Vows are frequently mentioned in the Bible. Except for a very few instances in the New Testament (e.g. Acts 18:18, 21:23 - 26), the majority of these proposals appear in the Old Testament. They are voluntary and conditional (usually) proposals made to God (most of the time). In one of its most basic forms, a person promises God that they will do something if He does a certain action.
The first mention of vows in the Bible is a perfect example of this type of "if . . . then" proposed agreement. The patriarch Jacob, as he travels through Canaan, dreams about a ladder rising to heaven. He then hears God confirm the promise made to both his father Issac and grandfather Abraham regarding their inheritance. Fearful that he was not mindful of the holiness of where he rested, he vows to make the Lord his God (Genesis 28:20).
Women were also known to make such promises, such as Hannah, a woman who was barren. She prayed that if the Eternal healed her and gave her a son that she would dedicate him, from birth, to serve him (see 1Samuel 1). The son she produced became the prophet Samuel, who would become one of Israel's Judges.
Should They Be Kept?
How serious and binding are making these promises to the Eternal? Does God require they be kept no matter what, even if they break one or more of his commandments or laws? The Bible clearly commands that such promises, rightly made, are to be kept (Deuteronomy 23:23, see also Ecclesiastes 5:4, Proverbs 20:25, etc.).
The Eternal does not expect vows be kept if they require the committing of a sin. For example, in the New Testament, we find a rather violent one-way promise made against Paul. A group of zealous Jews publically promised not to eat or drink until they successfully murdered the Apostle (Acts 23:12)! Clearly, our Father did not require such a promise to be carried out! This principle also helps explain what happened to Jephthah's daughter, who many believe was slaughtered due to a promise made by her father.
A Way Out
The Bible does offer a way out of keeping many kinds of vows! Land (Leviticus 27:16 - 25), a person's home (verses 14 - 15) and even people (verses 2 - 8) involved in such promises could be redeemed (bought out of) the commitment for a certain fee.
Speak to the children of Israel and say to them, 'When a man shall make a special vow, the persons shall be for the Lord by your evaluation.
'And your judgment shall be of the male from twenty years old even to sixty years old, even your judgment shall be fifty shekels of silver, after the shekel of the sanctuary. And if it is a female, then your judgment shall be thirty shekels . . .'
'And when a man shall sanctify his house to be holy to the Lord, then the priest shall judge it, whether it is good or bad. As the priest shall judge it, so shall it stand. And if he who sanctified it desires to redeem his house, then he shall add the fifth part of the silver of your judgment, and it shall be his.'
'And if a man shall sanctify to the Lord some part of a field that he owns, then your judgment shall be according to its seed: a homer of barley seed at fifty shekels of silver.' (Leviticus 27:2 - 3, 14 - 16, HBFV).
Men ages twenty to sixty who were to be consecrated to serve the Eternal could be bought out of their commitment for fifty shekels of silver (roughly $400 U.S. for silver at $20 per ounce) or possibly less. Females in the same age group could be redeemed out of a vow for thirty shekels.
Vows to God should not be made lightly. He expects those he has called to fulfill their promises with simplicity and integrity.
Again, you have heard that it was said to those in ancient times, 'You shall not forswear yourself, but you shall perform your oaths to the Lord.'
But I say to you, do not swear at all, neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet; nor by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great King.
Neither shall you swear by your head, because you do not have the power to make one hair white or black. But let your word be good, your 'Yes' be yes and your 'No' be no; for anything that is added to these is from the evil one. (Matthew 5:33 - 37, HBFV).
Christ understands, however, our weaknesses and temptations to sometimes act foolishly (Hebrews 4:15 - 16). Those who wish to get out of such promises should seek the Eternal in prayer to find out what is the redemption price for their situation.