Then the Spirit of the Lord came on 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.’
Judges 11:29-31 (NIV)
Read: Judges 11:1-40
Consider: If you have taken time to read today’s passage before these comments, I’m sure, like me, you would prefer that this passage wasn’t included in the Bible. It is one of those passages that tug at the ‘heart strings’ and which leaves us with more questions than are answered.
We need to recognise the importance of what it says elsewhere about the purpose of Scripture. Paul, in his first letter to the church in Corinth says: These things happened as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come (1 Corinthians 10:11). In writing to Timothy, Paul says: All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). In light of this we need to ask if there is an example for us to follow, or a warning we need to heed?
We will avoid adding to the considerable debate there is among Christian scholars on whether the story of Jephthah is about ‘sacrifice’ or ‘dedication’. It is sufficient to note that these different views exist and, as a result, the Hebrew text can be interpreted as Jephthah literally sacrificed his daughter, or it can mean that she was set aside for the service of God by an act of dedication on Jephthah’s part.
Setting aside the controversy on interpretation, it is worth noting that in Hebrews 11 Jephthah is named as one of the men and women of faith. In this list of mighty men and women of faith, we read: And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak. Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith …’ (Hebrews 11:32-33a).
However, you interpret Jephthah’s vow, it caused him great distress in having to fulfil it. It is important that we understand that God expects his people not to make vows lightly, and not to break them when they become inconvenient. In Psalm 15 it says: Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent? Who may live on your holy mountain? The one … who keeps an oath even when it hurts, and does not change their mind (Psalm 15:1, 4b). While Jephthah could be criticised for making such a rash vow in the first place, he can be commended for keeping his word, even when it meant losing his daughter (either literally or by implication if dedicated to God). In Proverbs 20:25 we read: It is a trap to dedicate something rashly and only after to consider one’s vows. God does not want us to make rash vows to him, but always to consider the implications of what we intend to vow (promise) before committing ourselves to it.
It is easy to think of many situations in life where we promise to do something and when it becomes inconvenient we may look for excuses why we shouldn’t need to do what we promised to do. It is clear from the Bible that Jesus thought it important for people to keep their word (see Matthew 5:37) and this is reiterated by James in his letter (James 5:12). A defining characteristic of being a Christian should be that our word can be trusted and we would never break our word, even if it costs us time or resources.
Pray: Father, we acknowledge that the Bible contains some things that we find difficult to explain. However, we see a clear warning from the life of Jephthah not to make vows/promises lightly. We also see an example of how it is important to stick to our word and not to look for reasons to break it when fulfilling it is costly. Amen