Saturday, May 07, 2016

That Wacky Old Testament (3)

Greg at Holey Books complains that the Levitical law is sexist:

Women Are Worth Less (Lev. 27:1-4). This is one of those passages that really, really should make believers — especially women — question just how much of the Old Testament we can take seriously. According to Leviticus, a man’s worth — in “dedicating a person to the LORD” — is 50 shekels. A woman, however, is only worth 30. (NB: the ratio here is strangely reminiscent of the U.S. Constitution’s provision that a slave was only worth 3/5 of a white man. There must be like the “golden mean” of massive inequalities.) It is difficult to explain this away without logically also concluding that part of scripture was a historical artifact of its time that we should not take seriously. Unless, of course, you actually hold that men and women aren’t equal or shouldn’t be equal. Which would, obviously, be absurd.”

Notice that Greg is reacting as if Leviticus declares that the intrinsic value of a woman before God is only 60% of a man’s value, as if the Law somehow diminishes her personhood. He finds such an idea offensive to the core and “absurd”.

But whenever questions of worth arise, I find it useful to ask the question “Worth for what purpose?” or “Worth in what way?”

Measuring Worth

Now, a faith-based statement like Greg’s about the intrinsic value of the sexes is certainly one way of reckoning worth, but it’s not the sort of measurement contemplated in Leviticus.

What sort is contemplated? Well, let’s say I am hiring people of both sexes to chop wood and load it into my pickup. It is clear to most observers that the average man, because of innate differences in physical strength, size and stamina, is capable of chopping and carrying more wood than the average woman over the same period of time. So if I tell you that I only expect my female employees to chop and carry 60% of the amount of wood that I expect from a man, does that prove I am a sexist or simply a realist? You be the judge. What is being measured in such a case is not innate worth but market value. It’s mere economics.

Sexist and Ageist Too!

Note also that the law here does not merely distinguish on the basis of biology. It also distinguishes on the basis of age and financial situation. The verses set out all the following comparisons:

20-60 years
50 shekels
20-60 (assumed)
30 shekels
5-20 years
20 shekels
5-20 years
10 shekels
1 mo. - 5 years
5 shekels
1 mo. - 5 years
3 shekels
60 years and over
15 shekels
60 years and over
10 shekels
Poor person
“What the vower can afford”

If such a law is sexist, it is also ageist (though in fact it is neither). A middle-aged woman here is of greater value than a teenage boy and twice the value of an old man. A teenage girl is of greater value than a male infant.

Obviously intrinsic value is not the issue here. Irate feminists may stand down.

Examining the Israelite Vow

So what IS the purpose of this law then? Bob Deffinbaugh explains it this way:
“Simply viewed, offering a vow is practicing a kind of ‘credit card’ act of worship. It is a promise to worship God with a certain offering in the future, motivated by gratitude for God’s grace in the life of the offerer. The reason for the delay in making the offering was that the offerer was not able, at that moment to make the offering. The vow was made, promising to offer something to God if God would intervene on behalf of the individual, making the offering possible. In many instances, the vow was made in a time of great danger or need.”
That ancient peoples made vows to their gods is a matter of historical record. The practice was so common in the world of the day that Leviticus 27 should probably be viewed as a set of peculiar Israelite limitations on vows rather than any encouragement to engage in them. Notice the passage starts with, “IF anyone makes a special vow ...” and Deuteronomy makes the optional nature of vows explicit by adding, “If you refrain from vowing, you will not be guilty of sin”. This was very much a voluntary exercise.

Service and Redemption

The book of Samuel records the sort of pledge Bob Deffinbaugh refers to. Unable to have children, Hannah made a desperate vow before God, offering the child she hoped to conceive to the Lord to serve him “all the days of his life”. And so he did. Theoretically, under the law Samuel’s family might have paid the price to redeem him from his service obligation. If so, it was a good thing for Israel that they did not.

Deffinbaugh explains the process:
“Persons and well as property could be devoted to God, thus the first section of the chapter deals with the various categories of persons who might be vowed as an offering to God. It is assumed that these persons would either serve in ministry related to the tabernacle, or would at least serve the priests (working the fields which might be dedicated?). Some commentators assume that the persons dedicated would not be given, but rather their worth would be donated as cash. I do not see it this way. I understand that the value of such persons is to be determined by the category into which they fall, corresponding to their age and sex. Their worth seems to be their ‘market value,’ what the person would bring in the market place. There is therefore no demeaning of women here, or of the young or elderly, but only a recognition of what value this person had in the market place.
Classical rabbinic interpretation seems to bear out what Deffinbaugh is saying here.

Rash Vows and Consequences

John Walvoord further points out that the valuation in Leviticus 27 was designed to discourage rash vows by attaching redemption penalties that were not insignificant:
“This first paragraph [Leviticus 27:1-8] regulates the fulfillment of a special vow to dedicate persons to the Lord by legislating monetary payment to the sanctuary treasury according to a system of equivalent values. The other option was direct fulfillment of the vow by service or worship in the sanctuary (as in the case of Hannah’s vow ...). A person could be redeemed in payment in silver according to the sanctuary shekel ... since the 50-shekel evaluation placed on an adult male was equivalent to about 50 months’ wages, this system tended to discourage rash vows!”
Those who have been reading our “Wacky Old Testament” series will recognized the following mantra: These laws were given to Israel and not to the church. They do not apply to believers today. But still less do they have anything to do with feminism, “equality” or the modern battle of the sexes, as Greg at Holey Books would like us to believe.

In fact, in order to redeem himself from a rash vow, it was the adult male in Israel who used to take the biggest financial hit. Essentially he was “taxed” at a higher rate than anyone else.

Anyone who demands THAT sort of equality is, in my humble estimation, not thinking too clearly.


