Reading from Judges, 11:1-11, 29-40
1 Now Jephthah the Gileadite, the son of a prostitute, was a mighty warrior. Gilead was the father of Jephthah. 2Gilead’s wife also bore him sons; and when his wife’s sons grew up, they drove Jephthah away, saying to him, “You shall not inherit anything in our father’s house; for you are the son of another woman.” 3Then Jephthah fled from his brothers and lived in the land of Tob. Outlaws collected around Jephthah and went raiding with him.
4 After a time the Ammonites made war against Israel. 5And when the Ammonites made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to bring Jephthah from the land of Tob. 6They said to Jephthah, “Come and be our commander, so that we may fight with the Ammonites.” 7But Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “Are you not the very ones who rejected me and drove me out of my father’s house? So why do you come to me now when you are in trouble?” 8The elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “Nevertheless, we have now turned back to you, so that you may go with us and fight with the Ammonites, and become head over us, over all the inhabitants of Gilead.” 9Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “If you bring me home again to fight with the Ammonites, and the Lord gives them over to me, I will be your head.” 10And the elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “The Lord will be witness between us; we will surely do as you say.” 11So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and commander over them; and Jephthah spoke all his words before the Lord at Mizpah.
29 Then the spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh. He passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. 30And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, 31then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt-offering.” 32So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them; and the Lord gave them into his hand. 33He inflicted a massive defeat on them from Aroer to the neighbourhood of Minnith, twenty towns, and as far as Abel-keramim. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel.
34 Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing. She was his only child; he had no son or daughter except her. 35When he saw her, he tore his clothes, and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.” 36She said to him, “My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has given you vengeance against your enemies, the Ammonites.” 37And she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: Grant me two months, so that I may go and wander on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, my companions and I.” 38”Go,” he said and sent her away for two months. So she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity on the mountains. 39At the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to the vow he had made. She had never slept with a man. So there arose an Israelite custom that 40for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.
The book of Hebrews appears to commend Jephthah as a man of great faith (11:32). How can this be?
Although we see here possible parallels to the story of Abraham and Isaac, there are three important differences. First, God did not direct Jephthah to sacrifice his only child — it was due to a vow, to Jephthah’s idea. Second, God had since made it clear that human sacrifice was unacceptable (Lev. 18:21, 20:2-5; Deut. 12:31). Third, God did not provide a substitute for Jephthah’s daughter. So can a man be commended for his faith in God even when he does something so abominable?
The answer is apparently “yes.” Yet how can we accept it? Jephthah was a “mighty warrior” who delivered God’s people from an oppressor. We must also remember that the other judges were far from perfect — and that is an understatement. This judge has also been cognizant of the Lord’s presence throughout the narrative. He knows who God is. Indeed, his great dilemma comes because he makes a promise to God. Although the vow is cruel, hasty, and ill-conceived, his respect for God is such that he views it as binding unto death. How many of us take our words as seriously?
Jephthah’s vow is bad, his motives dark, his image of God murky (Was he hoping to bribe God as the pagans did with their Baals? Who was he hoping to sacrifice instead of his daughter?), and yet he is remembered for believing in God’s authority. Along with his violence, his disturbing logic, and his terrible mistakes, God also sees Jephthah’s integrity. And the early Church remembers it, too, among other mighty works of faith.
We might ask whether we are able to see paradoxical people like Jephthah — violent and loving; cruel and faithful — as fully human, as God sees them. We might also ask, Where else does redemption happen, if not in the midst of our complexity and darkness? Does God come to save only when our stories are simple?
Chuck Alley is a retired Episcopal priest and an adjunct associate professor of anatomy on the medical faculty of Virginia Commonwealth University. He and his wife, Scottie, have three children and nine grandchildren.
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