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“Then Abimelech went to him from Gerar, and Ahuzzath one of his friends, and Phichol the chief captain of his army. And Isaac said unto them, Wherefore come ye to me, seeing ye hate me, and have sent me away from you? And they said, We saw certainly that the Lord was with thee: and we said, Let there be now an oath betwixt us, even betwixt us and thee, and let us make a covenant with thee; That thou wilt do us no hurt, as we have not touched thee, and as we have done unto thee nothing but good, and have sent thee away in peace: thou art now the blessed of the Lord. And he made them a feast, and they did eat and drink. And they rose up betimes in the morning, and sware one to another: and Isaac sent them away, and they departed from him in peace.”

(Genesis 26:26-31, KJV)

Did any ancient legal system place any significance on oaths or agreements being made in the morning? It appears that Isaac and Abimelech and his companions discussed the agreement in the evening but did not formalize it until the morning. Was this actually required for legal purposes in any ancient jurisdictions? (In this case, it was an agreement between a king and another person, so "laws" aren't really relevant, but I'm curious if this was standard practice.)

I don't want to debate the historicity of the Bible. I believe that this interaction truly did occur, but the question itself (did agreements have to be made in the morning?) is valid regardless of one's opinion on whether or not this really happened.

I tagged this as because a contract seems to be the closest modern concept to the oath here.

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    Even if the occurrence mentioned in the bible passage did not actually occur, it tends to be the case that legend models reality. Legends, especially the non-fantastic parts of them) are written to sound plausible to the audience. For example, the military structures found in fantasy literature tend to be based on those of the real middle ages rather than completely made up of whole cloth. Jan 9, 2023 at 18:07

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If it means anything, it's probably about being sober rather than because of the time of day.

To the best of my knowledge, there is nothing in the Bible or halakha that says oaths must be made in a specific part of the day. What we do find, in common with other ancient cultures, is an expectation that oath-making involves an invocation of divine authority, as the deity is being asked to punish someone if they break their agreement. Consequently, oath-making is often accompanied by a sacrifice (c.f. 2 Chronicles 15, or the Iliad book 3 for a non-Hebrew example), which needs a certain amount of preparation - not only finding the animal, but also being in a state of ritual purity. The precise wording and intent of the oath are also important, since one does not want to be bound to the wrong thing.

All of this adds up to not doing the ceremony after a big party with lots of drinking. In this passage, they wait until morning, not because the morning is special in itself, but because it's undesirable to undertake a solemn religious commitment while inebriated or just tired. It may be that the morning is a "good" time because it's convenient to carry out morning prayers and ablutions and then immediately go on to the oath-making, but that does not mean that ancient Hebrew religious practice required promises to be made in the morning.

In law, we also have the idea of being potentially held to an undesired agreement, if it was concluded while drunk or otherwise impaired. Legal systems differ in how they resolve it. The Talmud includes, for example:

With regard to one who is intoxicated, his acquisition is a binding acquisition; that is, he cannot retract the transaction when he is sober, and similarly, his sale is a binding sale. Moreover, if he committed a transgression for which he is liable to receive the death penalty, he is executed; and if the offense is punishable by lashes, he is flogged. The principle is that he is like a sober person in all matters, except that he is exempt from prayer. (Eruvin 65a, trans. William Davidson)

The covenant here is not a commercial contract, but would probably have included an element of prayer and sacrifice (even if not mentioned explicitly in the passage), and that is the part which demands sobriety.

Roman law also had rules about impairment by reason of insanity, which is a similar idea; a permanently insane person cannot make contracts (Ulpian in Digest 3.5.3) but in other circumstances a drunk person might be held to their agreement. Somewhat to the contrary, drinking some amount of wine might be part of the formal oath ceremony in some cultures. In ancient Greece, as in the Iliad example, libations were made to the gods (especially Zeus Horkios, "oath-keeper") and the wine would have been formally consumed. Herodotus also records (Histories 4.70) that the Scythian oath ceremony involved drinking a mixture of wine and blood. This does not mean that the participants were intoxicated - there was probably not much wine and it was probably not that strong - but I mention it for completeness.

By the way, the part of the Talmud cited above also includes the statement from Rav Nachman that "As long as I have not drunk a quarter-log of wine, my mind is not clear. It is only after drinking wine that I can issue appropriate rulings." Contemporary judges might or might not agree, but they'd be more circumspect in saying it.

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Modern Practice

In the modern age, the only legal act that has to be taken in the morning that comes to mind is a same day wire transfer of funds through a commercial bank. But, as a result, many large dollar business transactions have morning rather than afternoon or evening closings.

There are many legal activities that predominantly take place in the morning, although nothing in the substantive law or court rules requires it.

For example, the vast majority of courts commence business in the morning, so the lion's share of jury selections begin in the morning, because that task needs to be completed before any other part of a jury trial can begin. But, this is not a rule and juries sometimes are selected in the afternoons for short traffic or petty offense and misdemeanor trials that are expected to only take a few hours.

Ancient Practice

I agree with the answer from enen, however, that the instance of a morning conclusion of a treaty related by the Bible verse was either a pure coincidence or a product of the desire to have the parties sober when concluding it.

Herodotus asserts that if the Persians decided something while drunk, they made a rule to reconsider it when sober:

If an important decision is to be made, they [the Persians] discuss the question when they are drunk, and the following day the master of the house where the discussion was held submits their decision for reconsideration when they are sober. If they still approve it, it is adopted; if not, it is abandoned. Conversely, any decision they make when they are sober, is reconsidered afterwards when they are drunk.

This is a policy summed up in the Latin phrase "In vīnō vēritās, in aquā sānitās", i.e., "In wine there is truth, in water there is good sense (or good health)." Similar phrases exist across cultures and languages. (Source).

This folk wisdom is quite ancient and is sometimes attributed to having a common source in the lore of the proto-Indo-Europeans, although the Biblical example given would be outside of that Indo-European tradition.

This view of what was going on in that verse would be consistent with Biblical verses arguing that something a witness sees in the morning is unlikely to be false because people usually aren't drunk in the morning. See Acts 2:15 ("These people are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.")

There have also often been superstitious individuals who consult astrologers and shamans to determine auspicious times to carry out activities. I once had a client who consulted an astrologer every time in a case that we has an event that had to be scheduled. But, while that was a once in a career anomaly in the late 20th century United States, in many ancient cultures around the world, this kind of analysis was common place. Indeed, the Vatican created the position of chief astronomer in ancient times, primarily to determine the ritually correct date upon which to conduct Easter ceremonies in the church calendar.

Astrological concerns aren't unique to the West. In ancient China, efforts to determine auspicious times for important activities were ubiquitous.

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    In Japan, Astrologers didn't just to indicate auspicious times but also directions for certain times when things were to be handled. Think of it like this: "from 10-12, have the mother face east with the north door open, then open the south door and have her relocated to the east wing facing west and only keep the western door open there." Similar instructions were given for court appointments or meetings, which could be legal proceedings as much as they were legislative and executive.
    – Trish
    Jan 9, 2023 at 22:24

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