The Bible, Vows, and Politics

Sacrifice of Jepthah's Daughter

It's not about keeping's about not making absolute vows in the first place.

"It is a snare for one to say rashly, 'It is holy,' and begin to reflect only after making a vow." Proverbs 20:25


As businesses, economists, and foreign governments look on with disbelief, the political talk in Washington has somehow become all about vows.  Suddenly there seem to be all these vows that politicians are being asked to sign, from vows about opposing same-sex marriage to vows to avoid tax increases no matter what.


Especially around the tax debate, I hear pundits saying that Republicans learned their lesson when the first President Bush said, "Read my lips, no new taxes," and then lost the election when he couldn't keep that promise.  It seems to me that, if that's what they learned, they learned the wrong lesson.  The lesson was not to make vows that could be impossible to keep.


"I admire the Republicans for keeping their vow not to raise taxes," said Pat Buchanan the other day.  So, am I understanding this right?  They made a vow that no matter what the facts might show, no matter who might be at risk, no matter if the entire country, and perhaps even the world might be plunged into economic disaster, they would not ever vote to increase revenue for the government.  Truly?


The thing that jumped first to mind when I heard Buchanan's statement was one of the most difficult stories in the Bible.  You'll find it in Judges 11 where Jepthah makes a vow to God that, if he is granted victory in battle, he will sacrifice whatever is first out the door when he gets home.  To his dismay, the first thing out the door upon Jepthah's return was his daughter, his only child.  Jephthah keeps his vow.  Unlike most readers of the story, the book of Hebrews later lists him as a faith hero because of it.


I completely agree that vows are made to be kept, and the Bible clearly honors those who do so.  However, the Bible also warns us in Proverbs (perhaps thinking of Jepthah) against making vows rashly before considering all the possible consequences.  Jesus backs this up in the Sermon on the Mount when in Matthew 5:37 he tells people not to take oaths of any sort but to "simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes' and your 'No' be 'No;' Anything beyond that comes from the evil one."


I appreciate people working to keep my taxes as low as possible.  I'm not happy that I paid more in taxes last year than Exxon Mobil, and I think that should be fixed.  I don't mind a politician saying, "I will try my best to..." or "I will fight for x or y."  But no one knows what the future might hold.  George H. W. Bush did right by the country in trying to clamp down the growing deficit.  He took the embarrassment and he gave up a second term for making an impractical vow that it proved impossible to keep while still calling himself any form of "public servant." I admire him for that.


The lesson of George H.W. Bush is not that you should keep your vows, it is that you shouldn't make vows that might require the sacrifice of your only child to keep.

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