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Bridgeway Bible Dictionary

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A vow was a promise that a person made to God to do something (or not to do something), usually in return for God’s favour (Numbers 21:1-3; 1 Samuel 1:11; Psalms 56:12-13; Psalms 132:1-5). In some cases, however, a vow was not concerned with some specific blessing from God, but was purely an act of devotion by which a person offered to God worship and service (Numbers 6:1-8; Psalms 61:8; Psalms 65:1; Psalms 76:11; cf. Acts 18:18; see also NAZIRITE).

Israelite regulations

All vows were voluntary, but once made they had be kept. A vow was as binding as an oath, and a broken vow brought God’s judgment (Numbers 30:2; Deuteronomy 23:21-23; Ecclesiastes 5:4-6; see OATH). Therefore, a person was not to make a vow in haste, but was to consider carefully what it involved (Proverbs 20:25

To protect people from the consequences of rash vows, Israelite law placed a special responsibility upon the head of the household. If he heard his wife or daughter make a rash vow, he could cancel it, provided he acted immediately he heard the vow. If he at first allowed the vow then later changed his mind and forced the person to break it, God held him responsible for the broken vow (Numbers 30). Normally, once a vow had been fulfilled, the person was released from it by a ceremony that involved offering a sacrifice of dedication (Deuteronomy 12:6; Deuteronomy 12:26; Psalms 50:14; Psalms 66:13).

The Levitical law set out details concerning the sorts of things people could vow to God and the way they could offer them. If the offering they vowed was a person, they could not offer the person as a sacrifice, but had to buy back (redeem) the person by a payment of money to the sanctuary. The priests estimated the amount of money according to the usefulness of the person offered (Leviticus 27:1-8).

Animals, houses and land that were vowed to God usually became the property of the sanctuary. The priests were free to decide whether to use the vowed articles or sell them. If people vowed an article then later wanted to keep it for personal use, they could buy it back from the sanctuary at a price estimated by the priests. However, they had to add a fine of one fifth of its value, since they were keeping for themselves something they had vowed to God (Leviticus 27:9-27).

If the priests caught people being dishonest, such as trying to offer an inferior animal instead of the one they had vowed, they lost both (Leviticus 27:10). No one could vow to God anything that belonged to God already, such as the firstborn of animals (Leviticus 27:26; Leviticus 27:28-29).

Misuse of the system

The Israelite regulations for vows should have made people aware of the need for complete honesty, sincerity and devotion to God. Yet some people soon found ways of using the system deceitfully and for their own benefit. They used the making of vows to hide treachery (2 Samuel 15:7-10), immorality (Proverbs 7:14) and selfishness (Malachi 1:14).

A well known example of the misuse of vows concerned the Jews of Jesus’ time. People would vow their possessions (or money) to the temple in such a way that, when they died, the goods became the property of the temple. The goods were ‘corban’, meaning ‘given to God’. Having promised the things to God, the owners said they were no longer free to give them to anyone else, not even to needy parents. But they themselves continued to enjoy the use of those things as long as they lived. As usual, Jesus condemned such people, for they cunningly used the details of legal regulations to excuse them from more important responsibilities (Mark 7:9-13).

Bibliography Information
Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Vow'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​bbd/​v/vow.html. 2004.
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