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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

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VOWS . In common with most peoples of the ancient world, the making of vows was of frequent occurrence among the Israelites. The underlying idea in making a vow was to propitiate the Deity; this was done either by promising to do something for Him, or to please Him by the exercise of self-denial. Vows were made from a variety of motives: Jacob vows a vow according to which he will please Jahweh by becoming His worshipper, on condition that Jahweh will keep him safe during his journey and give him food and raiment ( Genesis 28:20-22 ). Jephthah vows to offer to Jahweh the first person he sees coming out of his house on his return from battle, provided he is victorious ( Judges 11:30-31 ). Hannah vows that if Jahweh gives her a son, she will dedicate him to the service of God ( 1 Samuel 1:11 ). These cases are typical: in each something is promised to God, on condition that God will do something for him who makes the vow. But there was another class of vows which were of a more disinterested character; the most striking here would be the Nazirite vow, according to which a man undertook to lead a strenuously austere life, which was supposed to approximate to the simple life of the patriarchs; that was done out of protest against the current mode of life, which had been largely adopted from the Canaanites; indeed, the Nazirite vow implied, and was intended to be, a life of greater loyalty to Jahweh.

There are two words in Hebrew for a vow though they do not necessarily correspond to the two ideas just mentioned: neder , which is a vow whereby a man dedicates something, even himself, to God; ’issar , a vow by which a man binds himself to abstain from enjoyment, or to exercise self-denial, in honour of Jahweh.

Vows were clearly of very common occurrence in Israel, indeed it would almost seem as though at one time it was deemed generally incumbent on men to make vows; this would, at all events, explain the words in Deuteronomy 23:22 , ‘But if thou shalt forbear to vow, it shall be no sin in thee.’ A vow having once been made had to be kept at all costs ( Deuteronomy 23:21; Deuteronomy 23:23 , Numbers 30:2 , Judges 11:35 ); though, as regards women, they might be absolved by father or husband, under certain conditions, from fulfilling a vow ( Numbers 30:1-8 ). From the expression used in connexion with the making of a vow, ‘to bind the soul’ ( Numbers 30:2 ), it would seem that the idea was that if the vow was broken the life was forfeited to the Deity to whom the vow had been made; the warning, therefore, of Proverbs 20:25 , Exodus 5:5 (4), needed.

In making a vow in which something was promised to Jahweh, only such things could be promised as were truly the property of him who vowed; for this reason a man might not promise a firstling or the like, as that was already the property of Jahweh (cf. Leviticus 27:26-29 ).

In later times the spirit in which vows were observed appears to have degenerated; Malachi speaks sternly of those who make a vow, and in fulfilling it sacrifice unto the Lord ‘a blemished thing’ (Malachi 1:14 ). Another, and still worse, misuse of vows meets us in the Gospels: the spurious piety of some men induced them to vow gifts to the use of the sanctuary, but they neglected, in consequence, the most obvious duties of natural affection; when a man uttered the word ‘ Corban ’ in reference to any possession of his, it meant that it was dedicated to God. Money that should have gone to the support of aged parents was pronounced to be ‘Corban,’ the son felt himself relieved of all further responsibility regarding his parents, and took honour to himself for having piously dedicated his substance to God (see Matthew 15:5 , Mark 7:9 ff.).

W. O. E. Oesterley.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Vows'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdb/​v/vows.html. 1909.
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