This week, in Numbers chapter 30, we take up the matter of making vows and oaths to the Lord. I suppose that every Believer, Jewish or gentile, has at some time in their walk made a promise to God; some folks make vows and oaths quite regularly and among Eastern Orthodox, Christianity making vows are a regular part of worship.
Every religion ever studied and examined, from Hinduism to Baha’ism, and from Judaism to Islam, and all the others have some basic understanding of making promises to their god in return for something important.
Atheists that find themselves in life-threatening situations have been known to look upward and make a promise to any religious deity that might be listening, in exchange for being rescued (just in case God might exist).
When we get married, we exchange wedding vows, promises to one another invoking the name of Yehoveh. When we testify in a court of law, we swear or take an oath to tell the entire truth as best we know it (“so help us, God”).
And the Bible is positively overflowing with men (and women) making vows to the Lord. What we need to understand is that these vows and oaths were completely real and valid (they were not superstition), and the Lord expects these promises to be kept.
Even so, there are rules and regulations and laws established by precedent on who could, or should, make vows and oaths and under what kind of circumstances; who could legitimately nullify a vow. And at times a caution is raised against making vows in the heat of the moment due to the seriousness of making promises and bargains with the Lord.
Let’s read Numbers chapter 30.
Before we get too deep into this chapter, let me point out that there is a distinct difference in the Bible between an oath and a vow.
- An oath imposes an obligation upon the one making the promise.
- A vow is by definition a conditional promise.
That is, IF Jacob returns home safely, IF Israel is victorious over the Canaanites, IF Jephthah defeats the Ammonites, then they will respond with some prearranged action to complete the bargain.
Oaths tend to come in two flavors: the kind that is a promise and the kind that makes some assertion (like asserting that you didn’t steal that camel).
A covenant, by definition, is a promissory oath. In Hebrew, this kind of oath is labeled a shevu’at ‘issar.
Oaths usually are made in the name of some god or another; in the case of the Hebrews, it was of course in the name of YHWH. Thus we’ll see the Hebrew term nishba ‘be-YHWH used, which means, “swear by Yehoveh.” And this is used when one person is making an oath to someone else but is invoking God’s name to seal that promise.
But when an oath is made directly to God (an oath that is between a person and God), the Hebrew term is nishba ‘le-YHWH, which means, “swear TO YHWH.”
These Hebrews of ancient Bible times were no different than we are: often in moments of crisis we will plead with God and make a vow to Him, often unthinking and impulsive: “Oh, Lord, I’ll go to church (or the synagogue) every week”, or “I promise never to swear again”, or “I’ll never ask you for anything ever again”. You can probably recall some doozies that you’ve either heard or uttered yourself.
The problem is that verse 2 says this: if a person makes an oath or a vow he is not to break it; he is to carry out EVERYTHING that he said he would do. Yikes. I think sometimes we make so many promises to the Lord we can’t even remember what we said. The problem is: the Lord has a photographic memory and perfect recall.
In reality, verse 2 says that “if a MAN” makes a vow; this is referring specifically to a male because verse 3 then begins “If a woman” makes a vow. So instantly we see that the Lord looks upon the vows of a woman differently than He looks upon the vows of a man.
Before we examine the particulars of this interesting (and I’m sure to some of you ladies a bit uncomfortable) distinction between vows of men versus women, let’s see exactly WHY this difference exists in the first place.
The principles from which the laws about vows come from, and how each sex is obligated to those vows or not, are already well established in the Torah. And it is that just as a child is to submit to their parent, and man to the Lord, so is a wife to submit to her husband.
Put in a way that is a little less irritating to the modern western woman, a wife is under the covering and authority of her husband, just as a husband is under the covering and authority of God.
So the idea of the ordinances set up in Numbers 30 is that neither a child NOR a wife is given permission by Yehoveh to substitute self-imposed, self-created obligations to God in addition to or in place of official God-ordained duties. Further, a child or a wife cannot make a vow to the Lord, the keeping of which affects the parent or husband in such a way as to make that vow offensive to them.
Now, this does NOT necessarily speak to the nature or intent of the vow; that is, it’s not that the vow might be an evil promise or an irresponsible vow that cannot possibly be kept. Rather, the vows of a child or a woman come FIRST under her earthly authority BEFORE they are considered valid to her Heavenly authority, Yehoveh.
