Numbers 30 and Today's Christian Daughter

5:38 AM

If you're new-ish to stay-at-home daughter discussions, you probably haven't the slightest idea how an obscure chapter in the Pentateuch has anything to do with the modern day dilemma of college, careers and ministry. We veterans know it's the cornerstone of the patriarchal paradigm* for daughters. Every discussion on daughters leaving or staying in the home eventually tracks back to Numbers 30.

On the side, it's interesting to note that the whole defense of stay-at-home daughterhood as the Biblical blueprint for unmarried women lies in verses applied to married women, taken out of context or buried in Old Testament culture and law. The first two sorts are easy to refute and put back into place. The latter is trickier, for the obvious reason that Scripture, even OT Scripture, is the inspired Word of God. No fudging and budging allowed.

Some like to throw out the OT as being outdated and to respond to arguments built from the OT with, "So you're the sort who kill lambs and don't eat pigs?" Others like to grab hold of anything protruding from the OT and brandish the authority of God against anyone who dares question their (mis)interpretation. I hope to fall in neither category. I believe the only way to interpret Scripture is to keep the whole thing and let the new interpret the old. (FYI: The best primer on hermeneutics is the book of Hebrews.) What fascinates me is how perfectly the Old and New Testaments fit together -- not as synonymous repetition but as the gradual revelation of God from obscurity to full knowledge.

So back to Numbers 30. Even for young women who've left the patriarchal paradigm, this passage remains troublesome. I haven't seen anyone convincingly argue for its relevance to today's daughters, yet I've never seen anyone figure out a logical rebuttal. It's a thorn to one and a holding peg for the other. Without further ado, I give you Numbers 30:

If a woman vows a vow to the LORD and binds herself by a pledge, while within her father's house in her youth, and her father hears of her vow and of her pledge by which she has bound herself and says nothing to her, then all her vows shall stand, and every pledge by which she has bound herself shall stand. But if her father opposes her on the day that he hears of it, no vow of hers, no pledge by which she has bound herself shall stand. And the LORD will forgive her, because her father opposed her.
-- Numbers 30:3-5

At first glance, this passage reads that a father has authority over his young daughter in the home in the area of her vows and by extension her. At the second glance -- and the third -- and the fourth -- it reads the same thing.  Even for those who disagree with the patriarchialists, this passage will not offer an alternate reading. Arguing otherwise is a very bad idea.

However, it's equally ludicrous to say that this passage is the prooftext that a girl may never, ever leave her father's authority as an adult, that she is his helper until marriage and that a woman must always have a male covering or she will fall to pieces. The girl in question is a young girl, a naur, a minor who is living in her father's house. This is not a grown woman by the law's or culture's standards. But even if she is a twenty-seven-year-old, the passage still cannot be twisted that she must stay home.

This is what I call a provisional law, which may or may not be an actual theological term outside my world. We see such provisional laws as in Deuteronomy 22:28-29 and Deuteronomy 24:1-4, the former dealing with a raped virgin and the latter with a divorced wife. They seem almost callous at first, a raped virgin marrying her attacker, a divorced wife being bounced around from man to man, none of whom find any favor in her. But closer examination reveals that the situations are not necessary, normative or right simply because the law "allows" them. It merely provides for the violated party in the situation as it arises.

Of course, a young daughter living with her father is not at all morally related to rape and divorce. I parallel the cases to show that merely because the law portrays a certain condition does not mean that it is a universally binding command. In the case of Numbers 30, the section on vows comes immediately after a long explanation on sacrifices. Vows and sacrifices went together. Sacrifices meant money and property, something the head of the house would surely be interested in. Thus, he was given authority to cancel the thoughtless vows of his young daughter and his wife -- persons legally under his jurisdiction.

Interestingly, I think Numbers 30 points to a broader principle of father/daughter and husband/wife relationships that isn't so much about roles and authority but about the coming relationship between Christ and His Church. Students of the Word will recognize the kinsman redeemer (Boaz will ring a bell) and the OT provisions for a man to marry his brother's widow, as well as the bride price and other like practices. The provision for women in the OT truly is exquisite, and Numbers 30 mirrors the acts of the kinsman redeemer as well as our ultimate REDEEMER. Numbers 30, you recall, deals with vows before God -- and a father's right to cancel them. He stands between God and his daughter. He takes responsibility for his daughter's sin. He is her covering. He is her protection.

