The Numbers:13 Project
But if her husband does annul them on the day he finds out, then nothing that has crossed her lips shall stand, whether vows or self-imposed obligations. Her husband has annulled them, and the LORD will forgive her. Numbers 30:13
Over the years, I have had conversations with people who have described their marriages in terms unfamiliar to me. Specifically, one spouse or another had the power of veto over decisions made by the other. I just don’t get it.
An acquaintance of mine, many years ago, told me that his wife had decided to get a business degree. They had two children in elementary school, and she took classes around their schedule, studying at night after their bedtime and in any spare moment she could find. One day, as she and her husband were on their way to a social occasion on a local highway, he said to her, “I think you should just throw those books out the window and give up this business thing.” She did. He was very proud of that story.
Yes, it was most often the husband who had this authority over his wife. But there have also been circumstances in which a husband has made a commitment and later called me to say that his wife had reversed his decision. (I simply do not have enough experience with two men or two women to know if that kind of power is ever vested in one person or the other.)
I’m not talking about a deliberated compromise. I hope every couple has discussions about priorities and commitments. I mean exactly the kind of situation described in the verse above: one person made an autonomous decision, and the other person reversed it.
This is the stuff of sitcoms, I have to say. George Jefferson ordering ‘Weezy, Ralph Kramden commanding Alice, Maude instructing Walter. Except at the end of 26 minutes, comeuppance is a guarantee. Even when we laugh, nobody puts up with that malarkey in the end.
This kind of presumed authority is thinly-disguised spousal abuse. The removal of personal autonomy in decision-making by one partner is a denigration of the humanity of the other. Surrendering the ability to make “vows and self-imposed obligations” – especially after the fact – invalidates personal competence and judgment. It creates a hierarchy of basic human dignity which, by all measures, violates the equality of all people.
In my work I encounter any number of faith traditions that affirm that a wife must submit to the authority of her husband. (These traditions have less experience than I with single-sex couples.) While there are any number of places in the Bible that they cite justification, none is more explicit than this one. The usual explanation, perhaps better described as a rationalization, is that men are better suited to decision-making than women.
In communities governed by rules like these, the prophecy is self-fulfilling. Wives (and women in general) second-guess their own judgment, having been taught it is inferior to their husbands’. In turn, they teach their daughters and granddaughters to defer to the men in their lives.
Even in “enlightened” traditions, the vestiges of this hierarchy remain. Women’s teachings may be overruled by men’s. Female devotees serve the male clergy who are the only conduits to the divine. Women do not serve as judges or as members of a quorum. No matter how it is justified or explained away, the female partner is less-than. And when the male partner becomes less-than, he is depicted as female, to add insult to injury.
I know that it is easy to be critical, especially since we live in a time when pushing back on these teachings is considered the moral and righteous thing to do. But the attitudes and practices we are correcting are deeply embedded in our cultures, our traditions and, according to the tenets of faith, our sacred and inviolable literature. What do we do with them?
It is not enough, I am afraid, to assert our presumed authority over such a text. The result of a flat rejection may be satisfying for the person who feels righteously above the text, but it will do little to persuade the woman or man who feels bound by sacred instruction. It is also insufficient to suggest that people being disadvantaged by these teachings – most of them women – to ”give it time.”
Instead, men and women alike need to model and instruct the right kind of behavior and accompanying attitudes. It is especially true for opinion leaders – public figures, clergy, people in charge. Just as we no longer hang a transgressor, stone a stubbornly rebellious son or allow for revenge killings, we must say unequivocally that these windows into past conduct are sacred because of their origin, not because of their relevance.
That’s an attitude that probably dissatisfies everyone a little bit. But its my story, and I am sticking to it.