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Vayikra/Leviticus 27:3-4 And your valuation: a male ... fifty shekels of silver, by the sanctuary shekel. And if she is female, your valuation shall be thirty shekels.
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In this parasha are found the means of valuing and redeeming or commuting vows made toHaShem. In three pieces - verses 2-8, 9-13, 14-15 - rules are given for people of various ages and both genders, for animals both clean such as might be offered in sacrifice and unclean that may not be sacrificed, and houses. Commentators have struggled to understand why this seemingly mundane set of material comes after the summary of the Levitical codes at the end of chapter 26 - "These are the laws, rules, and instructions that the L-RD established, through Moshe on Mount Sinai, between Himself and the Israelite people" (Vayikra 26:46, NJPS) - and not somewhere before. Stephen Sherwood suggests that giving the last word to the theme of redemption is intended to mirror Hashem's saving activity both in the past and the the future.1
How did such vows arise? It is thought that the most likely scenario is that of someone facing some kind of severe trial - such as survival or victory in battle - and vowing, "if I survive then I will commit myself to serving HaShem." Less drastically, a vow of service by self of a child might be offered in order to have a child. The biblical text offers the case of Jephthah as an example of the former: "If you deliver the Ammonites into my hands, then whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be the L-RD's and shall be offered by me as a burnt offering" (Judges 11:30-31, NJPS). Hannah's vow is an example of the latter: "O L-RD of Hosts, if You will look upon the suffering of Your maidservant and will remember me and not forget Your maidservant, and if You will grant Your maidservant a male child, I will dedicate him to the L-RD for all the days of his life; and no razor shall ever touch his head" (1 Samuel 1:11, NJPS).
Gordon Wenham observes that often "vows are made in the heat of the moment. In retrospect, when the crisis is over, they may well seem foolish and unnecessary and the person who made the vow may be tempted to forget it or only fulfil it partially."2 Nevertheless, the Torah speaks to the importance of fulfilling vows - "When you make a vow to the L-RD your G-d, do not put off fulfilling it, for the L-RD your G-d will require it of you, and you will have incurred guilt" (D'varim 23:22, NJPS) - and Qohelet echoes that: "When you make a vow to G-d, do not delay to fulfill it. For He has no pleasure in fools; what you vow, fulfill" (Ecclesiastes 5:3, NJPS), adding somewhat archly, "It is better not to vow at all than to vow and not fulfill" (v. 4, NJPS). The proverb writer pithily agrees: "It is a snare for a man to pledge a sacred gift rashly and to give thought to his vows only after they have been made" (Proverbs 20:25, NJPS). Yeshua reminds the people of that during His teaching - "But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all" (Matthew 5:34, ESV), while James makes sure that all believers understand: "Above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your 'yes' be yes and your 'no' be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation" (James 5:12, ESV).
Why was it necessary for money to be mentioned at all? If keeping vows in general is so important and vows to HaShem in particular, why didn't people live as they had vowed, serving G-d at the Tabernacle or Temple? Wenham replies that "had the regulations permitted, they could have worked as slaves in the Temple; but that was a privilege reserved for the priests and Levites."3 Needless to say, the Torah has already thought of that as Samuel Balentine points out: "The instructions recognise, however, that priestly duties at the sanctuary are the prerogative of Aharon's descendants; thus they provide a way for persons to dedicate themselves to G-d's service by commuting their pledge into a predetermined payment to the sanctuary."4 To avoid breaking the impossible-to-keep vow, so earning HaShem's wrath, the maker can - in fact, must - buy themselves out. The word , your valuation, has the sense not only of value, but equivalence or estimate; this isn't an escape clause added in to cope with a hole in the logic, the system is already designed to work that way.
Getting back to our text, it is important to note that the Torah doesn't use the terms and , man and woman, but instead and , male and female. The only factors affecting the valuation are to be age and gender. In fact, the whole passage makes no distinction between a number of other criteria that might have been expected to have some bearing on the matter such as social classes and skill sets, between free people and slaves, even between Israelites and non-Israelites. "Typical!" snorts Tamar Kamiomkowski, "the value of different kinds of skills and jobs is socially determined just as a human being's worth is subjective and determined by a host of social, economic and cultural factors. It is not accurate to assume that a male worker is more productive than a female worker, especially if the labour involves work for the official cult in textiles, bread making and supervision of administrative units."5 Nevertheless, as Baruch Levine points out, "it is worthy of note that women could participate in the votive system freely."
