1 Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the people of Israel, saying, “This is what the Lord has commanded. 2 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.
3 “If a woman vows a vow to the Lord and binds herself by a pledge, while within her father’s house in her youth, 4 and her father hears of her vow and of her pledge by which she has bound herself and says nothing to her, then all her vows shall stand, and every pledge by which she has bound herself shall stand. 5 But if her father opposes her on the day that he hears of it, no vow of hers, no pledge by which she has bound herself shall stand. And the Lord will forgive her, because her father opposed her.
6 “If she marries a husband, while under her vows or any thoughtless utterance of her lips by which she has bound herself, 7 and her husband hears of it and says nothing to her on the day that he hears, then her vows shall stand, and her pledges by which she has bound herself shall stand. 8 But if, on the day that her husband comes to hear of it, he opposes her, then he makes void her vow that was on her, and the thoughtless utterance of her lips by which she bound herself. And the Lord will forgive her. 9 (But any vow of a widow or of a divorced woman, anything by which she has bound herself, shall stand against her.) 10 And if she vowed in her husband’s house or bound herself by a pledge with an oath, 11 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. 12 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. 13 Any vow and any binding oath to afflict herself, her husband may establish, or her husband may make void. 14 But if her husband says nothing to her from day to day, then he establishes all her vows or all her pledges that are upon her. He has established them, because he said nothing to her on the day that he heard of them. 15 But if he makes them null and void after he has heard of them, then he shall bear her iniquity.”
16 These are the statutes that the Lord commanded Moses about a man and his wife and about a father and his daughter while she is in her youth within her father’s house. – Numbers 30:1-16 ESV
The people of Israel find themselves encamped near the border of the land of Canaan, and Moses is attempting to prepare them for the fast-approaching day when they will have to cross over that border and begin their conquest and capture of the land promised to them by God. Much of what Moses has communicated to them has been practical advice concerning matters of worship and sacrifice. When they finally enter the land, their lives will be consumed by fighting and trying to create new lives for themselves. Their old way of life will be over. They will go from being wanderers to conquerors. Rather than living in tents as nomads, they will find enjoy the comforts of home in houses and cities they didn’t build.
But with all the changes they will face, Moses stressed the need that they continue to maintain the religious rites and rituals that God had given them at Sinai. They were to keep all the commands regarding sacrifices and offerings. Just because they were entering a time marked by military conquest, they were not to abandon their relationship with and commitment to God.
Now, in chapter 30, Moses addresses a rather strange topic that is unfamiliar to the modern western mindset. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, Moses brings up the issue of making vows. This is not a reference to wedding vows, but to the making of verbal commitments and, in most cases, commitments made to God. They are sometimes referred to as oaths.
Now, why would Moses be bringing up this topic at this particular point? It sounds a bit out of place, but it makes sense when one considers that the Israelites were preparing to enter a strange new land and would be facing a host of unknowns. As they found themselves going into battles against much larger and more skilled armies, it would be tempting to make vows to God in an effort to secure success. A vow could be a promise made to God in exchange for His blessing or guarantee of safety. It might go something like this: “God, if you will bring me back safely from this battle, I will dedicate my firstborn child to Your service.”
We see just such a conversation in the book of Judges. Jephthah, one of the judges of Israel found himself facing a battle against the Ammonites. In an attempt to garner God’s assistance in defeating his enemy, Jephthah made a vow.
And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord. He said, “If you give me victory over the Ammonites, I will give to the Lord whatever comes out of my house to meet me when I return in triumph. I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.” – Judges 1130-31 NLT
Jephthah meant well, but his vow would come back to haunt him. The text goes on to indicate that “Jephthah led his army against the Ammonites, and the Lord gave him victory” (Judges 11:32 NLT). But then it adds this unexpected note:
When Jephthah returned home to Mizpah, his daughter came out to meet him, playing on a tambourine and dancing for joy. She was his one and only child; he had no other sons or daughters. When he saw her, he tore his clothes in anguish. “Oh, my daughter!” he cried out. “You have completely destroyed me! You’ve brought disaster on me! For I have made a vow to the Lord, and I cannot take it back.” – Judges 11:34-35 NLT
According to the book of Judges, Jephthah kept the vow that he had made. But the whole point of the story is the danger of making rash or hasty vows. God takes the swearing of oaths and the making of vows seriously.
