Reflection for Mattot-Mas’ei

“Vows: Swearing to Your Own Hurt”

Matthew 5:33-37
James 4:1-12


by Mark Huey

This week as we examine a dual Torah portion in Mattot (Numbers 30:2[1]-32:42) and Mas’ei (Numbers 33:1-36:13), the Book of Numbers comes to a close. It is here overlooking the plains of Moab that Moses delivers some final instructions to the Israelites, before they enter into the Promised Land. In Mattot we see regulations pertaining to vows,[1] an account of the war with Midian and how to redistribute the spoils,[2] and a dissertation on how the community was to handle the Reubenites and Gadites wanting to settle on the eastern side of the Jordan.[3] Mas’ei includes a reiteration of the wilderness journey of Ancient Israel,[4] instructions on how the land of Canaan was to be divided among the tribes,[5] details about the rights of the Levites and cities of refuge to be established,[6] and finally we see directions on how inheritance is to be passed on once Israel is planted with the Land.[7] With this wide array of seemingly unrelated topics, there are a number of issues which can be considered, discussed, and contemplated.

However, when looking at the Haftarah for not only this week, but the next three weeks, we see that the Sages who chose the various readings decided centuries ago that, rather than focus on a selection from the Prophets that was directly related to these passages—instead associated are three passages of admonition, preceding the fast of the Ninth of Av (Mattot: Jeremiah 1:1-2:3; Mas’ei: Jeremiah 2:4-28; Devarim: Isaiah 1:1-27). In the years that I have written my TorahScope commentaries, I have always recommended that preparing for the Ninth of Av by considering these different Haftarahs is an exercise that every Messianic Believer should do.

Obviously, the seriousness of what has transpired over the centuries during this time period leading up to the Ninth of Av is never to be forgotten. Followers of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who consistently study the Torah, should spend some time in deep reflection and thought. What have been some of the challenges faced throughout the centuries on the Ninth of Av? What meditations are in your heart, as we prepare to transition out of the Book of Numbers and into the Book of Deuteronomy? How might the changing narrative within the Torah cause you to look at some current events in the Land of Israel, the Western world, the world in general—or the wide Judeo-Christian religious community which is increasingly being challenged?

Of all the things that I could expound upon from our parashah this week, connecting it to an important theme in the Apostolic Scriptures, what really hits home for me is the Torah’s instruction about making vows. Within His Sermon on the Mount, Yeshua the Messiah quotes directly from Numbers 30:2 and offers His followers an important explanation:

“If a man makes a vow to the Lord, or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth” (Numbers 30:2).

“Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT MAKE FALSE VOWS, BUT SHALL FULFILL YOUR VOWS TO THE LORD’ [Leviticus 19:12; Numbers 30:3; Deuteronomy 23:22]. But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is THE CITY OF THE GREAT KING [Psalm 48:2]. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil” (Matthew 5:33-37).

Yeshua obviously knew the Torah and its requirements for people to honor their vows, oaths, and various obligations, because this is a normal part of human interaction. Simply consider vows that are made during a wedding ceremony or contracts which are made for business transactions; it is understood that a person’s spoken or written word should be binding. Yet in His teaching, the Lord actually advises His hearers to “make no oath at all.” Is this a contradiction to what Moses originally delivered? One suggestion might be that for many of those He taught, making vows or trying to get out of commitments had become so flippant, that Yeshua had to issue a kind of halachic moratorium on making vows. The seriousness of appealing to one’s Creator as a commitment is being made, intensifies how words are not to just be spoken. For too many of us, we need to consciously weigh what we say before we make a vow or take an oath.

In this day and age, the world system is most dedicated to discrediting all vestiges of our Judeo-Christian heritage, and frequently finds support from religious people who live lives of hypocrisy. So, it is critical that we as Believers—not just to one another, but also to all we encounter—be truthful and honor our word. We have to learn to live forth Yeshua’s critical admonition, “Just let your ‘Yes’ be a simple ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ a simple ‘No’” (Matthew 5:37, CJB). If we fail to do this, will we be found to be perpetuating evil? How many people in the world have had stumbling blocks placed in front of them, because those who claim the God of Israel cannot speak and act honestly?

