Jephthah

 

Judges 11

 

As boring as the Gibeon debate can be, there is also a Jephthah debate – strictly among Christians (the world doesn’t care) – the sparks of which can wound a man deeply, even if he is simply walking by at the wrong time. Debates among Christians are not always bad, and as vicious as this battle tends to be, I find it a healthy exercise for the Christian to take a position, take it public (within Christian circles – the world doesn’t care), and to find out how much courage you have in your own conviction. Again, there are good men and women on both sides. But the emotions of this battle can run high.

 

Did Jephthah really sacrifice his own daughter?

 

On one side, this is an unspeakably vile act. God could never bless the life of a man who would do such a thing. And no matter how else you read the story of Jephthah, he is a man of faith according to Hebrews 11:32.

On the other side, the Bible says plainly that he did sacrifice his daughter (Judges 11:39). There is no wiggle room in the language. Jephthah’s respect for a vow to the almighty Creator of the universe persuaded the Spirit of God to include Jephthah in Hebrews 11:32.

 

Besides which, except that Jephthah kept his vow – his vow to God Almighty, what else in his life commended Jephthah to God as a man of faith?

 

The life of Jephthah has many application subplots. First, he was utterly rejected by his family because he was conceived from his father’s union with a prostitute. And I wonder how many people today drop out of society altogether simply because some stigma from childhood has lowered their expectations. And even the Church finds itself as enabler for the child-now-man to wallow in his stigma.

 

Second. The Bible doesn’t really say much about the way he managed the rejection of his own family. But when times got rough in Israel, the elders of Israel sought out Jephthah specifically to fight against their enemies (Judges 11:4-5). Evidently, stigmas can be overlooked when it can turn for your advantage.

 

Third. “When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay.” – Ecclesiastes 5:4-5

 

Fourth. Whatever disadvantages Jephthah faced, he was very tuned in to God’s word. And he taught his daughter these truths. (Judges 11:15-27) There is no better testimony constructible to a father having trained his child in the ways of obedience to God than when Jephthah’s daughter responds to the news with: “My father, 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 avenged you on your enemies, on the Ammonites.” (Judges 11:37) It’s not a typo (which means I have to read and re-read it to make sure there isn’t really a typo there): She said, “My father, … do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth….”

 

Abraham didn’t actually have to sacrifice Isaac. But God actually did sacrifice His Son.

 

So, did Jephthah really sacrifice his own daughter?

 

It’s natural to want to parse every noun, every verb and every connective1 just to find some way to get Judges 11:39 to read differently than it does. But it’s just not there – you read it right the first time. There is no wiggle within these words. You may protest that the God you know would not allow it to happen. But you are reading Judges 11 in the very book from where comes all that you do know about God. You have no way to know God at all except through scripture, and you have no justification to exclude this passage from the data base of what you know about God.

 

Words with two possible meanings. Repunctuating the statement. A non-literal symbolism. No, the statement is straightforward.

 

She did ask for sixty days to grieve that she would never experience an episode with a man, and if you are looking for an alternate understanding, there are plenty of good Christians who bathe in the mirage that the sacrifice means she surrendered herself to perpetual virginity, and the sacrifice was that Jephthah would never become a grandfather.

 

Now, go find where the Bible actually says that. It’s simply not what the Bible says.

 

They will remind me what a great sacrifice it was for a man to consent to having his line cut off. I may agree – simply because I want to – simply because I can’t bear to envision the events the text say had occurred. But the words that close the vow – the words that close Judges 11:31 – “Burnt Offering” – are a technical term with a very specific meaning, with an unadjustable connotation from Leviticus 1: wholly consumed by fire as an offering totally to God.

 

Shall a herdsman “offer a Burnt Offering wholly to the LORD,” and bargain with the Priest that the bull shall be set aside for perpetual virginity?

 

If Jephthah did not follow forth on the terms of his vow to God according to the words that came out of his mouth, then you tell me what the Holy Spirit was thinking about when He tapped the author of Hebrews on the shoulder as he was halfway through writing Chapter 11, verse 32 and told him, “By the way….. Don’t forget Jephthah; he may have reneged on his vow to me, but look at all his other examples of faith.”

 

Or perhaps He said, “Don’t forget Jephthah; he is the only man ever to comprehend the gravity of having made a vow to me.

 

“And he paid it.”

 

1I REJECT without patience the defense that the word “and” in Judges 11:31 can be translated “or,” and that Jephthah had his choice whether to dedicate his daughter, or to offer her a burnt offering. Though linguistically possible, the two conditions are so intertwined that they clearly represent the same act. The act of the burnt offering sacrifice IS the act of making the sacrificed object belong to the Lord. And Jephthah certainly didn’t see a loophole during his grieving process.

 

The Prodigal Son declared he will arise and go to his father. Had he said “or,” he would be speaking gibberish if he had chosen going to his father, thereby excusing himself of the obligation to arise.

 

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