This is where the exclusivity of citizenship makes itself pretty explicit. We saw the start of this in Numbers 27, with the assumption that women may not inherit property.

The problem with an agnatic inheritance system is that it tends to concentrate power in the hands of males, all the more so in a system like this one where land may be transferred only by inheritance. If women own no property themselves, all their resources, all the food they eat, everything they use is always – always – borrowed.

This makes the word of a woman suspect.

Imagine the following situation: You own a market stall selling chickens. A female customer comes by and tells you that she doesn’t feel safe carrying money around, so could she buy the chickens on credit and send a servant around later with the money? If you know that she cannot own property, you therefore know that she is making a promise with another person’s money, a person who may have no knowledge of the promise and no intention of honouring it. A woman’s credit is worthless because she has no ability to fulfil her promises.

It’s a short step from this sort of situation to one in which a woman is, essentially, a slave – albeit with a higher status – unable even to make a vow with her own body. This is precisely what Numbers 30 codifies.

A vow, by the way, would also include things like religious vows, such as the abstinence required by a Nazirite vow. Nowhere is there a distinction between vows of credit and vows of action – both fall equally under the ownership of men.

The chapter starts off with God telling Moses that a man’s vow is binding. So far so good. But then he gets to the women.

If a woman still lives in her father’s house, her father has the opportunity to overturn any pledges she may make, so long as he does so within a day of finding out about it. Only if he approves of the vow, or fails to disapprove within the time limit, is her vow actually binding.

If she is married, then her husband has the same right of refusal, by the same rules. Though at least God is willing to forgive her for not fulfilling her vow if the reason for her failure is that her owner has dissolved it. So… that’s something, I guess.

Only a widow or divorced woman is permitted to make a vow on her own – which I think is an important point. What this means is that the idea is clearly not that women are just too silly and childlike to make their own decisions, as would later become the interpretation of this chapter. Rather, they are not allowed to make vows because a vow implies an exchange – of property, of money, of time… – and all that a woman has is not hers, but merely borrowed from her father or husband. You cannot make promises with someone else’s property, even if that property is your own body.