Intractable Vows (Sometimes Sour)

A notable feature of early Hebrew narrative is the “intractable vow.” When someone made a serious vow in the Ancient Near East, its consequences could be mortal. We find many stories in the Bible where people take great lengths to avoid breaking a vow. Check out these examples:

Joshua 9 – The Gibeonites pretend to be people on a long journey from a faraway land. They ask for a covenant with the Israelites who are currently taking over the land of Canaan by military conquest. Thinking them to be foreigners, Joshua and the Israelite people make a covenant with them. For the Lord had forbidden them to make a covenant with anyone in the land. The notable feature is that though the Israelites were greviously deceived into making this covenant, they keep their word. They do not attack the cities of the Gibeonites who had deceived them even though the Lord had commanded them to drive out all the peoples in the land. They viewed the covenant they had made with the Gibeonites as intractable.

Judges 11 – Jephthah, one of the Israelite judges, makes an odd vow. He vows that he’ll offer up as a sacrifice whatever or whoever comes out of the door of his house first when he returns from war. He makes the vow in the heat of battle to win the Lord’s favor. But I call the vow “odd” because the things and/or people most likely to be coming out of his house are his immediate family members. I don’t think this vow was inspired by the Lord. Nevertheless, when Jephthah eventually does return home, his daughter, his only child comes running and dancing out of the house to greet him. He tears his clothes and tells her of his vow. Another suprise: she asks him to fulfill his vow. So he offers her up as a human sacrifice. Yuck.

Judges 21 – When all the tribes of Israel decided to war against Benjamin for its crimes, they make two vows: First, they vow not to offer their daughters to Benjamin in marriage. Second, the vow to kill anyone who didn’t show up at the muster. After the combat, Benjamin can’t reproduce because it has no women. So the Israelites find the only people who didn’t come to the muster–the people of Jabesh-gilead. They kill all the men and non-virgin women. Then they take all the virgin women and give them to Benjamin for wives. But that’s not enough for Benjamin, so the Israelites devise a complicated plan to give Israelite women to Benjamin without breaking their original vow. They have the men of Benjamin hide in the woods when the Israelite women come out to dance for a religious festival. Then the Benjamite men jump out of the woods and carry off women to be wives. Wild!

I think we can see the importance of taking one’s word very seriously in this idea of the intractable vow. We can also see the irrevocability of God’s promises to us, which St. Paul points out in Romans. Yet I think we can look to Catholic moral theology to realize that if we vow something and to fulfill it would be objectively sinful then we are not obligated to fulfill it. So if you find yourself in Jephthah’s shoes, DO NOT sacrifice your daughter. Rather, you should repent to the Lord for making such a foolish vow in the first place. Jesus actually tells us not to make vows at all: “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil. ” (Mat 5:33-37 ESV)

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