So, too, if, while in her husband’s household, she makes a vow or imposes an obligation on herself by oath, and her husband learns of it, yet offers no objection – thus failing to restrain her – all her vows shall stand and all her self-imposed obligations shall stand. But if her husband does annul them on the day he finds out, then nothing that has crossed her lips shall stand, . . . Numbers 30:11-13 JPS
Does annul them – In other contexts, I have argued that not only are women equal before YHWH, they are also specifically designed under covenant relationship to act as guides for their husbands. Far from being the subservient members of the marriage, they are intended to act as the directors, the boundary-setters and the relationship managers. But now we come to this passage. The conditions outlined in Numbers 30 involving vows and oaths that women made might appear as if the father or the husband has universal power to overturn the decisions made by a daughter or a wife. Suddenly it looks like the man is the head of the household no matter what. What happened to equality? What happened to the role of the ‘ezer kenegdo?
Before we import these regulations into our cultural view of authority, let’s think about the situation among the Israelites in the 16th century BCE. There is little doubt that the dominant social structure of Egypt was based on male supremacy. In fact, this motif was so strong that the Daughter of Pharaoh (that’s her name, not only her position) ruled for sixty years after the death of her father while dressing as a man. When Israelite slaves came out of Egypt, this is the social structure they knew. Not only did they know it as part of the pagan culture of Egypt, patriarchal hierarchy was also part of their culture. Men were in charge of the community.
Of course, that does not mean women did not take on these roles (cf. Deborah), but it does mean that for the most part men were responsible for the smooth operation of the community at large. If this is obviously true, if it is de rigueur, then why do we need explicit instructions to enforce it when it comes to women’s vows? Maybe what is happening here is not about social hierarchy at all. Maybe it is about protection.
If no one spits on the walls, I don’t need a sign saying “Don’t spit on the wall!” I only need the sign if the action is occurring and I want to prohibit it. The same applies to this situation. I only need a regulation concerning annulment of a vow if something unsuitable is happening. What could that be? Put yourself in the place of an Israelite family recently removed from Egypt. Imagine that a woman makes a vow that might have unforeseen detrimental consequences to the family. For example, suppose she vows that she will finish making a garment for her children no matter how long it takes. But now it is approaching Shabbat. She needs to stop working, but if she does so, she will break the vow. What can she do? If she breaks the vow, she sins. If she does not break the vow, she sins. How is she to be protected? If her father or her husband hears about this vow, he might anticipate such compromising consequences. Therefore, he has the option of annulling the vow and protecting her from stress. Of course, you will notice that he needs to act immediately upon hearing it. If he waits, he tacitly endorses the vow and if the vow later turns out to be harmful, and the woman repeals her vow, God will forgive her (automatically) but He will not automatically forgive the man. With this explanation, we see that annulment of vows is not an endorsement of a male hierarchy. It is rather a means to protect the people within the family from unanticipated errors in judgment. Annulment means taking on the responsibility and the consequences of the vow. Do you think Peter might have remembered this passage when he suggested the husband needs to protect his wife? In my opinion, there is far less emphasis on hierarchical authority here than there is on shielding and preserving others. Maybe that’s why the Hebrew verb is parar, to break or frustrate. Annulment is not without consequence. The husband or the father must break the promise in order to protect, and breaking a promise always has consequences.
Of course, there is a contemporary application of this very ancient principle. Husbands, are you ready to step into the promises made by your wives and take those burdens upon yourself in order to protect her? Fathers, would you do the same for your daughters? Women, will you recognize that your husband or your father is acting on your behalf?
Topical Index: vow, oath, women, annul, parar, Numbers 30:11-13