DonAbravanel suggests that the Torah did not want human beings to be valued individually like horses or donkeys. "This law fixes the price for a person, not letting it fluctuate according the the conditions of the market," says John Hartley; "In this law the price was set on the basis of a person's strength, not of the person's intrinsic value as a human being."6 Arguing that "the highest valuation goes to the male who is in the prime of life and whose ability to carry out the work connected with the sanctuary is at its peak", Walter Kaiser assumes that "much of the work involves such heavy labour as carrying the weight of heavy beasts offered as sacrifices, which normally men are able to assume more readily than women." He proposes that the valuations represent current age labour value, not personal value.7 Judith Romney Wegner sighs; "Women occupied with childbearing and nurturing would have less time to devote to their 'economic' labour at spindle or loom. Then, as now, the facts of life produced a differential in the biblical equivalent of male and female wages."8
As can be seen from some of the comments above, however much of an improvement it was over the surrounding cultures and however much protection the Torah provides for women, children, widows, orphans, the poor and the socially disenfranchised, the whole discussion about setting an arbitrary and, worse still, gender differentiated value for a person offends modern ideas about the intrinsic identity and worth of people and genders. This is not how society thinks things ought to work. Yet the Torah is unrepentant. It gives fathers the authority to annul vows, undertakings and commitments made by their unmarried daughters living at home. Husbands are afforded the same authority over their wives. Orthodox Judaism exempts women from time-dependent mitzvot and enforces gender segregation in worship spaces. Isn't this all rather old-fashioned and discriminatory?
Rav Sha'ul explains how this works for the followers of Yeshua. First, he sets out the foundation: "in union with the Messiah, you are all children of God through this trusting faithfulness" (Galatians 3:26, CJB). All those who have trusted in, come to faith in, Messiah Yeshua and confessed Him as Lord and Saviour are children of G-d. How does this work? "Because as many of you as were immersed into the Messiah have clothed yourselves with the Messiah" (v. 27, CJB). We have all confessed our sins, sought and received G-d's forgiveness in Yeshua and been through the same waters of baptism in His name. No difference: same entry point, same process, same result. That is why, Sha'ul says, "there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor freeman, neither male nor female; for in union with the Messiah Yeshua, you are all one" (v. 28, CJB). Although all of these classifications continued to exist - and still do - they make no difference in our standing or status before G-d. Although called to different ministries, occupations and roles, all followers of Yeshua are equally loved and valued by G-d the Father because "if you belong to the Messiah, you are seed of Avraham and heirs according to the promise" (v. 29, CJB).
Whether male or female, qualified or unqualified, rich or poor, manager or worker, artisan or labourer, professor or technician, regardless of race, colour or ethnicity, we all have not only value but the same value before our G-d; we are all beloved in The Beloved!. Yeshua's blood cleanses us all from sin and makes us one in Him, part of the One New Man and co-heirs of the kingdom of G-d. He fills us with His Spirit, His Ruach or breath, He promises never to leave us or forsake us and He is a part of our lives every moment of the day.
1. - Stephen Sherwood, Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry - Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002), page 87.
2. - Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, NICOT, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), page 337.
3. - Wenham, 338.
4. - Samuel E. Balentine, Leviticus, Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), page 208.
5. - S. Tamar Kamionkowski, Leviticus, Wisdom Commentaries, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2018), page 291.
6. - John E. Hartley, Leviticus, Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1992), page 481.
7. - Walter J. Kaiser, "Leviticus" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 655.
8. - Judith Romney Wegner, "Leviticus" in The Women's Bible Commentary, ed. Carol A. Newson and Sharon H. Ringe, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1992), page 43.
Further Study: John 1:12-13; Romans 8:14-17; Ephesians 1:3-6; 1 John 3:1-2
Application: Are you intimidated by other followers of Yeshua, who seem smarter, quicker or simply more spiritual than you? Stop looking at them and look at Yeshua. He is the one who has called you and equipped you with everything you need to serve Him and bring glory to His name. Lift up your chin, look the world squarely in the eye and remember who you are. You are a child and a disciple of the King!
Comment - 08:29 12May23 Di Stanfield: How reassuring are Shaul's thoughts in Galatians - that through His sacrifice, Yeshuah has made us all equally valued and in the application of this parasha, we need not feel inferior to others' talents and gifts.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2023
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