May 27, 2007

Numbers 28-30: I spoke too soon

Numbers 28-30: I spoke too soon

Today's reading is Numbers 28-30 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the offerings that must be made daily, weekly, monthly, and on holidays; and the circumstances under which vows are binding.

In the last essay, I spoke about the moderately progressive stance the Bible took in relation to women's rights. Specifically, I talked about how the book of Numbers allowed daughters to inherit property so long as their father died without sons. I mentioned that for an ancient, patriarchal culture, this was in fact a significant amount of power for a woman to wield.

Unfortunately, I must now retract some of my praise.

Num. 30 speaks about vows and the conditions under which they are binding. For men, the situation is simple: all vows are binding, period. (Num. 30:2) You would think that this situation would be true of women as well, but you would be mistaken. Num. 30:3-5 speaks about a unmarried woman living in her father's house. In this case, if her father forbids (NIV) or disallows (KJV) her vow, then the vow is voided. There is a parallel situation for married women: if her husband disallows her vow, it is considered void. (Num. 30:6-8) To clarify, a husband may void absolutely any vow or oath his wife makes. (Num. 30:13) Only widows and divorcees can unconditionally offer vows, just as men can. (Num. 30:9)

Admittedly, there is one small redeeming feature in this situation: a father's or husband's silence is treated as tacit approval. (Num. 30:4; 30:7; 30:11) That is, if a father hears the vow and doesn't immediately reject it, it is binding. Also, if a father or husband waits several days before voiding his daughter's or wife's vows, the vow is still considered binding. (Num. 30:14-15)

In the last essay, I considered the Israelite stance on female inheritance to be progressive. This attitude towards female vows is not regressive, merely a reflection of the ancient Mediterranean's attitudes towards women. The Israelites are, in short, products of their times. In most ancient, medieval, and even some modern cultures, women were considered the property of their fathers (if they are not married) or husbands (if they are). The man of the household, the pater familias in Roman terms, had complete control over the members of his family and the household slaves. Women often had, at least in theory, no say in who they married, where they lived, or their husband's public affairs.

In this context, it should come as no surprise that women were not allowed to have the final say over which of their vows were binding. If a father realized that his daughter's vow ran counter to his own idea of what was best for his family, he could countermand her. It was assumed that the man of the house was more engaged in public affairs than his daughter or spouse, and thus he better understood what was good for her. In modern legal terms, we might call this a fiduciary relationship, where the one person is assumed to look out for the best interest of his charge.

The concept of female inheritance, discussed in the last essay, actually disrupts the natural cycle of events, when we consider women in this light. If the public domain belongs to men, and men are assumed to know what is best for their family, then women should not be allowed to own their own property. Who is looking out for her wellbeing? Who can help her if she makes the wrong decision? If a woman owns property, no matter how much she wants to protect her father's name and inheritance, she is suddenly thrust into a sphere, the public sphere, that she supposedly does not understand.

Only widows and divorcees can make unconditionally binding vows. They are not under the household of any man, and thus have no one to contradict them. However, we must look at the situations of these women. Though a woman could be widowed at any time of her life, it is probably safe to assume that most widows were older women. Especially after the Israelites were done fighting their wars of conquest, most men would die, at least theoretically, as the result of illness or old age. Thus, a widow would herself be an older woman of experience, one who had watched her husband conduct business dealings and, again theoretically, better understood how they worked.

The case is similar with divorcees. Though the text has not yet discussed the conditions under which a woman could gain a divorce from her husband, it was more common than under Christian law, but still moderately rare. In Judaism, a woman is allowed to ask for a divorce at any time, but it is the man who grants it. He can divorce his wife for any reason or no reason at all. However, there are times when a woman can gain a divorce against the will of her husband, such as when the husband has been neglectful or adulterous. Furthermore, a man who divorces his wife must, under most circumstances, give her money or property. Thus a divorcee, like a widow, owns property and has had some encounters with the public realm.

When all is said and done, however, where do we stand on this issue? Do we applaud the Bible for its progressive stance towards female inheritance, or do we shun it for its contemporary attitude towards female oaths? In the twenty-first century western world, women's oaths are considered just as binding as men's, and it seems unnatural or unfair to us for the situation to be otherwise. But this has only been the case in very recent years, no more than a century. For most of history, women have been firmly under the rule of their pater familias, and the Bible merely reflects this fact. While we cannot praise its attitude, neither can we condemn it. It was, in this case, simply a reflection of the times.

No comments: