Oaths Are No Joke

A commenter on my Moral Sense vs. Moral of Story post raised a question about my interpretation of I Samuel 14:

I don’t really see how the people “take Jonathan’s death sentence upon themselves.” It looks to me like they just tell Saul to his face that they’re not going to let it happen, Magna Carta style.
What did you have in mind with that phrase in their particular case?

I tried to put together a short answer but I was afraid I was coming across too tersely.  So here’s a brief expansion.  Respondeo:

It is certainly true that this story shows a struggle between king and people predicted by Samuel in chapters eight and twelve.  But to see nothing but a loyalty problem or an uprising requires stripping out all the religious language in the context.

Oath-swearing and its consequences is a universally significant theme throughout Scripture.  Human abuse of this divine action shows up in all sorts of ways, which we can roughly summarize as “Don’t swear stupid oaths.”  Judges has the best example: Jephthah’s idiotic oath traps him between killing his own daughter and becoming an oath-breaker.

Part of the power of that story is that she won’t let him do that and has him carry out the sentence of death against her.  A broken oath can’t just be shrugged off, for the Israelites or for any other ancient people.  This is one of the clearest and simplest ways to show how alien our own culture is from theirs.  Oath-breaking is serious business on par with murder.  You’ve unleashed divine power on the world and it’s going somewhere.

It’s why David reacts so violently to Joab in II Samuel 3; Joab has made David an oath-breaker by murdering Abner (the oath is implicit in the covenant language in 3:21).  David can’t just shrug and blame Joab; as king he is responsible for Joab and his oath cannot be taken back.  He’s cursed by his failure to fulfill the oath, and he transfers that curse to Joab and his family.  The curse has to go somewhere.

It’s an oath that brings about the scene at the end of chapter fourteen.  Saul swears a pretty stupid oath and Jonathan breaks it.  Jonathan doesn’t know he’s broken it at the time, and when he does find out about it he rightly regards it as a stupid and pointless oath, but that doesn’t change the fact that he broke it.  It’s somewhat like a Celtic geas in this regard: it doesn’t matter why you broke, just that you did.  Tough luck for you.

Saul doubles down on the oath in 14:39.  After he realizes that God is no longer with them because of a hidden transgression, he reminds the people of his oath about eating and insists that even if the transgressor is Jonathan, he will surely die.  Then he calls his army to court in the sight of God.  This is a scene of divine judgment on the guilty party.

In the divine court, God (through drawing lots) indicates that the guilty party is either Saul or Jonathan–ironically it’s really both–and then God (through the drawing of lots) indicates that it is Jonathan.  Saul’s curse justly falls upon his son and that can’t simply be shrugged off.  To think that Saul could just decide (or be convinced) not to carry out the punishment is to fail to understand the Israelite (and ancient world) attitude toward blessing and curse.  Jonathan himself accepts the sentence with a dignity that Saul never once lives up to in his miserable reign.

That sentence has to be carried out, and so when the people intercede—they come between Saul and Jonathan—they are taking responsibility for the curse.  They know perfectly well that by intervening they are offering to take Jonathan’s place.  There are a lot of neat words packed into their appeal.  For one, they swear their own oath; for another they “ransom” (padah) Jonathan as God ransomed Israel out of Egypt (Deuteronomic language); the Septuagint even gives a very surprising rendering by saying the people “prayed over” or even “spoke blessing” to Jonathan.

There’s also the dog that didn’t bark, although like any argument from silence let the reader caveat.  Saul faces no direct repercussions for being an oath-breaker, much like David will not thanks to Abigail in chapter twenty-five.  Given the significance of oaths in general and in these books in particular, and Saul’s myriad failures that lead to his demise, that is pretty surprising.  It’s because the power of the curse has been discharged through the intercession of the people.

So yes, they do tell Saul that “it’s not going to happen.”  But it’s a lot more than just a political uprising.  The people correct Saul the same way the Philistines correct the Israelites earlier in the book.

By the way, there’s a truly excellent parallel between this scene and the presentation of Christ by Pilate.  But that’s a whole other ball of wax.


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