary of chapter 30

The instruction for vows and oaths was given from Yahweh, through Moses to the leaders of the tribes of Israel, for them to communicate to all the others in Israel. A vow before Yahweh was serious. Yahweh clearly commanded that his chosen people should be careful to keep their vows, and to fulfill every oath they made. As Yeshua taught, Yahweh’s people should be so committed to integrity that our words don’t need an oath to give them legitimacy or validity. Many vows are just plain thoughtless. When someone says, “I’ll never do that again” it is a foolish vow.

Moses specified vows that are not binding. A young woman under her father’s household was not binding unless approved of in some way by her father, who had the right to override her decision. A married woman’s vow was not binding, unless it was authorized in some way by her husband,. A husband had the right to overrule his wife because he was responsible for her actions. A widow or divorced woman had no male to take the responsibility, so she was bound by her vows.

If a man consented, by word or silence, for his wife’s vow or oath he became responsible. When Yahweh declares someone to be in a position of rightful authority, others are expected to submit to that authority, the head also is accountable before Yahweh for the result. Yahweh never confers authority without responsibility.


Prayer: You, my God, prescribed the right way to live and expect me to live it. Keep my steps steady on the course you set. I thank you for speaking straight from your heart and I learn the pattern of your righteous ways. I’m going to do what you tell me to do and know that you won’t ever walk off and leave me. A person can live a clean life by carefully reading the map of your Word. I’m single-minded in pursuit of you. Please don’t let me miss the road signs you’ve posted. I’ve banked your promises in the vault of my heart so I won’t sin myself bankruptcy. Be blessed, God and train me in your ways of wise living. I’ll transfer to my own lips all the counsel that comes from your mouth. I delight far more in what you tell me about living than in gathering a pile of riches. I ponder every morsel of wisdom from you and attentively watch how you’ve done it. I relish everything you’ve told me of life. I won’t forget a word of it. My God, teach me lessons for living so I can stay the course. Give me insight so I can do what you tell me. Make my whole life one long, obedient response. Guide me down the road of your commandments. I love traveling this freeway. Give me a bent for your words of wisdom. Keep me from the desire to pile up loot. Divert my eyes from toys and trinkets and invigorate me on the pilgrim way. Let your love, my God, shape my life. Your truth never goes out of fashion. It’s as up-to-date as the earth when the sun comes up. Your Word and truth are dependable as ever because that’s what you ordered—you set the earth going. If your revelation hadn’t delighted me so I would have given up when the hard times came. But I’ll never forget the advice you gave me. You saved my life with those wise words. You saved me and I am all yours. By your words I can see where I’m going. They throw a beam of light on my dark path. I’ve committed myself and I’ll never turn back from living by your righteous order. You are right and you do right, my God. Your decisions are always right on target. You rightly instruct us in how to live ever faithful to you. Your promise has been tested through and through, and I, your servant, love it dearly. [11]



Things to think about

  1. How do you think Yahweh’s instructions for vows and oaths relates to the following paragraph? “Fostering positive values is essential for leading a healthy life and helps to get rid of negative qualities. Therefore, an individual who practices honesty in his or her actions and speech is able to live openly and be truthful to others. This earns him or her respect and trust among other people and their peers. More importantly, honesty is a crucial quality in building stable and lasting relationships. It also has a major part in leadership and the judicial system of any country.[12]
  2. Since, in the archaic scheme of things, oaths and vows created a partnership why do you think a man could nullify his wife or daughter’s vow or oath if he did it immediately?
  3. Since honesty is a crucial quality in building stable and lasting relationships why do you think a man was allowed to annul a vow made by his wife or daughter that might include someone else?
  4. Why do you think it was important of the man to invalidate the vow or oath as soon as he heard about it? Why couldn’t he think about it for a while and decide later if he wanted his wife or daughter held to it?
  5. Why do you think Yeshua/Jesus said that it was better not to swear an oath by anything at all?
  6. What vows or oaths are good to make and which ones are not good?
  7. Why is it just as important to keep the word a person gives in a secular environment, as it is to keep the vows made in a church building? Was Yahweh telling his chosen people to only keep their word if they made their vow to him or swore an oath in his name? Do you think what Yeshua told his followers about swearing oaths made what Yahweh told ancient Israel any clearer?




[2] Matthew 5:33-37

[4] Zechariah 8:16, 17

[5] 1 Sam. 25

[6] 22.2

[7] Gen. 26:3; Ps. 132:11

[8] Num. 30:1–2

[9] Matthew 5:33–37


[11] From Psalm 119



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s