The Woman and the Vow

Having heard yet again that Numbers 30 teaches that every woman is under a “covenant head” who has absolute authority over every decision she makes, I decided to correct that and draw your attention to the text itself.

Before my meager comments, I would suggest that you read the passage for yourself. I’ll wait.

Now, you may have heard it taught that this means that a woman under her father’s headship until she is married and then that transfers to her husband. You may have heard it said that this teaches that a father can annul a marriage or a credit application or a rental agreement.

You may have heard that it teaches a thing called “covenantal headship”, even though the scripture only speaks of Adam and Christ as covenant heads.

But a simple reading of the passage shows that it teaches no such thing.

First, notice that it is said twice that it refers to young women still at home, or married women. God specifically, by name, excludes widows and divorced or otherwise single women, (verse 9-10; verse 16) assuming that they have enough wisdom and understanding to make their own vows. They are bound to their vows, which shows that God values the voice of a woman far more than most patriarchialists.

Second, this is a passage that has to do with vows. A vow had a specific religious meaning in scripture. To quote from Nelson’s dictionary (or any other bible dictionary you might have),

A vow is “a solemn promise or pledge that binds a person to perform a specified act or behave in a certain manner….All vows were made to God as a promise in expectation of his favor (Gen. 28:20) or in thanksgiving for his blessing (Psalm 119:12-14)…Vowing is joyful worship in faith and love (Psalm 61:4-5, 8)”

In other words, a vow is a specific act of worship. The whole point of Numbers 30 (and you can also look at Eccl. 5:4-6) is that when one makes a vow, one is bound to perform it, for God has no pleasure in fools. This is important to remember. Look again at Numbers 30 verse 2 for the context of what I am about to say.

Scripture gives several examples of these kinds of vows. Jacob took one. Jephthah took a foolish one. Even the Apostle Paul took a vow and traveled to Jerusalem to perform it (Acts 18:18). A vow is a specific act of worship and devotion.

But there is one example of a vow taken by a woman married to a husband that would be very helpful to analyze for this discussion. Hannah took a vow that if the Lord opened her womb, she would dedicate the child to the Lord to serve in the Temple every day of his life (1 Sam. 1). It was a vow of faith by a woman who was a prophet. In her mouth and in her heart, she longed for a redeemer to come out of Zion and she knew somehow that the child that the Lord would give her would lead to that end (See her song in 1 Sam. 2).

This was a vow of worship made by a woman of faith, who was also living with a husband, Elkanah. This would be a direct application of Numbers 30. So let’s look at it from that perspective.

A vow made in the temple before the Lord is a serious thing, and Hannah is bound to perform it. But the vow also involved Elkanah. After all, it was his child as well. Suppose he was furious, and absolutely refused to give his son to the Lord. That would be his right to do so. Vows, after all, were voluntary. If Elkanah was adamantly opposed to the vow, this could cause great trouble to Hannah.

What could she do? She could infuriate, disappoint, frustrate, anger her husband and live with the consequences, or she could go back on her vow and disobey God – which, as we have said, is an offense that God does not take lightly.

It would seem that she would be in a horrible mess.

And this is where Numbers 30 comes in. If the woman is still under her father’s roof, or has a husband, her vow does not just affect her. If the father or husband refuse, she is no longer bound to her vow. God accepts her and loves her and honors her and wants her to be at peace in her home.

It is interesting that God does not forbid women from making vows. He assumes that she has property and goods and strength and the ability to keep the vow. He doesn’t even teach that she should “check with her husband first”.

God cares for the wives and daughters, who are in  his image and also called to have dominion. He honors their voice and their worship; he accepts their sacrifices of praise and he hears and honors their vows. They are called to take that very seriously.

But God also knows that a vow – since it usually involved money, goods, livestock or perhaps even children – also affected the husband or the father. If he was of the possessive sort or simply did not want to give up the goods, she was no longer bound, but free.

For God would have us be free, not in bondage.

