Survey Studies in Reformed Theology
Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
Nomology: Lesson 6 – Of Lawful Oaths and Vows
by Pastor Bob Burridge ©2001, 2011, 2013
Truth is rooted in the nature of God
Westminster Confession of Faith 22 – Lawful Oaths and Vows
I. A lawful oath is a part of religious worship, wherein, upon just occasion, the person swearing solemnly calleth God to witness what he asserteth, or promiseth, and to judge him according to the truth or falsehood of what he sweareth.
II. The name of God only is that by which men ought to swear, and therein it is to be used with all holy fear and reverence. Therefore, to swear vainly, or rashly, by that glorious and dreadful Name; or, to swear at all by any other thing, is sinful, and to be abhorred. Yet, as in matters of weight and moment, an oath is warranted by the Word of God, under the new testament as well as under the old; so a lawful oath, being imposed by lawful authority, in such matters, ought to be taken.
III. Whosoever taketh an oath ought duly to consider the weightiness of so solemn an act, and therein to avouch nothing but what he is fully persuaded is the truth: neither may any man bind himself by oath to anything but what is good and just, and what he believeth so to be, and what he is able and resolved to perform. [Yet it is a sin to refuse an oath touching any thing that is good and just, being imposed by lawful authority.]
IV. An oath is to be taken in the plain and common sense of the words, without equivocation, or mental reservation. It cannot oblige to sin; but in anything not sinful, being taken, it binds to performance, although to a man’s own hurt. Nor is it to be violated, although made to heretics, or infidels.
V. A vow is of the like nature with a promissory oath, and ought to be made with the like religious care, and to be performed with the like faithfulness.
VI. It is not to be made to any creature, but to God alone: and, that it may be accepted, it is to be made voluntarily, out of faith, and conscience of duty, in way of thankfulness for mercy received, or for the obtaining of what we want, whereby we more strictly bind ourselves to necessary duties; or, to other things, so far and so long as they may fitly conduce thereunto.
VII. No man may vow to do anything forbidden in the Word of God, or what would hinder any duty therein commanded, or which is not in his own power, and for the performance whereof he hath no promise of ability from God. In which respects, popish monastical vows of perpetual single life, professed poverty, and regular obedience, are so far from being degrees of higher perfection, that they are superstitious and sinful snares, in which no Christian may entangle himself.
Speaking the truth is a way of life
A person’s word is not always looked upon as being very reliable. Lying to serve one’s own purpose is very common. People regularly suspect they are being lied to in sales situations, when signing contracts, when being exposed to advertising, and in daily conversations. This should not characterize the Christian life style.
Truth is rooted in the nature of God
At the root of the problem is an understanding about truth which makes it independent of an absolute point of reference. Either there is an absolute determinant of reality, or there is not. If there is no such standard, then truth becomes a flexible matter to be fit into the way we perceive reality around us. This would mean that truth is different to different people at different times. Reality becomes what a person thinks it to be at the moment he speaks. Or it becomes what appears to fit best within his larger constructions of the universe. On the other hand, if there is an absolute measure of what is true, then either it is found in God as Creator, or in some other independent standard embedded in the physical universe itself.
Biblically we learn that God made all things and upholds all things. Therefore, truth is the way he knows things to be. What agrees with the mind of God on any matter is therefore “true” by definition. Reality is what God knows things to be.
This means that truth is never created, it can only be discovered. The means of its discovery is revelation both general and special. Our senses, conscience, and reason are the means by which general revelation reaches our understanding. The problem is in the fallen state that processes what comes in to our senses. It is necessarily imperfect and is bound always to produce distortions. Special revelation gives those regenerated by grace an objective means for correcting the errors of their finite and fallen perceptions. (For definitions of these different kinds of revelation, see Unit One of this Syllabus, “Prolegomena”, the lesson on “Revelation”)
The revelation made by God is always our source of truth and is always reliable. It is directly stated in Titus 1:2 that God cannot lie. It would contradict his own nature and bring his attributes into internal conflict with one another if he spoke things which were untrue. If it could be conceived that God could lie, then there would be some absolute standard above and outside of God to which his words and knowledge must conform. Since there is no such authority higher than and external to God, we can know and rely upon his word as the infallible standard.
