In Ezekiel 17, God discusses Judah’s relationship with Babylon and Egypt. Judah swore an oath to be a vassal to Babylon, and then she broke that oath when she turned to Egypt for help in an anti-Babylonian rebellion. In vv 19-20, God actually takes this personally, for God says that Judah has broken his (God’s) pact and covenant. God also says that he will punish Judah for her trespass against him (God).
The commentaries that I consulted agreed on why God took this personally: King Zedekiah of Judah had sworn a loyalty oath to Babylon in the name of God (or, more accurately, he swore by God; 2 Chronicles 36:13). God does not like for his name to be used lightly. That is one of the ten commandments. Therefore, God took Zedekiah’s disregard of the oath as an affront on his (God’s) name.
I thought about the excuses that Zedekiah could have used for breaking his oath. 2 Chronicles 36:13 says that the king of Babylon made him swear by God. Zedekiah could say that he swore under duress or compulsion, so the oath should not count. He also could have said that he was breaking the oath for the welfare of his nation. After all, doing so would give him a chance to overthrow Babylon!
God wouldn’t have bought the latter excuse, since God emphasizes repeatedly that Israel’s security rests in him, not in foreign alliances. But I asked myself if God would ever allow someone to break an oath or vow that was made in his name, especially one that was extreme. My hunch is no. Jephthah, after all, sacrificed his daughter in fulfillment of a vow. But, then again, perhaps he should have asked God, “Is this really what you want me to do?”
In Numbers 30, we see that vows and oaths were not absolute, if they were made by certain women. If a wife or a daughter made a vow, her husband or father (respectively) could nullify it. Men had to keep their vows, however. I wonder what the rationale for this was. Some may say, “Well, the Bible is sexist, and that particular writer thought that women would make some pretty dumb vows that could hurt the entire family.” And, interestingly, I hear something similar in certain evangelical sermons on Numbers 30: “God made the man rational, and the woman impulsive and emotional, so God allows the man to nullify the woman’s promises.” But the Bible presents men who make some pretty impulsive vows and oaths. Jephthah was one. So was Saul (I Samuel 14; interestingly, Saul broke his oath, and the writer does not say whether that was right or wrong).
As I was thinking about Ezekiel 17, my mind wandered to Judaism. I used to attend Yom Kippur services (the reform ones, since they had more English), and I vaguely recall that there was a ceremony in which the Jews nullified the vows and oaths of the previous year. That sounds reasonable. After all, most people, men and women, make stupid promises that they do not keep. Should God hold that over their heads forever? Is there no room for a fresh start? At the same time, I am not an observant Jew. I am more of a Protestant, who looks to the Bible for religious authority. And the Bible appears pretty inflexible on this subject, wouldn’t you agree?