1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, If anyone makes a special vow to the Lord involving the valuation of persons, 3 then the valuation of a male from twenty years old up to sixty years old shall be fifty shekels of silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary. 4 If the person is a female, the valuation shall be thirty shekels. 5 If the person is from five years old up to twenty years old, the valuation shall be for a male twenty shekels, and for a female ten shekels. 6 If the person is from a month old up to five years old, the valuation shall be for a male five shekels of silver, and for a female the valuation shall be three shekels of silver. 7 And if the person is sixty years old or over, then the valuation for a male shall be fifteen shekels, and for a female ten shekels. 8 And if someone is too poor to pay the valuation, then he shall be made to stand before the priest, and the priest shall value him; the priest shall value him according to what the vower can afford.” – Leviticus 27:1-8 ESV
As has been made clear from the rest of the book of Leviticus, God places a high priority on keeping one’s commitments. He is a God who keeps His word, and who never fails to follow through on all His promises.
God is not a man, so he does not lie. He is not human, so he does not change his mind. Has he ever spoken and failed to act? Has he ever promised and not carried it through? – Numbers 23:29 NLT
In making His covenant with the people of Israel, God clearly communicated the non-negotiable requirements that came with their preferred status as His chosen nation. In the first 26 chapters of this book, Moses records all the laws, statutes, and holy days that the Israelites were required to keep, then he closes with these words:
These are the statutes and rules and laws that the Lord made between himself and the people of Israel through Moses on Mount Sinai. – Leviticus 26:46 ESV
In the very next verse of the closing chapter, Moses records yet one more divine communication that addresses the topic of vows. Some scholars believe chapter 27 was a later addition to the book because it doesn’t seem to fit the prevailing narrative of the preceding chapters. It appears to veer off-topic, dealing with voluntary vows when the rest of the book has been focused on the mandatory laws ordained by God. Yet, upon closer examination, these closing verses provide an appropriate ending to the book.
From the day the people of Israel arrived at Sinai and began receiving God’s divine decrees from the mountaintop, they had repeatedly expressed their intentions to obey His commands.
“…if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”
So Moses came and called the elders of the people and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. All the people answered together and said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” – Exodus 19:5-8 ESV
Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the rules. And all the people answered with one voice and said, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” – Exodus 24:3 ESV
Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” – Exodus 24:7 ESV
“Go near and hear all that the Lord our God will say, and speak to us all that the Lord our God will speak to you, and we will hear and do it.” – Deuteronomy 5:27 ESV
The people of Israel had vowed to keep the commands of God. They had verbally declared their commitment to do all that God had said and to remain obedient to His revealed will. But it is interesting to note how God responded to their overwhelming vow of faithfulness.
“I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you. They are right in all that they have spoken. Oh that they had such a heart as this always, to fear me and to keep all my commandments, that it might go well with them and with their descendants forever!” – Deuteronomy 5:28-29 ESV
God knew His people would have a difficult time keeping their commitments. He doesn’t question their sincerity, but He has serious doubts about their ability to keep their word. God understood that their hearts were in the right place, but He also knew that their hearts had been infected by sin. They fully intended to do the right thing but lacked the inner capacity to carry out their commitment. Yet, rather than simplify His laws or dumb down His requirements, God went on to stress their need for unwavering obedience.
“You shall be careful therefore to do as the Lord your God has commanded you. You shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. You shall walk in all the way that the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you shall possess.” – Deuteronomy 5:32-33 ESV
It is important to remember that while the law was given to regulate the behavior of God’s people, it was also designed to expose their sinfulness. The apostle Paul points out this fact in several of his letters.
Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. – Galatians 3:19 NLT
…it was the law that showed me my sin. I would never have known that coveting is wrong if the law had not said, “You must not covet.” – Romans 7:7 NLT
Paul understood that the law was holy, righteous, and good. It revealed God’s holy expectations for His chosen people. But sin took advantage of the law, using those divine decrees as a tool to condemn and defeat God’s people.
