The first instruction Moses conveys in the final two portions of Numbers is to the leaders, and it is about the importance of keeping vows to God and being bound to sworn oaths.
Why does Moses instruct the leaders in this way, and what’s crucial about vows and oaths?
Moses certainly knows how important it is to get things right with the new leaders of the community. His time as leader is limited. And what should matter more to him here than being sure leaders prize one’s holding to vows and oaths?
The strength of a community may depend more than anything else on the degree of fidelity to which its leaders and its members honor vows and oaths. If leaders, in particular, can make vows and oaths and regularly fail to fulfill them – whether due to political whim or change of heart or grabs for power – then surely the community will itself likely be rudderless and headed in unclear and uncertain directions.
Vows and oaths are made up of what? Words! It was through words that the world was created. And so it is through words that our world of vows and oaths is created. We must be true and honorable in building that world.
Yet, in the very next verses, the text discusses those situations in which a vow or oath should not be enforced. How can that be?
Our faith is not easy, nor is the way God makes for us. Vows and oaths are indeed central and are to be honored. But in the rare occasion when even deeper core values, such as justice and righteousness and mercy, would be offended by holding one to a vow or oath, there should be relief.
All of this brings us back to Moses’ instruction. He knew how important it was for his successors to have the wisdom both to know vows and oaths matter and to understand the rare occasion when relief from being bound to them ought to be granted.
May each of us garner that wisdom in our own day.