Yet in the NT, with the coming of Christ, we see a radical shift. There is no longer slave or free, male or female, Jew or Gentile -- not when it comes to access to God. All have full access through Jesus. The real, ultimate relationship between the Bride and Christ has come. This faith is no longer one passed down through bloodlines -- only the blood of Jesus. As such, men and women are equally responsible to God. He is our covering. He is our Father. He is our protection.

While the NT reiterates a husband's servant-leadership over his wife and children's obedience to (both) their parents, we never see any case where a father may overrule his daughter's (or even his wife's) spiritual decisions. Christ is our mediator. Our vows stand before God. Unmarried adult women, indeed, are not seen as under the direct authority of their fathers but under direct authority and service to Christ Jesus alone, as 1 Corinthians 7:32-35 indicates. It's also interesting to note that in the same passage, Paul addresses betrothed men and women as free individuals in the decision to marry, with no father involved. Our heavenly Father paid the bride price for such marriages. (See this post, though, on the Biblical commands for a daughter to honor both her father and her mother, especially if she remains under their authority.)

Of course, the above-mentioned passage does not rule out the possibility of unmarried daughters staying at home. In this new Gospel paradigm, unmarried women have the freedom to follow the Lord's will wherever He leads, whether that be to remain at home, travel to Zimbabwe or minister in NYC. 

To treat Numbers 30 as a stay-at-home daughter issue is to miss out on the rich journey toward grace and the startling love of God. I firmly believe the Lord intends for His daughters to be protected and loved -- primarily and ultimately by Himself.

*I do not mean to use the terms patriarchal or paradigm as derogatory inflammation. I use patriarchal for its descriptiveness and paradigm because, well, it sounds smart. 

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20 impressions

  1. Wow! Thank you for verifying that! Most people don't get what it means to be a stay-at-home-daughter (or wife for that matter). I love how explain things so simple! :)

  2. My thoughts:

    Matthew 5.33-37
    Numbers 30?
    Judges 11.
    James 5.12
    Judges 11.36.

    But I don't know how...

    And how did God protect her?

    Sorry, about being so cryptic.

  3. Hi, Haley! I wasn't sure how to take your comment, so I just wanted to make it clear that this post was not written in defense of stay-at-home daughterhood. I completely and unequivocally support any girl's call from God, whether that is to stay home or to leave it. Blessings!

    While this is off-topic to the main subject, it is a good point. Are you saying that the whole concept of vow taking is forbidden, especially in light of the tragedy of Jephthah's daughter? Because I agree with you. Again, I think Numbers 30 isn't necessarily endorsing the idea of making vows, only what happens when one does make them. And with Jephthah -- I'm not convinced that his and his daughter's response was the right one. I'd think the abhorrence of human sacrifice would trump vow-keeping.

  4. I know you weren't. I'm just glad that you clarified that staying at home is a choice, and that it is in the Bible. Not just an idea that parents force on their children to keep them at home. (We have had people on my mom's blog condemn mom for 'forcing' her ideas onto the oldest one at home, instead of letting her make her own decisions and decide what she wanted to do.)
    Which is truly not the case. :)

  5. Gotcha. Thanks for clarifying!

  6. Hi Bailey,

    A couple of weeks ago I discovered your blog and I'm so glad I did. I always look forward to reading your posts. You always explain your stand on something with grace, intelligence, elegance and in love. It's rare to find such a person as you. I wish I could write as well as you - but I am just thankful to have stumbled across you. Thank you for your ministry and your written word!


  7. Thank you, Bailey. I needed this right now as I try to discern God's will for my life. I think He decided to go ahead and use someone I admire to help with that :)

  8. *enter the antagonist with an intimidating timpani rumble*

    "I firmly believe the Lord intends for His daughters to be protected and loved -- primarily and ultimately by Himself."

    Me too.


    Is Numbers 30 a command? No, no matter how you twist it.

    Is it a model?

    One other thing.

    "There is no longer slave or free, male or female, Jew or Gentile -- not when it comes to access to God."

    This isn't convincing me. Amen and amen, we all have free access to God through Christ. How does this really apply to the issue at hand, though?

  9. Leave it to the musician to use a word like "timpani." :o)

    It's quite possible that Numbers 30 could be a model. However, two hurdles need to be overcome before that's remotely possible: is this cultural or ideal? And does it fit in with the "Gospel paradigm"? As I mentioned in the post, not everything that's "normative" in Scripture is a command or even something to be followed. It could be a law provisional to the specific cultural times -- many, many laws in the OT deal with specific ways Israel was to be distinct from pagan cultures (e.g. not mixing different seeds or fabrics).

