Promise Keepers

The Bible warns us to keep our oaths and abide by our vows, but taking an oath or a vow in God's name is a risky proposition not to be entered haphazardly.

When a couple gets married, they exchange vows. (Photo by Marcus Lewis on Unsplash)

Mattot-Massei

Regular Shabbat Readings

Read / Listen to these Portions

  • Mattot-Massei (מטות-מסעי | Tribes-Journeys)
  • Torah: Numbers 30:2-36:13
  • Haftarah: Jeremiah 2:4-28, 3:4
  • Gospel: Luke 13:1-9; Mark 11:12-23

Note: The regular readings are often interrupted with special readings on Jewish holidays, special Sabbaths, and Rosh Chodesh. Refer to the annual Torah Portion schedule for these special portions.

Portion Outline

  • Torah
    • Numbers 30:1 | Vows Made by Women
    • Numbers 31:1 | War against Midian
    • Numbers 31:13 | Return from the War
    • Numbers 31:25 | Disposition of Captives and Booty
    • Numbers 32:1 | Conquest and Division of Transjordan
    • Numbers 33:1 | The Stages of Israel's Journey from Egypt
    • Numbers 33:50 | Directions for the Conquest of Canaan
    • Numbers 34:1 | The Boundaries of the Land
    • Numbers 34:16 | Tribal Leaders
    • Numbers 35:1 | Cities for the Levites
    • Numbers 35:9 | Cities of Refuge
    • Numbers 35:16 | Concerning Murder and Blood Revenge
    • Numbers 36:1 | Marriage of Female Heirs
  • Prophets
    • Jer 2:4 | God Pleads with Israel to Repent

Portion Summary

Mattot

The name of the forty-second reading from the Torah is Mattot (מטות), which means "tribes." The name is derived from the words of Numbers 30:1, which says, "Then Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the sons of Israel." Numbers 30 discusses the laws of vows and oaths. Numbers 31 tells the story of Israel's war with Midian. Numbers 32 relates the story of how the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Mannaseh came to inherit the land east of the Jordan River. Except in biblical calendar leap years, Mattot is read together with the subsequent Torah portion, Massei, on the same Sabbath.

Massei

The last reading from the book of Numbers is called Massei (מסעי), a word that means "journeys." It comes from the first verse of the reading, which begins with the words "These are the journeys of the sons of Israel" (Numbers 33:1). Massei is the end of the continuous narrative of Torah that began in Genesis with the creation of the universe. The narrative does not resume until the end of Deuteronomy, when Moses dies.

The final reading in Numbers settles several last-minute details. In it we find a list of the encampments from Egypt to the plains of Moab. We also find instructions for apportioning the land, as well as the specifics regarding the borders of the land. While explaining the land and its borders, Moses introduces the laws of the cities of refuge and more inheritance laws. In most years, synagogues read Massei together with the preceding portion, Mattot, which accounts for the brevity of this portion's commentary.


A vow or oath is an oral promise to which a person voluntarily obligates himself. Vows and oaths have not disappeared from the world. If a Roman Catholic enters the priesthood, he takes certain vows. If a person becomes a monk or a nun, he or she takes the vows of the order. When a man and woman get married, they exchange vows. Vows are like extra-solemn promises for which we expect God to hold us accountable.

If a man makes a vow to the LORD, or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth. (Numbers 30:2)

In Hebrew, a vow (neder, נדר) is a type of oath by which a person binds himself or herself to perform a certain act or refrain from a certain thing. A vow is understood as a promise, obligation or prohibition that a person declares upon himself or herself. The Nazarite vow of Numbers 6 is a good example of a biblical vow.

Oaths are similar to vows. When a politician begins his term, he takes an oath of office. Before testifying in a court of law, a witness is required to take an oath to tell the truth, sometimes by swearing on a Bible or other holy book. An oath (shavuah, שבועה) can be any statement, formal declaration, or promise that a person swears to uphold.

In Bible times, oaths were taken in the names of the gods. The idea was that if the person taking the oath proved false, the gods would deal with him. The Bible warns us not to take oaths in the names of other gods (Exodus 20:13.). Instead, if one must take a vow or an oath, he should "fear only the LORD ... and swear by His name" (Numbers 5:21). When a person in the days of the Bible wanted to make a vow or an oath, he would say something like, "May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if I do not do such and such." Or he might say, "As the LORD lives, I will do such and such."

You shall not be double-minded nor double-tongued; for to be double-tongued is a snare of death. Your speech shall not be false, nor empty, but fulfilled by deed. (Didache 2:4-5)

However, taking an oath or a vow in the name of God is a risky enterprise. The LORD warns us not to "swear falsely by My name, so as to profane the name of your God" (Leviticus 19:12). This is part of the meaning of the commandment "You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain" (Exodus 20:7). God says if a person takes His name in vain, He will not leave that person unpunished. That is why Yeshua warned His disciples against needlessly taking oaths (Matthew 5:33-7; 23:16—22).

If a person does take a vow or oath, he should make every possible effort to keep his word. Not only that, a person should treat everything that comes out of his mouth as if it were a solemn vow. The Torah says, "He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth" (Numbers 30:2). This requires being careful about everything we say, not just vows and oaths.

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