Judges: Jephthah’s Crazy Vow
A "Nothing Held Back" Kind of Sacrifice.
Text: Judges 11:29-40
Audio: Jephthah's Crazy Vow
Speaker: Pastor Paul McPheeters
“We are continuing in our study of the Book of Judges in the Old Testament, and last week Christian introduced you to the judge named Jephthah. And Jephthah is the first major judge we have seen who was not explicitly called by God to be a leader of his people. Instead, Jephthah is called in a rather awkward way by his own tribe and clan to be their leader in a battle against the Ammonites, and simply because he is a big, brawny guy who is a mighty warrior.
All the way through Judges we have seen that when God raises up a person to be a judge, God chooses a person who is in some way ill-equipped to be a leader of his people. A person who is inadequate in their own abilities and so must rely on God. God picks Ehud, who was maimed in his right arm and couldn’t wield a sword. Deborah who was a woman, and in that day and age, not at all a likely candidate to lead God’s people in battle. And Gideon, who is the youngest son of a small family in a small clan in a rather unremarkable tribe of Israel, and he is full of fears and insecurities. The story of Judges so far has been all about God choosing the weak things of the world to shame the strong.
But now we come to Jephthah. And what he has going against him is that he was the son of a prostitute, and his father’s other sons didn’t want him in the family. They kicked him out and forced him to go off and fend for himself growing up.
However, in learning to fend for himself, Jephthah grew up to be quite a fighter. And when the Ammonites began to attack the region of Gilead where Jephthah’s family lived, his family and clan turned to him and said, ‘Come save us! We need your help.’ Today we come in on Jephthah as he takes up that call and steps out to lead his people in battle against the Ammonites. Read Judges 11:29-40.
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.' Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the Lord gave them into his hands. He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon. When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, 'Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break.' 'My father,' she replied, 'you have given your word to the Lord. Do to me just as you promised, now that the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites. But grant me this one request,' she said. 'Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.' 'You may go,' he said. And he let her go for two months. She and her friends went into the hills and wept because she would never marry. 39 After the two months, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin. From this comes the Israelite tradition that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.
So, Jephthah is a ‘mighty warrior,’ and though he may well have been the ‘wrong man for the job’, as Christian said last week, God chose to use him anyway.
And we are told here in verse 29 that the Spirit of the Lord did come upon him as he set off to do battle with the hated Ammonites. We are even told that the Lord gave the enemy into his hands and that he devastated 20 of their towns and subdued them.
What’s fascinating in the story of Jephthah the Mighty Warrior is how little we are told of his battle. There is no vivid description of how he wielded the sword. No recounting of how many of the enemy soldiers he personally slew. No outline of the battle plan by which he conquered the Ammonites. Nope, none of that.
What the Bible focuses on is the crazy vow that Jephthah made just prior to the battle, and how he kept that vow after the battle was won.
In verse 30 it says that Jephthah made a vow to the Lord before the battle saying, ‘If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.’
And then after the battle is won, we read in verse 34 that when Jephthah went home in triumph, the first person to walk out the door of his house to greet him was his daughter, who was his only child.
Then we get this rather lengthy and vivid description of what took place between the two of them in the fulfilling of that vow.
And when you first read it, the whole thing seems horrible. It sounds like he kills his daughter, (and with her consent!) and offers her body up to God as a burnt sacrifice. And there are many commentators and scholars and translators of the Bible who believe this is precisely what Jephthah did. And if that’s not bad enough, it also sounds like Jephthah is making this deal with God before the battle as a way to bribe God into giving him victory over the Ammonites. And since God hates bribes all over the Bible, it makes this whole scenario look even worse, because it looks like God accepts the bribe and does what Jephthah bribes Him to do: gives him victory over the Ammonites. So, this story even makes God look really bad!
Now some might say that Jephthah didn’t know when he made the vow who would be the first one to walk out the door to greet him. Maybe he thought it would be a sheep, or a hen, or a pet dog. But the trouble with that is, that people in that day didn’t have their sheep and goats and chickens living inside their homes like pets. And they didn’t have domesticated dogs and cats as pets either.
So, who did he think would come out the door to see him? His wife? Would that have been better if she had come out first instead of his only daughter?
