Numbers 30-31, Biblical Cultural Shock, and the Process of Hermeneutics

Numbers 30-31, Biblical Cultural Shock, and the Process of Hermeneutics

Since I wrote recently about biblical culture shock, and have also commented from time to time on our impatience with the process in politics, it was interesting for me to come to Numbers 30 and 31 in my evening reading.

Numbers 30 is a sort of kinder, gentler sort of culture shock. It’s about vows in general, and more particularly about women and vows. When can “a woman’s man” abrogate her vow. If you read this passage negatively, there’s a certain sense that a woman needs to be protected from rash vows by a sensible man, whether by her father or her husband.

Underlying that is a much more robust view of the sacredness of the vow in the first place. Promises are somewhat weaker in our modern society, so we really have two levels of culture (at least) in this passage to get past. The first is the idea that a rash vow to do something stupid would actually be binding. I think our modern view would be that if it’s rash and stupid, don’t do it, and God will forgive you. If it’s a verbal agreement with someone else, we still might wiggle out. Even if it’s in writing, we’ll probably try. But those “outs” are not permitted by the text.

It’s important to note a category of cultural issue here. We have to adjust to the question in order to understand the answer. No, this isn’t presented in question and answer format, but much of Torah is answering various questions about how a group of people will come to be a society and live together. How do we work things out? There are other passages in scripture where this problem occurs. Take 1 Corinthians 14:40 as an example. I’ve heard this quoted so many times, often to state that we must rigorously follow the order of service contained in the bulletin. But the question Paul is answering here is not “can there be deviations from the church bulletin?” Rather, he’s talking about a large group coming together in which most people feel they have something to express in the gathering. (What about church bulletins? Use your common sense. I’d suggest saving trees by not printing them.)

So once we’ve gotten past that, we have the next issue which is the subjection of the women to men in what is clearly a serious spiritual issue. There is an assumption underlying this passage that the responsible spiritual decision maker in the home is a man, whether the father or the husband. It is on his action that the result is based.

I’m an egalitarian, and so, I suspect, are many of my readers. I don’t want to debate that right now. Whether you are egalitarian or complementarian, consider your reaction to the passage in connection with your existing beliefs about the roles of men and women. I’m reading this passage through with the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary on Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, with the Numbers portion written by Dale A. Brueggeman. Here’s a quote regarding vows in the New Testament:

As in this text, wives were expected to be subject to their husbands (Eph 5:22-24; Titus 2:5; 1 Pet 3:1-7), although mutual consent had become a strong consideration (1 Cor 7:4). … (397)

So we’re going to find some variety among Christians today in how they might relate to the relationship between men and women reflected in this passage, as well as to the general idea of a vow.

The attitude toward vows becomes a critical element of Alden Thompson’s exposition of what he calls “the worst story in the Old Testament” in chapter 6 (pp. 99-123) of his book Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?. The passage covered is Judges 19-21. There the nation of Israel has sworn a rash vow that they will not give any of their daughters to the Benjaminites as wives. When they find that they have reduced the tribe of Benjamin to a small number of men (no women at all!) they want to find a way out. Now the modern idea would be to get together and repeal the previous vote, but the sacredness of the vow/oath is such that this isn’t an option for them. Instead, they find alternative ways to provide wives. (You’ll have to read the passage.)

I would suggest that, contrary to Alden’s chapter title (as much as I like it), the next chapter in Numbers may be the worst story in the Old Testament. Numbers 31 is pretty dismal. Those who might call Christianity or Judaism violent religions might well cite a passage like this one.

And herein lies the question of interpretation. We find it easy to bypass or ignore a passage like Numbers 31. You’ll find very few Christians who believe that the behavior of the Israelites, even though it is presented as divine command, is something we would apply today. We’ll have various reasons for doing so, and in looking at how we apply this passage, we can discover a great deal about how we interpret scripture.

Think about how you do it. Then compare how you respond to Number 31 with how you responded to Numbers 30. Are the two approaches the same? Or do you have a sort of ad hoc explanation which comes out with a result you “know” is right, but which cannot be applied universally?

I’d suggest that we need to consider our method of biblical interpretation carefully and ask whether the same method works everywhere.

I wrote something about Numbers 31 for the spring issue of Sharing the Practice. You can find that article online, Preaching an Unpreachable Passage.

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