Apparently, Jephthah was something of a badass.
He had a rough start in life, what with his mom being a whore and all. That kind of thing often comes up in the village. Cruel stuff, the kind of stuff that can harden a person through shame. Even worse is when your dad’s other kids kick you out of the family. It’s not that surprising that this kind of start can lead to a life of crime.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, the Israelites are being invaded by some Ammonites. The Israelites and the Ammonites were long time enemies, the Israelites calling particular attention to them as someone that they shouldn’t be coupling with. The Mishnah (oral Torah) even talks about excluding the Ammonite men entirely.
The Israelite s had plenty of their own problems though. That old problem that seemed to keep cropping up; some of their people were worshiping false gods. That was why, they reasoned, they were getting beat up by the Ammonites. This was particularly in the region of Gilead, which included two of the Israelite tribes.
They needed a warrior to lead them, and the person willing to do so could become their leader. So, Jephthah, the baddest dude around, was a candidate. It doesn’t sound like he was all bad, because he recognized that he would need God on his side. This is from Judges, chapter 11:
And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD, and said, “If thou wilt give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes forth from the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the LORD’s, and I will offer him up for a burnt offering.”
I have made these kind of foolish promises myself…If you will do this for me Lord, then I will do that. I have also failed to hold up my end.
I am not significant enough to ask God to help me in battle; I have also not gone so far as to offer a human sacrifice.
The contemporaries of Jephthah knew that this was a no-no. The story of Isaac seemed to settle it. Why would Jephthah offer it? I can only guess that it was a big offer to match his big request.
How wrong was Jephthah? At this point in the story…I’m not sure. Others have made promises like this. Danny Thomas has done wonders for thousands of sick kids, making good on his promise to God to do so, if God would help him out.
Back to Jephthah and the boys…off to battle they go, and the Israelites, led by Jephthah, are victors.
What happens next makes me believe that this son of a harlot, family outcast and former head of a group of bandits had a true sense of duty to his Lord, and to his word. Maybe misguided, but true.
Here is the next part of the story:
 Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and behold his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances; she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter. And when he saw her, he rent his clothes, and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and 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.”
His daughter, apparently in celebration of the victory and homecoming, comes out the door to greet her dad. For this, she has to die, although she doesn’t know it just yet. Her father had said that he cannot take back his vow, even if she is his only child, and the end of his bloodline.
I will freely admit that my next move would have been to take back the vow and take my chances. I am certain that much whining and pleading would have been involved.
Some scholarship argues that he didn’t really kill her, but the text seems pretty clear to me. Also, I am guessing that Jephthah was familiar with the words in Deuteronomy that forbid child sacrifice.
The sweet daughter also accepts the vow, and rather than asking for mercy, she just asks for a little time.I think that this may well be the supreme “Between a rock and a hard place” story.
The author of Judges seems to want me to see the foolishness of making a rash vow, and I do. But Jephthah and me are not the only two people to make rash vows.
Jephthah gave his word to God and kept it and I am guessing that he was wrong to do so. Can breaking your word to God ever be the right thing? Does that mean that I was correct when I didn’t keep my vow? I am certain that I was wrong. I can feel it, regardless of the juicy rationalizations that I suggest.
If both things are wrong, then I come to this conclusion. Don’t barter with God. He is not a game show host. We shame ourselves by thinking that we can offer a sweet enough deal to get what we want. We belittle His magnificence.
The purity of the asking makes the difference between Thee and He apparent. By taking our requests to God, we are saying that we need something that we cannot provide for ourselves, and we know that He can, if He will. We are recognizing that the Creator of the Universe certainly has the ability to do anything that I would want him to do. No job is too large. And even though it’s OK for me to make any request, I also have to be willing to settle for the answers “No” or “Not Now”. When the answer is Yes, I am called to further gratitude and obedience.
There is no other payment due. It was always so; from the beginning, and to the time of Jephthah. And just to make it absolutely clear, for ever ever and ever, that no payment is due for God’s grace; just consider Calvary.