Reading through the Bible together
Our first impression of Jephthah the Gileadite is not a positive one. He is an illegitimate son of a prostitute, an outcast with a troubled family history, and the leader of a gang of “worthless men.” Yet this seemingly unworthy individual became a judge of Israel for six years (12:7), but not before learning a few difficult lessons along the way.
Unlike previous judges, Jephthah’s call to leadership is conspicuously absent. His rule over the the Gileadites comes as the result of bargaining with the elders of Gilead (11:8-10). Yet, in spite of this, there is no question that God is guiding the events behind the scenes. The Lord empowers Jephthah to fight the enemies of Israel (11:29) and delivers the Ammonites into his hands (11:32). The deliverances by the Lord favors Israel (11:27), but does not favor Jephthah.
Jephthah’s story could have ended here except for the vow he made. Even though God helped him fighting the Ammonites, Jephthah felt he could bargain with God the same way he did with the elders of Gilead. Immediately we are shocked by his misunderstanding of the sacrificial system. The Law of Moses clearly outlined what kinds of offerings were acceptable. Jephthah was not allowed to sacrifice “whatever comes out of the doors” of his house (11:31). However, he believes God can be bribed by burnt offerings. This unnecessary vow would bring much grief to Jephthah and to his only daughter.
The narrative is not clear on what happened to Jephthah’s daughter. The vow is worded in such a way as to give the impression that Jephthah meant a physical sacrifice. But the Bible does not say that she was sacrificed. Instead, we are simply told that she fulfilled her father’s vow and knew no man (11:39). She bewails her life-long virginity (11:37), and is obviously concerned that her father might sacrifice her. Since human sacrifice was condemned by the Law (Deut 18:10), Jephthah’s daughter was to live the lonely life of a Nazirite (Num 6).
Jephthah’s experience is a biblical lesson on being careful what we say. It is also a warning about bargaining with God as if the Almighty is a pagan deity that can be manipulated. Too often we find ourselves saying, “Lord, if you do this for me, then I’ll be a better Christian.” There’s nothing that the Lord desires more from us than our hearts and surrender to Him unconditionally. God yearns to shower our lives with blessings but we must be willing to submit to His will rather than trying to manipulate Him with the promise of good deeds.
Justo E. Morales
Southern Adventist University