On another note, since the Temple worship and the sacrifices and priesthood involved with it all are no longer part of the worship of God, having been abolished by Christ, the vow as practiced by Israel no longer applies. But we can still live in peace and freedom which is what God would have of us.

Never let anyone bring you back under the yoke of bondage, no matter how many letters they have on their name.

And one more thing, it is very beneficial to read the scripture for yourselves and see if it actually says what you have been told it says. Don’t be threatened by credentials. You also are led by the spirit. Search the scriptures, and see if these things be so (Acts 17:11).

21 Comments

Filed under Marriage, Men and women, Patriarchy

21 responses to “The Woman and the Vow

  1. Janet Matthews Roth

    Again, I love you, Sam Powell. You speak truth, and you bless all those who read what you write, including me.

  2. emmellkaycee

    There are just too many times, when I was part and parcel of a congregation (15 years), that I was either lead to think, or just outright told, that my understanding of the Spirit’s voice within my own heart and head, necessarily needed a person with “authority” (i.e. pastor, teacher, elder, etc…) to corroborate. Most especially, if I sideways-glanced questioned something that was being taught as truth, but set my teeth to itching. Mind you, I am not in any way shape or form given to flights of fancy—spiritual or otherwise; I have a sound mind, and a bold will, *and* a teachable spirit, all by God’s Grace and design. What I do not have any longer is an unquestioning, silent trust of those who profess Christianity…and then act as Pharisaical Masters. What I no longer have is an ignorance of the vast number and kinds of WOLVES within Christendom’s doors.

  3. Jennifer Bales

    Thank you for always sharing the truth.

  4. “… the vow no longer applies”. I’m sure you don’t mean that the vow spoken at a wedding, in the presence of God and witnesses, does not apply today?

    Is there nowhere in the New Testament that says a vow is not binding? Methinks a can of worms has been opened. However, I am simply curious as to the true value or significance and permanent extent of vow-making today.

    • You missed the key words. “as it was practiced by Israel”.

      • Ha ha… yes, I did… I’m sorry. But, what does making a vow mean today, I mean, how binding is it really? I’ve had a difficult marriage/life and at 66, I’m still wondering what on earth a vow is… and how seriously does God take them when there is grace also at our disposal. Honestly, I don’t even know how unbelievers conclude that marriage is to be a lifelong thing when they have no moral compass in their lives as we do with the Holy Spirit. TIA

      • Sorry, I was out all morning. The vow as you are thinking of it is enforced in the 3rd commandment. Jesus’ words also in Matthew 5:33-37 speaks of our words and how we use them.
        For your edification and to answer your question better than I could, here is the Heidelberg Catechism on the third commandment “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain”
        99. What is required in the third Commandment?

        That we must not by cursing, or by false swearing, nor yet by unnecessary oaths, profane or abuse the Name of God; nor even by our silence and connivance be partakers of these horrible sins in others; and in sum, that we use the Holy Name of God in no other way than with fear and reverence, so that He may be rightly confessed and worshipped by us, and be glorified in all our words and works.

        100. Is the profaning of God’s name, by swearing and cursing, so grievous a sin, that His wrath is kindled against those also who do not help as much as they can to hinder and forbid the same?

        Yes truly, for no sin is greater and more provoking to God than the profaning of His Name; wherefore He even commanded it to be punished with death.

        101. But may we swear reverently by the Name of God?
        Yes, when the magistrate requires it, or when it may be needful otherwise, to maintain and promote fidelity and truth to the glory of God and our neighbor’s good; for such an oath is grounded in God’s Word, and therefore was rightly used by the saints in the Old and New Testament.

        102. May we swear by the saints or by any other creatures?
        No, for a lawful oath is a calling upon God, that He, as the only searcher of hearts, may bear witness to the truth, and punish me if I swear falsely; 1) which honor is due to no creature.

        To answer your question about the marriage vow, your vow was a conditional one – that was why he took vows as well. If you vowed first – to love him as long as you both shall live. And then he said, when it was his turn, “I promise to hate you, revile you, sleep with everyone else besides you, and utterly refuse to live with you…”
        Then you would not be held to your vows, for the vow was contingent upon HIS vow, and vice versa.
        It is a mutual relationship, which the Song of Songs teaches.
        So when the other party breaks their covenant with no intention of keeping it, you are no longer bound but free.
        This has been the teaching of the church and the scripture from the beginning.
        It is also taught by example with God himself, who divorced Israel for their treachery.

