Friday, August 6, 2010

A Woman's Word

After Phinehas skewered an interracial couple simultaneously with his spear, God was so impressed that He stopped the plague He sent (after 24000 Israelites had died) and rewarded the vigilante Phinehas with a lasting Priesthood.

In Numbers 26, God requests a census be taken, which found that there were 601730 Israelite men, and that only Moses, Joshua, and Caleb were still alive from the time that God had pronounced that no Israelite men living at that time would enter the Promised Land, except for Joshua and Caleb.

Then, Moses began the transfer of power to Joshua (Numbers 27), and God managed to remember some more rules and regulations over the next three chapters to tack onto the ones given previously. These commandments mainly deal with the offerings for various feasts, but Numbers 30 deals with vows, specifically the vows of women.

A Woman's Word
A man of character has many attributes, with one of the most important being that he stands by his word; that you can trust him to do what he says he will do. It is a quality you would expect from God, a quality that God expects from men, but not necessarily what God expects from women.

Numbers 30 is a revealing chapter on how God perceives vows and women. You can easily summarize it like so:

When a man makes a vow, God expects him to carry out that vow exactly as he promised (Numbers 30:1-2).

When a woman makes a vow, God only expects her to carry out that vow if the superior man in her life approves of that vow; be it her father (Numbers 30:3-5), her new husband (Numbers 30:6-8), or her existing husband (Numbers 30:10-15). Only if there is no man, like for a widow or divorcee, will her word be binding on her without approval (Numbers 30:9).

Now, the defense of such passages is not that the woman is necessarily inferior, but rather that this was her role. Gender roles are not necessarily a bad thing. Particularly in that time, the men were almost exclusively the breadwinners. If a wife, who was not well in formed on the family wealth, made a careless vow, it could bring financial ruin on the family. So the husband's evaluation of a vow his wife made provided a safety net.

That is not inherently bad, but the devil is in the details. Numbers 30:13 reads:
"Her husband may confirm or nullify any vow she makes or any sworn pledge to deny herself." NIV
To “deny herself” means to fast or abstain from something (chocolate or sex), and is performed as a pious commitment to God; done to honor God or as part of a prayer request (Luke 2:37, Acts 14:23). So the husband has a level of control as to his wife's commitment and communion with God!

This indeed does place women at a diminutive status; a place where her own desires for closeness to Heavenly God can be trumped by her husband's earthly desires.

Why would God permit this? God values the physical pleasures of a man higher than the spiritual sacrifices of a woman? God wants a woman's authority to be her husband's first and God's second? God values women less than men? These are unpleasant prospects, to say the least.

One alternative is to consider that this is a man-made religion. Men in that time wanted absolute authority over their wives, and would not tolerate wives who vowed to withhold sex in honor of God. No, in the religion they created, men would get the final word.

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