Since truth is such a fundamental attribute of God it must be honored by his creatures in all they represent as true. All rational beings are under obligation to reflect this divine attribute and are therefore required to be honest.
The ninth commandment summarizes this moral principle in warning us never to bear false testimony against another person. This fundamental moral obligation is often repeated in Scripture so that there can be no question about its nature.
Zechariah 8:16 “Speak the truth to one another”
Ephesians 4:25 “laying aside falsehood, speak truth, each one of you, with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.”
There can never be a time or situation when truth is not the morally right thing to declare. Dr. Charles Hodge, in his Systematic Theology says, “A man who violates truth sins against the very foundation of his moral being. … Truth is at all times sacred, because it is one of the essential attributes of God. Truth is … the very substratum of Deity.” (Vol. III, chapter XIX, section 13)
Lying is a characteristic of Satan and his kingdom. This is openly declared by our Lord when in John 8:44 he said of the Devil, “… he is a liar, and the father of lies.”
Satan lied to Eve about God’s word concerning the forbidden tree. He tempts us to substitute immoral pleasure for moral pleasure as if it would be better for us. He calls us to believe doctrines that make God out to be other than he reveals himself to be. He would convince us to believe that we are not as corrupted by sin as God reveals. He would make us doubt that the gospel is sufficient to deliver us, or that it does not require a living faith and repentance as its certain evidences. He tries to convince us to behave either with a pious, judgmental legalism, or with a loose permissiveness. The redeemed in Christ must love truth, for truth is of God.
An oath is a solemn promise or pledge made by one person to another. But it is more than a mere statement of intent. It includes a stated or implied judgment if the promise or pledge is not honored.
It is proper to take oaths.
As a foundation for understanding what part an oath ought to play in our lives, it is helpful to look to a few places where our Lord expounded upon the meaning and application of the moral law of God.
Matthew 5:33-37 Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; and anything beyond these is of evil.
This passage is often abused by some who would deny that oaths are proper for our age. They would read it to be an abrogation of a previously binding moral principle. But clearly Jesus was not changing the law in this address. His purpose was to clear up a false interpretation of the law which was being promoted at that time, and to reaffirm the moral principle behind the written words of Scripture.
Some Jews at that time had come to believe that only certain oaths were binding and that some were more binding than others. The Rabbis classified oaths into these three categories: binding, somewhat binding, and not binding.
They taught that the only binding oaths were those made in a particular form depending upon the authority by which they were sworn. The truly binding oaths were those made in the name of God. To avoid the burden of being obligated by one’s words, it became common to swear by lesser authorities such as by heaven, by earth, or by Jerusalem.
Similar expressions are used today as people swear that what they are saying is the truth. They bind themselves that it is truth by calling upon God as witness, or by calling upon lesser standards seeming to imply judgment upon them if they are lying. They might say, “I swear that its the truth,” or “I cross my heart…” perhaps even invoking death with words like, “I hope to die,” or “may lightning strike me.”
We have often learned to be most cautious around those who swear in such a manner. Usually it is because they do not have a reputation for loyalty to their word. Therefore they believe they need to put their words into some form of an oath in order to convince others to believe them.
Jesus reaffirmed the binding nature of oaths while correcting their abuse in Matthew 23.
Matthew 23:16-22 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obligated.’ You fools and blind men; which is more important, the gold, or the temple that sanctified the gold? And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering upon it, he is obligated.’ You blind men, which is more important, the offering or the altar that sanctifies the offering? Therefore he who swears by the altar, swears both by the altar and by everything on it. And he who swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it. And he who swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it.”
Notice the contrasts reflected in the way some viewed which authority as binding for an oath:
|the temple||the temple gold|
|the altar||the sacrifice|
Jesus pointed out the error of such impossible distinctions. The categories had not come from God’s word. They were derived from the convenient inventions of men who would like to excuse themselves from the binding nature of their promises.
In the Matthew 5 passage Jesus added that even when a person swears by his own head, God is not excluded as witness. No man can change the actual nature of the hairs of his head. God alone is sovereign over such things and therefore we involve him in the oath. Whenever we swear invoking some authority to back up our word we bring the Lord of the universe into our oath.
