A Treatise

The Special Laws,

Which Are Referred to Three Articles of the Decalogue, Namely the Third, Fourth, and Fifth; About Oaths, and the Reverence Due to Them; About the Holy Sabbath; About the Honor To Be Paid to Parents.

Philo Judaeus

I. In the treatise preceding this one we have discussed with accuracy two articles of the ten commandments, that which relates to not thinking that any other beings are absolute gods, except God himself; and the other which enjoins us not to worship as God any object made with hands. And we also spoke of the laws which relate specially to each of these points. But we will now proceed to discuss the three which come next in the regular order, again adapting suitable special laws to each.

And the first of these other commandments is not to take the name of God in vain; for the word of the virtuous man, says the law, shall be his oath, firm, unchangeable, which cannot lie, founded steadfastly on truth. And even if particular necessities shall compel him to swear, then he should make the witness to his oath the health or happy old age of his father or mother, if they are alive; or their memory, if they are dead. And, indeed, a man's parents are the copies and imitations of divine power, since they have brought people who had no existence into existence.

One person is recorded in the law, one of the patriarchs of the race, and one of those most especially admired for his wisdom, "as swearing by the face of his father," for the benefit, I imagine, of all those who might live afterwards, and with the object of giving necessary instruction, so that posterity might honor their parents in the proper manner, loving them as benefactors and respecting them as rulers appointed by nature, and might therefore not rashly invoke the name of God. And these men also deserve to be praised who, when they are compelled to swear, by their slowness, and delay, and evasion, cause fear not only to those who see them, but to those also who invite them to take an oath; for when they do pronounce the oath they are accustomed to say only thus much, "By the--;" or, "No, by the--;" without any further addition, giving an emphasis to these words by the mutilation of the usual form, but without uttering the express oath. However, if a man must swear and is so inclined, let him add, if he pleases, not indeed the highest name of all, and the most important cause of all things, but the earth, the sun, the stars, the heaven, the universal world; for these things are all most worthy of being named, and are more ancient than our own birth, and, moreover, they never grow old, lasting for ever and ever, in accordance with the will of their Creator.

II. And some men display such easiness and indifference on the subject, that, passing over all created things, they dare in their ordinary conversation to rise up to the Creator and Father of the universe, without stopping to consider the place in which they are, whether it be profane or sacred; or the time, whether it be suitable; or themselves, whether they are pure in body and soul; or the business, whether it be important; or the occasion, whether it is necessary; but (as the proverb says), they pollute everything with unwashed feet, as if it were decent, since nature has bestowed a tongue upon them, for them to let it loose unrestrained and unbridled to approach objects which it is impious to approach.

When they ought rather to employ that most excellent of all the organs by which voice and speech (the most useful things in human life, and the causes of all communion among men) are made distinct and articulate, in a manner to contribute to the honor, and dignity, and blessing of the great Cause of all things. But now, out of their excessive impiety, they use the most awful names in speaking of the most unimportant matters, and heaping one appellation upon another in a perfect crowd they feel no shame, thinking that by the frequency and number of their uninterrupted oaths they will attain to the object which they desire, being very foolish to think so; for a great number of oaths is no proof of credibility, but rather of a man's not deserving to be believed in the opinion of men of sense and wisdom.

III. But if any one being compelled to swear, swears by anything whatever in a manner which the law does not forbid, let him exert himself with all his strength and by every means in his power to give effect to his oath, interposing no hindrance to prevent the accomplishment of the matter thus ratified, especially if neither implacable anger or frenzied love, or unrestrained appetites agitate the mind, so that it does not know what is said or done, but if the oath has been taken with sober reason and deliberate purpose. For what is better than to speak with perfect truth throughout one's whole life, and to prove this by the evidence of God himself? For an oath is nothing else but the testimony of God invoked in a matter which is a subject of doubt, and to invoke God to witness a statement which is not true is the most impious of all things.

For a man who does this, is all but saying in plain words (even though he hold his peace), "I am using thee as a veil for my iniquity; do thou co-operate with me, who am ashamed to appear openly to be behaving unjustly. Do thou incur the blame instead of me, who am acting unjustly. For though I am doing wrong, I am anxious not to be accounted wicked, but thou canst be indifferent to thy reputation with the multitude, having no regard to being well spoken of." But to say or imagine such things as these is most impious, for not only would God, who is free from all participation in wickedness, but even any father or any stranger, provided he were not utterly devoid of all virtue, would be indignant if he were addressed in such a way as this.