Now, as we go about delving into the rules about making vows in the Torah, especially as concerns women, keep in mind that in the New Testament vows and promises to the Lord continued and were considered completely acceptable, usual, and a good thing. In the Gospels and the Epistles, we will read of Believers (even Apostles) making vows as an ordinary course of life.
However, Yeshua warned about the downside of vow-making and said that a vow cannot be used to abrogate or avoid an otherwise legitimate expectation of a person. Jesus specifically addressed this practice of making a vow that allowed a person to evade proper care for their parents because it was a real problem in His era.
And He (Yeshua) answered and said to them, “And why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? “For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him be put to death.’ “But you say, ‘Whoever shall say to his father or mother, “Anything of mine you might have been helped by has been given to God (a vow),” he is not to honor his father or his mother.’ And thus you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition. “You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, ‘This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far away from Me. ‘But in vain do they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.'” (NAS Matthew 15:3)
And this is but one example of where a person selfishly or out of complete ignorance of scriptural truth would make a vow to give something to God INSTEAD of doing what has already been set down as a permanent God-ordained responsibility in Torah.
In this instance, it was that a man said that the money he would have used to care for his parents he has instead vowed it to the Lord; so, alas, he just cannot meet his obligation as a son to care for them.
In other words, he gave the money to the Priesthood instead of using it to see his aged mother and father. And Yeshua blamed this wrong mindset primarily on the teachings of doctrines of men, which He often refers to as “tradition.”
Understand, what Jesus was saying: Oh, you say you are studying the Holy Scriptures, and claim to be doing what the Scriptures say, but in reality, you’re not. You probably don’t even really know what the Scriptures say because you have chosen to accept a list of doctrines that men have told you is the truth; doctrines that are self-serving at times, rather than going by what the Word says.
Folks, because the Jews have come to call their doctrines “Tradition,” it is typically thought that Jesus was ONLY referring to the traditions that JEWS made; in fact, He is speaking to ALL manmade traditions, and that includes the vast trove of traditions that Christians call “doctrine.” And, Yeshua says that the result of this acceptance of doctrines over Scripture is that “their heart is far away from Me.”
The way chapter 30 works are that it organizes the issue of vow-making into 4 cases or 4 examples. The instruction concerning males is NOT one these cases. For the man (meaning a man of an age of accountability, not a boy-child) it is a very straightforward matter: make a vow keep a vow. There is NO way out that does not end up being a sin. No one else is held responsible for a man making a vow, and there is no winking and looking the other way by the Lord, regardless of how desperate the situation under which a man might have entered that vow.
Men, Yeshua did NOT change this! No way did Yeshua say that the ordinances concerning vows are abolished. What He DID say was to be very careful what you vow and that it’s better just to make your yes, yes and you’re no, no; and to follow the God-principles long established in the Word without thinking that somehow you can make a vow to avoid obedience to those principles.
We have our first of the 4 cases of vow-making in Numbers 30: the case of a virgin (meaning a girl who was unmarried), who was still living at home. So this means she was under the authority of her parents, her father in particular. And the rule is that if this young girl makes a vow, and her father hears of it but does not respond, and then the vow stands no matter what the vow is.
However, if her father hears of the vow and disapproves of it, the vow is annulled. Further, the Lord will not consider her unfulfilled vow a sin BECAUSE it was her father who told her she could not fulfill it.
In other words, in a case of two opposing wrongs (so to speak), one of making an unauthorized or rash vow, and another of not completing that vow, it was better to be obedient to the authority of her father (an authority that is a foundational God-principle), than to fulfill the vow to God that the girl’s father disagreed with.
And, by the way, the girl would have fully known that she had no place making a vow to Yehoveh without her father’s prior approval.
A second case is proposed starting in verse 6, and it kind of builds on the first instance. And this is the case of an unmarried girl who, while still living at home, makes a vow that her father finds out about but does NOT annul. The girl is therefore bound to the terms of that vow.
Later, however, she marries; and her husband hears of this vow that was made before their marriage; an entirely legitimate and in-force vow. He now has the option of allowing the terms of the vow to be brought to fruition OR annulling the vow.
And, just as if the girl’s father had annulled the vow and she would not be held responsible by God for not fulfilling it, it is the same for her husband: he can agree with or annul his wife’s vows. Why? Because authority over this girl, now a woman, was transferred from her father to her husband when she was wed.