  5. And to very briefly answer your question about breaking a vow – God does indeed take our words very seriously. This is the teaching of scripture throughout.
    But where sin abounded, there grace did also abound. The treachery of our words can be confessed, forsaken, and forgiven by Christ, covered by his blood.
    This is the gospel.

  6. Elizabeth

    Absolutely no need to apologize… I kept busy and went on with my duties until you were able to respond. Thank you for such a thorough answer. I will read it slowly and carefully, as well as read your post again to be sure I’m understanding everything. God bless you!

  7. Well said, Sam. I love Numbers 30 in terms of healthy marriage, in terms of freedom, in terms of God’s goodness, His kindness. Over and over it says, “the Lord will release her.” We aren’t forced to chose between honoring God and honoring our husbands. We aren’t in trouble with the Lord if our husband makes it impossible for us to honor our oaths. We aren’t in trouble with the Lord if we chose peace with our husbands.

    My kids are all grown now, but this issue came up a lot for me with church. I wanted my kids to know the Lord, to be raised in the church. But my hubby got mad at the church, didn’t want the kids there. So I got caught in this tug o war between trying to honor God and trying to honor hubby at the same time. He’s a good man, we negotiated it a lot, but those words, “the Lord will release her,” brought a lot of peace and comfort in moments of great frustration.

  8. Anu Riley

    Oh my gosh Pastor this is remarkably beautiful and so well written.

    “But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.” Matthew 5:37

    It’s so simple, but so deadly as well. Watch your words. Don’t mess around. Anything more is evil, and from the evil one.

    No wonder it is only God who can tame our tongues. How else can you obey such a serious, sobering verse?

    “They are bound to their vows, which shows that God values the voice of a woman far more than most patriarchialists”

    This is going to sound ridiculous (and it is!):

    Sometimes, as a female, I would prefer my voice to not be valued and taken seriously. There can be something “relaxing” about no one having any real expectations of you. It means you are “off the hook” in terms of being challenged to aim for real character. Your standards for me are lower, so I sit down in apathy. I do not step out in faith. I don’t take chances. I take a backseat.

    When I was proved so obviously wrong, I was both delighted AND discouraged. Imagine putting your big toe into the ocean for the first time, and immediately face waves of resistance.

    Do you run away, or do you get wet, shake it off—-and continue to put your foot, leg, torso—-all the way into the water? ALL. THE. WAY.

    This wasn’t me initiating a vow on my part. But His Word vowed that He would be with me all the way. Do I believe Him, and vow to stick to that? Or do I “check with my husband” first?

    And male believers will often dumb you down: what you’re doing isn’t serious. You’re not taken seriously. We don’t take you seriously. He doesn’t take you seriously. Why? Because we said so!

    Well, He was serious when He died for me. He was serious when He found me. He was serious when He saved me. He was serious when Is said He knows the plans He has for me (news flash: HE knows. You don’t)

    “Never let anyone bring you back under the yoke of bondage…. Don’t be threatened by credentials.”

    These are two things I would wish to be screamed from the rooftops. You might recognize sin when it appears as obviously dark and evil, but not all sin appears that way. So many times, it appears to be just the opposite.

    And so many times, it appears to work in your favor. I gave into a false sense of inferiority for so long because it “appeared” Biblical. AND, it “appeared” to make others want to be around me. They indulged in a false sense of superiority around me. It “appeared” to ME that they enjoyed my company, when in reality the enjoyed the fruits of being around someone so “inferior.”

    God does not die for, rise again for “inferiors or superiors.” You are a human being who just happens to be male or female.