A man, therefore, as I have said, must be sure and give effect to all oaths which are taken for honorable and desirable objects, for the due establishment of private or public objects of importance, under the guidance of wisdom, and justice, and holiness.

IV. And in this description of oaths those most lawful vows are included which are offered up in consequence of an abundance of blessings, either present or expected; but if any vows are made for contrary objects, it is not holy to ratify them, for there are some men who swear, if chance so prompts them, to commit theft, or sacrilege, or adultery, or rape, or to inflict wounds or slaughter, or any similar acts of wickedness, and who perform them without any delay, making an excuse that they must keep their oaths, as if it were not better and more acceptable to God to do no iniquity, than to perform such a vow and oath as that. The national laws and ancient ordinances of every people are established for the sake of justice and of every virtue, and what else are laws and ordinances but the sacred words of nature having an authority and power in themselves, so that they differ in no respect from oaths?

And let every man who commits wicked actions because he is so bound by an oath, beware that he is not keeping his oath, but that he is rather violating one which is worthy of great care and attention to preserve it, which sets a seal as it were to what is honorable and just, for he is adding wickedness to wickedness, adding lawless actions to oaths taken on improper occasions, which had better have been buried in silence. Let such a man, therefore, abstain from committing iniquity, and seek to propitiate God, that he may grant to him the mercy of that humane power which is innate in him, so as to pardon him for the oaths which he took in his folly. For it is incurable madness and insanity to take upon himself twofold evils, when he might put off one half of the burden of them.

But there are some men who, out of the excess of their wicked hatred of their species, being naturally unsociable and inhuman, or else being constrained by anger as by a hard mistress, think to confirm the savageness of their natural disposition by an oath, swearing that they will not admit this man or that man to sit at the same table with them, or to come under the same roof; or, again, that they will not give any assistance to such an one, or that they will not receive any from him as long as he lives. And sometimes even after the death of their enemy, they keep up their irreconcilable enmity, not allowing their friends to give the customary honors even to their dead bodies when in the grave. I would recommend to such men, as to those I have mentioned before, to seek to propitiate the mercy of God by prayers and sacrifices, that so they may find some cure for the diseases of their souls which no man is competent to heal.

V. But there are other persons, also, boastful, puffed up with pride and arrogance, who, being insatiably greedy of glory, are determined to obey none of the precepts which point to that most beneficial virtue, frugality; but even if any one exhorts them to it, in order to induce them to shake off the obstinate impetuosity of the appetites, they look upon all their admonitions as insults, and drive their course on headlong to every kind of effeminate luxury, despising those who seek to correct them, and making a joke of and turning into ridicule all the honorable and advantageous recommendations of wisdom. And if such men happen to be in such circumstances as to have any abundance and superfluity of the means of living, they declare with positive oaths that they will indulge in all imaginable expense for the use and enjoyment of costly luxury. For instance, a man who has lately come into the enjoyment of considerable riches, embraces a prodigal and extravagant course of life; and when some old man, some relation perhaps, or some friend of his father, comes and admonishes him, exhorting him to alter his ways and to come over to a more honorable and strict behavior, he is indignant beyond all measure at the advice, and being obstinate in his contentious disposition, swears that as long as he has the means and resources necessary for supplying his wants he will not practice any single way which leads to economy or moderation, neither in the city nor in the country, neither when travelling by sea nor by land, but that he will at all times and in all places show how rich and liberal he is; but as it seems to me such conduct as this is not so much a display of riches as of insolence and intemperance.

And yet many men who have before now been placed in situations of great authority, and even many who now are so, though they have most abundant resources of all kinds, and enormous riches, wealth continually and uninterruptedly flowing upon them as if from some unceasing spring, do nevertheless at times turn to the same things which we poor men use, to earthenware cups, and small cheap loaves, and olives, or cheese, or vegetables, for a seasoning to their dinners; and in the summer put on a girdle and a linen garment, and in winter any whole and stout cloak, and for sleep use a bed made on the ground, discarding gladly couches made of ivory or wrought in tortoiseshell and gold, and coverlets of various embroidery, and rich clothes and purple dyes, and the luxury of sweet and elaborate confectionery, and costly viands; and the reason of this conduct is not merely that they have a virtuous and abstemious disposition by nature, but also that they have enjoyed a good education from their earliest youth, which has taught them to honor what belongs to man rather than what belongs to authority, which also taking up its settled abode in the soul, I may almost say reminds it every day of its humanity, drawing it down from lofty and arrogant thoughts, and reducing it within due bounds, and correcting whatever is unequal by the introduction of equality.

