Saturday, October 18, 2014

On false oaths: Hans the Hedgehog and Jephthah's Vow

A. Hans the Hedgehog

One of the stories in Grimm's Fairy Tales is Hans the Hedgehog:
Once upon a time there was a peasant who had money and land enough, but as rich as he was, there was still something missing from his happiness: He had no children with his wife. Often when he went to the city with the other peasants, they would mock him and ask him why he had no children. He finally became angry, and when he returned home, he said, "I will have a child, even if it is a hedgehog." Then his wife had a baby, and the top half was a hedgehog and the bottom half a boy. When she saw the baby, she was horrified and said, "Now see what you have wished upon us!" The man said, "It cannot be helped. The boy must be baptized, but we cannot ask anyone to be his godfather." The woman said, "And the only name that we can give him is Hans-My-Hedgehog.
Somewhere along the story, we read about how Hans made a king make a promise to him the first he met on the road in exchange for showing the king a way out of the forest.  But the king was not able to fulfill his oath because the first he met on his way home is his very own daughter:
One day a king came by. He was lost and heard the music. He was amazed to hear it, and sent a servant to look around and see where it was coming from. He looked here and there but only saw a little animal sitting high in a tree. It looked like a rooster up there with a hedgehog sitting on it making the music. The king said to the servant that he should ask him why he was sitting there, and if he knew the way back to his kingdom. Then Hans-My-Hedgehog climbed down from the tree and told him that he would show him the way if the king would promise in writing to give him the first thing that greeted him at the royal court upon his arrival home. The king thought, "I can do that easily enough. Hans-My-Hedgehog cannot understand writing, and I can put down what I want to." Then the king took pen and ink and wrote something, and after he had done so, Hans-My-Hedgehog showed him the way, and he arrived safely at home. His daughter saw him coming from afar, and was so overjoyed that she ran to meet him and kissed him. He thought about Hans-My-Hedgehog and told her what had happened, that he was supposed to have promised the first thing that greeted him to a strange animal that rode a rooster and made beautiful music. But instead he had written that this would not happen, for Hans-My-Hedgehog could not read. The princess was happy about this, and said that it was a good thing, for she would not have gone with him in any event. (Hans the Hedgehog)
Actually, there was another king who had the same fate, but he and his daughter fulfilled their vows:
When the king arrived at his court there was great joy. Now he had an only daughter who was very beautiful. She ran out to him, threw her arms around his neck and kissed him, and was ever so happy that her old father had returned. She asked him where he had been during his long absence, and he told her how he had lost his way and almost not made it home again, but that as he was making his way through a great forest he had come upon a half hedgehog, half human astride a rooster sitting in a tall tree and making beautiful music who had shown him the way, but whom he had promised whatever first met him at the royal court, and it was she herself, and he was terribly sorry. But she promised that she would go with him when he came, for the love of her old father. (Hans the Hedgehog)
B. Vow of Jephthah

The stories in Hans the Hedgehog about the vows made by the king is similar to Jephthah's vow in the Book of Judges.  Jephthah was a son of Gilead with a prostitute. His brothers borne from Gilead's legitimate wife drove Jephthah away.  But later, because of the war of Israel with the Ammonites, Jepthath was asked by the people of Gilead to be the commander of their armies.  Jephthah agreed and he made a vow to God:
If you deliver the Ammonites into my power....whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return from the Ammonites in peace shall belong to the LORD. I shall offer him up as a burnt offering. (Jdg 11:30-31)
Jephthah defeated the Ammonites, but the first person he met at the door of his house is his beloved daughter:
When he saw her, he tore his garments and said, “Ah, my daughter! You have struck me down and brought calamity upon me. For I have made a vow* to the LORD and I cannot take it back.”q 36 “Father,” she replied, “you have made a vow to the LORD. Do with me as you have vowed, because the LORD has taken vengeance for you against your enemies the Ammonites.” 37 Then she said to her father, “Let me have this favor. Do nothing for two months, that I and my companions may go wander in the mountains to weep for my virginity.” 38 “Go,” he replied, and sent her away for two months. So she departed with her companions and wept for her virginity in the mountains. 39 At the end of the two months she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. She had not had relations with any man. It became a custom in Israel 40 for Israelite women to go yearly to mourn the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite for four days of the year. (Jdg 11:35-40)
But unlike in the story of Hans the Hedgehog, the vow was made to God and the daughter was not offered in marriage but through death.

C.  Christ and the Catechism on Oaths

That is why Christ forbade us to make false oaths:
* v “Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow.’ 34 w But I say to you, do not swear at all;* not by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 nor by the earth, for it is his footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black. 37 * Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one. (Mt 5:33-37)
The Catechism says:
2150 The second commandment forbids false oaths. Taking an oath or swearing is to take God as witness to what one affirms. It is to invoke the divine truthfulness as a pledge of one's own truthfulness. An oath engages the Lord's name. "You shall fear the LORD your God; you shall serve him, and swear by his name."81 2151 Rejection of false oaths is a duty toward God. As Creator and Lord, God is the norm of all truth. Human speech is either in accord with or in opposition to God who is Truth itself. When it is truthful and legitimate, an oath highlights the relationship of human speech with God's truth. A false oath calls on God to be witness to a lie. (Catechism of the Catholic Church)
D. Questions for Reflections

Literature can pose interesting questions for theological reflections:
  • Are the promises of both kings to Hans the Hedgehog false oaths?  If the oaths are false, then was the first king right in refusing to fulfill the promise?
  • Is the vow of Jephthah a false oath?  Would it have been right for Jephthah to ask God to spare him from fulfilling his oath?

Hans My Hedgehog: A Tale from the Brothers Grimm
Hans My Hedgehog: A Tale from the Brothers Grimm
The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales
The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales
Hedgehogs (Complete Pet Owner's Manual)
Hedgehogs (Complete Pet Owner's Manual)
Jephthah and His Vow
Jephthah and His Vow
A Dissertation on Jephthah's Vow: Occasioned by Mr. Romaine's Late Sermon on that Subject
A Dissertation on Jephthah's Vow: Occasioned by Mr. Romaine's Late Sermon on that Subject
Catechism of the Catholic Church
Catechism of the Catholic Church
Promises, Oaths, and Vows: On the Psychology of Promising
Promises, Oaths, and Vows: On the Psychology of Promising
I SUMMON YOU TO FULFIL YOUR OATH... LOTR Master Works Lithograph Art Print
I SUMMON YOU TO FULFIL YOUR OATH... LOTR Master Works Lithograph Art Print