Today’s beginning passage is a long one, as it is the whole of chapter 30 from the Book of Numbers:
Moses said to the heads of the tribes of the people of Israel, “This is what the Lord has commanded. 2 When a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth. 3 Or when a woman vows a vow to the Lord, and binds herself by a pledge, while within her father’s house, in her youth, 4 and her father hears of her vow and of her pledge by which she has bound herself, and says nothing to her; then all her vows shall stand, and every pledge by which she has bound herself shall stand. 5 But if her father expresses disapproval to her on the day that he hears of it, no vow of hers, no pledge by which she has bound herself, shall stand; and the Lord will forgive her, because her father opposed her. 6 And if she is married to a husband, while under her vows or any thoughtless utterance of her lips by which she has bound herself, 7 and her husband hears of it, and says nothing to her on the day that he hears; then her vows shall stand, and her pledges by which she has bound herself shall stand. 8 But if, on the day that her husband comes to hear of it, he expresses disapproval, then he shall make void her vow which was on her, and the thoughtless utterance of her lips, by which she bound herself; and the Lord will forgive her. 9 But any vow of a widow or of a divorced woman, anything by which she has bound herself, shall stand against her. 10 And if she vowed in her husband’s house, or bound herself by a pledge with an oath, 11 and her husband heard of it, and said nothing to her, and did not oppose her; then all her vows shall stand, and every pledge by which she bound herself shall stand. 12 But if her husband makes them null and void on the day that he hears them, then whatever proceeds out of her lips concerning her vows, or concerning her pledge of herself, shall not stand: her husband has made them void, and the Lord will forgive her. 13 Any vow and any binding oath to afflict herself, her husband may establish, or her husband may make void. 14 But if her husband says nothing to her from day to day, then he establishes all her vows, or all her pledges, that are upon her; he has established them, because he said nothing to her on the day that he heard of them. 15 But if he makes them null and void after he has heard of them, then he shall bear her iniquity.”
16 These are the statutes which the Lord commanded Moses, as between a man and his wife, and between a father and his daughter, while in her youth, within her father’s house.
I was quite surprised when I re-read this passage recently. It has been some years since I read the Book of Numbers, and so I had forgotten all about it. As a result my memory of this passage had been, well, corrupted, by feminist attacks on Christianity without realizing it. What I had remembered, or thought I remembered, was that women couldn’t enter a contract (pledge) without their husband or father’s permission under the Mosaic law. Needless to say, this was something that feminists used to point out how the Judeo-Christian tradition oppressed women.
This passage does nothing of the sort. Far from oppressing women, it protects them and gives them a right that men lacked. Namely, women were given the opportunity to escape from a rashly made vow/contract through either their father’s or husband’s intervention. They could still enter into the contract in the first place, but in the event it proved oppressive they could potentially escape it. Is this law paternalistic? You bet. But oppressive it isn’t. So long as their father or husband acted swiftly, they were protected from men who tried to take advantage of them via a contract. As a practical effect, I imagine that this would have made men much more circumspect about entering into contracts with women- if the terms were too advantageous to the man, he risked the contract’s annulment.
Something I have found interesting while reading the New Testament is how Paul’s ministry develops over time. As he and the other Apostles built up the Church (with the help of numerous saints like Timothy, Titus, Priscilla and Aquilla) they refined Church practices and teaching. For example, early in his ministry Paul had this to say to the Church at Corinth:
39 A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. If the husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. 40 But in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I have the Spirit of God.
(1 Corinthians 7:39-40)
But several years later, when he wrote to Timothy (who he appointed Bishop in Ephesus) concerning widows he said this:
9 Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband; 10 and she must be well attested for her good deeds, as one who has brought up children, shown hospitality, washed the feet of the saints, relieved the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good in every way. 11 But refuse to enrol younger widows; for when they grow wanton against Christ they desire to marry, 12 and so they incur condemnation for having violated their first pledge. 13 Besides that, they learn to be idlers, gadding about from house to house, and not only idlers but gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not. 14 So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, rule their households, and give the enemy no occasion to revile us. 15 For some have already strayed after Satan.
(1 Timothy 5:9-15)
While the exact details aren’t clear, it seems to me as though a couple of things brought about this change in pastoral teaching by St. Paul. The first is that some younger widows had apparently gone astray from the faith when they didn’t remarry, and by implication it seems that this wasn’t a problem, or as much of one, for those younger widows who did remarry. Also, I suspect that St. Paul had become less convinced of the imminence of the parousia, the Second Coming. Thus he developed more of a long term pastoral mindset that was focused on helping Christians live in holiness for the whole of their natural lives.
What this shows is that pastoral practices are not fixed like doctrines. Whereas doctrinal teaching doesn’t change, how one ministers to a particular Christian community will vary depending on the community and the times. It occurs to me that much of what Churchianity does is to take pastoral flexibility and apply that principle to doctrine as well. I’m sure that my readers, who come from many different Christian faith traditions, can think of examples of this. Right now in the Catholic Church there are those trying to do this with teaching and doctrine on divorce. Like St. Paul, we need to keep our eyes open for this kind of error and confront it when we find it.