Therefore such men fill their cities with vigor and abundance, and with good laws and peace, depriving them of no good thing whatever, but providing them with all requisite blessings in the most unlimited and unsparing manner; for this conduct and actions of this sort are the achievements of men of real nobility, and of men who may truly be called governors. But the actions of men newly become rich, of men who by some blunder of fortune have arrived at great wealth, who have no notion, not even in their dreams, of wealth which is genuine and truly endowed with sight, which consists of the perfect virtues, and of actions in accordance with such virtues, but who stumble against that wealth which is blind, leaning upon which, and therefore of necessity missing the right road, they turn into one which is no road at all, admiring objects which deserve no honor at all, and ridiculing things that are honorable by nature; men whom the word of God reproves and reproaches in no moderate degree for introducing oaths on unfitting occasions; for such men are difficult to purify and difficult to cure, so as not to be thought deserving pardon even by God, who is all-merciful by nature.

VI. But the law takes away from virgins and from married women the power of making vows independently, pronouncing the parents of the one class, and the husbands of the other, their lords; and with reference to any confirmation or disavowal of their oaths, declaring that that power belongs in the one case to the father, and in the other to the husband. And very reasonably, for the one class by reason of their youth are not aware of the importance of oaths, so that they stand in need of the advice of others to judge for them; while the other class do often out of easiness of disposition take oaths which are not for the interest of their husbands, on which account the law invests the husbands and fathers with authority either to ratify their oaths or to declare them void.

And let not widows swear inconsiderately, for they have no one who can beg them off from the effect of their oaths; neither husbands, from whom they are now separated, nor fathers, whose houses they have quitted when they departed from home on the occasion of their marriage, since it is unavoidable that their oaths must stand as being confirmed through the absence of any one to take care of the interests of the swearers.

But if any one knows that any one else is violating his oath, and does not inform against him, or convict him, being influenced by friendship, or respect, or fear, rather than by piety, he shall be liable to the same punishment as the perjured person [Leviticus 5:21]; for assenting to one who does wrong differs in no respect from doing wrong one's self. And punishment is inflicted on perjured persons in some cases by God and in others by men; but those punishments which proceed from God are the most fearful and the most severe, for God shows no mercy to men who commit such impiety as that, but allows them to remain for ever unpurified, and in my opinion with great justice and propriety, for the man who despises such important matters cannot complain if he is despised in his turn, receiving a fate equal to his actions. But the punishments which are inflicted by men are of various characters, being death, or scourging [Deuteronomy 19:16]; those men who are more excellent and more strict in their piety inflicting death on such offenders, but those who are of milder dispositions scourging them with rods publicly in the sight of all men; and to men who are not of abject and slavish dispositions scourging is a punishment not inferior in terror to death.

VII. These then are the ordinances contained in the express language of these commandments; but there is also an allegorical meaning concealed beneath, which we must extract by a careful consideration of the figurative expressions used. We must be aware, therefore, that the correct principles of nature recognize the power both of the father and of the husband as equal, but still in different respects. The power of the husband exists because of his sowing the seed of the virtues in the soul, as in a fertile field; that of the father arises from its being his natural office to implant good counsels in the minds of his children, and to stimulate them to honorable and virtuous actions; and because, when he has done so, he cherishes them with salutary doctrines, which education and wisdom supply; and the mind is compared at one time to a virgin, and at another to a woman who is a widow, and again to one who is still united to a husband.

It is compared to a virgin, when it preserves itself pure, and undefiled, free from the influence of pleasures and appetites, and likewise of pains and fears, treacherous passions, and then the father who begot it retains the regulation of it; and her principle, as in the case of a virtuous woman, she now being united to pure reason, in accordance with virtue, will exert a proper care to defend her, implanting in her, like a husband, the most excellent conceptions. But the soul which is deprived of the wisdom and guardianship of a parent, and of the union of right reason, being widowed of her most excellent defenses, and abandoned by wisdom, if it has chosen a life open to reproach, must be bound by its own conduct, not having reason in accordance with wisdom to act as intercessor, to relieve her of the consequences of her sins, neither has a husband living with her, nor as a father who has begotten her.

