In a recent post, “A Biblical Basis For Mary’s Perpetual Virginity,” Brant Pitre at Singing in the Reign wrote that Numbers 30, a chapter dedicated to vows taken by women, provides a biblical basis for the Catholic doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary.
In his post, Pitre defines the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary as follows: “The Catholic Church teaches that the Blessed Virgin Mary not only conceived Jesus in a state of virginity but that she remained a virgin throughout her entire married life.”
Protestants do not accept the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary because they claim the dogma lacks a biblical foundation. Pitre recognizes that Protestants do not accept the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. He wrote: “It is also well-known that most of our Protestant brothers and sisters do not accept this doctrine, usually because the Gospels mention the ‘brothers’ of Jesus such as ‘James and Joseph’, who are assumed to be uterine siblings of Jesus, born of Mary (cf. Matt 13:55).”
The purpose of the present study is not meant to be an anti-Catholic polemic nor a personal attack on Pitre and his belief. Rather, the purpose of this article is to ascertain whether Pitre’s exegesis of Numbers 30 provides an adequate biblical justification for the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary.
First, let me summarize Pitre’s argument. Pitre said that “according to some commentators, it [Numbers 30] appears to specifically be concerned with vows of sexual abstinence taken by married women” (emphasis his).
Pitre emphasizes that the key to understanding the chapter on vows made by women is Numbers 30:13. He cites 30:13-15 as follows (the emphasis in verses 13-15 are his):
Context: Vows to “Afflict Herself”
 Any vow and any binding oath to afflict herself, her husband may establish, or her husband may make void.  But if her husband says nothing to her from day to day, then he establishes all her vows, or all her pledges, that are upon her; he has established them, because he said nothing to her on the day that he heard of them.  But if he makes them null and void after he has heard of them, then he shall bear her iniquity.”
Pitre quotes Jacob Milgrom in order to explain that “to afflict herself” in Numbers 30:13 [H 30:14] means to abstain from sexual intercourse. Pitre wrote:
All right: so what does all of this mean? The key is in the final section; the chapter is concerned with a woman’s vows to “afflict herself,” which, as the great Torah scholar Jacob Milgrom points out, was interpreted by ancient Jews as referring to fasting and refraining from sexual intercourse. Similar terminology is used in descriptions of the Day of Atonement, when Jews were expected to fast and refrain from sexual intercourse (see Milgrom, Harper Collins Study Bible n. Lev 16:29; citing Targum Pseudo-Jonathan; cf. also Exod 19:15). Once this terminology is clear, the whole chapter makes sense. It is discussion (sic) three kinds of vows:
1. Vows of sexual abstinence taken by a young, unmarried woman.
2. Vows of sexual abstinence taken by a married woman.
3. Vows of sexual abstinence taken by a widow or divorced woman.
I argue in the present post that Pitre’s exegesis of Numbers 30 is incorrect and that he took Milgrom’s statement out of context. I contend also that a proper interpretation of Numbers 30 does not provide a biblical basis for the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary.
1. The expression in Numbers 30:13 (H 30:14), לענת נפש (le‘annoth nephesh), literally “to afflict the soul”, generally carries the idea of fasting (Isaiah 58:3; Psalm 35:13), but it also can imply other kinds of self-denial, as Milgrom mentioned in his comments.
2. In his discussion of Leviticus 16:29 and the expression “you shall practice self-denial” (Leviticus 16:29 TNK), Milgrom wrote (p. 1054): “The entire phrase is usually interpreted as referring to fasting. Ibn Ezra declares categorically that ʿinnā nepeš always denotes fasting.” But Milgrom also says that the expression may also imply other depravation. To prove his point Milgrom quotes Targum Pseudo-Jonathan: “Afflict yourselves, from food, drink, and from enjoying bathing, and from anointing, and from sexual intercourse.”
Using Milgrom’s statement in Leviticus 16:29 that “self-denial” means sexual abstinence, Pitre applied Milgrom’s statement to Numbers 30 and said that Numbers 30 deals with vows of sexual abstinence taken by a young, unmarried woman, vows of sexual abstinence taken by a married woman, and vows of sexual abstinence taken by a widow or divorced woman.
Once Pitre concluded that Numbers 30 deals with a vow of sexual abstinence, he applied his interpretation to Mary and her relationship with Joseph. He said that Mary “took a vow of sexual abstinence, and her legal husband–in our case, Joseph–heard of the vow and said nothing, then the vow stands, and she is bound to keep it. This provides a solid historical basis for Joseph and Mary having a perpetually virginal marriage.”
What Pitre failed to notice in his study of Numbers 30 is that the injunctions of Pseudo-Jonathan, which Milgrom quoted, are exhortations to the priests to abstain from sexual relations on the Day of Atonement. This fact is made explicit in the Mishna Yoma 8:1, which Milgrom also mentioned in his commentary on Leviticus. Yoma 8:1 reads: “On the Day of Atonement it is forbidden to eat, drink, bathe, put on any sort of oil, put on a sandal, or engage in sexual relations.”
The vow a woman takes in Numbers 30 has nothing to do with sexual abstinence for life. Rather, as Baruc Levine has shown is his commentary on Numbers (p. 425), the legislation about vows made by women deals with “the legal status of women who have pronounced vows and taken oath, and by so doing have assumed binding obligations, often involving cost.”
According to Levine, women would likely make vows in situations that involve “a request for safe return from a journey, for healing and rescue and the like.” Women also would make vows asking “God for a child.” These vows would be accompanied by a pledge of goods or property which would be guaranteed by their fathers and husbands, the ones who “bear responsibility for the obligations undertaken by their daughters and wives” (p. 434).
Levine goes on to explain the implications of vows made to God. He wrote (p. 435):
Payment of the neder becomes due when God has done his part. Judging from the formulation of Numbers 30, this code of law is dealing with situations in which young unmarried women or married ones had pronounced vows and entered into binding agreements under oath on their own initiative. This indicates that the vows and oaths of women were binding in the first instance, and that women could undertake them without the prior knowledge or consent of their fathers or husbands. There is, however, another factor involved in the provisions of Numbers 30: This code of law assumes that fathers and husbands were responsible for making good on the commitments of their wives and daughters. This was probably due to the fact that women owned little if any property or wealth that was not under the control of their fathers and husbands. Such limitations on ownership of property and wealth by women produced a conflicting legal situation: On the one hand, women were free to assume obligations independently, whereas on the other, the legal responsibility to make good on these obligations befell the men in charge of them, their fathers and husbands.
Thus, Pitre’s exegesis of Numbers 30 does not provide a biblical basis for the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. Numbers 30 deals with vows women made that required payment of goods or property. The regulation was enacted because fathers and husbands were responsible to make good on the vows their daughters and wives made. In addition, the prohibition of abstaining from sexual relations, which Pitre applies to Numbers 30, refers not to women’s vows, but to the priest and Levites serving on the Day of Atonement.
In conclusion, the proper exegesis of Numbers 30 does not provide a biblical basis that Mary “took a vow of sexual abstinence” nor does it provide “a solid historical basis for Joseph and Mary having a perpetually virginal marriage” since according to the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph took Mary as his wife, “but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus” (Matthew 1:24-25 NRSV).
Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16. The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1991.
Baruc A. Levine, Numbers 21-36. The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 2000.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary