July 12th, 2010 by Kristi Stephens
The story of Jephthah in Judges 10-12 begins in a predictable manner with our four step process surfacing once again:
Step One: 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.
Step Two: And because the Israelites forsook the LORD and no longer served him, he became angry with them. He sold them into the hands of the Philistines and the Ammonites, who that year shattered and crushed them…”
Step Three: But the Israelites said to the LORD, “We have sinned. Do with us whatever you think best, but please rescue us now.” Then they got rid of the foreign gods among them and served the LORD. And he could bear Israel’s misery no longer.
Step Four (modified!): Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior. His father was Gilead; his mother was a prostitute. Gilead’s wife also bore him sons, and when they were grown up, they drove Jephthah away. “You are not going to get any inheritance in our family,” they said, “because you are the son of another woman.” So Jephthah fled from his brothers and settled in the land of Tob, where a group of adventurers gathered around him and followed him.
(Judges 10:6-7, 15-16; 11:1-3)
First of all, that should jump out to you again that Jephthah doesn’t completely fit the pattern: he isn’t directly appointed by God. He’s a despised man, driven from his home by his half-brothers because his mother was a prostitute. If you continue reading in chapter 11, you’ll see that the elders of Gilead come to him and ask him to lead them in fighting against the Ammonites.
Jephthah really does start out well – he has a clear understanding that God is the ruler and director of affairs for Israel. (11:23-27) As he goes out into battle, however, we see him rashly make a vow:
Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah. He crossed Gilead and Manasseh, passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from there he advanced against the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD : “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.” (11:29-31)
The plot becomes much more disturbing at the end of the chapter:
When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of tambourines! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh! My daughter! You have made me miserable and wretched, because I have made a vow to the LORD that I cannot break.”
“My father,” she replied, “you have given your word to the LORD. Do to me just as you promised, now that the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites. But grant me this one request,” she said. “Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.”
“You may go,” he said. And he let her go for two months. She and the girls went into the hills and wept because she would never marry. After the two months, she returned to her father and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin.
This story is a great example where you can end up with a horrible, blasphemous, and sickening view of God if you don’t know how to read Biblical narrative. Remember, as discussed way back in the post “So why do we have the Bible?“, Biblical narratives are not given to us to prescriptively tell us how to live. Many, many times the people described in Biblical narratives are doing the OPPOSITE of God’s prescribed will in the rest of Scripture! Take note of that – you cannot read narratives divorced from the rest of Scripture.
So, what does the rest of the Bible say about Japheth sacrificing his daughter?
Throughout the Old Testament, references are made to the pagan cultures which surrounded Israel engaging in human sacrifice. Horrible practices that involved burning their infant children should have repulsed the Israelites and caused them to cling all the more to the holy and righteous God that they served. Unfortunately, that was not always the result.
Jeremiah 32:35 points out that even Israel had so abandoned their devotion to the one True God, and had strayed so far from His Truth, that they had engaged in this practice themselves.
They built the high places of Baal that are in the valley of Ben-hinnom to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire to Molech, which I had not commanded them nor had it entered My mind that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.
It’s obvious that God is far from pleased by this practice.
So, what gives with Jephthah? Is God ok with it in this instance since Jephthah vowed he would do it? Was it pleasing to Him?
I believe that Jephthah is a horrifying case of what happens when we think we are serving God, but don’t really know Him or what He requires. Sincerity is not enough, folks. Jephthah was sincere, and he was sincerely wrong. In his efforts to please God, he did something that should have been obviously completely contrary to what God would have wanted. Burnt offerings were supposed to be acts of complete devotion, a pleasing aroma to the Lord. I am quite confident that the act of slaying and burning his own daughter to ashes was repugnant, not pleasing, in the sight of God.
The Israelites had worshipped false gods for so long, that even when they turned back to God, they didn’t know who He really was and what He fundamentally wanted. Jephthah had probably absorbed so much of the pagan philosophies around him that this seemed reasonable and good, when it should have been appalling. Add to that the fact that his family was an utter disaster (obviously he inherited a great set of values from his parents), and the end is somewhat predictable.
I’ve discussed this before, so I will only briefly comment: if we do not know our God, we don’t even know what He requires!! It might sound great to us, and even be applauded as pious and excellent by the people around us, but we could actually be in direct opposition to His will. We must worship Him in Spirit AND in TRUTH.
Now, briefly back to our questions to consider as we go through Judges:
Progression from one story to the next?
*I think it’s noteworthy that even when they are trying to serve God, they’re acting contrary to His will.
How does it make you feel?
*Pretty sick and angry!
*How are women treated?
*I think this is obvious!
Do not keep talking so proudly
or let your mouth speak such arrogance,
for the LORD is a God who knows,
and by him deeds are weighed.
I Samuel 2:3