1902 Encyclopedia > Vow


VOW, a solemn undertaking to do something which is held to be acceptable to the Deity. In the antique re ligions mere prayer, without some material expression of homage, was not held to be a complete or normal act of worship (cf. SACRIFICE). Supplications, therefore, were generally presented to the Deity in connexion with a sacrifice, or, if the moment of need was one at which a ritual offering could not well be presented, the prayer for help was naturally accompanied by a promise to present a gift at a future time. Thus prayer together with a vow is a sort of imperfect act of worship, which has..to be com-pleted by the discharge of the vow at the sanctuary. So in Greek the same word etxfi is equally applicable to the prayer which opened a service of sacrifice and to a vow taken at the commencement of an enterprise or in other time of need. So too the Latin votum means both " vow " and " desire." In the Old Testament, in like manner, it is generally a sacrifice or gift at the sanctuary which is promised in vows, and the word "vow" (neder) means also "a votive sacrifice," as distinguished from obligatory sacrifices (piacular offer-ings and stated festal sacrifices; 1 Sam. i. 21).
The vows of which we read in the Old Testament and in classical authors are generally conditional on the fulfil-ment of the petition with which they are coupled. Such vows are made on occasions of special need, or difficulty (Ps. lxvi. 13 sq.; Pliny, H. N., viii. 21 [57], "turn preecipuus votorum locus est cum spei uullus est"), as before a peril-ous enterprise (Gen. xxviii. 20 ; Judg. xi. 30). The pay-ment offered may be a victim for the altar, or any other gift which the ritual of the religion acknowledges as acceptable. But, as vows are generally made on extra-ordinary occasions, the thing promised will often be excep-tional in kind or magnitude. The vow of Jephthah (Judg. xi.) is a case in point, and also illustrates by an extreme example the principle that a vow once taken must be ful-filled at any cost. This principle was so far modified in later times, in Israel, that exceptional vows were by law redeemed at a valuation (Lev. xxvii.). Hannah's vow, de-voting her unborn son to the service of the sanctuary (1 Sam. i. 11), would have fallen under this law. Moreover, the law provided that the vow of an unmarried daughter or of a wife might be disallowed by the father or husband respectively (Numb. xxx.). On the other hand, a widow or a divorced woman was free to make what vow she pleased. These provisions are important evidence of the legal posi-tion of woman in Hebrew society, and also, ex silentio, as implying that Hebrew sons (at least after infancy) were not subject to patria potestas of the Boman kind.

Of ordinary vows a common type in antiquity was a promise made in peril by sea, sickness, or other straits, to suspend in a temple a picture or other symbol of the danger against which the Divine aid was implored. This usage passed into Christianity and survives in Catholic countries, where votive pictures and models of eyes, hands, &c, cured in answer to prayer, are still seen in churches. At the council of Lestines (743 A.D.) the use of such models was condemned as a pagan practice.
In point of obligation, vows were analogous to oaths (Numb. xxx. 2); their sanction was not human but Divine (Deut. xxiii. 21). Thus slackness or fraud in the fulfil-ment of vows is the mark of an age of declining faith (Mai. i. 14 ; H4rith, Moall., 1. 69 Arnold; Lucian, Jupiter Trag., c. 15; cf. Eccles. v. 4). Among the Arabs the speedy fulfilment of vows was favoured by a rule of ab-stinence from certain enjoyments and conveniences (ihram), which custom imposed till the vow was fulfilled. This appears to have been the ancient practice of other Semitic nations also; among the Hebrews it survives in the Nazarite vow (see NAZAEITE), and probably also in the esdr or issar (interdict), which is mentioned along with vows in Numb, xxx., and is described in verse 13 as "an oath of abstinence to afflict the soul,"—words which seem to show that fasting is specially contemplated. As there is no as-cetic tendency in Hebrew religion, in which fasting and similar observances have not positive religious value, but are only expressions of penitent supplication, it seems reason-able to interpret the oath of abstinence by the aid of the examples in Psalm cxxxii. 2 sq., Acts xxiii. 12 (cf. also 1 Sam. xiv. 24 sq.), and to understand it, like the Arabian ihram, as an obligation of abstinence till a positive vow was fulfilled. The detail in the Psalm, " I will not enter my house or rest in my bed till," etc., has its parallel in Arabia and in Syrian heathenism (Sur. ii. 185—where to enter the house from behind is an evasion of the rule ; Lucian, Dea Syr., § 55; cf. Wellhausen, SJcizzen, iii. 117). It is to be observed that in Arabia, where there was little or no development of obligatory ritual sacrifices, offerings were usually votive, and vows were often simple and not conditional promises; so too in Deut. xxiii. 23, Lev. vii. 16, vows are closely associated with free-will offerings. A purpose of sacrifice formed at a distance from a sanctuary naturally found expression in a vow. Occasions of sacri-fice are not frequent in nomad life and it may be conjec-tured that the earliest vows were simply deferred sacrifices, without the element of bargaining with the Divinity which is prominent in later times. The simple vow presupposes that the sanctuary or the customary day of sacrifice is remote; the conditional vow, on the other hand, may often be made at the sanctuary itself, where the Godhead is nearest to man (Gen. xxviii. 20 ; 1 Sam. i. 11; Iliad, vii. 93).
In Christian times vows to present a material gift (vota realia) have been less important than vows to adopt a certain course of life (vota perscmalia), a change which naturally followed from the modification of the idea of sacrifice in Christianity (see SACRIFICE). The personal vows recognized by the Catholic church are of various kinds, covering all manner of actions religiously meritorious (e.g., pilgrimage or crusading); but the most prominent have been vows of abstinence (fasting, chastity), to which the growth of asceticism gave a positive value. Most important of all is the monastic vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience (see MONACHISM). The presupposition of all such vows is that there is a higher life of godliness, which cannot be attained to by Christians at large, and which all are not bound to attempt, although there is merit in consecrating oneself to it. Prom this point of view it came about in process of time that vows of self-consecration were viewed as neces-sarily perpetual. To fall back from a purpose of higher life was not at all the same thing as never to have formed such
a purpose. Hence, e.g., the vow of chastity, which Cyprian
still regards as terminable by marriage in the case of virgins
who have not strength to persevere in continence, was de-
clared to be of perpetual obligation as early as the council
of Ancyra (314 A.D.). On the other hand, the church was
careful to guard against the rash assumption of vows,
by requiring certain formalities in the act, and by the in-
stitution of the noviciate, as a period of probation. The
power of the pope to dispense from vows, which appears
in the Decretals, was of later growth. Protestantism, deny-
ing the superior merit of the ascetic life, rejects all per-
petual vows, and indeed shows little favour to vows of any
kind. (w. R. s.)

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