Are you willing to accept a handshake agreement?

Would you buy a new appliance without a written warranty? Would you buy a new car without a written sales contract? Would you buy or sell real estate without putting the terms in writing?

In our culture, when we want to make legally binding agreements, we put them in writing. We put them in writing because we can write down the terms and conditions, we can get signatures, and then if there is a dispute, we can look at the document and prove what the agreement was and who agreed to it.

Back when the Bible was being written, it was different. Writing supplies were limited, so it was not practical to put every agreement in writing. So how did they make agreements that were legally binding? How did they make transactions? Most importantly, does any of this affect how we understand the Bible?

Genesis 21 illustrates how they made agreements 4000 years ago. The book of Hebrews explains why all this matters to us. As you read the following verses, notice the word “swear”.

Gen. 21:22 ¶ Now it came about at that time that Abimelech and Phicol, the commander of his army, spoke to Abraham, saying, “God is with you in all that you do;

Gen. 21:23 now therefore, swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my offspring or with my posterity, but according to the kindness that I have shown to you, you shall show to me and to the land in which you have sojourned.”

Gen. 21:24 Abraham said, “I swear it.”

Abimelech wanted a non-agression pact with Abraham. Unlike our culture, they didn’t put it in writing; instead, they swore an oath. It was a verbal agreement; however, unlike our culture where verbal agreements are treated casually, they treated verbal oaths with the utmost respect. Oaths were binding.

Notice the words “covenant”, “witness”, and “oath” in the following verses. “Covenant” and “oath” are used interchangeably. The word “witness” is particularly important.

Gen. 21:25 But Abraham complained to Abimelech because of the well of water which the servants of Abimelech had seized.

Gen. 21:26 And Abimelech said, “I do not know who has done this thing; you did not tell me, nor did I hear of it until today.”

Gen. 21:27 ¶ Abraham took sheep and oxen and gave them to Abimelech, and the two of them made a covenant.

Gen. 21:28 Then Abraham set seven ewe lambs of the flock by themselves.

Gen. 21:29 Abimelech said to Abraham, “What do these seven ewe lambs mean, which you have set by themselves?”

Gen. 21:30 He said, “You shall take these seven ewe lambs from my hand so that it may be a witness to me, that I dug this well.”

Gen. 21:31 Therefore he called that place Beersheba, because there the two of them took an oath.

Gen. 21:32 So they made a covenant at Beersheba; and Abimelech and Phicol, the commander of his army, arose and returned to the land of the Philistines.

Gen. 21:33 Abraham planted a tamarisk tree at Beersheba, and there he called on the name of the LORD, the Everlasting God.

Gen. 21:34 And Abraham sojourned in the land of the Philistines for many days.

Abraham wanted Abimelech to admit that Abraham had dug the well at Beersheba and that the well belonged to Abraham. In our culture, we get documents notarized in order to have proof of ownership. In Bible times, they gave property and/or swore oaths in order to have proof of ownership. In this case, Abraham and Abimelech made a covenant and Abraham set apart seven lambs as proof that Abraham owned the well.

Now read the following verses from Hebrews and notice the words highlighted in red.

Heb. 7:20 And inasmuch as it was not without an oath

Heb. 7:21 (for they indeed became priests without an oath, but He with an oath through the One who said to Him,


Heb. 7:22 so much the more also Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant.

Heb. 7:23 ¶ The former priests, on the one hand, existed in greater numbers because they were prevented by death from continuing,

Heb. 7:24 but Jesus, on the other hand, because He continues forever, holds His priesthood permanently.

Heb. 7:25 Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.

These verses tell us that Jesus saves and that He makes intercession for us. This was not communicated to us in the form that our culture uses to make agreements; however, that does not mean the promises are not certain. The author of Hebrews used the language of oaths and covenants to communicate the fact that Jesus saves because Hebrews was written to people who understood that language. They understood that oaths and covenants were legally binding. Once we understand the significance of oaths and covenants in their culture, then we can understand that these promises are certain and that God will do what He said He will do.


Further Reading

What is the value of understanding Biblical names?

Should we read ancient Bible stories?


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“Scripture quotations taken from the NASB.”