    While headship can be extended to young daughters and wives, as it is repeated in the NT, I don't believe a father/husband can nullify the spiritual vows of his daughter or wife in light of the fact that we are all a royal priesthood and all have individual relationships with the Lord. That's the real issue Numbers 30 deals with and that's why I said there is no longer male nor female in Christ. Not to mention that we're not supposed to vow, anyway.

    I don't see Numbers 30 as cultural, because of headship reasons, and I don't see it as a model for the popular definition of patriarchy today. In my experience, nobody can use Deborah, Mary of Bethany, Dorcas or any other female who seemed single and out from under male protection as her poster child against patriarchy, for that would be bad hermeneutics -- using an example to set up a rule. Yet patriarchy relies specifically on examples (e.g. Dinah's tragedy, Numbers 30 women) to set up its paradigm as a model. It's double standards and it's not proper hermeneutics.

    I'm complementarian and I support Biblical headship of fathers and husbands over their households. There are clear Biblical commands as well as examples for this. There's nothing but conjecture to support the patriarchy being pushed today -- and I have indeed read So Much More. ;o)

  10. "In my experience, nobody can use Deborah, Mary of Bethany, Dorcas or any other female who seemed single and out from under male protection as her poster child against patriarchy, for that would be bad hermeneutics"

    I agree that a "for instance" can't be used to disprove an entire principle or paradaigm (ex., Deborah was a judge so hah! patriarchy is always WRONG)But, is it, in your opinion, acceptable to see these single women of the bible without apparent male protection as examples of possibility for your own personal vision for your life? Would it be wrong to, for example, be inspired by Deborah's courage and justice, and use that inspiration to shape a course in your life that might involve going out from under your father's protection?

    Is there a difference between saying "Deborah didn't have a male covering so I don't need one either and all patriarchy in null and void" and "God placed a calling on my heart and used the OT account of Deborah to inspire me to reach beyond my comfort zone. I am not tearing down another woman's decision to remain under her father's covering by staying at home, but I am choosing to step out into the world and God's account of Deborah as a brave woman of Him has contributed to this decision."

    Does that make sense? Is there a place for using apparently single biblical women as personal inspirations,if so called, without setting them up as "poster-children against patriarchy" ?

  11. Hi, Anon! Great question. I was really paraphrasing what patriarchy advocates insist on -- no using examples of single women to ditch their paradigm. While you're right -- individual examples do not create or tear down paradigms -- I personally think there's nothing wrong with being inspired by Deborah or any other character in the Bible. Because I don't believe there's a detailed plan and role for women, especially unmarried women, I see examples like Deborah and the female disciples of Jesus as the diversity and freedom we have in Christ to serve Him.

    However, if the patriarchal paradigm really is true, then I don't think it'd be acceptable to be "the exception," even if there's a Biblical example to back it up. As it stands, I think being a stay-at-home daughter is a legitimate personal choice, as is any other lifestyle decision that does not violate clear Scripture.

    Clear as mud? I thought so. :o)

  12. Thank you, Bailey. That makes sense. I will stop asking questions now, but if I was going to ask another, it would be are partriarchy and unmarried women without covering mutually exclusive? In other words, is it an either/or? Either we accept that there is a biblical patriarchal paradaigm which mandates paternal protection or we dismiss the paradigm altogether and permit unmarried women to follow Christ whereever that leads them. Is it possible for patriarchy and "unprotected single women" (in the SAHD sense of living away from the father's home)to coexist without violating said patriarchy?

  13. I think they are mutually exclusive. The patriarchal paradigm rests on women being under a male covering -- whether her father, brother, husband or other substitute. For a young woman to live away from that -- at college for four years, at a job in another state, etc. -- defeats the purpose of patriarchy.

    This is why patriarchal groups all seem to look alike -- daughters not getting jobs outside the home, the promotion of CollegePlus! and online schools, stuff like that. Some would cry, "Legalism!" but it's more complex than that.

    Generally patriarchal groups leave wiggle room with an exception clause meant for the likes of Amy Carmichael, Elisabeth Elliot and other amazing women who did great things outside their homes and fathers' protection. But that's typically not the logic behind most girls' decisions and I hardly think any patriarchal family would support a daughter claiming she's an exception to clear Biblical teaching.

