Numbers chapter 30 is typical of many passages in the Old Testament that, at first glance, strike modern readers – especially modern American and European readers – as very odd, if not offensive, but on closer examination can be rather easily seen to be not only eminently sensible but directly related to the great interests of biblical ethics and human life. Indeed, though the point would be put somewhat differently, we have similar laws today in 21st century America. Obligations undertaken by a child are usually the responsibility of parents and obligations undertaken by a wife, if not met, become the legal responsibility of her husband and vice versa. We accept that the family is a unity and that this has implications for the payment of obligations. This chapter concerns questions such as these.
And, if the chapter still sounds to us, as it may, as unenlightened and backward, consider this. Every society – and certainly our own – imagines that its approach to things is eminently sensible. We are forced to recognize, however, at least from time to time, that other cultures, even modern ones, look upon our mores, our ethics, and our societal standards and shake their heads in either bemusement or outright contempt. For example, Americans take for granted a legal system that regularly endures delays of many months or even years from indictment to conviction to punishment; that encourages lawsuits by permitting them to be brought at no cost or risk to the plaintiff; that rewards litigants and their attorneys with enormous settlements; and that often punishes individuals and institutions that are guilty of no actual fault, by everyone’s admission, but supply the deep pocket for the plaintiff to pick. The legal and political establishment in the United States, lawyers mostly, strenuously maintains the justice of our system – especially when fighting efforts to change it – but people elsewhere in the world have a much more jaundiced opinion of how we Americans go about seeking justice. Or take another example: other peoples of the world shake their head at our crumbling family structure and the political and legal changes that have encouraged the very high incidence of divorce, the enormous numbers of children born out of wedlock, and so on. We Americans blithely continue to imagine that our institutions and our approach to social problems are enlightened, even superior, to others while around the world many people mock us for our support for what they take to be ludicrous ideas and practices that anyone ought to have been able to see would be destructive to our social fabric.
I say this simply to remind us that when we encounter family legislation such as this in Numbers 30, it is well for us to remember that, given the disarray, if not the collapse of the American family, we should be slow to imagine that we, of all people, can sit in judgment on the family structure of ancient Israel. Consider first and consider carefully what was actually required and why.
v.2 The making of vows goes way back in human history and in biblical history. We had an instance of such a vow in 21:2 when Israel made a vow to the Lord that if he delivered the king of Arad into their hands they would destroy his cities. Vows were often of that kind: a promise on the part of a supplicant to do something if the Lord heard some particular prayer. There were, of course, other sorts of vows. We read earlier in Numbers 6 of the Nazirite vow. It was a firm principle of biblical ethics that vows made to the Lord must be kept. A vow is a promise one does not have to make, but if made, must be kept. A vow is the kind of thing one often makes under pressure—fear, need, concern. Once the pressure of the crisis is past, however, the temptation is to forget the vow. Once the battle is over and the soldier has exited his foxhole safe and sound, the temptation is to forget all the promises he made to God while terrified for his life. The Bible reminds us in various ways not to succumb to that temptation.
In Ecclesiastes 5:4 we read:
“When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow.”
In Psalm 15:5 we are reminded that a godly man is one “who keeps his oath even when it hurts.”
And in Deut. 23:21-23 we have this:
“If you make a vow to the Lord your God, do not be slow to pay it, for the Lord your God will certainly demand it of you and you will be guilty of sin. But if you refrain from making a vow, you will not be guilty. Whatever your lips utter you must be sure to do, because you made your vow freely to the Lord your God with your own mouth.”
That emphasis on the fulfilling of vows, of faithfulness to one’s promise, comes first in the chapter. That emphasis is followed, in turn, by the application of that law of truthfulness to a set of situations in which the fulfillment of a vow may conflict with other responsibilities or could create problems for a family.
v.5 The first situation discussed concerns the daughter of a home – likely quite a young girl as girls married young in those days – who made a vow. In some way or another she obligated herself to some responsibility, some gift to God, or some act of obedience. We have rules and laws today about the extent to which parents can be obliged by the actions of their children. A boy gets on the internet and runs up hundreds, even thousands of dollars in bills utterly unbeknownst to his parents. Are the parents obliged to pay those bills? It is that sort of question. Often vows were expensive to fulfill because they amounted to a promise to offer a sacrifice if God should grant a prayer and sacrifices could be expensive. Most of the time Israelite people did not eat meat. Meat was something only wealthy families could afford and yet many of the sacrifices that were promised to God in the making of vows were the sacrifice of animals. Or it may have been a vow of abstinence of some kind that might interfere with the life of the family.