Fundamentally, Jesus is teaching that an oath ought to be reserved for specially solemn occasions and not simply used to convince people that we are not lying, which may be necessitated by our less than reliable reputation. In our ordinary activities we should avoid oaths. Our word should be sufficient without swearing by some authority. Our reputation should cause people to trust us. Our distinction as lovers of truth should declare our ultimate respect for the God of truth. We should simply speak truth without feeling the need to always put it in the form of an oath. Make sure our “yes” is a sincere “yes”, our “no” an honest “no”.
Jesus did not say that an oath, everything stronger than “yes, yes,” is sinful. He said that it comes from evil, not that it is evil. The need to strengthen the sound of our promises with oaths is the product of pervasive lying. This evil generates the perceived need for trivial oath taking to convince others to give their trust.
God’s word shows that oaths are very proper when taken on extraordinary occasions.
Numbers 30:2 “If a man makes a vow to the Lord, or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.”
Deuteronomy 10:20 “You shall fear the LORD your God; you shall serve Him and cling to Him, you shall swear by His name.”
There is also an important warning in the law that oaths must be taken very seriously and given in sincerity. Leviticus 19:12 says, “you shall not swear falsely by My name, so as to profane the name of your God;”
There are many examples of oaths in Scripture.
They were used by God in the disclosing of his covenant:
- Abraham (Genesis 14:22-24; 21:23,24; 24:3,9)
- Isaac (Genesis 26:31)
- Jacob (Genesis 31:53; 28:20-22)
- Joseph (Genesis 47:31; 50:5)
- Princes (Joshua 9:15)
- see also (Judges 21:5; Ruth 1:16-18; 2 Samuel 15:21; 1 Kings 18:10)
- Jesus used a common oath form when he said “Verily, Verily I say…”
- Jesus agreed to the oath proposed by the High Priest. (Matthew 26:63)
God’s own promises are often sealed with an oath made by nothing higher than himself. See Luke 1:73, Acts 2:30, Hebrews 3:11, 18; 4:3; and …
Hebrews 6:16-17, “men swear by one greater than themselves, and with them an oath given as confirmation is an end of every dispute. In the same way God, desiring even more to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His purpose, interposed with an oath …”
As long as lying is a fact of our fallen world, oaths remain a proper form for solemn pledges made between humans. Nowhere has God told us that this law has been changed or canceled. While it is wrong to profane an oath by making trivial promises not intended to be taken seriously, a properly taken oath serves a godly purpose.
Perjury is specially forbidden.
Perjury is the act of willfully making a false oath. It is a false witness against a neighbor sealed with a solemn promise in direct violation of the 9th Commandment. This form of lying involves not only the intention to deceive, it also deprives another person the benefit of the truth when they are obligated to make a just decision based upon the facts. In a court it is a sin against the victim, against the state, and against God.
Psalm 24:3-4, “Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord? and who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, Who has not sworn deceitfully.”
Psalm 15:3, “He does not slander with his tongue, Nor does evil to his neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friend.”
Zechariah 8:16-17, “Speak the truth to one another, judge with truth and judgment for peace in your gates. Also let none of you devise evil in your heart against another, and do not love perjury; for all these are what I hate, declares the LORD.”
Partial truths are partial lies
There are times when a truth is given only in part. This withholding of important information can be intended to make a person draw wrong conclusions. Unspoken details and double meanings, or technically limited language can lead a person to impressions contrary to what is true. Such tools have been the instruments of deceivers all through the ages. Silence can be a form of deceitfully withholding truth.
Leviticus 5:1 “… if he does not tell it, he will bear his guilt.”
Psalm 101:5 “Whoever secretly slanders his neighbor, him I will destroy”
There are oaths which are proper according to God’s Word.
Witnesses are often asked to take an oath in courts of law invoking the penalty of perjury if they do not tell the truth. Church officers are asked to take oaths at their ordinations and installations. Marriage is an oath taken between the bride and groom where they promise one another to be faithful for the remainder of their lives. Marriage also involves a vow to God before witnesses. Civil magistrates also take oaths upon assuming office. These are cases where the solemnizing of promises by an oath are proper and good. But we should not degrade the oath by swearing trivially in our ordinary dealings with one another as if our word without it would not be reliable.
