Tag Archives: Numbers 30

Of Vows, Legal Code, and Secret Handshakes

Moses said to the heads of the tribes of Israel: “This is what the Lord commands: When a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.
Numbers 30:1-2 (NIV)

When I was a kid growing up on the northwest side of Des Moines, we had a populous and active neighborhood. There were a lot of kids on our block and along the surrounding streets. We regularly hung out and played together. Freeze-tag, Statue-tag, Ding-Dong Ditch ’em, and any number of games might be in the cards on any given summer evening as a bunch of kids gathered to play until the street lights came on along Madison Avenue.

As kids, when you made a promise to one another there were always ways that we pledged ourselves to our word. Secret handshakes were a staple. When you pledged yourself with a secret handshake the deal was sealed. It was golden, and you were under obligation.

In the files I keep here in my home office I have any number of legal documents binding me to my promises, vows, oaths, and pledges. There’s a mortgage binding me to pay back the money I borrowed from the bank to build my house. There’s the agreement my partner and I made to buy our company from the founder. There’s a marriage certificate binding me in a legal marital obligation to Wendy. All of them are official, legal, and filed with the civic authorities lest I break my obligation and open myself up to the consequences.

Back in the day when Moses and the Hebrew  tribes were wandering around the wilderness, human societies were in the “neighborhood kid” stage of history’s life cycle. There were no well established and precedented legal systems. Writing things down, signing them, and storing a record of an agreement for were out of the question. Writing utensils and the ability to record and store the agreements were thousands of years away from being a reality. Moses and the tribes had basically been stuck making secret handshakes.

Today’s chapter is among the first ancient attempts in human history to create a system of rules by which it was determined if a persons vow was binding or not, and who had authority to overrule a person’s vow or oath. Of course, anyone who’s ever seen a library of legal codes or the tax code knows that over time we humans have a way of creating a dizzying complex system of laws, amendments, precedents, and loopholes.

The Jews were just as human. The fairly basic, straightforward text of today’s chapter became a burdensome cultural and religious system in which oaths and vows were taken seriously based on the specific wording you used. If you vowed “by heaven” it might be more binding than if you vowed “by earth” although not was binding if you swore “by my head” except in certain circumstances, in which case it would have to be determined by section C, paragraph 2, sub-paragraph Q…. You get where I’m going with this, right?

Which is why Jesus quoted today’s chapter and said,

“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”

Say what you’ll do. Do what you say. Freedom in simplicity.

Today, I pledge myself to that simplicity.

Pinky swear.

Chapter-a-Day Numbers 30

U.S. Rep. John Linder with the current Tax cod...
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These are the rules that God gave Moses regarding conduct between a man and his wife and between a father and his young daughter who is still living at home. Numbers 30:16 (MSG)

Have you ever read the United States Tax Code? Me either. Just for the sake of illustration, let me quote from Section 194 The Amortization of Reforestation Expenditures. This is just one small paragraph of one section of the code which has nearly 10,000 sections:

In the case of any qualified timber property with respect to which the taxpayer has made (in accordance with regulations prescribed by the Secretary) an election under this subsection, the taxpayer shall be entitled to a deduction with respect to the amortization of the amortizable basis of qualified timber property based on a period of 84 months. Such amortization deduction shall be an amount, with respect to each month of such period within the taxable year, equal to the amortizable basis at the end of such month divided by the number of months (including the month for which the deduction is computed) remaining in the period. Such amortizable basis at the end of the month shall be computed without regard to the amortization deduction for such month. The 84-month period shall begin on the first day of the first month of the second half of the taxable year in which the amortizable basis is acquired.

One thing I’ve learned about laws and rules as I’ve journeyed along life’s road is that they never get shorter and more simple. Laws and rules only grow deeper and more complex. This is because more and more laws must be created to address the infinite number of exceptional circumstances life creates, and because lawmakers have a tendency to slip in loopholes and addendum that will profit them and their constituents. God started with ten basic rules and I feel like it kind of got out of hand from there.

I thought about that as I read the rather arcane chapter today concerning vows. First of all, I had to remind myself that the law was given to a middle-eastern nomadic nation about seven thousand years ago, so I have to extend some grace for the fact that life was much different at that point in history. Next, I tried to step back and catch the bigger picture of the principles being communicated here.

One thing I observed was the acknowledgement that vows can be made rashly with naivete. In these cases, there was system set up for authority that could step in an nullify the vow. That’s huge because, face it, we all make rash vows in our ignorance, innocence and naivete. It comes with being human.

The second thing I observed was how such a small chapter had me scratching my head like a chapter of the U.S. Tax Code. Rules and laws and tax codes never get more simple. They get bigger, longer, and more complex until it feels like a heavy, headache inducing burden just to think about it. We get so caught in the minute letters of the law that we miss the big point. Which is why I appreciate Jesus saying “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no.'” (it’s sort of his version of the simplified flat tax). I believe that’s also what Jesus was addressing when he said, “If you stick with this, living out what I tell you, you are my disciples for sure. Then you will experience for yourselves the truth, and the truth will free you.” (John 8:31-32)

 Today, I’m grateful to be free from following every section and subparagraph of a that I might simply and obediently follow Jesus.

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