VIII. But in the case of those persons who have vowed not merely their own property or some part of it, but also their own selves, the law has affixed a price to their vows, not having a regard to their beauty, or their importance, or to any thing of that kind, but with reference to the number of the individuals separating the men from the women, and the infants from those who are full grown. For the law ordains [Leviticus 27:3] that from twenty years of age to sixty the price of a man shall be two hundred drachmas of solid silver money, and of a woman a hundred and twenty drachmas. And from five years of age to twenty, the price of a male child is eighty, and of a female child forty drachmas. And from infancy to five years old, the price of a male is twenty; of a female child, twelve drachmas. [Leviticus 10:3.] And in the case of men who have lived beyond sixty years of age, the ransom of the old men is sixty, and of the old women forty drachmas. And the law has regulated this ransom with reference to the same age both in men and women on account of three most important considerations. First of all, because the importance of their vow is equal and similar, whether it be made by a person of great or of little importance. Secondly, because it is fitting that those who have made a vow should not be exposed to the treatment of slaves; for they are valued at a high or at a low price, according to the good condition and beauty of their bodies, or the contrary. Thirdly, which, indeed, is the most important consideration of all, because inequality is valued among men, but equality is honored by God.

IX. These are the ordinances established in respect of men, but about animals the following commands are given. If any one shall set apart any beast; if it be a clean beast of any one of the three classes which are appropriated to sacrifice, such as an ox, or a sheep, or a goat, he shall surely sacrifice it, not substituting either a worse animal for a better, or a better for a worse. For God does not take delight in the fleshiness of fatness of animals, but in the blameless disposition of the man who has vowed it. But if he should make a substitution, then he must sacrifice two instead of one; both the one which he had originally vowed, and the one which he wished to substitute for it.

But if any one vows one of the unclean animals, let him bring it to the most venerable of the priests; and let him value it, not exaggerating its price, but adding to its exact value one-fifth, in order that if it should be necessary to sacrifice an animal that is clean instead of it, the sacrifice may not fall short of its proper value. And this is ordained also for the sake of causing the man who has vowed it to feel grieved at having made an inconsiderate vow, having vowed an animal which is not clean, looking upon it, in my opinion, for the moment as clean, being led away by error of mind through some passion.

And if the thing which he has vowed be his house, again he must have the priest for a valuer. But those who may chance to buy it shall not pay an equal ransom for it; but if the man who has vowed it chooses to ransom it, he shall pay its price and a fifth besides, punishing his own rashness and impetuous desire for his two faults, his rashness for making the vow, and his impetuous desire for wishing for things back again which he had before abandoned. But if any one else brings it he shall not pay more than its value. And let not the man who has made the vow make any long delay either in the accomplishment of his vow or in procuring a proper valuation to be made of it. For it is absurd to attempt to make strict covenants with men, but to look upon agreements made with God who has no need of any thing, and who has no deficiency of any thing as unnecessary to be observed, while those who do so are by their delays and slowness convicting themselves of the greatest of offenses, namely, of a neglect of him whose service they ought to look upon as the beginning and end of all happiness.

This is enough to say of oaths and vows.

A Treatise

On the Number Seven.

I. The next commandment is that concerning the sacred seventh day, in which are comprehended an infinite number of most important festivals. For instance, there is the release of those men who by nature were free, but who, through some unforeseen necessity of the times, have become slaves, which release takes place every seventh year. Again, there is the humanity of creditors towards their debtors, as they forgive their countrymen their debts every seventh year. Also there is the rest given to the fertile ground, whether it be in the champaign or in the mountainous country, which also takes place every seventh year. Moreover, there are those ordinances which are established respecting the fiftieth year.

And of all these things the bare narration (without looking to any inner and figurative signification) is sufficient to lead those who are well disposed to perfect virtue, and to make even those who are obstinate and stubborn in their dispositions more docile and tractable.

Now we have already spoken at some length about the virtue of the number seven, explaining what a nature it has in reference to the number ten; and also what a connection it has to the decade itself, and also to the number four, which is the foundation and the source of the decade. And now, having been compounded in regular order from the unit, it in regular order produces the perfect number twenty-eight; being multiplied according to a regular proportion equal in all its parts, it makes at last both a cube and a square. I also showed how there is an infinite number of beauties which may be extracted from a careful contemplation of it, on which we have not at present time to dilate. But we must examine every one of the special matters which are before us as comprehended in this one, beginning with the first.

The first matter to be considered is that of the festivals.

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