To disavow an oath is sin
Once an oath is taken it calls judgment upon the oath taker if he should fail to fulfill the promises made. Ezekiel 17:19 says, “thus says the Lord GOD, ‘as I live, surely My oath which he despised and My covenant which he broke, I will inflict on his head.’ ”
Since an oath is considered as a solemn pledge to someone made before God, it must be kept even if it may prove to be inconvenient or a cause of discomfort to the oath taker. Psalm 15:4 says of the virtuous man, “He swears to his own hurt, and does not change.”
Treaties made with foreign nations are a form of an oath which must not be taken lightly, even if it proves to be inconvenient. In Joshua 9:19 God’s word says, “But all the leaders said to the whole congregation, ‘We have sworn to them by the LORD, the God of Israel, and now we cannot touch them. This we will do to them, even let them live, lest wrath be upon us for the oath which we swore to them.’ ”
There are improper oaths
All our oaths must be agreeable with the Word of God. An oath can not bind us to do something that is sinful. For example, parents who made a vow to raise their children in some false religion would not be bound to that pledge once they came to know the truth of God in Christ. The former vow is contrary to what God commands. It is wrong to make an improper oath to begin with. If it is made in ignorance, a person should not consider himself bound to it. It violates a higher law which cannot be set aside by our promises. The person who has taken a foolish or improper oath must repent of it to God, and humbly submit to the consequences of the judgment of men for what ever penalties he called upon himself for failing to do what he pledged to do.
No oath between men can invalidate our holy obligations to God. If we knowingly sin to keep a vow taken in foolish ignorance, we sin doubly against God.
A vow is a solemn promise or pledge made directly by a person to God.
Vows are to be properly made.
We are warned in God’s word that our vows should be made with solemn consideration of the obligations we take upon ourselves. It is an offensive breach of respect toward God to frivolously obligate ourselves to things we do not seriously intend to carry out. We have a solemn obligation to be truthful in all the promises we make.
Deuteronomy 23:21-23 When you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay to pay it, for it would be sin in you, and the LORD your God will surely require it of you. However, if you refrain from vowing, it would not be sin in you. You shall be careful to perform what goes out from your lips, just as you have voluntarily vowed to the LORD your God, what you have promised.
God is the only authority by which we seal our oaths with one another. In the case of the vow, we make our pledge directly to him. Therefore God is a party to our vows, he is the judge over our faithfulness to them, and he is the formal witness to the promises made.
Psalm 116:14, “I shall pay my vows to the LORD.”
Ecclesiastes 5:2-5, “do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God. For God is in heaven and you are on the earth; therefore let your words be few. When you make a vow to God, do not be late in paying it, for He takes no delight in fools. Pay what you vow! It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay.”
There are some vows we make as directed by God’s word
Since these vows relate to the Christian community, they usually also involve solemn oaths we make with the other members of the congregation and the church officers.
We take vows of membership in the local church
Every Christian should unite together with spiritual brothers and sisters for mutual encouragement (Hebrews 10:24-25), and to be shepherded under the authority of those called by God to lead his church (Hebrews 13:17, Matthew 18:17-20). They must come together for Sabbath worship as the Elders call them. They should come for instruction in the word, and to unite in prayer.
When we enter into the earthly obligations and benefits of a local church fellowship we are pledging ourselves to God to be obedient to his commands given in our congregational duties. Whether it is formally spoken or not, it is a solemn vow when we join a church.
The specific wording of pledges made by members differs among the churches since God’s word does not specify the exact form. In the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Book of Church Order requires members to promise before God, the officers, and the other church members that they will be faithful in their duties as part of the spiritual family they are joining. It is therefore both an oath and a vow.
Those joining are told in the presence of the congregation (BCO 57:5), “(All of) you being here present to make a public profession of faith, are to assent to the following declarations and promises, by which you enter into a solemn covenant with God and His Church.”
Then the prospective members are asked to assent to each of 5 questions:
1. Do you acknowledge yourselves to be sinners in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, and without hope save in His sovereign mercy?
2. Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and Savior of sinners, and do you receive and rest upon Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel?
3. Do you now resolve and promise, in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit, that you will endeavor to live as becomes the followers of Christ?
