What do you think of when you hear the word “swear”? In our culture, swearing is usually associated with using foul language; thus, most of us have a negative view of swearing. In Bible times; however, swearing was usually associated with taking oaths; therefore, people in Bible times typically had a positive view of swearing.
Nevertheless, by the first century AD, the Jewish religious leaders were abusing oaths; thus, the book of James contains a verse that prohibits us from using oaths at all. In the process of banning oaths, this verse also gives us some insight into the Biblical standard of honesty that we should strive to meet.
Let’s start by looking at an example of swearing an oath so that we understand what swearing typically meant to people in Bible times, then we will see what all this means to us and our standard of honesty. Let’s start in Genesis 47.
Gen. 47:29 ¶ When the time for Israel to die drew near, he called his son Joseph and said to him, “Please, if I have found favor in your sight, place now your hand under my thigh and deal with me in kindness and faithfulness. Please do not bury me in Egypt,
First of all, notice that this took place when Israel was close to death. Israel called Joseph to him, …and asked that he not be buried in Egypt. The next verse tells us where he did want to be buried.
Gen. 47:30 but when I lie down with my fathers, you shall carry me out of Egypt and bury me in their burial place.”
Jacob wanted to be buried with his fathers. Next we read Joseph’s response.
Gen 47:30b And he said, “I will do as you have said.”
Here Joseph clearly agreed to his father’s request, but Jacob took it a step further.
Gen. 47:31 He said, “Swear to me.” So he swore to him. Then Israel bowed in worship at the head of the bed.
Notice the word “swear”. Notice the word “swore”. What happened here is that Jacob had a request, but in order to make sure that his request would be carried out, he made Joseph swear to do it. In their culture, swearing an oath was considered sacred. A sworn oath was almost legally binding. Jacob asked Joseph to swear, because he knew that Joseph would not dare violate his sworn oath.
Now let’s jump ahead to Genesis chapter 49 and see how this ends. Jacob had just finished blessing his twelve sons, and once again he brought up his burial place. Notice the word “charged”.
Gen. 49:29 Then he charged them and said to them, “I am about to be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite,
Gen. 49:30 in the cave that is in the field of Machpelah, which is before Mamre, in the land of Canaan, which Abraham bought along with the field from Ephron the Hittite for a burial site.
Gen. 49:31 “There they buried Abraham and his wife Sarah, there they buried Isaac and his wife Rebekah, and there I buried Leah —
Gen. 49:32 the field and the cave that is in it, purchased from the sons of Heth.”
Gen. 49:33 When Jacob finished charging his sons, he drew his feet into the bed and breathed his last, and was gathered to his people.
Notice again the word “charging”. Jacob charged his sons, telling them not to bury him in Egypt. Let’s continue reading in chapter 50.
Gen. 50:1 ¶ Then Joseph fell on his father’s face, and wept over him and kissed him.
Gen. 50:2 Joseph commanded his servants the physicians to embalm his father. So the physicians embalmed Israel.
Gen. 50:3 Now forty days were required for it, for such is the period required for embalming. And the Egyptians wept for him seventy days.
Gen. 50:4 ¶ When the days of mourning for him were past, Joseph spoke to the household of Pharaoh, saying, “If now I have found favor in your sight, please speak to Pharaoh, saying,
Gen. 50:5 ‘My father made me swear, saying, “Behold, I am about to die; in my grave which I dug for myself in the land of Canaan, there you shall bury me.”
Notice that Joseph told Pharaoh that his father made him swear. This next sentence is what Jacob said to Joseph.
Gen 50:5b Now therefore, please let me go up and bury my father; then I will return.’”
Gen. 50:6 Pharaoh said, “Go up and bury your father, as he made you swear.”
Pharaoh understood the necessity of fulfilling a sworn oath and so he told Joseph to go up and do as his father had made him swear to do.
Gen. 50:7 ¶ So Joseph went up to bury his father, and with him went up all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his household and all the elders of the land of Egypt,
Gen. 50:8 and all the household of Joseph and his brothers and his father’s household; they left only their little ones and their flocks and their herds in the land of Goshen.
Gen. 50:9 There also went up with him both chariots and horsemen; and it was a very great company.
Gen. 50:10 When they came to the threshing floor of Atad, which is beyond the Jordan, they lamented there with a very great and sorrowful lamentation; and he observed seven days mourning for his father.
Gen. 50:11 Now when the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, saw the mourning at the threshing floor of Atad, they said, “This is a grievous mourning for the Egyptians.” Therefore it was named Abel-mizraim, which is beyond the Jordan.
Gen. 50:12 Thus his sons did for him as he had charged them;
Gen. 50:13 for his sons carried him to the land of Canaan and buried him in the cave of the field of Machpelah before Mamre, which Abraham had bought along with the field for a burial site from Ephron the Hittite.
Gen. 50:14 After he had buried his father, Joseph returned to Egypt, he and his brothers, and all who had gone up with him to bury his father.
Let’s summarize what happened here. Jacob made Joseph promise to bury him with his fathers. Joseph clearly promised to do what his father told him to do; however, Jacob took it a step further. Jacob demanded that Joseph swear to do it. Joseph did indeed swear to do as his father said. When Joseph’s father died, Joseph told Pharaoh that he had sworn a promise to his father. And Pharaoh told Joseph to go and do as he had sworn to do.
This practice of swearing oaths is found throughout the Bible. It was very common in Bible times to ask people to demonstrate the sincerity of their promise by swearing an oath. In fact, Deuteronomy even has a verse that more or less endorsed this practice.
Deut. 6:13 “You shall fear only the LORD your God; and you shall worship Him and swear by His name.
The phrase “swear by His name” indicates that this was an accepted practice.
While swearing oaths was very common in Bible times, within our culture, this is not a common practice. We typically do not swear oaths and we do not ask people to back up a promise by swearing an oath. The reason for this is the following verse from James.
James 5:12 ¶ But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment.
There is a clear command here that says “do not swear”. The reason this practice is prohibited in the church age is because by the time of Christ, the swearing of oaths was being abused. Consider the following verses from Matthew. This was Jesus talking to the scribes and Pharisees.
Matt. 23:16 ¶ “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated.’
Matt. 23:18 “And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering on it, he is obligated.’
Out of these 4 variations of swearing an oath, the scribes and Pharisees said that you were only obligated by two of them, while the other two meant nothing.
Let me illustrate this. Imagine a couple elementary age boys on the playground. The first boy puts the second boy in a headlock. The second boy promises to give the first boy a dollar if he lets go. When the first boy lets go and tries to collect his dollar, the second boy says, “My promise doesn’t count because I had my fingers crossed.”
That is essentially what the scribes and Pharisees were doing. They swore many oaths, but they had so many caveats when they swore oaths that people had no way of knowing when they were being serious and when they weren’t.
Notice the word “woe” in verse 16. Woe to you who do this. Jesus clearly disapproved of the way the scribes and Pharisees were abusing oaths. That is why James 5:12 simply prohibits the practice of swearing oaths.
Notice something else. James 5:12 also says “your yes is to be yes, and your no, no”. In other words, be honest. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Another way to look at this is that when we make promises, other people should not need an oath from us in order for them to know that we will do what we say we’re going to do.
So let me pose that as a closing question and a challenge. When we say we’re going to do something, are we known as people who will do what we say we will do, or do people know that if they really want us to do something, they need to get more than just a one time verbal promise from us?
Again, the command in James 5:12 says “your yes is to be yes, and your no, no.” Does our standard of honesty measure up to that?