Sin took advantage of those commands and deceived me; it used the commands to kill me. – Romans 7:11 NLT
God knew that His people could not live up to His commands. That’s why He provided them with the sacrificial system as a means of receiving forgiveness and atonement for sin. He had made provision for their hard hearts and sin-prone dispositions. And even when it came to the making of vows, God provided a gracious means by which they could keep their word even when their hearts weren’t in it.
The topic of vows was important to God because it involved the keeping of one’s commitments. He had provided Moses with clear instructions regarding the making and keeping of vows.
“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
A vow was a voluntary oath, a verbal commitment or promise to do or not do something. In many cases, the one making the vow would invoke the name of God as a witness or guarantee. It would be something like the phrase we hear so often today: “I swear to God…” But God warned His people about swearing oaths of any kind, either to Him or to others. These verbal commitments were to be taken seriously and the name of God was to be treated with reverence at all times.
In the opening verses of Leviticus 27, God addresses the issue of vows made specially to Him. These would have involved promises to be kept should God fulfill a request. The book of Judges gives an example of just such a vow.
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 11:30-31 NLT
When God provided Jephthah with the victory he requested, the exuberant warrior returned home to find his young daughter coming out of the door of his house to greet him.
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. – Judges 11:34-35 NLT
Vows were not to be treated lightly or flippantly. It was a dangerous thing to attempt to bargain with God. But God, in His mercy and grace, provided His people with a way to fulfill their commitments when their hearts were no longer in it. In verses 1-7, God focuses His attention on those cases in which an individual vowed to dedicate someone to the Lord in return for divine intervention. The book of 1 Samuel contains a record of this type of vow. It involves a barren woman named Hannah. Unable to bear her husband a child, Hannah took her problem to the Lord.
Hannah was in deep anguish, crying bitterly as she prayed to the Lord. And she made this vow: “O Lord of Heaven’s Armies, if you will look upon my sorrow and answer my prayer and give me a son, then I will give him back to you. He will be yours for his entire lifetime…” – 1 Samuel 1:10-11 NLT
God graciously fulfilled her request and gave her a son, whom she named Samuel. And when the day came for her to fulfill her vow, Hannah did as she had promised to do. When Samuel had been weaned, she brought him to the Tabernacle and presented him to the priest, saying, “I asked the Lord to give me this boy, and he has granted my request. Now I am giving him to the Lord, and he will belong to the Lord his whole life” (1 Samuel 1:27 NLT).
But God had provided an option. Had Hannah had second thoughts about dedicating her only son to the Lord, she could have purchased his freedom. According to Leviticus 27, Hannah could have given the priest 5 shekels of silver and returned home with her child. But it should not be overlooked that this exchange rate was very high. The average income of a common laborer in biblical times was about one shekel per month. So, this payment would have required five months’ wages.
And God outlined the various valuations based on the age and gender of the person whose life had been vowed. Extrabiblical texts reveal that these amounts reflected the going rate for slaves in those days. These purchase prices were high in order to discourage the making of rash vows. In His sermon on the mount, Jesus addressed the topic of vows, stating, “You have also heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not break your vows; you must carry out the vows you make to the Lord.’ But I say, do not make any vows!” (Matthew 4:33-34 NLT).
He discouraged the making of vows altogether, encouraging His listeners to simply do what they promise to do.
“Just say a simple, ‘Yes, I will,’ or ‘No, I won’t.’ Anything beyond this is from the evil one.” – Matthew 5:37 NLT
Vows were dangerous. They could result in divine judgment. And even when God provided a gracious way of fulfilling a vow you had no intention of keeping, it came with a high price. God values truth. His word is truth. He does not lie and He expects His children to follow His example. But He also knows that they are incapable of living up to His holy standards. So, He graciously provides them with ways to fulfill their commitments even when they lack the heart to do so.
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.