It’s texts like this that cause some people just stop reading the Bible altogether. But before you do that, let’s take a little more time to dig a little deeper and unpack what I believe, along with many other scholars over the years, is really going on here.
The first thing I want you to know is that Jewish scholars and Rabbis for hundreds and hundreds of years have stated that this is NOT the story of a human sacrifice.
And many of the reformers of the 16th century, and the Puritans of the 17th Century, and biblical preachers and teachers and scholars over the ages have argued as well, Jephthah is not killing his daughter in this text.
What Jephthah is doing is giving his daughter over to serve the LORD at the Tabernacle in a life-long un-married state as a virgin. What he is doing with his daughter is exactly the same as what Hannah does with her son Samuel, in the very next book of the Bible. Hannah gives Samuel over to the High Priest at the Tabernacle to serve the Lord all his days.
And in Jephthah’s case, we are told in Exodus 38:8, and in the Book of First Samuel 2:22, that there were a group of women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting. Their specific duties are not spelled out, but it seems that they had specific duties and that like the priests, they were set apart for those sacred duties. And part of their being ‘set apart,’ was that they were committed to life-long celibacy.
It is this that makes sense of the way this story unfolds. When Jephthah comes home and sees his daughter come out of the house, it breaks his heart that he has promised to give her up to the Lord. Because she is his only child, and in offering her to the Lord’s service, he knows she will never marry, and will never provide him with an heir.
And look at what his daughter says to him when he tells her of the vow he has made. -She says, ‘OK, father, I consent to fulfill that vow, but let me have two months to hang out with my friends in the hillsides, and weep with them because I will never marry.’ You see, she doesn’t say, ‘What! You made a vow to kill me! Let me go weep with my friends because I am doomed to die.’ No, her main concern isn’t that her dad is about to kill her, but that she is forsaking marriage.
And when she comes back from her two months of hanging out with her friends, it says, ‘…and Jephthah did to her as he had vowed, and she was a virgin.’
You see, again, the issue with Jephthah’s vow isn’t her death, it’s her life-long virginity. And the only trouble with this explanation, is that when Jephthah made the vow to God before the battle, he said whoever came out of the house first to greet him when he returned victorious, he would sacrifice as a ‘burnt offering.’
It is that statement in the vow that rightly causes us all to cringe when we first read it. -But here again, there are a couple of things that Hebrew scholars of the Bible would ask us to keep in mind when we read those words, ‘burnt offering.’
1. The first is that the God of the Bible never calls his people to offer human beings as a burnt offering.
In fact, offering a child as sacrifice to the gods was a Canaanite practice that God absolutely hated and condemned. It’s true that in Genesis 22, God did ask Abraham to take his son, his only son Isaac, and offer him back to God as a sacrifice, but God did not let him go through with actually killing Isaac. And Abraham knew that Isaac was the son of God’s promise, and that God was going to make a great nation of his descendants. So even as Abraham took Isaac to the place of sacrifice, he trusted that God would provide another way out and Isaac would return with him.
And it’s also true that God does send His own Son, His only Son, Jesus to offer his life as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, but in the mystery of the Trinity, this is God offering Himself for us, in our place.
But God does not ever command human beings to bring Him a sacrificial offering of other human beings. And God also makes it clear all over the Bible that He does not like bribes. So, if Jephthah is trying to bribe God into giving him victory over the enemy by offering a child sacrifice, this would be a non-starter for the LORD God, Yahweh. God probably would have smote Jephthah then and there with a bolt of lightning.
2. Secondly, Hebrew scholars would ask us to pay attention to what a burnt offering in the Old Testament is, and how it is used when humans are being set aside for sacred service.
A burnt offering in the Hebrew language is literally translated as a ‘go up’ offering. And that is because this specific kind of an offering ‘goes up’ to the LORD fully, with nothing held back.
Other sacrificial offerings have portions held back for the priests and the people to actually eat at the festival. But a ‘go up’ offering is an offering wholly to the LORD.
