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Jephthah's Rash Vow
(Judges 11:21-40)

Dennis Bratcher

There are some stories in Scripture that present us with challenging questions, often because they come from a world and a culture far removed from our own, and because we have certain ideas about Scripture that prevent us from hearing the stories in that context. One of those Old Testament stories is the story of Jephthah and a foolish vow he made that cost his young daughter's life (Jud.11:36-40).  With our modern sensibilities, we recoil from the story.  Why did Jephthah sacrifice his daughter?  Since God would never receive a human sacrifice, does that mean that if we say stupid things we should do them even if it is against what we understand about God?

In this case, an unfamiliarity with the nature of Scripture and how the Israelites used narrative to communicate theology causes us problems in hearing this story. There are many things in Scripture that recount past events that are not meant to be presented as positive or as models for our actions today. The book of Judges is an especially good example of that. The entire book of Judges is basically a negative book to show how Israel failed to live up to what they were called to be as God’s people. It is the negative counterpart to the book of Joshua in which the Israelites did respond faithfully to God. In Joshua, they were faithful and gained possession of the land. In Judges they blended the worship of God with the worship Ba’al and began to lose the land as well as fall under the oppression of surrounding people. Recall, the summary statement of the book of Judges (21:25): "all the people did what was right in their own eyes." For most of the stories in Judges, the point of the story is not made with a single verse summary. We are left to conclude the message of the individual story from the whole context of the book, read in light of this concluding theological statement at the end of the book.

Throughout Judges, most of the leaders (called a shophet, a "judge" or tribal military chieftain) that emerge are seriously flawed. They were only able to accomplish anything because God worked in spite of their failures. For example, Gideon, who is often presented as a hero, was most likely a Ba'al worshipper, was certainly a coward, was greedy, and finally led his entire family into the worship of Ba'al with the result that his entire family was killed. Samson, who is often the subject of heroic children’s stories, was a weak womanizer, and too often drunk, who simply could not control his sexual impulses (Ba'al worship was a fertility religion; see Ba’al Worship in the Old Testament). He ended up a pitiful slave whose final act was suicide. The most positively portrayed of the judges was Deborah, with the deliberate irony that the best of leaders during this period was a woman!

We are supposed to recoil from the monstrosity of Jephthah’s actions. The later community of Israel who included this story in the biblical traditions knew how wrong child sacrifice was, so there would be no mistaking this for a model of right behavior. It would be another example of what happens when God’s people become confused in their thinking about who is really God and how God works in the world. This becomes another lesson for Israel that God will not be manipulated by magical incantations or bargains that we strike with him on our own terms. That is precisely what Jephthah tried to do in making his vow to sacrifice the first thing that met him on his return home, if only God would help him win a battle. God did not need that bargain to aid Jephthah. Jephthah was yet another tragic figure in Judges who had not yet learned enough about God to know that God does not respond to magic or bargains, which lay at the heart of Ba’al worship. Jephthah’s battle against the Ammonites was not won because of his vow, but because of God’s presence (11:32). His lack of faith in God, and understanding of who God is, cost him his daughter.

The biblical traditions recall that as a great tragedy (11:39-40): 

So there arose an Israelite custom that for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.

There is nothing positive about the story of Jephthah.  Except it is a heartrending model of what not to do.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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