In any case, remember this: in the Law of Moses it is generally assumed that the parent is righteous, wise, and loving. The law generally assumes proper circumstances (as most legal codes always have). One very sinister and quite unprecedented change in modern Western legal codes is the growing assumption in the law that parents are to be mistrusted, rather than trusted; that they should not be counted on to have the welfare of their children at heart. The legal notion that an adolescent girl, for example, should be able to secure an abortion without telling her parents, overturns virtually the entire legal history of the world! In any case, here we are not talking about a bad parent or a cruel father who abuses his children in some way. The law has in view a wise father who loves his daughter and cares for her spiritual and physical welfare. If he finds out about the vow and thinks it a good thing for her to make good on her promise, her vow stands. If, on the other hand, he concludes that her vow was unwise or inappropriate in some way, he is able to nullify it, and this is the important point, without his daughter incurring a moral fault for making a promise she would not eventually keep. He can protect his daughter in that way from the consequences of a bad decision. Children can sometimes make promises they shouldn’t. My goodness, adults can sometimes make foolish vows; so it should surprise no one than children might do the same.
v.8 The second situation concerns a young woman who made a vow and married shortly thereafter. Her new husband is in a position to unmake her vow if he feels he should. The obligation she undertook, after all, in all likelihood, would fall on him to some degree in any case. Otherwise, she is obliged to keep the promise she made and her husband, thinking it good and right, would presumably be happy to assist her in doing so. Think the best, not the worst regarding these various scenarios and you’ll get a better idea of what is going on.
It is also important to note the characterization of such a vow as being “rash” in v. 6. The assumption of the entire text in chapter 30 seems to be that these laws are addressing primarily the problems posed by unwise or inappropriate vows. The further assumption is that, all things being equal, a proper vow, a godly vow, a vow made in the right way for the right reasons, is a vow a father or a husband would approve and support for all the best reasons.
v.9 As to women generally, they have the same obligation as any man: to keep the promise they made and to fulfill their vows. If a husband and so a family is not directly involved and there are no difficult or problematic implications for others, the vow once made, even if unwise, is to be kept. A promise made is a debt unpaid.
It is worth noting here, as we have often noted in our consideration of the Law of Moses, that the woman is regarded as an equal partner in the life of faith, equally able to address the Lord, equally obliged to serve him, equally responsible for her life before God as any man. There is an honor and dignity attributed to the woman in the Bible quite unlike what is found in the other religions of the ANE or even, for that matter, in later Judaism itself. I have mentioned to you before the interesting fact that Yahweh addressed Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant who had been driven away after she bore Abraham a child. When she was despairing of her life and that of her son Ishmael, the Lord drew near to her, spoke to her and comforted her. That strikes us as entirely unremarkable. The gracious God has compassion upon this poor woman who is in some significant way attached to his covenant people. We expect that as readers of the Bible. But the fact is there is no other instance in all the immense body of preserved literature of the ancient world in which a god personally addresses a woman as Yahweh does Hagar in Genesis 21. Women have a far higher and nobler place in the Bible than anywhere else in the ancient world. Their rights are the rights of creatures made in the image of God and who are the objects, equally with men, of God’s love and God’s judgment. In most respects the Bible addresses men and women without regard to their sex. What is true of the one is true of the other.
v.15 The third set of circumstances concerns a married woman and is like the earlier ones. If the husband is fine with his wife’s vow she is to fulfill it; if he feels it unwise he may void her obligation and it will not be sinful for her not to keep her vow. What he cannot do is acquiesce to his wife’s vow at first and then void it later. There can be no playing fast and loose with words uttered to the Almighty. Our “yes” must be yes; and that is as true for a husband as for a wife.
v.16 In a very important way, the final verse illuminates the true interest of these regulations: the solidarity and unity of homes and of marriages.
