Vow (in the Bible)

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The practice of making vows or solemn promises to God deliberately and freely to perform some good work was ancient among the Israelites. Ordinarily a vow consisted in a promise to offer a sacrifice, if God would give some assistance in a difficulty; hence, the Hebrew word neder means both vow and votive offering. No directive in the Mosaic Law obliged man to make vows or votive offerings; but it specified where they were to be carried out (Dt 12.56), and it regulated and stressed their fulfillment (Dt 23.2224), since there was an evident tendency among the Israelites to promise frequently but lightly (Dt 22.2123; Nm 30.216; Na 2.1; Eccl 5.16; Sir 18.2223). Every Israelite could consecrate himself in a particular manner to God by vow for a limited period or for life. Such persons were called nazirites. They bound themselves to abstain from all products of the grapevine, from contact with a corpse, and from cutting or shaving their hair (Nm 6.18).

The legislation of the Pentateuchal priestly writers permitted the commutation of certain vows or votive offerings, but specified the amount of money to be paid in each case (Lv 27.125). The vows of unmarried women were subject to the approval of their fathers (Nm 30.46); those of married women to that of their husbands (Nm 30.79, 1116). Vows of widows and divorced women were automatically valid (Nm 30.10), since they were no longer subject to husbands.

Frequently a vow was accompanied by an oath invoking a curse if the vow was broken (1 Sm 14.24). When a vow was fulfilled, God's praises were sung [Ps 65 (66); 66 (67); 115 (116B); etc.]. Vows of destruction (Lv 27.2829), a particular kind of consecration known as ban or anathema (Hebrew ērem ), were curses by which persons or things were dedicated, wholly or in part, to the exclusive service of God and, if the ban was by God's decrees, consigned to destruction. Jephthah vow to sacrifice to God the first person whom he should meet on his victorious return from battle (it proved to be his daughter) is a singular incident relative to vows in the Bible (Jgs 11.2931). There can be no doubt that he intended to offer a human sacrifice. Jephthah's act may be excused in the light of customs of the time; moreover, the story may be in part etiological to explain the ancient Israelite custom of annual mourning of women for maidens who died before they became mothers (Jgs 11.3740).

Because of the denunciations of abuses concerning vows found so frequently in the Prophets, it has been wrongly argued that the taking of vows was merely an OT custom that ceased to have justification with the coming of Christianity. The contrary is evident from the practice of primitive Christianity. Christ, although He spoke in repudiation of the abuses connected with certain vows, such as the corban vow (Mk 7.913), never denounced them as such. St. Paul shaved his head at Cenchrae in fulfillment of his Nazirite vow (Acts 18.18), and on his last journey to Jerusalem he took a temporary Nazirite vow (Acts 21.2226).

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, translated and adapted by l. hartman (New York, 1963) 255254. Catholic Bible Encyclopedia, ed. j. e. steinmueller and k. sullivan (New York 1956), Old Testament (1956) 111819, New Testament (1950) 661. h. gross, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 4:640. a. wendel and j. jeremias, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 2:132224.

[m. r. e. masterman]