What’s Up with ‘May God Strike Me Dead’ Language in the Old Testament?
- Hope Bolinger Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2020 31 Jan
You may have stumbled across a passage like 2 Samuel 3:9-11, where someone says “May God strike me dead if I don’t do X, Y, and Z.”
What gives? Why do we have such violent language in the Old Testament? And why did God actually strike people dead for actions like touching a holy vessel?
Understanding Old Testament Covenants
In our culture, we can tend to feel uncomfortable around certain Old Testament passages. They seem too violent or senseless for our modern tastes.
But before we dive into the “strike me dead” language we encounter in the Old Testament, we have to understand the Old Testament covenants.
A covenant was a promise and so much more, and often upholding one’s end of a deal meant certain life or death.
What would happen is when two parties entered into an agreement (a covenant) they would slice an animal (or animals) in half and walk between both of the pieces. What this would signify is: If I don’t uphold my end of the promise, may what happens to this animal happen to me.
Although not every covenant followed this pattern, many did. We can see an example of this covenant between God and Abram, later called Abraham (Genesis 15).
In the Genesis 15 example, God caused Abram to fall into a deep sleep, but fulfills his end of the covenant, nevertheless.
So, bearing in mind the nature of many Old Testament covenants (Numbers 30), we see that the Israelites took vows, promises, and oaths seriously. Therefore the phrase, “May God strike me dead if I don’t do X, Y, Z,” is essentially a form of an oath in Old Testament times.
In essence, they said: if I can’t fulfill my promise or oath to you, God might as well kill me, because I fully intend to uphold my end of the deal.
Didn’t God Strike People Dead in the Bible?
Even though people had meant this phrase figuratively, as seen in the passage about Uzzah, God does occasionally strike people dead in the Old and New Testament.
We do have to keep in mind that God’s grace overflows throughout the Old Testament. Similarly to how Hosea seeks after his prostitute wife, God gives Israel (and in the New Testament, the Gentiles) plenty of chances to return to him—and his wrath and anger relents numerous times.
Although people in the Old Testament would have understood that “may God strike me dead” could be taken literally, they might have also known that God may not have stricken them, necessarily, if they didn’t happen to uphold their promise or oath.
Doesn’t the New Testament Talk against Making Oaths?
As mentioned in this article, James does indeed talk against using similar language to swearing by God or heaven, and simply saying yes or no should suffice for our answers to people about whether we’ll do what we say we’ll do.
In other words, as was the case with many other items of the Law, the Israelites had twisted and corrupted several practices by the time of Jesus. This included the act of making oaths.
People would essentially speak out of both sides of their mouth.
So what James is driving home here is that we need to carry out what we promise to do, without having to attach language similar to “may God strike me dead” to convince people that we won’t backslide.
Throughout the New Testament, Jesus (and the other writers) attempt to clarify what original passages in the Old Testament meant—since Pharisees and others had twisted their meaning.
For instance, Jesus clarifies the meaning of eye for an eye. Israelite culture, by his day, had taken the verse to mean “take out revenge personally instead of letting God handle it.” Originally, the verse had meant to render punishments that fit the crime (Exodus 21).
Therefore, Jesus instead encourages his listeners to “turn the other cheek.” In essence, don’t retaliate. If we keep repaying wrong for wrong, someone will end up losing an eye, or worse (Matthew 5:38-39).
In the same way, James acknowledges how the audience of his day would’ve distorted the purpose and meaning of oaths, and draws their attention back to the most important reason the oaths existed in the first place: so people fulfill what they say they will do.
How Does God Feel about Making Oaths?
As we see throughout the Old Testament, God values making covenants. He frequently will offer a covenant as a promise to his people during tumultuous circumstances.
For instance, when he makes the covenant with Abram in Genesis 15, Abram had just slain the kings of nations and feared for his life. With no heir, he had no way of knowing that his legacy would live on.
Therefore, God makes a covenant to ensure he will uphold his promises when situations often seem most dire or uncertain.
That being said, God also values honesty and truth. If people make oaths such as “May God strike me dead,” just to get people to believe they’ll carry out a simple action, they may need to reevaluate their oath.
God also likely doesn’t like being tied to an oath that a person has no intention of carrying out.
Similar to when people do wrong acts in the name of God, an oath that is not upheld can dissuade people from wanting to get to know God, because the deceit left a bad taste in their mouths. Instead of relying on promises like “I swear by heaven” or “I swear by X, Y, and Z,” people should just give a yes or no, carry out the action, and let our character and actions speak for themselves.
Why Does ‘May God Strike Me Dead’ Matter?
Why should we care about Old Testament oaths or sayings such as “May God strike me dead?”
First, we should care about covenants because they unveil God’s plan for us. God will never make an oath or promise that he won’t keep. We can know that no matter what he says he’ll do; nothing can prevent him from carrying out that action.
It also matters that we understand Old Testament practices, such as cutting animals in half for an oath. Promises held a heavy weight back then, and we can learn a great deal from the practices of the Israelites.
Third, we know that although God won’t really strike us dead if we don’t uphold an oath, it can strike others dead in a spiritual sense. If they see Christians lying or only half-carrying out a promise, it’ll reflect poorly on Christianity.
Finally, we learn that words can only carry so far, and actions often speak louder. Instead of getting fancy with oaths and swearing by heaven, people should just give yes or no answers, and show exemplary character through their actions.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/AaronAmat
Hope Bolinger is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E. and a graduate of Taylor University's professional writing program. More than 500 of her works have been featured in various publications ranging from Writer's Digest to Keys for Kids. She has worked for various publishing companies, magazines, newspapers, and literary agencies and has edited the work of authors such as Jerry B. Jenkins and Michelle Medlock Adams. Her column "Hope's Hacks," tips and tricks to avoid writer's block, reaches 6,000+ readers weekly and is featured monthly on Cyle Young's blog. Her modern-day Daniel, Blaze, (Illuminate YA) released in June, and they contracted the sequel Den for July 2020. Find out more about her here.