Let me draw your attention to this post from my good friend Douglas Wilson who makes fun of the pope’s Twitter feed on his way to making a number of very important points about masculine gentleness.
Somebody in the comments suggested that he needed to go on and offer a bit more definition for what he meant by gentleness which is of course one of the first signs of a successful sermon, lecture, book, or article — people asking you to go on.
So even though nobody asked, the following are my two cents on this subject. And let me begin by drawing your attention to that great and much beloved passage on masculinity, Numbers 30. Now I suspect that for most of you, this page is well worn, heavily highlighted and underlined, with copious notes and citations and Hebrew word studies spilling out of the margins, but for those of you without these benefits, let me briefly review the passage.
Here, we have God’s word on the necessity of keeping vows made to the Lord. What is immediately noticeable and striking is the difference that God makes between a man, a daughter still in her father’s house, a married woman, and a grown independent woman, a widowed woman, or divorced woman. And what God says here is that a father or husband (where there is one) may nullify or confirm his daughter or wife’s vow. I suspect that a straightforward reading of the text with pointed questions to various pastors and teachers would fairly quickly divide the ranks of conservative types in a helpful manner. In other words, if we’re going to have complementarianism, we want the kind with chest hair — which really is just another way of saying biblical patriarchy but without all the bothersome baggage.
Numbers 30 says that if a man takes a vow before the Lord, he is responsible to fulfill the vow, pure and simple (Num. 30:2). However, if a woman “in her father’s house in her youth” makes a vow, her vow is subject to her father’s confirmation or nullification (Num. 30:3-5). Now one striking thing to note is that this passage does not single out young men still residing in their father’s house. It only references the young women. But the real kicker comes in verse 6, applying the same standard of confirmation or nullification to a woman who gets married (Num. 30:6-8). While it is unclear in the KJV, the intent here seems to be to address vows made prior to being married since verse 10 is concerned with vows made during the course of being married.
It should be noted that this implies that a single woman can live independently outside of her father’s house and be held to account for her vows. This is God’s raspberry to hyper-patriarchalists. The Bible does not teach that a woman must stay in her father’s house until she is married. In a biblical family living in a biblical society there may be many perks and blessings to staying home, but it is not required. My reasoning in this text is that if this is not talking about an independent single woman living on her own making vows which are then subject to her new husband’s review, it would imply that a husband can overturn previous decisions by a father which is the makings for judicial chaos. My assumption is that once a vow has been confirmed or nullified it cannot then be subsequently nullified or renewed on the basis of a change in marital status. Thus, we have a single woman who lives outside of her father’s house responsible for her vows before God, yet if she chooses to marry, her contractual obligations are subject to her husband’s review. Related to this are vows made by widowed or divorced women which stand on her word (Num. 30:9). And I assume they are subject to the same review should she be remarried.
Finally, we have the same principle applied to a married woman who makes a vow while being married (Num. 30:10-15). Moses, well-knowing the hearts of Israelite men and the Holy Spirit well-knowing the hearts of men in every generation is careful to spell out what confirmation and nullification actually consists of. A specific time frame is given: “on the day he heard” (Num. 30:12, 14), and passivity and silence are sufficient for confirmation (Num. 30:14). Basically a husband has a 24 hour veto option, and after 24 hours the veto option expires. And at that point, any contractual breach and all obligations and consequences of actions made by the wife fall on the man not the woman (Num. 30:15).
Now several other points to bring this home. Even if the primary “vow” this passage has in mind is a sacrificial vow, a ceremonial vow (cf. Lev. 27), I do not believe that nullifies this passage because we see the same principles showing up elsewhere in Scripture, namely the New Testament: the husband is to take responsibility for his wife (Eph. 5:25-29). Paul says that the husband is to imitate Christ who loved the Church and gave Himself for her. Jesus took all our liabilities on Himself. He pays the debts that we owe, and He cancels the debts we should have never promised to pay with His perfect wisdom and justice. But just in case we didn’t catch the principle there, Paul goes on to explain that the husband is to view his wife as occupying the same position as his own body. This means that her troubles are his troubles, her actions are his actions, her vows are his vows. And all of this affirmation of covenantal responsibility without obliterating individual responsibility and guilt. In other words, if the wife decides to shoplift she is guilty of sins and crimes personally, but the moment her husband finds out about it, he incurs responsibility to act to put things right. In fact, he is arguably already responsible for the act before he knows about it because he is covenantally united to his wife. When she acts, he is acting. But he has a duty to respond, to lead her out of this situation the moment he hears of it. But the same principle applies to less lurid scenarios: a man is responsible before God to lead his wife. He leads by initiating discussion, planning, directing, and affirming some decisions of his wife and children and vetoing others.
