I would wager that Chapter 7 in the Book of Numbers is not high on the prayerful reading list for those preparing for marriage or religious vows. This rather dry chapter describes the offerings of the leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel when Moses was anointing, consecrating, and dedicating the altar at Mount Sinai.
The one who presented his offering on the first day was Nahshon, son of Amminadab, of the tribe of Judah. His offering consisted of one silver plate weighing a hundred and thirty shekels and one silver basin weighing seventy shekels according to the sanctuary shekel, both filled with bran flour mixed with oil for a grain offering; one gold cup of ten shekels’ weight filled with incense; one bull from the herd, one ram, and one yearling lamb for a burnt offering; one goat for a purification offering; and two bulls, five rams, five he-goats, and five yearling lambs for a communion sacrifice. This was the offering of Nahshon, son of Amminadab. (Nm 7:12–17)
Each day, the leader of a different tribe presents this same offering. The identical listing of offerings is spelled out in full twelve times and then concludes with a summary list that tabulates the items given on those twelve days. It is precisely this repetition of the entire offering presented individually by each tribe that highlights three important aspects of marriage and religious vows.
First, in both religious and marriage vows, we speak the entire formula of the vows individually. This is different from almost every other profession in the Church. At baptism, at our renewal of our baptismal promises at Easter, and at confirmation, we respond to the questions of faith with the simple affirmation “I do.” Likewise, during the ordination rite, candidates respond to the questioning by the bishop with “I do.” When we pray the Creed at Mass, we profess our faith by means of a complete formula, but this profession is recited communally, which differs from marriage and religious vows.
Second, in professing our vows, we speak them openly in front of the community in a public act, just as the offering of each of the leaders of the twelve tribes was done publicly and recorded. The act of speaking the vows is an important part of marriage or religious profession, just as speaking one’s sins to a priest is an essential aspect of confession. But making a vow is not merely the recitation of a series of words. Words originate inside of us, in our minds, but they require air and bodily motor skills to be spoken: speaking a vow is thus the work of a whole person, mind and body, offering himself or herself to God and, in the case of marriage, to one’s spouse.
Third, it does not matter whether one is the first, the fifth, or the twelfth person to profess vows. Profession by its very nature has to be made by an individual person, and each profession has the same value. Furthermore, our vows are not an isolated act but one that impacts all our actions. Just as daily sacrifices, regular offerings, and sin offerings were required under the Old Covenant, so too our every thought, word, and deed throughout our lives should bring us closer to God and (if married) to our spouses. By including a detailed description of individual offerings, the Book of Numbers reminds us to frequently return and meditate on our own vows. Some religious renew their profession to God each morning, just as some married couples renew their wedding vows each night before going to bed.
The offerings recounted in Numbers 7 can make for a very repetitive and even boring text, tempting us to skim the verses or even just skip to chapter 8. In doing so, we would miss the conclusion of the offerings where Moses enters the meeting tent “to speak with the LORD.” The voice of the Lord speaks to us as we offer something much greater than a silver plate, a silver basin, a golden dish, bulls, rams, goats, oxen, incense, flour, and oil. In our vows, we offer our whole selves.
Image: Lawrence Lew, O.P., Marriage of the Virgin to St Joseph (used with permission).