Vows and Numbers 30/Marriage, divorce, and authority

Recently I was asked this question by one of our members who was searching God’s Word and asking great questions about what she was reading.

“Hey Pastor I have a quick question. I was reading the book of numbers the other day and was a little confused by numbers 30. I understand that the wife was supposed to obey her parents and submit to her husband but I was confused by what it said about the vows. Back then did a husband have to approve a woman’s vows to make them valid for marriage? Also if after marriage the husband decided to disallow the vows was that the equivalent of divorce?”

What a wonderful question.  Here is the text

New American Standard Bible (NASB)

Then Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the sons of Israel, saying, “This is the word which the Lord has commanded. If a man makes a vow to the Lord, or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.
“Also if a woman makes a vow to the Lord, and binds herself by an obligation in her father’s house in her youth, and her father hears her vow and her obligation by which she has bound herself, and her father says nothing to her, then all her vows shall stand and every obligation by which she has bound herself shall stand. But if her father should forbid her on the day he hears of it, none of her vows or her obligations by which she has bound herself shall stand; and the Lord will forgive her because her father had forbidden her.
“However, if she should marry while under her vows or the rash statement of her lips by which she has bound herself, and her husband hears of it and says nothing to her on the day he hears it, then her vows shall stand and her obligations by which she has bound herself shall stand. But if on the day her husband hears of it, he forbids her, then he shall annul her vow which she is under and the rash statement of her lips by which she has bound herself; and the Lord will forgive her.
“But the vow of a widow or of a divorced woman, everything by which she has bound herself, shall stand against her. However, if she vowed in her husband’s house, or bound herself by an obligation with an oath,and her husband heard it, but said nothing to her and did not forbid her, then all her vows shall stand and every obligation by which she bound herself shall stand. But if her husband indeed annuls them on the day he hears them, then whatever proceeds out of her lips concerning her vows or concerning the obligation of herself shall not stand; her husband has annulled them, and the Lord will forgive her.
“Every vow and every binding oath to humble herself, her husband may confirm it or her husband may annul it. But if her husband indeed says nothing to her from day to day, then he confirms all her vows or all her obligations which are on her; he has confirmed them, because he said nothing to her on the day he heard them. But if he indeed annuls them after he has heard them, then he shall bear her guilt.”
These are the statutes which the Lord commanded Moses, as between a man and his wife, and as between a father and his daughter, while she isin her youth in her father’s house.
New American Standard Bible (NASB)
Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation

Let me see if I can break this down as concise as possible:

The topic of the chapter is on vows in general, a “swearing” to the Lord and/or before witnesses that they would follow through with something.

  • We typically only think about “vows” in terms of marriage in today’s Western culture
  • Making a “vow” was a more common practice in the cultural and historical context in which we find the nation of Israel at the writing of the book of Numbers.
  • In lieu of having writing supplies and utensils readily available, the “vow” was the binding contract between 2 parties for them.
  • The purpose of this part of the Law being given was to help clarify which verbal contracts (“vows”) were binding, which ones weren’t, and to who.

So let me break down the “rules” for binding vows (“contracts”) between 2 parties.

Vs. 1-2: Men are expected to keep their “vows” they have “oathed” to fulfill.  He would not be able to violate his oath without judgement from God, no exceptions when promised as lined out in verse 2.

  1. vs. 3-5:  A young woman still at home, under her father’s care and makes a vow in accordance with vs. 2.
    • At the time the dad hears about the vow, he says nothing about it.  Then, she is legally bound to keep her vow or face judgement.
    • At the time the dad hears about the vow, he forbids the terms of the vow, she will not be held responsible for the “promise/contract” and she will not be judged for not keeping it, she will be freed from her adolescent promise.
  2. vs. 6-8: A young woman who was under the demands of a vow made or made a rash “vow” or contract while under the father’s care and married while in the process of fulfilling that “Vow.”
    • At the time that the husband hears of the vow and says nothing about it, she will remain obligated to her vow, whether it was a worthy or rash contract.
    • On the day her new husband hears of her vow or rash promise he objects, that will annul her contract and the Lord (and the Law) will forgive her for not keeping that vow. (NOTE: This is not focused on the vow of the marriage, just on a verbally contracted promise made of which she would be obligated to fulfill)
  3. vs. 9-12:  For a woman who is divorced or widowed, she is obligated to keep her vows (verbal contracts).  She is responsible to fulfill her contracts.  Verses 10-12 seem to repeat vs. 6-8, while in her husbands house (the one divorced or widowed), if at the time her husband heard of the vow, if he said nothing, then she would be bound to the vow and if he objected, she would be freed.
  4. vs. 13-15: These verses confirm again the husbands power to ignore and accept, or annul the vows his wife makes, but explains further that, as the husband in his act of love and compassion for his wife, he instead would bear the guilt of her broken vow and be required by the Law given by God to Moses to provide a sin offering and restitution, or be obligated to keep it himself.

Verse 16 then clarifies: These are the statutes for young women and their fathers; and young women and their husbands in relationship to the guilt of breaking legal verbal “contracts” called vows between these young women and other people besides the husbands or fathers.

These vows are not about marriage per SE, they are about verbal contracts between 2 parties; an agreement to fulfill a promise to do something.

However, keep in mind that even if the father or husband objected to the vows made by the young women when they became aware of them, it only freed the woman from judgement.  That meant that the father or the husband was willing to accept responsibility to fulfill the terms of the agreement or suffer judgement on themselves, legally and from the Lord.

Lastly, although it mentions marriage, divorce, and widow-hood, the vows are not promises about marriage specifically.  This passage was about legal agreements between women and other parties and who would bear the legal and spiritual consequence to keep the contracts.

The beautiful picture here is the parallel it caries with Christ and his bride, the church.  In the same way as would a husband in Numbers 30, when Christ (the husband) heard of the legally binding vow (contract) between God and humanity, realizing the debt that was owed and the judgement demanded due to the breaking of the contract (“…in the day you eat thereof, you shall surely die…”), Christ has the right to annul the vow and accept the terms of the contract for himself.  Since the contract was breached and Christ (as the husband of His bride, the church) objects to His bride bearing the judgement of the broken contract, then He decided to bear the judgement upon Himself for the breach of contract and set the bride free.  Through Christ’s love, His church has been set free, the debt paid by the sin offering of her (the church’s) “husband” (Christ) on the cross.

I hope this helps clarify what could be a little bit of a confusing passage of Scripture and shed light to the great love that Christ demonstrated in being our substitute on the cross so we might be set free.


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One Response to “Vows and Numbers 30/Marriage, divorce, and authority”

  1. wbchurch Says:

    By the way, continuing the parallel between this passage and Christ, the husband (Christ) was required to keep, not only the vow He accepted from his wife (the church), but all of His own vows too (“…tempted in all points as are we, yet without sin…”).

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