Friday, August 19, 2011

Must We Keep Our Vows?

Yesterday the first reading at daily Mass included the horrendous story of the ‘Judge’ Jephthah  (Judges 11) who makes a rash vow to the Lord;

Jephthah made a vow to the LORD.
"If you deliver the Ammonites into my power," he said,
"whoever comes out of the doors of my house
to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites
shall belong to the LORD.
I shall offer him up as a burnt offering." (Judges 11:30-31)

Jephthah is victorious over the Ammorites and is devastated to be greeted upon his return by his only daughter who is still a young child.  After a short compassionate delay, “he did to her as he had vowed” (11:39).

Clearly this is a negative moral example of what not to do. It might be helpful to unpack the morality of this situation.

The Church generally sees the act of making promises and vows in a positive light (cf. Catechism CCC 2101-2102).  There are many positive examples of vows in the Old Testament. For example Psalm 65:2; 66:13. The making and keeping of vows is related to the worship of God and virtue of religion.

Vows are a very serious matter and must not be made rashly.  As the writer of Proverbs warns “It is a trap to pledge rashly a sacred gift, and after a vow, then to reflect” (Proverbs 20:25). As the Israelites were warned in the Law, “When a man makes a vow to the LORD or binds himself under oath to a pledge, he shall not violate his word, but must fulfill exactly the promise he has uttered” (Numbers 30:3). Was Jephthah then required to fulfill his rash vow?

The current Code of Canon Law defines a vow as “a deliberate and free promise made to God, concerning some good which is possible and better” (CIC 1191 § 1).  The structure of this definition may at first seem confusing.  It implies, following the traditional understanding of the Church, that the matter or object of vows must be 1) possible, 2) morally good, and 3) better than its contrary. Dominic M. Prümmer O.P. notes, “It is not required that what is vowed should be absolutely and objectively better than its omission; it is sufficient if it is relatively better for the individual making the vow” (Handbook of Moral Theology, p. 179).

Jephthah’s vow is made freely and not under compulsion but it is clearly rash and does not have a morally good object and is not better than the contrary.  With a different morally good object such as, “if I am victorious I will praise you each day before I begin any work or eat,” this could have been a virtuous act.  As it stands, Jephthath made a false or mock vow according to the Church’s definition.  In effect he sinned doubly by speaking rashly and dangerously and then by committing an evil act in fulfillment of his words.


© Scott McKellar a Scripture quotes from the NAB-RE.

Image: Edouard Bernard Debat-Ponsan (1847-1913) The Daughter of Jephthah, Oil on canvas 1876

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