Or to give just one more example: Peter says that a wife is bound to obey her husband. Paul uses the word “submit” which has been twisted and watered down by many to mean next to nothing. But Peter says that Christian wives are to imitate Sarah, that heroine of the faith, who obeyed Abraham and called him lord (1 Pet. 3:6). To connect the dots very quickly: this means that since a wife represents her husband in the world, bearing his last name (as she ought), and because a husband is duty bound to honor and protect her — when she makes decisions ranging from significant formal contracts (purchasing real estate, cars, etc.) all the way down to movie rentals and who’s coming to dinner on Saturday, the husband is responsible for those decisions. The wife is required by God to carry out her responsibilities in obedience to her husband, and the husband is required by God to recognize that he is accountable to God for her decisions and affirms them (explicitly or by silence) or nullifies them. Just as the Church is subject to Christ in all things, so is the wife to be subject to her husband in all things (no seriously, that’s in the Bible too).
And notice that Peter has no problem transitioning from the example of Sarah obeying her husband right into a straightforward insistence that a husband must honor his wife as a co-heir of the grace of life (1 Pet. 3:7). And Paul does the same thing. The New Testament sees no tension between affirming the fundamental creational equality and dignity of male and female as image bearers and the essential equality of our inheritance in Christ — such that there is no distinction between male and female in Christ (Gal. 3:28) — there is no tension between these glorious realities and the affirmation that a married woman freely respects, submits, and obeys her husband, even cheerfully receiving his review of her vows and decisions. And we may as well add here that there is still plenty of room for unmarried women to fully function in the church and society as individuals to be afforded all of the same dignity and respect as any other human being, bringing with them gifts and abilities that are crucial to the building up of the church (1 Pet. 2:17, Acts 16:14, 40, 1 Tim. 5:10).
The last thing to note is that I don’t think this leaves husbands or fathers on some kind of chest-thumping glee ride. The point is clear that the man was made to protect the glory of the woman. The man was made to get between his woman and all threats. We live in a world that is full of abdicating men who have failed to speak up for their daughters or wives, much less actually protect them from the threats all around. But the Bible says that they are accountable to God for this failure. There are many women who have found themselves ensnared by sin and consequences of sin by the direct result of the cowardice, obliviousness, and even abuse of their fathers and husbands, and the Bible says that “he shall bear her iniquity” (Num. 30:15). Or Peter says that a man who refuses to protect and honor his wife as the weaker vessel should not expect God to listen to his prayers (1 Pet. 3:7). If you do not honor the image of God in your wife, you should not expect God to have any time for your self-righteous blathering. How can you say you love God whom you have not seen, when you do not love your sister whom you have seen (1 Jn. 4:20)?
And to bring this full circle, this kind of gracious responsibility-taking is the center of masculine gentleness. Some men want all the perks of decision making without any of the grace, without any of the love, but that isn’t taking responsibility. It’s just huffing and puffing and posturing. It isn’t leadership if nobody’s following. But on the other side, we have piles of nice guys who are terrified to make any decisions or when they finally get firm it’s mostly about watching the game with the guys or getting their woman to perform in bed. And their wives are frustrated and can’t figure out why since their man is so damn nice. Well, it’s because their man isn’t taking responsibility. Their man isn’t owning the state of the home; he isn’t owning the state of the marriage. He isn’t owning Numbers 30. He’s at the wheel but he insists on driving with a blindfold while being nice. He’s a little confused about what all the fuss is about, but the main point is that he’s supposed to be driving the car. He’s supposed to be leading his wife. It’s kind of what he promised to do, and it’s absolutely what God will hold him accountable for. Refusing to accept responsibility is refusing to be a gentleman.
While much of this hits modern ears as foreign and perhaps to some even rather appalling, we call this difference between men and women glory. Here, God teaches us about how He is. God displays His glory — His determination to be our Savior, our Lord, our Husband, our Redeemer. Jesus is our covenant head. He has taken responsibility for us. He leads us. He reviews our decisions and commitments and affirms or corrects us because He loves us, and He will never leave us or forsake us. And that, my friends, is how God is gentle with us.
Andrew Isker says
This is good stuff Toby, and your words made me just rethink Numbers 30 again framed around Adam and Eve. On the day Adam heard of Eve’s eating from the tree, he actively confirmed it by eating. Numbers 30, then, is about husbands and fathers doing what Adam was charged to do, to guard the garden, including and especially it’s crown jewel, Eve. This is what our Lord did and continues to do for His Bride.