Merciful Vow-Breaking: Numbers 30
In Summary: This is one of those slightly awkward chapters in the Bible. To some, it is illustrative of a bias against women. To others, it is illustrative of a legalistic system that no one fully followed, or follows. What can we extrapolate here?
First, let us look at the concepts present. Numbers 30 deals with regulations regarding vows. These are not wedding vows, but more like the vows of “I will worship the Lord,” or “I will sacrifice an extra sheep.” Some of these would have been vows to join the Nazarites for a time, or perhaps even vows like we see from Hannah in 1 Samuel 1:11, to “return a child to God.”
Since society is made up of men and women, this chapter addresses men and women. Men are mentioned first. Why? Israelite society, despite many benefits of serving YHWH, still meshed with the culture around it and was male-dominated. So, the vows of men are addressed first.
They are addressed the shortest, though. The vows that a man makes are binding. He is to honor every word that comes out of his mouth. This is why he should be careful what he vows (Ecclesiastes 5:4-5), though a stupid vow that harms others should be broken and the price paid, rather than the vow fulfilled (Jephthah, Judges 11).
Women’s vows come next. This segment is longer, because there are loopholes in it. Summarizing it looks like this: a woman who lives with a male authority figure, be it father or husband, may make a vow. He, however, may cancel her vow. A woman who heads an independent household is treated like a man and her vows are binding.
The decision point is this: when a woman makes a vow, does her father or husband cancel it? If not, then she is bound by it. End of story.
In Focus: I think the valuable time here is to focus on the relationships between men and women in the time, and then we will look at how this falls in practice here and now.
Consider the reality on the ground in Israel. A daughter who vowed to enter Tabernacle/Temple service may have the best of intentions, but her father may already have arranged a marriage for her. As much as we cry “INJUSTICE!” at this, the concept here is that God does not hold her responsible for the obstruction of her fulfillment.
This is the same for wives. Perhaps a wife has vowed an extra sheep, or perhaps you take Hannah and her vow to return her first child to YHWH. What about her husband? What if Elkanah decides he needs the lad around the house? Given the legal status of women at the time, there is little Hannah could do. Again, the concept is that God does not hold her responsible for the obstruction of her fulfillment.
Do you get this point? When societal customs disenfranchise a person from fulfilling vows beyond basic obedience, they are not expected to follow through with them.
In Practice: Fortunately, we are living in an era where women are much more empowered to fulfill whatever vows they may present to God Almighty. There are still times, though, where I would suggest that harmony as a couple is of greater value than extra vows. Further, I would suggest that this applies in both gender directions. How many are the stories I have heard of spouses embittered against God because of the vows of their spouse! Wives and husbands do this to each other.
Now, we should also be cautious with our words and vows. But I would suggest that we should demonstrate the grace that this passage shows that God gives. Sometimes, people long to make their devotion evident, but cannot due to circumstances beyond their control. If God does not hold them to account for it, how dare we?
Further, to you who feel the desire to vow but family relations or obligations prevent it, the Mosaic Law anticipated your situation. God knows your devotion, but you are not wronging Him by honoring prior commitments—like a marriage vow or true honor to your parents. Do as you can, when you can.
In Nerdiness: It’s hard to find a nerd point here. Instead, I would note the elevation of legal status for the divorced or widowed. My current favorite fiction series is the Hugh de Singleton series about Medieval Era surgery and crime solving. Every time a man dies, there is discussion of how soon his widow must remarry, for she has no status in the times.
Mosaic Israel was more gracious to women than that.