We know from the Gospels that vows could be made for the wrong reasons. The Jews of Jesus’ day had developed a vow that was often sheer pretense: really simply a way of sheltering one’s money from demands that other family members might make upon it. This is the famous corban of Mark 7:11. An adult son could devote his money to the Lord, a formal act by which his estate or some part of it became the Lord’s property, generally the property of the temple, though the son retained his right to use the money or at least its income. Think of it as an ancient form of the modern practice of deferred giving in which a person may will his property to non-profit institutions or charities while still living, though retaining possession of the property and the proceeds or interest accruing from it as long as he lives. In some cases, such arrangements were made in Jesus’ day not so much to give something to the temple or to the Lord but to keep some other person from having access to the estate, say a parent or other relative. In such a case, if this man’s parents requested or were seen to need his financial support, he was able to refuse it for the noblest reason: he had made a vow to God and couldn’t break it.
We also know that it is possible to make foolish vows. Jephthah, the Judge, comes quickly to mind. The problem is that a vow has to be kept so foolish or not, ill-meant or not, a sacred obligation has been undertaken. I’ve told you before of a dear Christian woman we knew in Holland who had made a vow to wear a hat to church, having come to the conclusion from her own study of 1 Corinthians 11 that a faithful Christian woman was required to wear a head-covering. She was virtually the only woman who did so; it was not a time when women were wearing hats to church, and it was hugely embarrassing for her and distracting during worship—all she was thinking about was that she had a hat on and everyone else did not—all the more so when she came to realize that Paul wasn’t talking about hats in 1 Corinthians 11. But she had made a vow and she knew she had to keep it. So she wore her hat and took it off as soon as the minister completed the benediction at the conclusion of the service. That was a rightly-motivated vow – she wanted to be faithful to the Lord and to put herself under the obligation to do the right thing – but it was a foolish vow nonetheless. She realized that relatively soon after making it, but was stuck with the promise that she had made.
When I was first beginning to realize that the practice of making of vows was just as much for Christians today as for Jews and Israelites of long ago, an important instrument in the practice of godliness – I certainly hope that all of you are from time to time making vows to God – I was helped immensely to read in the Memoirs of Thomas Boston, the great 18th century Scottish pastor, of a foolish vow he made while a young man and the difficulty he had fulfilling it and the lesson he had learned. He had vowed to pray so many times a day, but, of course, as you might imagine, he found himself going through the motions at the end of the day just to get his promised number of times in. Fortunately for him, he made it for a specific period of time and eventually escaped his obligation, but he learned a lesson and taught that lesson to many others, including me! Think before you vow!
Problems in the motivation and the performance of vows being what they are, wise and godly men have through the ages urged upon God’s people special care in the making of these solemn promises to God. In Jeremy Taylor’s classic, Holy Living, he lists eight rules for Christians to observe in making a vow.
- That the vow be lawful, that is, you are promising something to God that is acceptable to him. Jephthah’s vow was not lawful because he promised what eventually amounted to murder. He should not have fulfilled his vow even though, in his case, the failure to fulfill it would have incurred sin and guilt. So did the fulfilling of the vow.
- That it be useful; a good thing to do.
- That it be serious; that is, that you’re not acting and pretending. I sometimes joke about giving up beets and spinach for Lent, but actually doing so would be an affront to God. You would be trivializing prayer and godliness and the seeking after holiness.
- That it be something you are not obliged to do in any case. You can’t vow to God to do something that his law already requires. A vow is a promise that you do not have to make, but you are obliged to keep God’s commandments. Every human being is and every Christian supremely is under orders already. To vow to do what you are in any case commanded to do is to make a mockery of his law, as if you are doing God some special favor by obeying his commandments.
- That it be made prudently; that is, that we don’t make a promise we aren’t sure we can keep or that we don’t make a vow the keeping of which is going to undermine the very purpose for which we made it in the first place. Boston’s vow to pray a certain number of times each day was an imprudent vow, as he himself later realized, and eventually hurt rather than helped his life of prayer by turning his prayers into brief formalities necessary to complete so as to keep his vow.
