Torah Portion for week 42: Numbers 30:2 – 32:42
This week’s Torah portion opens with extended instructions limiting a woman’s freedom to make binding oaths and apparently giving veto power over her personal decisions to a male figure in her life. Was this a divine “green light” for male domination in Israelite society? Is it, perhaps, a not-so-subtle acquiescence to a sexist attitude which assumed female incompetence or inferiority?
First, it should be clarified that the oaths or vows discussed in our passage were not civil contracts, like taking out a mortgage; these were personal acts of devotion to the Lord, usually involving sacrifices and other offerings to be brought to the Lord’s sanctuary (cf. Num 29:39). The most imposing vow that could be taken was the Nazirite vow (Num 6:1-21). The Nazirite voluntarily restricted his diet, his choices, and his family responsibilities in order to devote himself, for a period of time, to God’s service. When his vow had been fulfilled, he too was required to offer a series of costly sacrifices (Num 6:13-15).
Other vows might be taken when making a special request for God’s favor, as in Hannah’s desperate prayer that God would put an end to her lifelong barrenness. First Samuel 1 tells us:
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.” (1 Sam 1:10-11)
In short, her son Samuel would become a life-long Nazirite. Another shocking example is Jephthah’s thoughtless vow, which resulted in the sacrifice of his dearly beloved daughter (Jud 11:30-39). Clearly, vows to the Lord could have implications and effects that went beyond the individual who made them! And that seems to be the importance of the instructions given in Numbers 30.
Our Torah portion opens with a concise statement concerning the sanctity of promises made to the Lord. In Numbers 30:2 we read, “If a man vows a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” Similarly, according to verse 9, an independent woman (a widow or divorcee) was personally responsible to fulfill her own vows.
The rest of the chapter deals with the exceptions to this rule, when vows can, in fact, be nullified; particularly when the person making the vow is a dependent member of a family unit which could be negatively affected by this unilateral commitment.
For example, Numbers 30:10-12 tells us:
And if [a woman] vowed in her husband’s house or bound herself by a pledge with an oath, and her husband heard of it and said nothing to her and did not oppose her, then all her vows shall stand, and every pledge by which she bound herself shall stand. But if her husband makes them null and void on the day that he hears them, then whatever proceeds out of her lips concerning her vows or concerning her pledge of herself shall not stand. Her husband has made them void, and the LORD will forgive her.
In the ancient world, women lived in families led and provided for by a father or a husband. The intense physical demands of pre-industrial agricultural labor, as well as the dangers which threatened unprotected females, restricted their participation in the production aspects of the family economy. For this reason, widows and orphans are presented in the Bible as people in desperate need, precisely because they had no such covering and no means to survive independently. As in the book of Ruth, a widow’s one hope was that a family redeemer would be found who would take her under his protection (see Ruth 3:9-13).
Thus, when our passage speaks of the oaths and vows which dependent women take on themselves, it is clear that such actions had serious implications for the rest of their family, and especially for the one ultimately responsible to fulfill all family obligations – that is, the father or husband. Like credit card debt or a gambler who wagers the family car, personal vows could place an entire family’s welfare at risk; therefore, the responsible family provider was given the right to nullify (or confirm) vows taken by his dependents.
Far from being an arbitrary restriction on the personal freedoms of the woman, this principle recognized that the family is an interdependent organism which must be protected for the sake of every family member. Each family member also had a crucial role to play in the overall family economy; a personal decision to “opt out” – for example, by taking a Nazirite vow – could have disastrous results for all. This was especially true in an era when physical survival, rather than personal fulfillment, was the critical need and not at all to be taken for granted.
Our economy today is obviously very different and the possibilities for both men and women to contribute significantly to the family income are almost limitless. At the same time, in our modern western society, the rights of the individual and their personal fulfillment are considered inviolable.
Nevertheless, the Scriptures reaffirm the absolute priority of the community – whether our family, our congregation, or our society – and they call upon us to sacrifice our rights and self-interest for the good of the whole. As Paul writes to the Corinthians, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them” (1 Cor 9:19). And he instructs us, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil 2:3-4).