In verse 9 begins the 3rd case: the case of a woman who is widowed or divorced and makes a vow and, since she is NOT under the authority of a father or a husband at this time, whatever she vows stands and no one can annul it. In essence, in this case of a divorcee or widow, the status of her vow and her obligation is similar to that of a full-grown male.
The last case, the 4th, a married woman makes a vow, her husband knows of it, but he remains silent. The result is that her vow stands, and she is responsible for fulfilling it. But, understand, there are vows that can affect the whole family. And, if her husband lets stand a vow by his wife that was terribly unwise, or perhaps even against the principles of God, then he bears at least some of the responsibility.
Verse 13 gives us some general direction about vows; but really, this is somewhat of a different TYPE of vow that is discussed here. And this is a vow of self-denial; that is, it is a vow in which the terms are that the woman will deny herself something in return for the Lord granting her request.
We see a vow like this in the case of Samson when his mother told God that she would deny herself the possession of her child if the Lord would allow her to become pregnant AND if the child was a son. That is, she would dedicate her son’s entire life to service to the Lord, and thereby deny herself all the necessary duties and honors a son might generally confer upon his mother, like caring for her in her old age.
Let’s wrap up this discussion of chapter 30 and the issue of vows (mainly as it concerns women and children) with examining two kinds of vows. Usually, these two different kinds of vows are given different names, but sometimes they are not translated that way.
One kind is called, in Hebrew, neder. Neder SHOULD be translated as “vow”; it means to do something good such as making a sacrificial offering of some kind.
The second type is called issar. Issar would be better translated as “pledge”. This pledge is generally associated with fasting or some form of abstinence. This is the kind associated, for instance, with a Nazarite vow (or pledge), which involves abstinence from drinking or eating any grape product, from cutting one’s hair, and from touching a corpse even if it were their mother or father.
What is common among all vows and pledges is that an oath is taken to initiate these vows and pledges, and by definition, an oath invokes the name of God. Even oaths are of two kinds:
- The first kind is a promise, and
- The second is the making of an assertion.
An assertion type of oath is the kind a defendant on trial would make; under oath, he asserts the facts of the case and thereby his innocence in the matter.
A promissory type of oath says that the person making the promise takes an obligation upon himself to do something. A covenant is, by definition, a promissory oath; it is one or two parties promising to do something.
Now, this is important for us to remember: because the Lord has chosen to put Himself under the same law of oaths that He has put men. When the Lord made the covenants with Abraham and Moses, for instance, it was His promising to do something. It was Yehoveh taking an oath, upon His name, to bring something about.
Vows, by definition, have conditions. Jephthah said IF God would give them victory; he would sacrifice the first thing through the door of his tent when he returned home from battle. Jacob stated that IF God would bring Him back to Canaan, safely, then the Lord would be his God and he would build God a sanctuary.
Vows became so popular among ancient Israel that a system of redeeming a vow, rather than performing it, was developed. We see the basics of that redeeming-a-vow system in Leviticus 27, where it primarily concerns the matter of a PERSON being given AS A VOW for service to the Lord.
In other words, a father may say if thus and so happens I will dedicate my son to the service of the Lord. However, by Law, fulltime service to the Lord was the sole province of the Levites.
So, if a parent dedicated their child to “service to the Lord” as a vow, or if a slave owner committed one of his slaves for “service to the Lord”, since there was really no way for the vow to happen there was a way for the person who MADE the vow to redeem back that vow for a set price. The money was paid to the priesthood (as all vow money was); but it was all the more appropriate because this vow of “service to the Lord” could only actually be fulfilled by working at the Tabernacle, and later the Temple.
And, as this was reserved by the Lord strictly for the Levites (and anyone else attempting it was to be put to death), then by definition this was but a symbolic offering of the one making the vow; a vow that could not possibly be fulfilled. So all along it was expected that the one making the vow would simply pay some money to the Temple.
Remember this when hearing Yeshua’s words about vows and pledges; because it was around this abusive backdrop of making unfulfillable vows (generally for the purpose of making that person look pious or godly to the public) that He spoke against making vows and pledges as being a generally fruitless activity because while it may have been frivolous to the worshipper, it was serious business to God.