God’s oaths

It occurred to me recently that one way of gauging what concept of God the Biblical writers had is to look at the oaths Yahweh makes within its pages. If you’re a believer in the Bible as inspired text, of course, they will also give you a good idea of God’s own nature. After all nobody makes an oath, with solemn intent, unless he is sure that what he swears will come to pass – and that usually means that he will do it himself.

Imagine your wife were accused by several witnesses of murder, during a night you both shared the same bed. You’re willing to bet she was with you all night all night – but you weren’t awake all the time, so you can’t be absolutely certain. What degree of uncertainty would you accept before you were willing to swear an oath in God’s name on her behalf, on pain of eternal judgement? 50%? 10% 1%? If you were the God of truth you would surely not make an oath with less than 100% certainty. I once wrote a brief story to show how crucially true that is for salvation history. A truthful God who cannot infallibly foresee or control the future could never make an oath. Unless he was also a fool.

Incidentally biblical oaths don’t only show the Jews’ beliefs about God’s abilities – they are also a statement about inspiration. It’s unthinkable that a prophet devoted to the honour of Yahweh (and concerned not to face judgement himself) would put an oath in his mouth unless he was either utterly cynical, or utterly certain that he was being given God’s own words to say. You might, conceivably, write a law based on a belief in God’s moral nature. You might warn of judgement or anticipate blessing on general principles. But who would dare make a specific oath on their God’s behalf, whether about the future or even backdated to the past? Does that not put an important light on the liberal view of inspiration as “men recording their reaction to having faith in God”?

There are getting on for twenty such oaths in the Bible, though some are referred to on more than one occasion. Almost universally they include the form “I will…”, showing that God is saying what he will do, not what he merely foresees will happen. The majority refer to significant historical events, and primarily to military defeats of one sort or another, usually by third-party nations. The Israelites therefore believed that foreign kings, and their armies, were tools in the hands of Yahweh. And indeed on several occasions the texts say so overtly, eg Jer 51.14ff, when the destruction of Babylon is forseen at the hands of the Medo-Persians.

But oaths regarding judgement also include natural causes. In ch 44, Jeremiah pronounces another oath on God’s behalf in which the idolatrous Jews will suffer not only warfare at God’s hands, but famine. This is hardly surpising, because on some occasions God shows the immutability of his oath by referring to his power over creation. That includes the Jer 44 passage, in which God speaks of his creative power and wisdom and understanding over the world, and over weather, to introduce his control over the Medes as his weapons against Babylon. Similarly in Amos 4.2, in the context of an oath swearing the northern kingdom of Israel will go into captivity, there is an immediate comparison with his forming the mountains, creating winds, revealing his thoughts to man, turning dawn to darkness and treading the high places of earth.

Notice in how such passages God’s detailed control of history is proven by his detailed control of the natural world, and vice versa. The validity of God’s sworn oath, apart from its simply being made in his own name as the highest possible guarantor, depends on an affirmation of God’s complete sovereignty over nature. It cannot be argued to be merely a metaphor. In the Bible God exercises exactly the same degree of control over nature that he does over human affairs and salvation history.

However, the most interesting oaths are the most important; those with the largest scope and the longest time frame. The first is God’s oath to Abraham in Genesis ch 22, expanded to Isaac in ch 26. This promises him blessing, countless descendants, the defeat of his enemies and possession of their cities, and that Abraham will be a blessing to all nations. The land of Canaan is included specifically in ch 26. This oath is renewed in Jeremiah 11.5, and of course applied to the New Covenant by Paul in Galatians. The whole of the book of Genesis thereafter is about the threats to that promise from rulers and armies, natural phenomena, and the failures of Abraham and his family themselves. God’s overall control is stated (in a very Thomistic way!) near the end by Joseph, who says that what his brothers intended for harm was intended by God for good, for the preservation of many lives – but especially the lives on which the oath of God depended. Now consider how many more situations must fall out just right over the centuries in order to bring Israel into actual possession of Canaan, to restore them after exile according to Jeremiah’s restatement of the oath, and to see Abraham’s “seed” become the one through whom the promise of blessing to all nations was finally (or will be finally) fulfilled, as Paul teaches.

I believe every Old Testament writer was well aware that the framework of their history was the outworking of God’s oath to Abraham. That’s why they recorded it as religious literature. They therefore had a very high view of his providence indeed. Yahweh was more than the God who hung in there with his suffering people – he was the God who swore and kept oaths.

The same is true of the covenant oath made to King David, one later version of which is stated in Psalm 132.11ff; that he would place one of David’s descendants on his throne forever. By anyone’s reckoning, that is a rash oath to make to a middle-eastern ruler. But it is one that, it seems to me, explains the prophets’ interest in the ups and downs of both Hebrew kingdoms, and the warts-and-all description of their kings. Somehow the oath is preserved in Judah right up till the Babylonian conquest, and even thereafter in the promises about the coming Davidic Messiah. But to maintain faith in such an oath, given the Exile and subsequent events (and the increasing Messianism of second temple Judaism shows it was maintained), one must believe in a God whose purpose can overcome absolutely any obstacle to result in (remember) a Galilean male descendant of David being born in prophesied Bethlehem and brought to his royal destiny successfully. One might also add the separate oath of Psalm 110, expounded in Hebrews, in which that same Messiah is promised an eternal priesthood “after the order of Melchizedek”. That’s a riskier promise than tomorrow’s weather forecast, to be sure.

Finally (space permits no more) let me mention the eschatological oath of Isa 45.23ff, which foretells that every knee will bow before Yahweh, that all will acknowledge him, that all his enemies will be put to shame, and that Israel will be found righteous. I remind you that this promise is applied to Jesus in Philippians 2 (and its preceding paragraph on Christ’s “kenosis” confusingly used by many modern theologians actually to deny God’s effective sovereignty, and sometimes his foresight too. How theological is that?). But I would rather reflect on just what foresight and power is required to be able to make such an oath about the whole human race. If this is the God whose mode of being is just like ours only more so, it’s so much more-so as to be no easier to encompass than the mysteries of the God of classical theism.

One thought in my mind as I considered this matter was the widespread popular teaching that God, in sending Jesus to be a man, necessarily took a risk that Jesus would, as a man, fail in his ministry. Well, that seems entirely consistent with neotheism, and maybe comforts us in thinking that God is even like us in risking his Son to a possibly unsuccessful cause. But looking at the matter in terms of God’s promises, which in at least three major cases hinge directly on the success of Jesus’s mission, I have to ask: what percentage risk would it take to make God foolish enough to swear even one oath on his own truthfulness, let alone three?

50%? 10%? 1%?

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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