  1. You certainly seem to enjoy (and have dedicated yourself) to the nitty gritty of bible interpretation and elucidation that the ordinary person does not get into but benefits from. Nevertheless, it seems to me there is a practice and tradition based on NT teaching that is similar to this OT topic, which I would describe as an exchange of goods (a barter) for God's positive intervention. And that is, e.g., if someone promise and makes a personal sacrifice on behalf of an ill loved one (or for a cause like the potential redemption of a sinner). This is at least part of the Catholic tradition in which especially saints are credited with that type of transaction (and, to stir the hornets nest a little bit, where even indulgences can fit in). To me that is good psychology, badly needed and welcome motivation traded for benefits not only in the religious but also in the human sphere (e.g. rehabilitative services in our judicial system). For that reason I would
    not look at it askance and miscategorize it as works for salvation (as might be the case for the Protestant tradition?).

  2. Hmm. Which New Testament teaching are you thinking of?

    1. Luk 9:24
      Luk 18:22
      Luk 12:33
      Mat 6:16
      Mat 19:27-29
      Mat 19:21
      Mark 10:21
      1 john 3:16-18


    2. Looking at these verses, Q, I don't think they're really describing the same thing.

      A vow was giving (not just in Judaism, but in many religions of the day) in the hope of moving one's god to give the vower some particular reward in this life. Jehovah cautioned Israel to be careful about this sort of thing (the "rash vow"), so I see it as not being encouraged within Judaism and certainly not being mandatory. The Jew who never vowed was not worse off for it.

      The New Testament strain of thought found in most of the verses you've mentioned has more to do with the acquisition of reward in heaven ("you will have treasure in heaven" is the repeated theme). And as you say, I do not think salvation is in view at all. Rather, what the Lord is teaching is that those who are already in a relationship with God by virtue of saving faith are uniquely in a position to acquire heavenly rewards.

      Their acts are a demonstration of existing faith, and therefore pleasing to God.

    3. Not exactly what I said or meant Tom. As I said the "works" argument and your own salvation is not in play here. What is in play is that benefits can be and are obtained, e.g. through prayer, often in combination with the promise and implementation of a personal sacrifice like fasting and even alms for a variety of causes. The readings clearly are NT examples of where that is suggested and there are many more.

    4. Agreed about salvation being not in play.

      That said, we're on the same page if you're talking about heavenly benefits. If you're talking about earthly benefits like the ones people sought with Old Testament vows, I'm afraid I'm not seeing it, or else we'll need some more of those references.

      For example, Luke 9:24 says, "Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it." Clearly there the benefit derived is HEAVENLY, not earthly, as it results in an earthly life that (to all appearances at least) is lost.

      Or Luke 18:22, where the benefit is "treasure in HEAVEN".

      Or Luke 12:33, "treasure in the HEAVENS".

      Again, in Matthew 6:16, the treasure to be obtained by vowing is "laid up in HEAVEN" (v19) and in Matthew 19:27-29, the treasure is once again "in the NEW WORLD".

      Matthew 19:21, "treasure in HEAVEN".

      Mark 10:21, "treasure in HEAVEN".

      And 1 John 3 talks about laying down our lives for the brethren, but doesn't offer any earthly benefit therefrom.

      In short, Q, I cannot find a single instance in the verses you cite in which there is a benefit to be derived in THIS world from vowing, fasting, etc. There may well be "many more" ... or possibly you will find the incentives to be of this heavenly sort in every instance when you really look at them.

    5. Sorry Tom but I think that you are really boxing yourself in too much and putting God in that same box. Let me suggest that you put this into the Bing search engine

      "how does sacrificial Christian prayer benefit us on Earth"

      I took the excerpt below from one of the links (below) that came up.

      From "Let Us Reason" -

      "What prayer will and will not do"


      James 5:17-18 tells us, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit.” It wasn’t Elijah’s asking that accomplished this but it was God answering his request because it was his will, He had a purpose in it. God can take away things by our praying and affect people and nations and He can add things and bless them. He can do beyond even what we ask for as we are under a covenant of grace. He can and does miracles for his namesake. We cannot limit God in our prayer nor can we command him or control him what to do what we would like by our request.Ps.145:18 “the Lord is near to all those who call upon him, to all who call upon him in truth.”

      So, Tom if you are saying that God does not bestow benefits also in this life based on our talking to him then I believe you are pretty much alone with that. Obviously God cares about us in this world as much as in the next.

      Here is another psychological reality that you seem willing to readily ignore in that our behavior as fathers (or grandfathers, mothers etc. ) certainly allows us to deduce something about God's will and disposition as well concerning worldly matters. E.g., if I have two grandchildren and the one is rude, indifferent and obnoxious, then I will certainly not reward him but will take the other one fishing. So, mankind can certainly expect payback (a barter) in this life already depending on who you are even though Job shows that God's plan will have priority over ours.

    6. Again, I think we're talking past each other, Q.

      The subject of the post was VOWS under the Old Testament law and the cost of buying your way out of them when you were unable or unwilling to fulfill them. The subject was not "prayer in general".

      Naturally I wholeheartedly agree with you that Elijah prayed and got an answer. It's happened to me too, and most Christians have had the same experience. But there was no VOW involved, no quid pro quo, no promise on Elijah's part or mine, and no trade made with God. There was simply a REQUEST, which God in his sovereignty may choose to grant or not to grant.

      The two things (vows and ordinary, unadorned requests made to a loving God) are apples and oranges, I would say.

  3. Maybe it was Old Testament, like...

    "No man can by any means redeem his brother
    Or give to God a ransom for him—
    For the redemption of his soul is costly,
    And he should cease trying forever—"

    Ps. 49:7-8