Judging the Judges (Part 7)


If a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word.  He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth (Numbers 30:2).  

Enter Jephthah.

A “mighty warrior” and “the son of a prostitute” (Judges 11:1).

Hardly the description we would expect of a man of God.  Jephthah’s brothers cast him out of the family because of his illegitimate status.  But God has a way of finding the outcast and turning the tables.  In time, the Ammonites were wreaking havoc on the Israelites.  They needed a warrior to lead them and deliver them from the oppressors.  Hmm. Where to find such a warrior?

O yeah, I remember, let’s go get Jephthah!  After chiding them for mistreating him and using him only for what he can do for them (Judges 11:4-11), Jephthah cuts a deal and agrees to lead the fight against the Ammonites.

When the Ammonite king accused Israel of seizing his land unfairly, Jephthah recounts an accurate history of Israel’s dealing with Moab and the Ammonites, refuting the king’s false claims.  This also shows us that Jephthah is very familiar with the Pentateuch (Genesis – Deuteronomy), aka The Law.  Irony of ironies, at a time when most of Israel cares not for God’s Law, an outcast son of a prostitute has obviously been reading and/or hearing the Law quite regularly.  So, the Spirit of God comes upon Jephthah to enable him to defeat the Ammonites in battle.  But just before he goes off to war, Jephthah makes a vow.  A tragic vow.

If You [God] will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.

Good gravy!  What did he expect to come out of his house?  I guess, like many today, he lived with lots of animals?  Pets perhaps?  Hard to imagine, though, that the typical animal sacrifice, such as a goat or ox or sheep would be living inside Jephthah’s home!  And yet, his vow stands.

And upon returning victorious from the battlefield, the first creature to rush out of his house to greet him is . . . his daughter.  Yikes!  And though some more liberal and/or squeemish scholars have tried to play down the text, it seems quite clear that Jephthah actually follows through and kills his daughter as a “sacrifice” to God.

Whoa.  Sickening.  What in the name of all things unholy are we to make of this?  Is this an endorsement of human sacrifice, in the Bible of all places?!  Was it right for Jephthah to make, much less keep such a vow?  A few points to guide our thoughts here:

  • Jephthah’s vow was rash.  Stupid.  And God, knowing how stupid we all can be sometimes, made a provision for such vows in Leviticus 5:4-13.  There the Lord commands a man who realizes he has made a rash vow to bring an appropriate sacrifice to the priest who would then offer it to make atonement for the sin of making a stupid vow.
  • That Jephthah was familiar with the Law seems clear from Judges 11.  So we must assume he was well-versed in Leviticus 5.  The fact that he didn’t follow the path of atonement for his rash vow provided so graciously to him by the Lord only shows us the depth of sin in Jephthah’s heart. 
  • Even if no such provision existed, why not cry out for mercy?  Why not ask God to accept your life in the stead of your daughter’s?  This kind of love and compassion we see flow from Moses (Exodus 32:32).  But no such love resides in Jephthah’s heart.  No!  He is a cold-blooded killer.  By murdering his daughter, he only adds to his guilt.  Two sins instead of one.  And human sacrifice is a sin that never even enters God’s mind, it is so unthinkable to Him (see Jeremiah).
  • The account of Jephthah only serves to reinforce the overall story line of the Book of Judges.  This is how bad things have gotten in Israel.  This is what it looks like when a people forsakes God.  When people do “whatever is right in their own eyes.”  Even God’s good Law gets twisted and turned into an occasion for evil.

So what lessons are there for us in the account of Jephthah?

  1. God can use whomever He wants to do whatever He wants, even evil people to accomplish His good purposes.
  2. The way we treat people matters.  Do we seriously think Jephthah’s family abusing him and casting him out for something he had no control over (his birth mother) had no effect upon the trajectory of his life?
  3. Knowing God’s Word is not enough!  We must be given grace to be not just hearers, but doers of God’s Word (James 1:22).
  4. We should interpret Scripture with Scripture.  Jephthah had an epic fail precisely at this point.
  5. When people neglect God’s Word, reject His good rule, and forsake the worship of the One True God, a devaluing of human life is inevitable.  Little wonder, then, that America murders its children by the millions each year.  [Makes me wonder how pro-abortion advocates would view the account of Jephthah.  Would they recoil in horror at his child sacrifice?  While continuing to support Roe v Wade?]
  6. It is, of course, commanded of us as New Testament believers in Jesus that we still be people of our word.  “Let your yes be yes and your no be no.”  But we, too, must always fall back upon mercy when we realize we have uttered a rash vow, or made a promise we cannot keep.  We must confess that sin and plead over it the blood of Calvary, even as we seek grace to grow into people whose tongues are bridled by the Holy Spirit, that we might not speak rashly.
  7. Jesus is light years better than Jephthah!  Jesus never spoke a rash word.  Never made a vow He did not keep, and all his vows were holy and good and pure.  He vowed to give His life for all of us stupid Jephthah’s.  And He did!  What a Savior!