There are two main ways of looking at this chapter.
The first is to decry the injustice of this. When men make vows, those vows are valid unless they offer the proper sacrifices to nullify them. Nobody gets to step in and tell them that they’re not allowed to make the vow. They don’t need anyone else’s approval (v 1-2).
Women, meanwhile, are only allowed this level of freedom if they are widowed or divorced (v 9). If they are single and living with their parents, then their father can nullify any vow she makes upon hearing it. She needs his approval to make any vows (v 4-5). Similarly, if she’s married, her husband can nullify vows she made before their marriage and after.
Not fair, right? Why should women have to get a man’s approval before making a vow before God? Why shouldn’t she have the complete freedom to do so, as an equal?
Well, there’s the other way of looking at this, which is namely that women in these situations weren’t equal to the men involved. In the case of her father this makes a lot of sense. We don’t allow minors to make the modern-day equivalent of vows, i.e. sign contracts, without parental approval, and since most people were married in their mid- to late-teens, this would apply today as well. What’s unequal in this case is that mothers don’t seem to be able to nullify any vows their daughters make, which would be a burden for a widow with children.
And in a marriage, as unfair as it was, the man held all the property. Since these vows usually involved a pledge to make a sacrifice, it would make sense that a man would be allowed to step in and say, “Wait, we actually don’t have enough goats to spare for this, please cancel her vow because she wasn’t aware of it.” She’s pledging his property. It would be more fair if property was shared, but given the economic situation it makes sense that men would get some control over how their property would be used. Women who have their own property and are adults (widows and divorcees) are responsible for their own vows because they aren’t pledging someone else’s property.
What’s more, to nullify the vows in this context all the men have to do is say “Cancel it!” as soon as they hear about it, rather than offering expensive sacrifices to cancel out the oath as is required in Leviticus. They only have to cancel vows the regular way if they delay a long time in nullifying it. This arrangement could actually be advantageous to women, since men don’t get to have a cooler head next to them to say “Whoah, we can’t afford that!”
A fairer system would allow some mutuality and equality. Mothers could cancel their daughters’ vows, and parents could cancel their sons’. Wives could cancel their husbands’ vows, or wouldn’t need them to be able to cancel their own, because they’d be equal owners of property. Letting women be responsible for their own actions, even when married, takes a lot of burden off men.
This chapter has also made me realize why, in addition to the biological urge many people have to pop out a baby, women desperately wanted to have children. Your children are the only men in your life that you’re likely to have any authority over. Otherwise, the economics of property at the time would mean you were trapped spending someone else’s wealth and needing their approval.
The Japanese: monodachi “abstinence,” yaburu “to break, to violate” (v 3), yuukou “valid” (v 5), mukou “invalid” (v 6), izen “yet, still,” karuhazumi “careless, thoughtless” (v 7), haki suru “to cancel, to annul” (v 9), kafu “widow” (v 10), kugyou “penance” (v 14).
Some of these are definitely words that I knew in the past and had forgotten. I’m still working on remembering what I forgot during my hiatus. My current goal is to finish Numbers (6 chapters left) by the end of the month, and Deuteronomy (33 chapters) by the time I move into my new place in January.