God’s Word for You
Numbers 30:1-5 Vows and marriage
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Thursday, January 13, 2022
30 Moses also gave the heads of the Israelite tribes these commands from the LORD: 2 When a man makes a vow to the LORD or swears an oath to put himself under an obligation, he must not break his word. He must do everything that has come out of his mouth.
This short chapter takes up the matter of vows. A vow to the Lord must be kept. A vow is voluntary; it is never required. But once it is made, it must be carried through. The Holy Spirit proclaims: “When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it. He has no pleasure in fools. Fulfill your vow” (Ecclesiastes 5:4). And Moses had also said, “If you make a vow to the Lord your God, do not be slow to pay it” (Deuteronomy 23:21).
In Israel, a test case is shown in the matter of switching an animal set aside for sacrifice. Can a man vow to bring a certain animal for sacrifice and then change his mind and substitute another animal instead? The Law of Moses forbids even this: “If an animal has been pledged as an offering to the LORD, then the whole animal given to the LORD becomes holy. He cannot exchange it, not to trade a better one for a bad one, or a bad for a better one. If he tries to exchange animal for animal, then both it and the one he was trading it for shall be holy” (Leviticus 27:9-10).
General vows are common in the Bible, especially during a time of crisis (Genesis 24:2-4; Jonah 1:16; Acts 23:12-15). A man was committed to fulfill whatever vow he made. In the first example (Genesis 24:2-4), Abraham’s servant asks questions before he takes the vow to find Isaac a wife, such as, “What if the woman will marry him, but refuses to leave her country?” Abraham assures him that such a reply would release him from the vow. A rash vow was unwise. Jephthah’s is a famous case (Judges 11:31), ending, it seems, with the death of his little daughter (Judges 11:39). But what about the Jews who conspired to kill Paul and took an oath about it in Acts 23? Did anyone hold them responsible for their vow? Paul’s nephew found out about the plot and word got to the Roman governor, Felix. In this case, Felix disallowed their vow, because Paul was under his protection, and his letter (Acts 23:26-30) shows that the government has the authority to disallow such an oath.
3 When a woman, while living in her father’s house during her youth, makes a vow to the LORD and puts herself under an obligation, 4 and her father hears about her vow and her obligation which she has undertaken, but her father says nothing to her, then all her vows will stand, and every obligation which she has undertaken will stand. 5 But if her father forbids her on the same day that he hears about them, none of her vows nor her obligations which she has undertaken will stand. The LORD will forgive her, because her father has forbidden her.
While this passage applies to any vow a young woman might make, its application is especially clear in the matter of a marriage proposal. The Fourth Commandment places young people under the care and the responsibility of their parents. In the test case of Abraham above (Genesis 24), the purpose of the vow was to make sure that Isaac would marry a believing wife so as not to be led astray by the beliefs and practices of the pagan Canaanites (Genesis 24:3; compare 28:8). Parents (or, in their absence or failure to act, the church and the state) have the authority to forbid a marriage.
Two questions of marriage relationships should be carefully addressed. One is too close a blood tie (consanguinity), which forbids first cousins or closer relatives from marrying. A first cousin is the child of one’s aunt or uncle. In U.S. States such as Minnesota and Wisconsin, such a marriage is a criminal offense. In eighteen U.S. States including California, Colorado, New Mexico and Florida, a first cousin marriage is permitted. Scripture forbids marriages within a number of other relations, covered in Leviticus 18. The other relationship that is often questioned is that of “affinity,” that is to say, marrying a deceased wife’s sister. The general principle of Leviticus 18:16 forbids such a union since the man and his wife were “one flesh” and therefore he is “flesh of the flesh” of his late wife’s sister. Since the Law of Moses is fulfilled in Christ, those laws which are not reiterated in the New Testament are seen to be fulfilled by Christ and no longer apply. Sometimes, a specific law and even certain marriage relationships are brought up once again as forbidden (for example, 1 Corinthians 6:9), and these continue to be forbidden in the present day.
Vows are still taken today, not only in marriages but in accepting certain political offices, military assignments, and even by our young confirmands. Pastors and teachers swear a vow, and witnesses in a courtroom as well. “Make vows to the Lord your God and fulfill them,” says the Psalm (Psalm 76:11), but vows should not be made rashly (Proverbs 20:25) or lied about (Proverbs 7:14), nor made to false gods (Jeremiah 44:25). In plain and simple words, our attitude about vows is wrapped up in the Second Commandment, which teaches us not to call upon God to support falsehood or to support wrong of any kind (Large Catechism, para. 51). Call upon God’s name in the service of truth, and use it devoutly (Psalm 50:14-15, 91:15; Jeremiah 29:12; Job 27:10). For God himself separates right from wrong, good from evil, and when we decide to do a thing in his name and pray in his name (John 16:23), he will help us to do whatever walks in step with his holy will.
Pastor Timothy Smith