It’s one of the saddest stories in the Bible – and one of the most confusing. Jephthah is a judge or leader in Israel. Prior to a big battle, he makes a vow to God that if God will give him victory over the Ammonites, he will sacrifice the first thing that walks out of his door. He wins and heads home and the first thing to come out of his door is his daughter – his only child. Jephthah keeps his vow and sacrifices her.
This story occurs in Judges 11. It’s worth reading the whole chapter. It’s a story that can be read several different ways, depending on your point of view. I have heard many despise Jephthah for his violence against his daughter. I have heard many hold him up as a paragon of obedience for keeping his vow, even when it is so painful. I have heard others blame God. In Genesis 22:1-19 when God tells Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac, God steps in at the last minute and provides a substitute. For Jephthah’s daughter, no alternative is provided. Why would God do that?
This is where we need to put our point of view to the side and read out of the text what the text is saying (exegesis) instead of reading into the text our own beliefs and assumptions (eisegesis). So lets see where the text is leading us.
In Chapter 10, Israel does evil in the eyes of the Lord and they become subject to the Philistines and Ammonites. They repent and beg God to save them. The appeal of the Israelites to God for him to save them has been shown by commentators to parallel the appeal of the Gileadites to Jephthah in Chapter 11. In this story about salvation, the Israelites look to God to save them but just a little later, the Gileadites look to Jephthah, a human, to save them. Jephthah is appointed by men, not by God.
It’s not an auspicious start. But we see in 11:29 that the Spirit of the Lord came on Jephthah so God is definitely going to use him to defeat the Ammonites. Then, Jephthah makes a vow:
“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.” (11:30-31)
“If you will” in the original Hebrew is more emphatic – something like “If you will indeed give”. Commentator Webb notes that this expresses Jephthah’s deep angst as he faces the unknown. It is true that to this point, God has been silent. Jephthah himself may not know that the Spirit of God has come on him. Other commentators note that the phrase “if you will indeed”, could also be a sign of faithlessness. He knows God will save but he isn’t sure – “if you will really give…”
Either is possible and both display a faltering trust that falls back on a bargaining vow. The vow itself is reminiscent in form to known Ugaritic (ancient northern Syria) and Hittite examples from around the same time. These pagan vows name the god, makes a request and set out what they will do in return.
Jephthah is a man of his time and his culture and this shows how paganism has seeped into normal everyday thinking. It is normal to feel anxious in times of fear or uncertainty. But its also during those times that we see where a person’s heart is. Jephthah’s heart draws from a broken and faithless culture.
We see this even more in what he promises God – whatever comes to meet him he will sacrifice as a burnt offering. It is true that the domestic structures of the day included room for animals. The language of “whatever comes to meet me” in the original Hebrew is ambiguous “but more applicable to a human being than an animal” (Webb, The Book of Judges, p329). What this basically means is that Jephthah might be hoping for an animal, but in his pride and foolishness, he has put all the humans in his house at risk.
Of course he wins the battle. And heads home. And out comes his daughter.
Here is where some see Jephthah as honorable for keeping his vow. However, the language and the decision making show something else.
“Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated.” (v35). The language is more aligned to: “Ah, my daughter, you have laid me low; You have become the cause of my calamity.” There is an emphasis on this being an accusation of his daughter – she has laid him low and she has become the cause. He then follows up with “I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break.” For the Israelites, human sacrifice was wrong (Lev. 18:21; Deut. 12:31). For the Israelite, breaking the vow would have been the lesser of the wrongs compared to sacrificing the child. In fact, Leviticus 5:5-6 gives a process for animal sacrifice for people who have made a rash vow. But Jephthah was a product of a Canaanised Israelite society. For the pagans, “vows to sacrifice children were not rash or impulsive, but deadly expressions of devotion” (Heiss, Block & Manor, Joshua, Judges and Ruth, p348).
So Jephthah has sinned in making the vow and he is choosing to sin in fulfilling the vow. By contrast to Abraham and Isaac, the events in Genesis 22 are driven by God. The events in Judges 11 are entirely of Jephthah’s own making.
The victim is, unfortunately, Jephthah’s daughter. The pathos of the story is evoked by her gender and her state in life – unmarried and facing death at the hands of her father, having never known love, children or family. This is not judgement on her though. This is judgement on Jephthah enacted through his daughter. This is a terrible and tragic truth for us to wrangle with. But scripture is a faithful communication of events and God’s plans for us. And sometimes that is not pretty. Here, Jephthah had to pay the price for his faithlessness and pride. This is not a comment on the value of boys (eg Abraham and Isaac) over girls. This is a comment on faithfulness and judgement. The result of Abraham’s faithfulness is blessing through multitudinous offspring. The result of Jephthah’s faithlessness is no offspring.
So what should we take away from this story? I think many things. This story is timeless. It reminds us of our propensity to raise up humans to save us. It reminds us of where our hearts reveal us to be in times of stress. It reminds us that our instincts are shaped by the vibe of the culture we live in. It reminds us that God can give us over to our sins. It reminds us that our sins have consequences for others.
It reminds us that even though God used broken and faithless people to further his plans, ultimately, there is only so much salvation they can effect. The only one who can truly save is Jesus. Our response to God’s amazing grace pushes us to be aware of where our hearts are and how our culture is shaping us. But Jesus saves completely. There is nothing we can do and no bargain we can strike.
I have felt moved to write a series of blogs on passages of the Bible that can be confusing or disquieting for people. Other blogs in this grouping include:
- The Bible tells us what a woman is worth. Is that for real?
- In the Bible, why is a woman unclean for twice as long after giving birth to a girl?
- Does the Bible endorse trial by ordeal for a woman?
- Does the Bible tell us what actually happens when we die?
- Is the transfiguration story just a myth or is there a point here?
If there is a passage that has always troubled you, feel free to contact me and I’ll take a look!