    For a pretty good understanding on how the patriarchal logic goes, see this link. I wrote this a couple years ago, maybe? I was a pretty standard example of a stay-at-home daughter. :o)

    By the way, I don't mind your questions at all! Thanks for asking. And to be clear, I don't mean any disrespect to those who follow this paradigm.

  14. So the link's not working..... Here's the real thing:

  15. Thank you for being so generous with your time and thorough with your responses. I am Christian who, gasp, went to a public school, and a public university because that is where I felt God leading me. I do not understand how a God as big as ours has only one vision for each of His unique daughters. If some of us weren't called out into the world, how would other young women who don't yet know their Savior ever know Him?

    Galatians 4:9

  16. I agree, Anon. There's so much to be done for Jesus -- and so much we single young women can do, with His strength!

  17. "I don't see Numbers 30 as cultural, because of headship reasons..."

    Does that mean that you see a principle in there somewhere that is timeless?

    "I don't believe a father/husband can nullify the spiritual vows of his daughter or wife in light of the fact that we are all a royal priesthood and all have individual relationships with the Lord.

    This is a stretch in reasoning that bugs me. If we're going to say "There is no longer male nor female in Christ" and use that to influence our understanding of the roles of men and women, then why not go all the way and say that there are no distinctions in roles whatsoever?

    To the example issue. Why is it a double standard to see what God wrote into His Law as more authoritative/normative than a narrative about what someone or another did?

  18. A timeless principle? Yes -- wives are to submit to their husbands, as a picture of the church and Christ, and children living at home are to obey their parents.

    I don't think it's a stretch at all to say that the new covenant has changed things in this way. Prophets and priests (leaders of the spiritual community) held an access to God that wasn't possible for the average Joe. While today we still have spiritual leaders who we must obey and respect, we have total access to God. The roles are still there -- clergy and layperson, if you will -- but the priesthood of all believers puts everyone on equal footing in the sight of God.

    So too with this issue. The roles of wife and child are still there, but both wives and saved children have direct access to God that a husband and father must respect and take into consideration, since his head is Christ. I believe the Lord speaks directly to me through His Word about how to direct my life -- not my father. I am first and foremost, as an unmarried woman, subject to God alone. My father cannot get between me and God. Because we disagree about unmarried women remaining under their fathers' authority, you will not believe that there is a time where father and God could come into conflict. I do. I've seen it.

    About the law, that is a good point. It would not be a double standard to extend the moral principle in a law. But the way I've heard Numbers 30 argued is "See? The daughter is at home and the father is given control over his daughter; thus, patriarchy is the only Biblical way to go." My argument is simply that because a young girl is at home in this passage doesn't demand that a daughter's place is at her father's side always.

  19. Great post Bailey! I know that is an unhelpful praise, but at this moment I only have time to give you a cyber high-five (wi-five, as my wonderfully geeky roommate calls it) and whisk away. Glad you are working through these things. I believe God is doing GREAT things through you and other women like you, who are thoughtfully and Biblically dealing with the issue of patriarchy.

  20. "the priesthood of all believers puts everyone on equal footing in the sight of God."

    Totally agree, though I would argue that it was always thus- everyone has always been saved by grace through faith.

    "you will not believe that there is a time where father and God could come into conflict."

    Oh, there are certainly times where this happens- the issue is what the daughter's role is in said situation.

    EX: Jane's dad beats her. I would like to see something like this: There's a period where the daughter tries to work with her father and prays for him. The church body also is coming to her aid, confronting him, praying for them. If there comes a point where she's really in danger, she, in the most honoring way possible, while under the authority and counsel of the elders of the church, leaves her father's house and joins another household until her dad has a hold of himself.

    It's not a rebellion, a running away, or anything else. It's honoring, it's submissive, but it's not- um, doormatesque.

    And I'd recommend the same thing to a guy, except that I don't think that he should necessarily join another household.

    Back to Numbers 30. Here's how I'd argue Numbers 30:

    I'd be much more inclined to agree with you if it had said: "Any vow or obligation taken by a widow or divorced woman or virgin who has left her father's household will be binding on her."

    But it doesn't. So I'm not. :-)

    And it's something I see modeled, not just in what some Bible character did, but in what God wrote into His Law. So I believe that it's not just an option- it's not just another good idea- it's something that should set our presuppositions, that we should assume as normative. Then we can worry about exceptions as God brings 'em.

    And there we part ways. :-)


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