4. Do you promise to support the Church in its worship and work to the best of your ability?
5. Do you submit yourselves to the government and discipline of the Church, and promise to study its purity and peace?
Such obligations are not to be taken lightly. This is not like membership in a club or agency invented by men. It is becoming a part of the local body of Jesus Christ under the authority of the officers called by God and ordained to serve as shepherds over God’s sheep. It means obligating one’s self to the loving brotherly care of every other member of the congregation even when it is difficult or inconvenient to do so. One can no more terminate a solemn vow of church membership, than a child can by mere choice decide to no longer be a part of his natural family and refuse the authority of his parents.
Most churches require membership classes so that these vows and oaths are made with a full understanding of the obligations engaged when a person joins. Church officers are wise to always examine each candidate for membership to determine that the oaths and vows they will take are being agreed to with full understanding and serious commitment.
Marriage involves a solemn vow before the Lord
Based upon the covenant bond of marriage (see for example Genesis 2:24, Romans 7:1-3, 1 Corinthians 7:1-5), a man and a woman take on solemn duties when they agree to be husband and wife. This bond is a promise to God and an oath to one another. The covenant bond of marriage is not to be taken lightly or casually. The words spoken in a Christian wedding service spell out the duties both toward God and toward one another. Those duties are agreed to with a pledge from each of the partners to be faithful to one another as long as they both shall live. Because of its nature as a duty to God as well as to one another, marriage can not be viewed as a mere temporary agreement. It is also not simply a civil arrangement or cultural tradition.
Parents take a vow for their covenant children.
Based upon the covenant bond which defines the family of the believer (see for example Genesis 17:7 and Acts 2:38-39) parents promise before God and before his church that they will endeavor to raise their children in the hearing of the gospel, and within the boundaries of the moral principles God expects of all his people. They promise to teach their children the truths of the Bible, to live before them as godly examples, to pray for them and with them regularly, and to bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. (PCA’s BCO 56:5).
Church officers take vows before the Lord
When the call of a man to the office of Elder or Deacon is confirmed, he is asked to make a vow before God which is witnessed by other officers in the presence of the people over which he will serve. He also makes certain promises as an oath to the body that holds his ordination. To violate those pledges is direct abandonment of a solemn duty to which the person has given his word.
Some treat oaths and vows as if they were trivial promises
In times of fear or threat people are sometimes tempted to rashly make a vow to God. They make solemn promises upon the condition that God delivers them from some danger or threat. It is certainly not forbidden to make such promises. However, it must be remembered that after the danger is passed, the duties remain. We do well to remember the warnings of God’s word in Deuteronomy 23:21-23 and Ecclesiastes 5:2-5 that it is better to say nothing, to make no vow, than to promise things you will not keep. Like our oaths before men, our word given to God must be made solemnly.
Some vows are not proper to make.
We may only promise what we have the authority to lay before God. A person can not make a proper vow that obligates someone else to a duty, and he cannot promise to do what he has no right to do. A child or other person who does not understand the duty to which he is asked to obligate himself should not be permitted to swear to an oath or vow.
Our promises must not presume upon God things he has not promised us. In some churches the people are asked to make financial pledges beyond what they expect to afford. Rather than giving the Tithe (10%) and more as the Lord blesses, they are told to trust God to provide more than what they expect to be able to give. However, God has not revealed that he will increase our giving based upon such an oath. To trust in what God has not promised is not biblical faith. It is an existential leap in the dark. Faith is a firm trust in what God has revealed. It is not a hope in what we would like him to do if we had our way. No one can know in advance what the Lord will give or take from him. We are warned against such an attitude by God’s word. For example, James 4:13-16 says, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow, we shall go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.’ Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord will, we shall live and also do this or that.’ But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.”
It is not proper to denounce God’s provisions by taking vows of poverty.
The ownership of personal property is not evil or worldly. It is very right to own things and to use them in lawful ways as we choose (see the example of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:4). The law forbidding us from stealing implies that it is right for individuals to own things for themselves. To vow against the enjoyment of things with which God blesses us is not a proper vow.
Vows of celibacy are improper impositions for religious orders.
Though God may call some to be celibate, he does not tie that calling with his call to serve in the ministry of the church. Those religious orders which require this of all who are ordained require vows contrary to the word of God. While some are to remain single, it does not make it a more virtuous life (see Matthew 19:11, 1 Corinthians 7:2). Individually, celibacy ought to be practiced only when in God’s providence marriage is not possible or desirable for the individual.