When you make a promise to God, don’t delay in following through, for God takes no pleasure in fools. Keep all the promises you make to him. It is better to say nothing than to make a promise and not keep it. Don’t let your mouth make you sin. And don’t defend yourself by telling the Temple messenger that the promise you made was a mistake. That would make God angry, and he might wipe out everything you have achieved. – Ecclesiastes 4:4-6 NLT
“When you make a vow to the Lord your God, be prompt in fulfilling whatever you promised him. For the Lord your God demands that you promptly fulfill all your vows, or you will be guilty of sin. However, it is not a sin to refrain from making a vow. But once you have voluntarily made a vow, be careful to fulfill your promise to the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 23:21-23 NLT
Notice the last part of that Deuteronomy passage. “It is not a sin to refrain from making a vow.” In other words, vows should be made circumspectly and cautiously. As the Ecclesiastes passage puts it: “It is better to say nothing than to make a promise and not keep it.”
And in chapter 30 of Numbers, Moses addresses this potentially dangerous issue of oath-making because he knows the people will soon find themselves in difficult situations that will tempt them to make unwise bargains with God. So, he reminds them to do so with caution.
A man who makes a vow to the Lord or makes a pledge under oath must never break it. He must do exactly what he said he would do. – Numbers 30:2 NLT
But then, Moses adds a few important exceptions or exclusions to this rule. He addresses the vows made by women, particularly married women and single young women who are still living under their father’s authority. He begins with those who are unmarried. If one of these young ladies made a vow to God, it would be binding, unless her father overheard it and determined to disavow or dismiss it. As the head of the household, he had that right and authority.
“Vows were voluntary promises to do or not do specified things if God would or would not do something else. They also expressed thanks when God had done something special. They usually involved fasting or abstaining from other lawful things or giving God some special gift or offering. Moses explained the basic principles governing vows first (v. 2). The Israelites were to take their promises to God seriously and not brake them (cf. Eccles, 5:4-5).” – Dr. Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Numbers
If a father became aware of his daughter’s vow and deemed it as unacceptable, he could annul it, and she would be bound to her father’s wishes. And the father’s decision would release the young lady from her commitment to God.
The same thing would be true for a married woman. If she made a vow to God and her husband determined it to be unacceptable, she would be obligated to submit to his decision. His disavowal would free her from any obligation to God.
…if her husband refuses to accept her vow or impulsive pledge on the day he hears of it, he nullifies her commitments, and the Lord will forgive her. – Numbers 30:8 NLT
This all hinges on the issue of headship. A young woman, while unmarried, remained under his father’s protection and authority. As soon as she married, she came under the headship of her husband. And both the father and the husband answered to God. The test does not address whether God would hold the father or husband responsible for the breaking of the vow. There could be a case in which a father forced his daughter to break her vow but, in doing so, he violated the will of God. This authority given to the father and husband was not to be taken lightly. And Moses makes it clear that if the father or husband did not reject the woman’s vow, she remained obligated to God.
In the case of widows or divorcees, they were directly answerable to God. With no husband to watch over them, God acted as their protector and provider. So, if they made a vow to God, they would be held responsible to keep it.
If, however, a woman is a widow or is divorced, she must fulfill all her vows and pledges. – Numbers 30:9 NLT
This admonition was intended to make these women think twice before making vows to God. But it also suggests that God would be watching over them and protecting them from doing anything rash or thoughtless.
As the psalmist later attested, vows were to be taken seriously and made soberly.
Make vows to the Lord your God, and keep them.
Let everyone bring tribute to the Awesome One. – Psalm 76:11 NLT
Once the Israelites entered the land, they were to refrain from making bargains with God. Because if they attempted to buy God off by making vows they never intended to keep, they would pay dearly for it.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.