In Defense of Jephthah, Sort Of

Is it worse that I have done rash, foolish things and yet God continues to use me?


“Let this thing be done for me: leave me alone two months, that I may go up and down on the mountains and weep for my virginity, I and my companions.” – Judges 11:37

He was the son of a prostitute and so he was thrown out of the house by his father’s wife when she had kids of her own. He moved away and fell in with a bad crowd but he was great in a fight. You learn to be good with your hands when you have that kind of a background. But when things got bad back in his home town, the leaders came to him for help. After reminding them of how they treated him he agreed to help only if they themselves would escort him back. They agreed. He fought hard and won but his promise before the battle cost his only child her life.

Sounds like Western, doesn’t it? It is however, as the title of this post implies, the story of Jephthah, a judge of Israel as told in the book of Judges, chapter 11. Jephthah vowed that if he returned victorious after fighting the Ammonites, the first thing to come out his front door to meet him would be offered as a sacrifice. It wasn’t uncommon for sheep and goats to be kept in homes back then so perhaps he was expecting livestock but it was his only child, his daughter, who was first to rush out the front door to welcome him home.

I have heard this called “Jephthah’s rash” or “foolish vow” and people are puzzled over it. Did God accept this sacrifice even though he refused human sacrifices? Why didn’t God intervene and stop this madness? Isn’t the Old Testament simply barbaric?

I don’t want to defend the practice of anyone offering any of their children nor any other human being as a sacrifice to any God, god, or gods. However, the issue with Jephthah is more complicated than I’ve just made it sound. First, right before he made his vow, “the Spirit of the LORD was upon Jephthah” (Judges 11:29). So it isn’t like he was a hot headed pagan vowing the blood of his foes to his warrior god. Furthermore, “it became a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year” (Judges 11:39-40). The thing that really puzzles some Christians is how Jephthah winds up being praised for his faith in Hebrews 11. The whole thing seems messed up all around.

But is it? Is it any more messed up than the fact that I have done some rash, foolish, and sinful things that God would in no way accept, and yet he continues to use me and work through my strengths and my weaknesses?

We focus on the tragic part of his story but what the Bible remembers Jephthah for is something very different. The Hebrews passage isn’t much help because the author admits that he can’t go into more detail right then: “And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets” (Hebrews 11:32). Yet, that isn’t all the Scriptures have to say about him.

The author of Hebrews seems to pick up the idea that Jephthah is praise-worthy from none other than the prophet Samuel. When Samuel is installing Saul as king, he recounts Israel’s history. He reminds them that “the LORD sent Jerubbaal and Barak and Jephthah and Samuel and delivered you out of the hand of your enemies on every side, and you lived in safety” (1 Samuel 12:11). It is pretty clear that the author of Hebrews is just echoing what Samuel said, after all, Jerubbaal is the other name for Gideon (Judges 6:32). Personally, I’m more confused as to why Sampson is in there than Jephthah is. That guy was a jerk right up till the end.

And don’t forget that Samuel was chronologically closer to the events of Judges 11 than we are; even closer than the author of Hebrews was. What they remember Jephthah for, in both the Old and New Testament, is not the sacrifice of his daughter but for his faith when he delivered Israel. Though he’d been rejected by his people for being born to the “wrong” woman, he called on the LORD and God used him to defeat the Ammonites. And the Bible doesn’t celebrate the sacrifice of his daughter. Jephthah, his daughter, and the daughters of Israel lamented it. God is silent about it. Sometimes we have to live with the consequences of our bad decisions (Psalm 15).

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