The case of Jephthah — a foolish, careless vow
Judges 11 is a very difficult chapter to interpret. It presents a vow foolishly made, and the consequences of it when circumstances within what seemed to be the scope of the vow turned in an unexpected way.
Judges 11:1-3 introduces the person of Jephthah.
Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a valiant warrior, but he was the son of a harlot. And Gilead was the father of Jephthah. And Gilead’s wife bore him sons; and when his wife’s sons grew up, they drove Jephthah out and said to him, “You shall not have an inheritance in our father’s house, for you are the son of another woman.” So Jephthah fled from his brothers and lived in the land of Tob; and worthless fellows gathered themselves about Jephthah, and they went out with him.
The next part of the chapter explains that after a time the Ammonites came to fight against Israel. The Elders of Gilead asked Jephthah to help them fight against Ammon. They vowed before God to make him chief over Gilead if he would help. Jephthah agreed and so swore before the Lord at Mizpah. Jephthah negotiated with the King of Ammon over the land dispute. But the King of Ammon disregarded the reasoning of Jephthah. In response Jephthah made a vow to the Lord;
Judges 11:30-31, And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD and said, “If Thou wilt indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, it shall be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.”
It was common at that time to have animals roaming freely on the property of those who owned them. Archaeological studies of lot layout of primitive homes show that some had a design where the living area opened into court yards connected with walled-in pens which would allow animals to come out of the entry when someone approached. It was probably a common sight when returning home.
The Lord gave victory to Jephthah over Ammon.
Judges 11:32-33, So Jephthah crossed over to the sons of Ammon to fight against them; and the LORD gave them into his hand. And he struck them with a very great slaughter from Aroer to the entrance of Minnith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel-keramim. So the sons of Ammon were subdued before the sons of Israel.
Jephthah returned home with joy over his victory and with the expectation of thankfully fulfilling his vow to the Lord. But when he approached his house he was not greeted in the way he expected. The foolishness of his vow became evident to him.
Judges 11:34-35, When Jephthah came to his house at Mizpah, behold, his daughter was coming out to meet him with tambourines and with dancing. Now she was his one and only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter. And it came about when he saw her, that he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you are among those who trouble me; for I have given my word to the LORD, and I cannot take it back.”
The daughter understood the solemn obligations her father had placed upon himself and responded with full submissiveness. But she added a request about the timing of how the promise of the vow would be carried out.
Judges 11:36-38, So she said to him, “My father, you have given your word to the LORD; do to me as you have said, since the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the sons of Ammon.” And she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me; let me alone two months, that I may go to the mountains and weep because of my virginity, I and my companions.” Then he said, “Go.” So he sent her away for two months; and she left with her companions, and wept on the mountains because of her virginity.
When her time was completed she returned to her father as promised.
Judges 11:39-40, And it came about at the end of two months that she returned to her father, who did to her according to the vow which he had made; and she had no relations with a man. Thus it became a custom in Israel, that the daughters of Israel went yearly to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year.
We are told in Judges 12:7 that Jephthah judged Israel six years.
The moral problem has to do with understanding how Jephthah carried out his vow in verse 39. Did he kill her and offer her as a burnt offering to the Lord?
Various interpretations have been offered:
1) She took a vow of celibacy being dedicated to the Lord in service.
This interpretation is based upon the comment in verse 39 that “she had no relations with a man.” Those promoting this view say that the father gave his daughter to the Lord by dedicating her to perpetual virginity. In this way she would not fulfill her life’s purpose as a woman and implies a kind of death and sacrifice in a non-literal way.
The problem is that this suggestion is based upon ideas not supplied in the text itself. If we could give figurative meanings to things we vow, making them mean things not stated and obviously not intended when the vow was made, then all our promises would be worthless if the payment proved difficult for the debtor.
2) The word “and” in verse 31 should be translated as “or”.
The Hebrew letter vav which is usually rendered “and” in this passage can sometimes be treated as the disjunctive “but”, and on occasions as “or”. This would mean that in the original vow Jephthah left himself with the choice of either dedicating what came out of the door to the Lord, or offering it up as a sacrifice. If this is correct, then Jephthah was only obligated to dedicate his daughter to the Lord in some special way. The Young’s Literal Translation takes this approach.