- That a vow never be a substitute for the obedience that we owe to God always and everywhere. No vow can be truly made or kept that substitutes one act of devotion for another that all Christians are obliged to offer to God. A vow ought to serve the total godliness of one’s life, not prove an excuse for not doing what a believer should in other ways. The history of the Christian church is littered with this kind of vow-making, really excuse making, conscience-putting-to-sleep making. Take the 14th century noble who wore a hair-shirt as an act of devotion, but all the while was a cruel master and a serial adulterer. Paul warns against the practice of vows of sexual abstinence for any length of time because the sexual relationship is so vital to a holy and healthy marriage. You can’t advance in godliness by diminishing your marriage, no matter if you make a vow to practice abstinence for some supposedly spiritual purpose. You cannot make a vow, the result of which is that you do not, in fact, obey and serve the Lord.
- Vows should normally be of short duration, especially vows made by young Christians or Christians making vows for the first time.
- And, finally, in the eighth place, no vow should be made in regard to matters that are in dispute among faithful and good men. When young Christians make a vow in the enthusiasm of the moment to live and to die in a certain opinion or to live and to die in faithfulness to a certain program of Christian living, they run the very real risk of binding themselves to a point of view they may later come to see is a mistake. Our friend’s hat in church is an example of such a mistaken vow. [181-182]
Now, the point of all this about wise and foolish vows for us this evening is the reminder it provides that, while vows can be an important instrument of piety and a valuable practice for those who wish to add power to their prayers to God and to give themselves a leg up in the pursuit of godliness, the making of vows is a practice that has through the ages been beset with problems. It is precisely the sanctity that attaches to them that can create the problem. And it is the problems that vows or promises can cause that lie behind and beneath the stipulations and laws of our Numbers chapter 30. In some respect the problems seem quaint to folk in the early 21st century but only because we don’t make vows much any more and because we have become so careless of our word. In a culture in which the sense of obligation to keep a promise is greatly diminished, such laws as we have in Numbers 30 would be very unlikely to be written. Among people who have little regard for the great importance the Living God attaches to honesty and fidelity, the making of vows loses all its point and gradually disappears as a practice as it has in our land. In court, in some places, the witness is still sworn to tell the truth, “so help me God.” But if the actual judgment of God upon liars and lying is not a living expectation, what difference could such a vow or oath really make?
Brides and grooms take vows that are often quite quickly ignored and broken. Politicians don’t even expect us to believe them when they make promises on the campaign trail, and we don’t believe them. We rarely encounter in this culture someone in anguish because he is caught between a promise he made and some difficulty or embarrassment caused by his need to remain faithful to that promise. Nowadays people would be very much more likely to break the promise and explain later that they couldn’t be expected to fulfill a promise that was causing them so many problems. And that is somehow supposed to absolve them of any fault in breaking their word. We are all too well acquainted with athletes who lie about steroid use, celebrities who lie about drug use, politicians who lie about their sex lives to take seriously any longer as a culture an absolute obligation to tell the truth and to keep our word. And, predictably, ours is an age in which we are being taught that truth itself is an outmoded idea. How quaint: a chapter about keeping vows!
But the Bible, from beginning to end, has a different outlook. A promise must be kept and a promise to or before God – which is what a vow is – must absolutely be kept. Never, never lie to the Almighty! Or else! He knows when you lie and it offends him when you do.
That is the first great interest of these regulations: the integrity of God’s people. We must be people who are true to our word and who keep our promises, especially our promises to God. We are to be holy, as we have often read in the Law of Moses, because God is holy. We are to be truthful because God is truthful; faithful because God is faithful; reliable because God is reliable. People should be able to count on our word because they can always count on God’s word. We are to be like God and we cannot be like God, and are not like God, if we are liars! And that is what is so important about this nullification provision. There is a way to get out of vows foolishly and imprudently taken. There is a way not to have God angry at you, not to have sinned and therefore be liable to be punished for your sin of making and not keeping a vow. At least in some cases there is a way.
So we have these laws in Numbers 30 to ensure the scrupulous faithfulness to their word on the part of God’s people. That is the first thing.
