Numbers 30 and Vows Under Authority

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Numbers 30 deals with Israelite vows to God, i.e. declaring something to be dedicated to God. This would usually involve vowing something to God that one would give to the tabernacle or temple system much later, e.g. a certain percentage of the harvest that hasn't arrive yet or something of that nature. Some of the Pharisees in Jesus' time abused this system by vowing things to God that were necessary for caring for their parents, and thus they used these laws to get out of more important ones like honoring father and mother.

Jephthah in Judges 11 vowed whatever first came through his door, and it turned out to be his daughter. In that case, he tragically honored his vow when he shouldn't have done so, although if he had broken it he would have needed to make atonement. But other vows could be rash and should never have been made that nonetheless have to be honored. Typically if a man made a vow, he would have to honor it even if it was rashly made and burdensome to honor.

The regulations in Numbers 30 relate to girls and women making vows when under the authority of someone else. Normally a man would be responsible for his own vows. A girl under her father's authority would also normally be responsible for her own vows, provided that her father, when hearing about it, said nothing. But he did have the authority to cancel her vow. The same is true of a husband of a married woman. The father or husband would have to cancel the vow immediately when hearing about it, but the authority to cancel the vow came with being the father of a minor girl or the husband of a wife.

What interested me in reading this chapter recently was how it treats widows and divorced women. There were cases of widows and divorced women going back to live with their father, but there were also cases of widows retaining the property their husbands had inherited and serving as a head of household. These cases would have to have involved children, since otherwise the property might leave the clan, and property ties to tribes and clans was a very big deal in ancient Israel. But what's notably absent in this chapter is any statement about such women being under the authority of their father in terms of vows. As far as this chapter is concerned, a widow or divorced woman was simply responsible for her vows, and no one had the authority to cancel them.

What this means is that there's no underlying assumption that women can't make responsible choices and need some man to oversee their vows. Widows and divorcees would have to fall under someone's authority if that were so. Here they don't. There must be some other explanation. Complementarians have one. Women and men are not in their natures different (or at least not in their natures different enough) to justify women always and in every case being under authority and in need of supervision for their vows. But in the case of girls under their fathers' authority and women under their husbands' authority there's a role distinction that has nothing to do with men's and women's natures.

Some complementarians might extend something from this particular role distinction into our current day, while others might take it to be tied to the old covenant sacrificial system and thus no longer operational in any sense. But either would be able to say that it's based in a more permanent role relation that does continue today. Egalitarians, on the other hand, might have a harder time dealing with this passage. I'm open to suggestions, but I can't think of an easy way to take this passage given egalitarian principles. There might be some complex hermeneutical explanation for why it's not a moral mistake on God's part to allow women to be subject to men in this way, but the complementarian explanation is much more straightfoward.

It seems, then, that this passage fits best not with traditional patriarchy nor with full-blown egalitarianism but rather with the complementarian view that men and women can have different roles (in terms of authority) that nonetheless don't reflect any difference in nature. As I said, I'm open to suggestions about how egalitarianism can handle this passage, but short of that I'd have to say that complementarianism offers a better explanation of this passage.

4 Comments

Jeremy, I respect your argument for the view that "men and women can have different roles (in terms of authority) that nonetheless don't reflect any difference in nature". But this does not seem to be the regular complementarian position. That position, as expressed in publications of CBMW etc, seems to be that there is something intrinsic to the nature of women (although they are the image of God) which makes them incapable, or at least less capable than men, of exercising authority.

There should be no problems for egalitarians in handling this passage. This, like many other laws in the Old Testament, is an example of how God worked within a cultural framework of patriarchy to subvert that system. For example, it is highly subversive in such a context to suggest that women have a right to vow anything at all, and that men do not have an absolute right to cancel any vows made by their wives or daughters.

Your argument from this for complementarianism is equivalent to arguing from the Bible passages regulating slavery that it is good Christian behaviour to keep slaves according to these rules.

D.A. Carson argued for this view in a publication of the CBMW (the Piper/Grudem volume). It's not the only complementarian view, but it's one of the standard ones. What I'm saying is that this is an argument for this sort of complementarian view.

How is it subverting partiarchy to allow men to cancel their wives' and daughters' vows but not to allow them to cancel their minor sons' vows? It may be very minorly subversive, but it's not all that subversive.

My views on slavery are already on record, and I think my views on that are consistent with my views on this passage. If you can find an inconsistency, please let me know.

One could look at the vow that Hannah made regarding God giving her son in this light.

1 Samuel: 10-11
She was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD and wept bitterly. And she vowed a vow and said, "O LORD of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head."

It was Hannah who named Samuel (interesting in itself). Her husband, Elkanah, does give his permission for Samuel to be given to the Lord in verse 23 (so I guess that agrees with the Numbers 20 passage).

"Do what seems best to you; wait until you have weaned him; only, may the LORD establish his word."

It seems the intention is separate the responsibility in initiating a vow from oversight where mitigation would be needed. This is similar to any vow made by someone under the authority of another. The authority would have to agree to allow someone under them to fulfill a vow that might impact them in some way. Hence the negation aspect, rather than establishing the need to affirm all vows.

The focus seems to be more hierarchical than patriarchical. The concern establishes respect for the order of authority.

What is important in this is the universal ability of everyone to make vows: men, women, children, slaves, etc.

Yes, that all sounds right. But I think it relies on a distinction that many egalitarians deny, at least if the authority relation is constant throughout someone's life.

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