Have you ever wondered what the difference is between a vow and an oath?
It's kind of silly, I know, particularly in a world where we seem to use these words interchangeably. Most of the time, we don't worry about whether we're taking a vow or an oath; rather, we simply "solemnly swear." But at the same time, we sort of understand that there is a difference. After all, we exchange marriage vows, but we take an oath of office. So there is something distinguishable about them.
Numbers 30 offers us some insight into this question. Check this out:
If a man makes a vow to the Lord that he will do something or swears an oath that he won't do something.... A young girl...might make a vow to the Lord that she will do something or swear an oath that she won't do something.... An unmarried woman might make a vow that she will do something.... A married woman might make a vow that she will do something or swear an oath that she won't do something....
The mere repetition of these phrases marks a clear distinction between vows and oaths.
But that's not all. An oath is not merely a negation, or a promise not to do something. Sometimes, as in other places in the Pentateuch, it is an assertion of truth. It is a sworn statement that such and such a thing is either true or not true. Such as when a young woman's father swears an oath that she is a virgin or when God offers an oath that the land will belong to His chosen people. An oath is spoken on what is true or what will be true.
Which leaves us...where?
I wasn't really sure where I was going with this, even as recently as when I sat down to write these words. It was merely a passage in the Bible that struck me in an odd way as I read it recently. Someone recently asked me to raise my right hand and swear a vow on something exceptionally silly, and I turned him down on that request, but it raised the questions for me.
And now, as I write, I find that I'm drawn to a certain understanding of all of this, so I will share that and perhaps it will be of some fodder for your thoughts or conversation.
An oath, to me, seems like a covenantal word. An oath is a respecter of persons and positions. When someone swears an oath, he seems to be entering into some sort of relational agreement. My daughter is a virgin; you have my word. The land will be yours; I promise you that. Even today when someone swears an oath of office, it is an acknowledgment that a great trust has been placed in that person, and it is his accepting of that trust. It's all about relationship.
Which raises an interesting consideration. Given that an oath, in contrast to a vow, is a sworn statement not to, what does this say about the way we are in relationship with persons and positions? Jesus will later say that it's better for a man to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than to discourage a little child. Could it be that when we enter into relationship with one another, one of our greatest responsibilities is to not?
It's backward thinking, and of course, there are problems with anything so concrete. There are, of course, times to encourage, times to inspire. We have a responsibility and the incredible privilege of actively loving one another, of actively serving one another, of doing things rather than simply not doing them. But for all of our doing in our world, I think we've gone too far in thinking we are supposed to always be doing.
What if we were not?
What if we weren't so concerned with encouraging someone and were more concerned with not discouraging him? It gives him the space to become what he desires to be without putting our pressures on him to conform to our ideas. It's hard to really put good skin on this idea, but what if we understood that our entering into relationship with people is sometimes as much about what we won't do to them as what we will?
I think it would change things.
And if an oath is a covenantal proposition, what are we to make of vows? Vows are about personal discipline and responsibility. Vows are not about who we're going to be as a community of people, but who I'm going to be. A vow is a statement about who I am or who I desire to be or who I aspire to be. A vow says I'm the kind of person who brings a fellowship offering to God (which is one of them most frequent vows discussed in the OT). A vow says I'm the kind of person who will do what I say I do. A vow says I'm the kind of person who willingly, wholeheartedly, purposefully chooses to love, to serve, to obey. For better or worse. In sickness and in health. Till death do us part. A vow like that...it doesn't matter what you do. A vow is all about what I do and who I decide to be.
As I wrap this up, I'm drawn back to this distinction between vows and oaths that Moses makes in Numbers 30. And I think I can sum it all up this way: an oath is a statement bound by something. It's bound by relationship or it's bound by truth, but it knows its borders. It is confined within its own parameters, and it always will be. A vow, however, is drawn out by hope. It doesn't have borders; it redefines them. It is an invitation to be or to do something more than what the current situation either allows or requires. An oath is a statement about who I am; a vow is a dream of who I'm going to be.
Clear as mud?
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