It can be unwise at best to read the Bible without asking questions and diving deeper. Without looking deeper, we can take things at face value and make assumptions. It can cause us confusion, disquiet, even hurt. As a woman, when I read Leviticus 27:1-8 I felt grieved. I am a complementarian and believe in the complementary functions of men and women. That in no way takes away from our value and worth however. Whether complementarian or egalitarian, we know that women are created in equal dignity and worth. Our value is equal in God’s eyes and design. But then I hit Leviticus 27:1-8 and read that women have a monetary value that is less than a mans:
The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If anyone makes a special vow to dedicate a person to the Lord by giving the equivalent value, set the value of a male between the ages of twenty and sixty at fifty shekels of silver, according to the sanctuary shekel; for a female, set her value at thirty shekels; for a person between the ages of five and twenty, set the value of a male at twenty shekels and of a female at ten shekels; for a person between one month and five years, set the value of a male at five shekels of silver and that of a female at three shekels of silver; for a person sixty years old or more, set the value of a male at fifteen shekels and of a female at ten shekels. If anyone making the vow is too poor to pay the specified amount, the person being dedicated is to be presented to the priest, who will set the value according to what the one making the vow can afford.
When I read this, I had a jarring emotional reaction. Is everything I believed actually foolish? These are God’s direct communications to Moses – it says “The Lord said to Moses…” Is this God’s true opinion of women?
This is where we need to look closer before jumping to conclusions and look at what the text is actually saying.
I had zeroed in on the different numbers between men and women but there are other things going on here. Firstly, what is a “special vow”? This is where we need to reach back into the cultural moment in which this command is given. In these ancient times, in times of trouble, people make promises to God. For example, Jacob promises to tithe his goods if God will keep him safe on his journey (Gen. 28:20-22) and Jonah makes a vow in return for his deliverance (Jonah 2:9-10). Basically, people make rash vows when faced with imminent doom and times of heightened fear. As Gordon J. Wenham notes in his commentary on Leviticus “Facing death, even hardened atheists are known to pray….Vows are made in the heat of the moment.” (The Book of Leviticus, NICOT, 1979, p337). He quotes the book of Ecclesiastes which says “When you vow a vow to God, do not delay in paying it; for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow.” (Ecclesiastes 5:4-7).
So is this section about the difference in value between groups of people? No. It is about preventing people from making rash vows and then not fulfilling them.
How does it prevent people from making rash vows? This is where the monetary value comes in.
People making vows in the face of fear, rashly promise to dedicate themselves or their family to God. But since only Levites could work in the service of God, the person making the vow could only discharge it by paying the sanctuary the price that the person would have fetched at the slave market. The price at the slave market was linked to a person’s capacity to generate economic returns. In the type of economy at the time (based on physical labour primarily), men were physically stronger and represented a higher economic worth. This was a purely practical monetary assignation based on return on investment.
Furthermore though, according to Wenham, the average wage of a worker at this point was about one shekel per month. So whether it was a man at 50 shekels for a man, or 30 shekels for a woman, that represented an incredibly high value – between two and a half and four years wages. Very few people could afford those prices and so that’s how this command would prevent people from making rash vows before God and then impoverishing themselves to discharge them (which would not be useful or glorifying to God) or trying to extricate themselves from the vow and, per Ecclesiastes, being foolish.
There is an “out” of course – the person dedicated in the vow was to be presented to the priest who was to place a price on them that could be afforded. However, in a clan society in which shame and honour were key principles, this would be a very public acknowledgement of a person’s foolishness and poverty.
So, if you read this passage, I hope this helps to crack open what it is really saying. This passage is providing preventative measures for avoiding the foolish actions in moments of weakness that God knows that humans are prone to. This is actually quite a caring thing for God to provide. He is not making a comment on the value or worth of men or women or old people or children. He is setting a framework for saving us from ourselves.
I have felt moved to write a series of blogs on passages of the Bible that can be confusing or disquieting for people. Other blogs in this grouping include one on the Transfiguration and one on 1 Thessalonians in which glimpses of what happen when we die are discussed by Paul. If there is a passage that has always troubled you, feel free to contact me and I’ll take a look!