  9. Clockwork Angel

    Dumb question: Why can’t the wife annul a husband’s vow? It seems that any vow he makes would likewise effect her financially etc. It seems like men still have the ultimate say in this scenario. As an example of how a woman might be affected by her husband’s vow, what if it was Elkanah who made the vow to give up Samuel rather than Hannah? In that culture, Hannah would be left without a retirement plan if she never had another child after him. Surely she would be allowed to agree or disagree? (This point makes Hannah’s vow all the more remarkable, because she is saying please give me a child while being willing to give up the future support she would normally receive from said child.)

    • The scripture does teach that the husband is the head of the wife. He was created first and she was created as his warrior helper.
      I am not a patriarchialist, and I also would not identify as complementarian, due to their rather weird teaching.
      But I also hold to what the scripture teaches about order in the home.
      As I have also stated in the blog, since the temple has passed away and we are no longer under the old covenant, this doesn’t strictly apply today, and with the coming of Christ, women were restored to their first dignity which was lost in the fall.
      But there is still an order in the home.

  10. Janice

    If a husbands primary allegiance never switches from his family of origin to his own family( wife and child) would you consider this severe enough neglect to allow the wife to separate and/or divorce? Would this be an example of vow breaking on the husbands side? This had been a very long painful experience for the wife.Thank you for your consideration.

    • It is impossible to answer a hypothetical. But whatever you decide, be at peace with yourself and trust the blood of Christ. God would have us be at peace.
      I’m so sorry for the turmoil.

  11. Salla Karimies

    Thank you for this writing, for me it was very reliefing, because I easily make stupid promises when I am scared, and I don’t even realize what all my promises would mean before I start thinking about it and get panicked. But I didn’t quite understand what you meant, did you mean that today the husband no longer can release his wife from a promise she’s made to God? I thought this commandment could be valid today also, because also the teaching of the submissiveness of the wife belongs to the New Testament too and not only Old Testament.

    Thanks if you answer 🙂

    • If you are prone to make stupid promises when you are scared, you would be better served to read Ecclesiastes 5:1-6 and not say anything at all.
      The problem is theological. God is our Father, our covenant God who loves us in Christ and will turn even the evil he sends upon us to our good, for he is almighty and faithful. We don’t bargain with God, or use prayer to manipulate and control him. We are to trust him and hold on to his promises to us.
      The vow of Numbers belongs to the old covenant, and was tied into the sacrificial system of the temple. When Christ paid the perfect sacrifice, that ancient vow passed away. He isn’t talking about contracts, but religious vows.
      I am not sure what vow one would make to God today – if it involves the family finances, then one should involve the other spouse since they are not two, but one.
      But making “stupid promises”, as you call them, belong to another category. Everyone – men and women – should learn to control their tongues, even in worship.
      It comes down to faith. If you truly understand who God is and understand what salvation in Christ is, then you will no longer use your words to attempt to manipulate or control God, but you will rest in his love and trust him, even when you are afraid.

      • Salla K.

        Well the promise sure also today can be something that would cause a trouble also for the husband so that he would get angry… so I think the situation today can be same than old days. I think in that Old Testament place there are no clear limitations about what kind of promises it talks about, maybe it can be any kind of promise? Not only about fasting or being a nazire etc.. maybe they were promises that also effect the husband, if he is possibly willing to deny those promises?… why would he care about some food restrictions or that kind of promises… just thinking…

  12. Salla K.

    I mean food restrictions that only concern the wife..

  13. Salla K.

    And one more question… what if today the wife makes a promise that the husband resists? She must be submissive to God, but also to husband… what if the husband really stongly opposes this promise, what should the wife do today? It can mean something at home too, for example that the wife doesn’t have time to do houseworks properly anymore…

    • The issue is in your view of the vow. Jesus said, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Whatever is more than this comes from the evil one”
      Back to Ecclesiastes 5 – close your mouth in the presence of the Lord.
      Why are you continually making vows that pit yourself against your husband, especially since we don’t offer sacrifices, we don’t go to temple, and there is no more sacrifice for sin?
      The simple answer to your question is this:
      Close your mouth in the presence of the Lord.
      Quit making vows.
      Especially quit making, as you call them, stupid vows.

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