But the second concern enshrined in these laws is the unity of the family. In the Law of God a great premium is placed on the unity and harmony of the family circle. A great deal of that law concerns the welfare of the family. Many of the punishments provided for in the law are for violations of family unity and harmony and welfare. God has no patience with even religious acts – such as vows – whose effect is to interfere with or injure a believer’s relationships, especially in the family.
The emphasis on the family is very clear here. We have it explicitly in the conclusion of the chapter. This body of laws, we are told, is about the relationships between a man and his wife and between a father and his daughter. The Hebrew text doesn’t have our very modern word “relationship,” but that is what is meant when the Hebrew reads
“These are the statutes that the Lord commanded Moses about a man and his wife and about a father and his daughter.”
But we also have it in the regulations themselves. In a striking qualification, twice we read in the chapter (first in v. 3 and then again in v. 16) that the father’s sovereignty over his daughter’s vow lasts only as long as she remains at home. When she leaves – in almost every case, of course, at the time of her marriage – her father no longer can exercise that kind of control over her life and, in this case, over the vows she makes. We are talking about the family circle and the Bible, with happy candor, admits that the family circle changes as the children grow up and leave home. Obviously, in a well-ordered home, parents want their children to assume more and more responsibility and to be ready to be responsible for their own words and deeds by the time they are young adults. That is the goal they have been aiming at all the years of their children’s upbringing. And, of course, in a well-ordered, godly, and happy home, adult children will still want their folks’ advice, will still want to please them. Nevertheless, it remains the case that a point is reached – when they leave home – that they are not only free to make their own promises and keep them, but need to do so.
And it is the case as well with the provisions regarding the vows taken by wives and the possibility of their being nullified by their husbands. It is a longstanding question of interpretation as to why only women are mentioned here. The daughter’s vow is mentioned but not the son’s. Obviously a son could make a foolish vow as well as a daughter and surely a father had a similar right to nullify his son’s vow if he thought it wise or necessary to do so. Single adult women – widows, divorcees, for example – had the freedom to make vows and the obligation to keep them and surely single adult men did as well. Why are they not mentioned as well as the women? And while a wife’s vow could certainly incur a financial obligation for the family that the husband had a right to accept and approve, a husband’s vow could just as easily have financial, emotional or social implications for his wife. Hannah’s vow to dedicate Samuel to the Lord and to offer his service to the temple when still a little boy certainly had implications for their family life and involved expenses that Elkanah, Hannah’s husband, had a right to accept and plan for. But a husband’s vow could have similar effects upon the life of his wife. Why is the wife alone mentioned?
Well the answer comes in several parts. Probably there is here the assumption that the rules apply mutatis mutandis, necessary changes being made. That is, the vows of a son at home could be nullified just as the vows of a daughter could be if the father thought it wise or necessary. And, in the case of the wife, the obligation of a husband to love and care for his wife and to consider her interests before his own was as surely the law of God in the ancient epoch as it is in the new. No husband had the right to hurt his wife with his vows.
But, in addition to that there is this. There is a principle of unity in family life, according to the Bible, that is and can be preserved only by a certain order in that family life, and a principle of that order is the headship of the husband and father. A family cannot be what it must be and what its members need it to be if its life is ruled by competition, by the struggle for power, by demands for equal treatment, or by resentment over one’s place; in other words by individuals in the family acting out of individual interest. Whether it is the place of a child in the home or the wife in the home or for that matter anyone else in the home, a marriage cannot stand a husband and wife making important decisions without regard to the other. So, the Bible says there must be some way of ordering those decisions.
Strange as it now sounds to very modern ears the family requires such an order. Most all human beings, throughout all human history and in every different kind of culture have acknowledged this. The assertion was not controversial until the rise of feminism, one of the most radical revolutionary movements in the history of human thought. The notion that a marriage and a family can exist without a certain kind of hierarchy is an entirely modern conceit and there is little in the modern experience to prove that egalitarian marriages and families will actually survive, much less be an improvement. There is something instinctive about this recognition that family unity requires an ordered relationship; so instinctive that our concept of it remains even after its being pummeled by a generation of counter-propaganda. I don’t say that it hasn’t been weakened, it surely has been, but we all still seem to know what a marriage and a family ought to be.
