Curses and Oaths in the Old Testament World—Deuteronomy 28

Curses are invocations to a deity to cause harm to a person, place, or a thing. The Old Testament recognizes three basic purposes for curses. First, they sought to inflict severe problems upon a person or a place. David’s curses against Joab in 2 Samuel 3:29 offer a clear example: “Let it rest on the head of Joab and on all his father’s house; and let there never fail to be in the house of Joab one who has a discharge or who is a leper, who leans on a staff or falls by the sword, or who lacks bread.” The fulfillment of such requests would make Joab’s life and that of his family almost unbearable. Second, curses were seen as a way of causing someone’s death. For instance, Psalm 109:8 states: “let his days be few,” a wish clearly demonstrating the supplicant’s desire for the opponent’s premature death. Third, curses had the ultimate goal of the complete annihilation of their target, including the person’s family. Psalm 109:13 illustrates this purpose by saying: “let his posterity be cut off (Hebrew karat), and in the generation following let their name be blotted out.” These were not mundane requests. Their presence in the Bible attests to the Israelite belief that such words, if used in accordance with righteous principles, had the power to elicit God’s judgment.

A close reading of biblical passages reveals three types of curses: conditional, unconditional, and simile. Classic examples of the first type of curse appear in Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 26, which contain blessings and curses brought by God in response to obedience or disobedience. Unconditional curses lack this aspect, as evidenced in David’s curse against Joab, which calls for divine retribution because of his unjust retributive killing of Abner (2 Sam. 3:29). As for simile curses, they are expressed through the usage of “just as …” and “so …,” creating a descriptive parallel between two unrelated circumstances. For instance, Ahijah, the Shilonite prophesied that Yahweh would “bring disaster on the house of Jeroboam … as one takes away refuse until it is all gone” (1 Kings 14:10). The curse compares the house of Jeroboam to dung or garbage, and some have suggested that it might imply a performative ritual during its pronouncement.

Oaths also had a crucial function in the biblical world. Biblical individuals employed four ways to swear an oath (Hebrew shaba’) in the Old Testament: (1) the expression “may X do so to Y and more also if Y…” (Ruth 1:17; 1 Sam. 3:17; 25:22; 2 Sam. 3:9; 1 Kings 2:23), in which X normally is the Israelite God or a person of a high position, and Y is the one either taking or receiving the oath; (2) the raising of the hand (Gen. 14:22, 23; Ps. 63:4; Dan. 12:7); (3) the swearing by the life of another individual (Gen. 42:16; 1 Sam. 14:39); (4) and the invocation of witnesses (Jer. 42:5). Oath takers were not only aware of the power of words but also of the serious consequences of using them carelessly.


Conklin, Oath Formulas in Biblical Hebrew.

Conklin, Cursed Are You! The Phenomenology of Cursing in Cuneiform and Hebrew Texts.

Kitz, “Curses and Cursing in the Ancient Near East,” 615-627.