Jephthah is a minor player in the Bible who reveals a major aspect of God’s character.
Although he eventually rose to become judge of Israel for six years, he had a very rough start in life. According to Judges 11, he was the son of a prostitute, and his father’s “legitimate” sons drove him out of the house so he would not share their inheritance.
The Bible says he “fled from his brothers and settled in the land of Tob, where a gang of scoundrels gathered around him and followed him.” Nice start: eh? Outcast son of a prostitute and leader of a gang of thugs, probably by the time he was a teenager.
His leadership qualities and tough-guy reputation were noticed and eventually the elders from his town asked him to return and lead them in battle against the Ammonites.
He tried to reason with the Ammonites, but they wouldn’t listen to him. It was at this point that “the Spirit of the Lord came on Jephthah” and he “advanced against the Ammonites.”
…but not before he made this vow to God:
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.
He probably expected the family goat, or at worst a servant (!), to become the burnt offering, but the actual outcome was much, much worse. God gave him victory in battle and then…
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.”
He goes on to sacrifice his only child as a burnt offering to God, after allowing her two months to mourn the fact that she will never marry.
In the last few posts, I have been responding to Paul Copan’s book, Is God a Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Dr. Copan discusses the story of Jephthah starting on page 97, and I must give him credit for not turning away from many of the disturbing aspects of this story. In particular:
- He allows that Jephthah might have been expecting one of his servants (a human being, not an animal!) to become the burnt offering.
- He does not pooh-pooh the opinion of the majority of scholars that Jephthah really did sacrifice his daughter, according to the text.
- He deals (effectively, I think) with the fact that Jephthah did all this after the Spirit of the Lord had come upon him.
- He acknowledges that Israel did practice child sacrifice, even at the command of God, but gives adequate reason to believe that God was being sarcastic when he gave those commands.
Nevertheless, Dr. Copan does not deal with the central horror of this passage.
Can you see what it is?
In the other famous story of child sacrifice, that of Abraham and Isaac, God sends an angel at the last minute to prevent Abraham from killing his son. Why didn’t God do something similar in this case?
He had already showed himself willing to intervene in human affairs by giving Jephthah victory over the Ammonites. (“The Lord gave them into his hands” in verse 32.) Why couldn’t he have been bothered to prevent the unjust slaughter of a little girl?
Was Jephthah’s rash vow to God more important than an innocent girl’s life?
Was it more important than the love between a father and his daughter?
When I was a Christian, I was taught to put Bible stories in a contemporary context in order to understand them better. Let’s do that. Suppose your son were to say to you, “Daddy [or Mommy], there’s a bully who has been picking on me at school. I want him to stop — more than I want any of my toys. If you’ll go with me to school and help me get rid of him, then when we come home I promise I’ll burn up whatever I see first when I open the door to my room.”
First of all, would you even accept such a promise? Wouldn’t you say, “I’ll be happy to go to school with you and talk to the principal about the bully, but you don’t have to burn anything up.”
But suppose that didn’t occur to you and you went to school with your son, with that promise in the air.
Now suppose everything went well and the bully is history. Your son comes home, opens his door, and the first thing he sees is Mindy, his pet puppy — the only pet he has ever had and the thing he loves most in the world.
Although he is heartbroken, he tells you he is going to burn Mindy up as he promised.
What would you do or say?
Let’s say that you had read the story of Jephthah and, wanting to be more godly (like God), you didn’t do or say anything at all.
Your son makes a fire in the back yard and binds the legs of his puppy, all while you’re watching.
What would you do now? Still nothing, because Psalm 15 extols the virtue of those who “keep an oath even when it hurts”?
He goes into the kitchen, and gets the largest knife in the drawer. He tells you he will cut Mindy’s throat and let her bleed to death before he burns her body.
Would you stop him yet? Or would you look forward to reading about your son’s fine example of promise-keeping in the town newspaper, just as Jephthah was remembered as a hero of faith in Hebrews 11:12.
He puts the blade to Mindy’s neck. He shuts his eyes as his tears rain down onto the terrified animal.
Would you stop him? Or would your overriding thought be that it’s important for a little boy to learn the importance of a promise — especially one to his parents?
I trust you would have stopped your son long before this point.
What does it say about God’s character that he did not stop Jephthah?
I wish Paul Copan had considered this important question in his book.
Now for something completely different. Here’s the whole episode in cartoon form. I dare you to watch the whole thing.