I received in the mail, the other day, the newsletter of the alumni association of the public high school in suburban St. Louis from which I graduated in 1968. Yes, young people, they had high schools in 1968. We even had indoor plumbing!
What caught my eye in the newsletter was the large number of women listed by name in the news items and articles whose maiden name had to be placed in parentheses before their married name. The men have the same names they had when they were in high school. The women, at least the married women, now have names that their former classmates would not recognize. Beverly Dowland was Beverly Koons when she graduated from Parkway High School in 1970. Michelle Martin was Michelle Gordon when she graduated in 1975. Still today most American women understand – and not only understand but are quite ready to agree – that a marriage and a family require a single last name. You know who belongs to a particular family because they all have the same name. And it is uniformly the husband’s name that becomes the name of the family and the wife’s family name that is exchanged for her husband’s.
There is nothing particularly earth-shattering about any of this. Remember, in the Bible manhood and womanhood are facts of life as God made it. Men are men and women are women. Try as the society might, little can be done about that. The concern in the Bible is not to assert that men and women are different and have different roles in life – that is ordinarily simply assumed, one of those facts so obvious that it doesn’t need to be stated – but rather to assert that men must be godly men, loving and caring for their wives and children, committed to the Lord’s interest in their lives, and that women be godly women, fulfilling their callings before the Lord faithfully and happily. Sin and selfishness can certainly turn a man’s place into a source of discontentment for his wife and woman’s place into a source of resentment for her husband. But God made the family to be a unity and to ensure that perfect unity he made the family to have a certain order.
The notion that love and order cannot exist together, that hierarchy is somehow antithetical to passionate affection and tender consideration is not only absurd – as human beings have witnessed the two things together for millennia – but is virtual blasphemy. For there is certainly both hierarchy and perfect love in the Triune life of God, both differentiation and unity, both distinction and passionate attachment, both a definite order among the persons and infinite happiness on the part of each. In the mystery of the Trinity we find both order and unity, love and hierarchy. And that feature of divine life in which that becomes the nature of personal reality was communicated to the life of man made in the image of this Triune God. The notion that hierarchy is an evil that must be overcome is a Marxist and a feminist notion; but it is not a biblical one and it is a notion that flies in the face of the human experience through all the thousands of years of man’s history.
That being so it is natural for the Bible to discuss questions of family life and family unity on the assumption of this order. It is natural to talk about husbands and their relationship to their wives and fathers and their relationship to their daughters. The headship of the husband and father, his ultimate responsibility and accountability for the marriage and family – the very fact that is still almost universally expressed even in our feminist culture by a woman’s taking her husband’s name – explains why he is the one who is mentioned as the one who might either accept or nullify the vow of his wife or daughter. The unity and welfare of the family is first and foremost his responsibility even more so than that of his wife and certainly much more so than that of his children.
But, remember what the Bible is assuming here and what is always elsewhere says. If there is this order in a marriage and a family – and virtually everyone accepts that there is, in practice if not in theory – there is also a greater duty laid upon husbands and fathers to ensure that the marriage and family are the happy and holy circles of love they are intended to be. Men hear this: you are given this authority but with it comes accountability. It’s primarily your show. So, if it’s a bad show, it’s primarily your fault. No woman imagines that it would be a burden to have a husband who loved her as passionately and self-sacrificially as Christ loved the church! No child thinks it a bad thing to have a father who loves her and delights in her and is always looking out for her welfare. Women and children crave such husbands and fathers. And in the Christian church they ought to find them! Such are the husbands and fathers of Numbers 30!
What we have then in this chapter are two fundamental emphases that are found everywhere in the Bible, proved everywhere in human experience and are fundamental to human happiness and welfare. 1) Honesty and faithfulness are essential to harmony, happiness, and goodness in human life as they are necessary to a right relationship with God, who is himself truth and faithfulness in their highest form; and 2) there is a unity in marriage and family, a unity that must be preserved against all the attacks made upon it – wittingly or unwittingly – including attacks upon that unity made by individuals within the family acting as individuals. Before we think Numbers 30 strange or terribly old-fashioned, we should look around us and see what we think of a society in which both personal integrity and marital and family unity are disappearing. And then we should take great care to put these principles of integrity and unity into practice, to show the world what it is missing!