Every year when I see the Torah’s instruction about vows, I am reminded of a personal challenge that occurred in the late 1990s that changed the course of our lives—because of my stubbornness to adhere to the principle of honoring my spoken word. It was not necessarily this specific passage from Matthew 5 that was used, but rather a statement appearing in Psalm 15, which in essence solidified within me my need to keep my word. I have always taken most seriously the principle of “he swears to his own hurt”:

“A Psalm of David. O LORD, who may abide in Your tent? Who may dwell on Your holy hill? He who walks with integrity, and works righteousness, and speaks truth in his heart. He does not slander with his tongue, nor does evil to his neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friend; in whose eyes a reprobate is despised, but who honors those who fear the LORD; he swears to his own hurt and does not change; he does not put out his money at interest, nor does he take a bribe against the innocent. He who does these things will never be shaken” (Psalm 15:1-5).

Back in the mid 1990s as the Lord was using a series of events to draw our family into the ministry, we were very concerned about the direction of the United States and issues in Israel, just like we are today (in 2010)—but we were not tempered with some wisdom and experience. Within much of the Christian and Messianic community, not only with Y2k on the horizon and some of the policies of the Clinton Administration—but also with the 1993 Middle East Peace Accord—it was thought that the end-times were soon to occur. In 1998 our family was presented with an opportunity to move to Honduras and begin proclaiming the gospel to the Western Hemisphere using shortwave transmissions. (This was before the proliferation of Internet usage that we see today.) As a part of this enterprise, I became involved in quasi-ownership of a large tract of land, and because I had previous experience in real estate, we had plans to resell smaller tracts in order to eliminate the mortgage. During the six months all of this was coming together, I mentioned to a number of potential land buyers that my family and I were moving, and that a “remnant community of end-time Believers” would be formed as families took up residence. I was binding myself verbally to follow through…

As the project proceeded and we sold our home and many assets before moving, it became apparent to me that things down in Central America were not going as expected. In fact, my “partner” with the shortwave experience had started to reveal some less-than-godly characteristics that were alerting me about the move. Yet, I was in a bind because I had told several individuals, who were reordering their lives, that I would be moving with my family. When I finally realized that things were not going to work out as originally planned, I was in the unenviable position of having the words from Psalm 15 pierce me to the heart. How was I going to pull the plug on the move and possibly not materially hurt others? Instead, I honored my word, swearing to my own hurt. We made the move, which was financially not a good thing to do at the time, but something I was convinced should have been done because I did give my word.

In our family’s case, it was this life altering move that led us into full time ministry (Romans 8:28), but it never would have happened if I had not been personally convicted to swear to my own hurt. It would have been much easier to have brought up a number of excuses as to why we were not going to move, but what would this have done? The blessing to a person who is consistent in dealing with others is, “He who does these things will never be shaken” (Psalm 15:5).

This was a great lesson to learn, and as a result of this experience I am very cautious about what I say and commit to in interactions with others. Perhaps you can also recall times when you honored your word, despite what it might have cost you either financially or relationally. At times, I do know that our ministerial endeavors have been the recipient of many positive commitments for support down through the years. Disappointingly, we have seen a number of people unwilling to honor their word, so I have made the point to volitionally release people from their obligations because I sincerely do not want them to suffer any consequences of broken promises. But I have often wondered: Why is it that these same verses from Moses, David, or Yeshua have not had a similar impact on others? Why in my experience do I frequently witness people trying to exit out of clear-cut commitments?

Remember Yeshua’s warning to “make no oath at all.” Before you give your assent to do something, make sure that you have investigated it thoroughly. Do nothing on a whim, and make sure you know how something has the capacity to possibly “hurt” you. Seek the Father’s face and ask Him for wisdom and discernment, so that He might lead you in His paths of righteousness.

NOTES

[1] Numbers 30:1-16.

[2] Numbers 31:1-54.

[3] Numbers 32:1-42.

[4] Numbers 33:1-49.

[5] Numbers 33:50-34:29.

[6] Numbers 35:1-34.

[7] Numbers 36:1-13.


This teaching has been excerpted from TorahScope Apostolic Scriptures Reflections by William Mark Huey