Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Unintended Consequences

Adam Kirsch recently published a series of articles in Tablet magazine (here, here, and here).  One article, ‘Why Taking Vows Is a Wicked Act,’ raises questions about how ‘taking a vow’ might not be such a good idea.  Kirsch delves into the Talmud’s Tractate Nedarim, which is devoted to oaths, vows, and the problems associated with them from the rabbinical point of view.  He quotes both Ecclesiastes and Rabbi Meir, both of whom believe it is better not to take a vow at all.  Why not?
The Bible insists that a vow, once taken, must be kept: “When a man takes a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not profane his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth,” says Numbers 30:2.  But Ecclesiastes says, “Do not let your mouth lead you into sin” (Ecclesiastes 5:6).
One reason not to take a vow is that by doing so, you potentially set yourself up for failure by, according to the Talmud, placing “a stumbling-block” in your own way.  These obstacles encourage people to use dishonest methods to get out of their vows; it is in the making of the vow, then, that leads you into the sin of dishonesty.
This led the rabbis to decide that the courts should not punish people for trying to get out of their vows with bad excuses.  In order to teach people not to take vows lightly, they would often try to provide a better excuse to dissolve the vow, on the theory that a person wouldn’t have made the vow in the first place if they could foresee the unintended consequences resulting from it (think of Herod’s vow in Mark 6:17-24 to give ‘whatever you wish’ to his wife’s daughter only to realize it would mean the end of John the Baptist).
Kirsch tells us the following story: ‘In Nedarim 22b, we hear about the time Rabbi Shimon came before the sages asking for the dissolution of a vow.  However, when the sages offered him various ways out, he kept refusing them: “They said to him: Did you vow with the knowledge of this particular fact?  He said: Yes.”  This happened over and over again, so that the sages had to puzzle over the case all day long – “from sun to shade, and again from shade to sun.”  Finally, a rabbi called Botnit came up with an ingenious solution.  Would Shimon have made the vow if he had known that dissolving it would cause so much trouble to the rabbis?  No, Shimon said, and so the rabbis dissolved the vow.’
The Talmud makes clear that it will go to great lengths to release a Jew from a vow, rather than force him to break the vow and commit a sin.
But what about those times when someone makes a vow for us in our name?
Consider Samson.  It was the angel of the Lord who told Samson’s mother, “Now be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, or to eat anything unclean, for you shall conceive and bear a son.  No razor is to come on his head, for the boy shall be a nazirite to God from birth.”  As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Samson has none of these vows in mind as he tears apart a lion, bashes the Philistines up and down Gaza, and enjoyed a seven-day wedding feast.
The one vow he does keep, ‘his whole secret,’ the one he keeps literally until the end, has everything to do with his hair: “If my head were shaved, then my strength would leave me; I would become weak, and be like anyone else.”  Susan Niditch points out that ‘the “hair growing” aspect of the Nazirite vow is central to the narrative, its plot, its hero’s characterization, and its central themes.’[i]  Samson seems aware that the source of his great strength lies in his hair.  The other vows – the ones not made by Samson for himself – matter little to him and to the story.  So, in essence, when the writer of Judges associated ‘the Nazirite vow’ with Samson, it was really just a plot device to help build a contrast between nature and culture, and had nothing to do with vows per se at all.
And yet, in Numbers 6:1-21, the Bible goes out of its way to provide the legislation for Nazirite behavior.  In fact, this is the only place where the Bible mentions taking a vow to become a Nazirite.  Two questions arise for me, then: were Nazirite vows different from any other kind of Biblical vow, and are vows in the Bible different than modern-day vows?
Short answer: No and Yes.
Tony Cartledge did some work[ii] and concluded that Nazirite vows, like most Biblical vows, ‘were most likely conditional promises of special service,’ of the ‘if you do this, Lord, then I will do that’ variety.  For example, in Genesis 28:20-21, “Jacob made a vow, saying, ‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God.”
In 2 Samuel 15:8, Absalom said to the king, “If the Lord will indeed bring me back to Jerusalem, then I will worship the Lord in Hebron.”
Other Biblical vows were made under duress during war time:
In Numbers 21:2, “Israel made a vow to the Lord and said, ‘If you will indeed give this people into our hands, then we will utterly destroy their towns.’”
And in Judges 11:30-31, Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt-offering.”  Talk about unintended consequences: the first one out the door to greet him was his daughter.  Do you think Jephthah might have wanted to take that vow back?
Some vows are masked somewhat.  Psalm 35 includes a petition that says, basically, “Rescue me and then I will thank thee, Lord!”  Essentially, though, in the Bible, promises were made conditionally in the prospect of receiving an answered prayer.
Today, we think of vows as binding promises, solemn and unbreakable.  The Canadian Mounted Police vow to always get their man and they do, because they will not rest until the goal is reached.  Institutionally, we understand modern vows, for example, wedding vows, to be unconditional.  Our understanding of vows is shaped by societal and cultural forces.  No one today would make a vow like Jephthah’s and if they did, they would probably work pretty hard to avoid fulfilling it.
On the other, every day, people vow to stay together “for better or worse, for richer and poorer, in sickness and in health” unconditionally and just as often, they break their vows and/or dissolve the marriage union.
So when we debate issues such as who is entitled to marry whom, or whether the enacted law ought to be defined by those who wrote it or by those who interpret it, perhaps we ought to consider the unintended consequences of any kind of vow-taking.  After all, as Adam Kirsch points out, a vow is a promise to go above and beyond, to make a personal sacrifice in the name of God.  Are you ready for that?

[i] Susan Niditch, “Samson as Culture Hero, Trickster, and Bandit: The Empowerment of the Weak,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 52 (1990), 612.  Gregory Mobley expands on this.  He writes that Samson becomes alienated from God “only when he allows himself to be domesticated;” that is, as long as he maintains his connection to nature in the form of his uncut hair, he is connected to God.  “The Wild Man in the Bible and the Ancient Near East,” Journal of Biblical Literature 116/2 (1997), 230.
[ii] Tony W. Cartledge, “Were Nazirite Vows Unconditional?” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 51 (1989).  He further concluded that Samson, who had made no vow of his own, was paying a debt incurred by his mother.


  1. Hmmmm. Sounds like we need to be super careful in making promises (vows) by examining the language out of the context in which they were spoken so that we don't become breakers of our word when unintended consequences jump forward. Or, we could solve the problem by never taking vows nor making promises, but I don't want to live in that world.

  2. Or, fulfill your vow immediately.