The problem with this view is that it hardly explains the extreme grief seen in Jephthah when he saw his daughter come out of the house. It is possible that the idea that he would never have grandchildren by her would make him grieve, but that would also assume that the dedication he had in mind was her perpetual virginity as in the previous theory.
But this is not the usual way this grammatical construction is used. Most translations which follow ordinary Hebrew idiomatic structures do not support this interpretation. The ESV, NASB, NIV, KJV, NKJV, RSV, Confraternity, and others reject this suggestion.
3) Jephthah sacrificed his daughter as a burnt offering to the Lord.
This view takes the plain meaning of the text literally. It views the account as an historical record without moral commentary. Jephthah is never commended for what he did. No where in Scripture does it say that what he did was right or acceptable to the Lord.
The problem of course is that if he fulfilled his vow by killing her as a sacrifice, he would have violated clear mandates in God’s law. Human sacrifice is forbidden (see Deuteronomy 12:31).
However, in other historic accounts in the Bible characters do evil things which are not always identified as such. It is assumed that the reader would understand that it was sin since the law already had made it clear. The purpose of historical records is not to point out the wrongness of everything done, but to present an accurate history of how God used fallen men to further his plan of redemption and to make his glory known.
If Jephthah did sacrifice his daughter, it gives us a graphic illustration of a foolish vow. Since he was not morally permitted to kill his daughter the vow could not obligate him to do so. The vow was poorly and carelessly worded. A careless vow is sinful in itself and could not obligate a person to further sin in honor of the improper pledge. His vow should have been clearer about what he meant. He might have more properly said “… whatever comes out of the house that would please the Lord as a sacrifice would be offered.”
Yet problems remain if this is taken literally. It is hard to understand why the writer of Judges would condemn most of the immoralities of other judges, but in this case doesn’t even mention that such an abomination was wrong.
A sacrifice of this nature does not seem to fit the way sacrifices were to be made in the Levitical period. Since Jephthah was not a priest his sacrifices were to be taken to the Tabernacle. Only sacrifices that met the qualifications in God’s law could be presented there. Was Jephthah so concerned with keeping his vow but so unconcerned about the whole rest of God’s written law that he would make a forbidden sacrifice in a forbidden place and do it himself though he was not a priest?
Many also note that Jephthah’s personality does not seem to go along with rash actions. He had carefully negotiated before he accepted the job offered to him by the Elders before he left to fight the Ammonites. His careful negotiations with Ammon are considered to be a model of superb diplomacy. Only after he had exhausted every avenue of reason did he decide to go to battle. He was a good military strategist who planned carefully for his victory. And his vow was not made during a stressful moment. It was made in a time of careful deliberation before the Lord.
No real moral problem
Since the Bible doesn’t interpret this account there is no real problem presented to us other than our inability to understand the story fully. What ever actually happened may not be known to us for certain unless the Lord should someday explain it in glory. There is no moral conflict since we are only told the facts as a narrative. If he did kill his daughter, it was wrong and the Bible implies nothing that would justify his actions. If he did not kill her but did something else, then we can only speculate as to what that was.
There are portions of Scripture that are hard to fully understand. The defect is not in the Bible, since such portions accomplish their purpose even if some of the details remain a mystery to us. But stories of this nature are still useful. They teach us the history of God’s people. They show that the characters God used in unfolding his plan were real, fallible people like those we know in our own era. From accounts like this one we see how sin yields tragedy. Unclear texts often drive us to search the Scriptures and think through what is taught.
What do we learn from this account?
From this lesson we are reminded dramatically that we must be careful not to take an oath or vow carelessly. We should never make deceptive promises we hope we will not have to keep. We should not presume upon God things he has not promised us. We must not make vows that denounce the richness of God’s blessings in our lives. We should not feel obligated to keep sinful or immoral promises which should be repented of rather than carried out. And we must not vow to do things beyond our authority or ability to perform them.
We are better off not to make pledges at all than to obligate ourselves to ones we break. We ought to keep all lawful oaths and vows even if we will suffer hardships in fulfilling our obligations. We must speak as those who love the God of truth, who desire to show the value of truth, and who strive to faithfully keep the commitment we make to God and to others.
[Bible quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (1988 edition) unless otherwise noted.]