“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.”
There are parts of the Law that I have trouble understanding. My thoughts, for good or ill, are influenced by the fact that I grew to maturity in the late 20th Century and am still living in this first part of the 21st. Because of this temporal context, there are certain things that I take for granted. Things like the idea that a man cannot override the commitments made by a woman — not his wife or daughters or any other woman — even if the commitment was not well thought out. There are exceptions to this thinking — my three-year-old daughter is regularly going to be overridden by her mother and me — but the state of the West and what I have been taught all says that a woman speaks for herself.
Then I read a passage like Numbers 30 and my 20th/21st Century thinking collides with my belief that The Bible is relevant to today’s society. The thought that a husband or father could override a grown woman’s commitments does not jive. But certain words stood out to me: he shall bear her guilt. These five words change things for me.
First, these five words acknowledge that failing to keep our word is sinful. It is her guilt that he shall bear, after all. So contract law and all sorts of other things that spring into my mind are all affirmed. It is like hearing that she opened a credit account and he must pay the debt incurred or suffer the damaged credit rating. Which leads me to a second thought.
Second, the ancient world was not like the present. The comparison of her vow to a credit account is apt, because credit was based on whether or not one was trusted to keep their word in the ancient world. Back when, if I asked to borrow something from someone else — money, seed, tools, whatever — the evaluation of whether or not I could be trusted to pay back the debt or return the item intact was based entirely on my reputation. What this passage does is tell me that the one whose name was on the account, so to speak, had final say over what charges could be made against it. It was the husband or father’s reputation that was banked against at that point in history. This is why, I think, the vow of the widow and the divorcee stands (v 9), these women are banking on their own reputation; using their own credit.
A woman might make a vow to God and her husband or father revokes that. The vow was made, but God no longer imputes the guilt to her. She, as far as the text implies, acted in good faith, fully expecting to make good on the vow. Her husband or father, for whatever reason, overrides that vow. There may be valid reasons — the family finances cannot withstand the extra cost, for example — but there is still guilt. And it is the husband or father who bears that guilt.
The application is just a step to the side; a step out of myself and looking at something larger, by far. The church — every believer ever — is called the bride, the wife of the Lamb (Revelation 21:9, 22:17). We have made all manner of commitments in our lives — some good, others not. And our Husband, Jesus Christ, chooses which vows will stand and which will not. And He bears the guilt of the ones that are not permitted to stand. That is part of what happened at the cross. He revoked the bad contracts into which I had knowingly and unknowingly entered — the vow that death could have me, the commitment that sin would get and keep power over me, as examples — and He paid the price to break them. The contract was valid and the price to leave it had to be paid and Jesus bore the cost.
Maybe this is all stretching things. I am certain that some who think The Bible an outdated book would dismiss what has been written here as feeble attempts to justify it. They would be wrong. I am not trying to justify The Bible — I do not think it needs justification — but to understand it.
Thank You, Jesus, for revoking the bad commitments Your church made and for bearing our guilt. Thank You for loving us enough to do that. Please keep us; keep me from vows and commitments that should not be made.