Today we continue our series on the Book of Judges by turning to Judges 11:1-6; 14-40; 12:7 Jephthah—The Foolish Vow. This is a heart-breaking story of a mighty warrior who is called to be a judge in Israel and save the people from their enemies. But Jephthah has been influenced by his culture in how he understands who God is and makes a vow to God before going into battle, but the vow turns out to cost him dearly!
Jephthah—The Foolish Vow
Judges 11: 1-6; 14-40; 12:7
Jephthah’s story begins in chapter 10, “Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord. They served the Baals and the Ashtoreths, and the gods of Aram, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites, and the gods of the Philistines.” God allows the Ammonites to conquer Israel and make life miserable for them. But it’s important to know a little something about some of these gods, things that may help us understand Jephthah’s promise a little later on.
Baal’s the most powerful of the Canaanite gods. Baal defeated the other gods, such as the god of the sea and the god of storms, and the Canaanites believed he even defeated death. This was repeated each year when he returned from the underworld and brought rain to renew the earth’s fertility. Asherah is Baal’s mistress and was worshiped near trees and poles, called Asherah poles. Baal worshipers tried to satisfy him by offering sacrifices, usually sheep and bulls. During times of crisis, however, Baal’s followers sacrificed their children, usually the firstborn. Another important god was Chemosh, a war god who demanded child sacrifice to satisfy his anger and lust. These are the gods Israel’s worshipping now.
Jephthah’s introduced as a mighty warrior, echoing back to the first judge, Othniel, a mighty warrior and faithful follower of God. Jephthah’s father is Gilead but his mother’s a prostitute. His brothers want nothing to do with him and throw him out, echoes now of Abimelek. Jephthah gathers a gang of scoundrels and becomes so good at fighting and killing, that the elders of Gilead ask Jephthah to save them from the Ammonites. They ask him to be their commander and tell Jephthah that if they win, they’ll make him head over them all. Jephthah agrees, but makes them repeat this promise at Mizpah before the Lord.
Jephthah’s smart. He realises that diplomacy’s a lot safer than fighting and he sends the Ammonite king a message, asking why they attacked Israel. The reply comes back saying that it used to be the Ammonites’ land 300 years ago and they want it back. Jephthah gives the king a history lesson. Israel never fought Ammon for the land; they stayed out of their land when they were wandering through the desert. But the Amorite King Sihon fought Israel and the Lord gave Israel the land. Jephthah makes this a god-level fight. God gave us the land, he says. If you think the land should be yours, let Chemosh give it back. The king of Ammon ignores Jephthah, the nations are no longer afraid of Israel’s God as they were in the time of Rahab.
“The Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah.” God has not given up on Israel and gives Jephthah his Spirit to go up against Israel’s enemies; God stills faithful to his covenant with his people even if his people are slowly forgetting just who he really is. Jephthah doesn’t quite trust the Lord’s Spirit to stay with him, so he makes a deal with God. “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.” Jephthah trys to buy God’s favour, he doesn’t trust that God’s love in unconditional, he doesn’t trust God’s commitment to his covenants with Israel to be their God with Israel as his people. He doesn’t realize that he doesn’t have to buy the Lord’s favour. Israel has forgotten that God desires a relationship rooted in trust and faith; not in fear or manipulation.
God blesses Jephthah and his men and the Ammonites are chased from Israel back into their own country to lick their wounds and reflect on the power of Israel’s God. There’s no doubt about whose God is the God of gods. Jephthah and the army head home to enjoy peace and time with family and friends. As they travel down the road to Jephthah’s home, there’s singing, laughter, and likely loud boasting going on about who was the greatest warrior. Our only question is, “What’s going to be the first thing to greet Jephthah as he returns home?”
Now the story takes a horrible twist. They approach Jephthah’s home and “who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of tambourines! She was an only child. Except for her, Jephthah had neither son nor daughter.” Immediately Jephthah remembers his rash impulsive vow to manipulate the Lord into helping him. He’s heartbroken as he tells is daughter what he’s done. Jephthah’s daughter’s faith shines through as she comforts him, “My father, you have given your word to the Lord. Do to me now as you promised, now that the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites. But grant me this one request, give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.” How can her father say no to her request? After the two months, she returns and Jephthah did to her as he had vowed.
God has never desired human sacrifice; he speaks strongly against human sacrifice in Deuteronomy 12, “You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.” Israel is becoming more like the nations around them then they realize, embracing their values and ways over the ways God had given them at Mount Sinai to shape them into his people with his values and ethics. We don’t want to consider that God would allow Jephthah to go through with such a gruesome sacrifice after all the times God told Israel never to do such a repulsive nauseating act. This was something pagans did, not followers of God.
God’s the giver and protector of life, which is why we strongly support the Pregnancy Center and want to help women have their children instead of having an abortion. Yet Jephthah’s daughter urges her father to honour his vow to God because God had saved Israel. She has a twisted picture of who God is; she doesn’t understand God’s grace, and how can she when her father doesn’t. She’s worried about God’s wrath against her father if he doesn’t sacrifice her.
Jephthah’s daughter is willing to be sacrificed to save her father. Jephthah’s daughter dies because her father could not trust in the Spirit of the Lord. Jephthah has been so influenced by the cultures of the nations around him, that he doesn’t understand grace anymore. It’s a sad commentary on Israel at that time about how much they had been influenced by the cultures and nations around them. Trusting in God alone was too big a step for them to make. Jesus died on the cross to show us just how great God’s grace to us, how committed Jesus is to each of you. We get God’s wrath at sin, but his unconditional love and grace feel harder to understand because we live in a world where sin and brokenness is all around us, a world where many of us have experienced betrayals and hurt from friends and loved ones, a world where we’re told that we’re accepted for what we bring to a relationship, not simply because of who we are.
This is why Jesus spent so much time teaching about and showing grace to the people he walked with during his time here on earth. People had to see grace in action before they would trust Jesus’ words. This is why the stories of the Samaritan woman at the well and Jesus’ willingness to treat her as someone with value, the story of the woman caught in adultery and Jesus’ question asking “Who here is without sin” and Jesus then protects her and at the end tells her to leave her life of sin because he cares about her, and when Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house, a hated tax collector and thief are so important for us to know. Jesus shows us that God is a God of grace, a God we can trust in, a God we don’t have to make deals with. Jesus isn’t forced to go to the cross, he chooses to go for us simply because he chose us for his own.
In spite of Jephthah’s failings and weaknesses, he shows up in the list of the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11, another sign of God’s grace. Jephthah, raised in a culture that has moved far from God, still looked to God for a blessing, his faith may have been only the size of a mustard seed, and God sent his Spirit on Jephthah to help him save his people. When Jephthah is made leader over Israel, goes before the Lord at Mizpah. God uses him to save Israel. God accepts him, weaknesses and all. We can trust in a God of grace who has chosen us and never gives up on us, even in our times of doubt, even because of our sin. Jesus loves so much that he calls us to also leave our lives of sin, leave our other gods behind, and trust in his way, trust in him.