And when a person is being offered ‘wholly to the LORD,’ like when a priest is being consecrated for service to the Lord, God specifies in Exodus 29:22 if that a burnt offering be made. But the burnt offering is not the candidate for the priesthood himself. Instead, an animal is sacrificed on the person’s behalf, and the person being consecrated takes the offal of the animal and waves it before the Lord, down and up, down and up. It’s called a ‘wave offering,’ but it’s not side to side, but down and up as the person’s part of the ‘go up’ offering. And then, after the person being consecrated has performed the wave offering, they give the animal parts back to the high priest who burns them up on the altar. And nothing is held back.
It is a burnt offering for the consecration of the person, but the person is not being killed, they are offering their life for service to God.
This is what Jephthah was promising in making this vow. And it wasn’t a bribe. It was a promise of thanksgiving.
Bribes are something you do before the event takes place. And in Canaanite religions, you made the child sacrifice before the battle in order to ensure the god would give you victory, not afterward.
What Jephthah is doing is making a promise to God that if God will give the Ammonites into his hands, he will make a ‘nothing held back’ sacrifice of thanksgiving to God. It will be an act of worship, honoring God by giving him something supremely valuable to Jephthah. His wife, his daughter, whoever God might chose to come out the door of his house, he would offer that person to God, to serve God all the rest of their days.
And as God was faithful to give Jephthah victory, Jephthah was also faithful to fulfill His vow and offered his daughter back to God in thanksgiving.
Now to us, that might still seem like a crazy vow. And it is. But the Bible says that Jephthah made this vow when the Spirit of the Lord came upon him. And the fact that it is recounted in great detail, and that he is Jephthah of all people is actually named specifically in the Hall of Fame in Hebrews 11 as a hero of the faith, makes me think that this whole event was not seen as tragic, but as a sign of Jephthah’s wholehearted commitment in giving back to God in thanksgiving that which was most precious to him.
Now again, because of the day and age we live in, we think, ‘That might possibly be true, but really, who does this guy think he is to offer either his daughter or his wife or whoever came out of the house to a life of service at the Tabernacle in perpetual celibacy?’ We would say that was not his decision to make. The daughter ought to be the one to decide what kind of life and future she would like.
But as you can see by the way Jephthah’s daughter actually responded to her father’s vow, she did not live in our day and age. She had a very different notion of what life was all about, and of what her role was in her family and in the world. Surprisingly to us, she willingly accepts what her father lays out for her life, and seems to willingly give herself to the service of the Lord in fulfillment of her father’s vow.
Now in our day, having read a text like this on a fine summer Sunday morning, what are you and I supposed to do?
And I would say, the heart of Jephthah’s story here is about a vow he made to offer the Lord a ‘nothing held back’ kind of sacrifice of thanksgiving for leading him to victory in battle.
In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul urges us in Romans 12:1: ‘In view of God’s mercies, offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.’
And in his Letter to the Ephesians he writes in 5:1, ‘Follow God’s example as dearly loved children, and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.’
And like with Jephthah, we are not being asked by Paul to make a sacrifice of our lives by killing ourselves. But like Jesus made a ‘nothing held back’ sacrifice for us, Paul is urging Christians to offer themselves back to God in a ‘nothing held back’ kind of way.
Paul is urging us to be wholly devoted to God. And that doesn’t mean we all become priests or pastors or nuns in the nunnery. It means as Paul says in Philippians 2, that we have that same attitude in ourselves that we see in Christ Jesus, who constantly gave himself to loving God with all His heart and loving others as Himself, every day. He humbled himself and considered others before himself. He was the Lord and Master, but he came to serve, and to heal and to help. He was the one who could truly judge, but instead he gave himself to forgiveness and mercy and compassion for sinners. And whenever Jesus’ human will conflicted with the His Father in Heaven’s will, Jesus said, ‘Not my will, but Thy will be done.’
This is what made Jesus’ life a living sacrifice long before his death on the cross. And this is the way of the cross that Jesus called his disciples to walk in. A life of ‘nothing held back love’ for God and for other people.
It’s a life of daily choices to trust God, and walk in His ways, and live for the glory of His name, not our own. We don’t offer our sons or daughters or anyone else to God as a sacrifice of thanksgiving for all he has done for us. We offer ourselves. And that is all God ever really wants from us: ourselves.
Let us pray.