Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Foolish Vow of a Father toward His Daughter

One Year Bible
Old Testament passage for Tuesday, April 30, 2013:  Judges 11:1-12:15

29 Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh, and passed through Mizpah of Gilead; and from Mizpah of Gilead he advanced toward the people of Ammon. 30 And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, “If You will indeed deliver the people of Ammon into my hands, 31 then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.”  Judges 11:29-31 (NKJV)

The Book of Judges is filled with strange and unusual stories.  Not the least of which is the story of Jephthah and his daughter.  It is an example of an incredibly gifted leader who makes a rash and unwise vow to the Lord.  It is, however, NOT what it appears to be.

Jephthah was an outcast who became a great leader.  His mother was a prostitute and this black mark had caused him to be the object of derision among his half-brothers.  He fled to escape their cruel rejection.  He was an obviously gifted warrior and leader of men, because during a period of distress, all Israel called for him to return from his self-imposed exile.

Jephthah is an example of a man who is incredibly gifted but yet who lacks wisdom.  He jumps off into deep water without thinking.  Scripture says that one day the Spirit of God was so heavy on him that he started making promises to God.  He started bargaining with God.  Have you ever done that?  "Lord, if you will only get me out this predicament, I will serve you forever."  In passing, we might note that it is never a good idea to try to bargain with God.  He is not a hard task-master who needs to be leveraged into blessing you.

Many have stumbled over the story that follows.  Jephthah asks God for victory in battle.  In exchange for that vicory, he makes a promise to God.  At first glance, it looks as if Jephthah vows that whoever he first meets when he comes home will be offered up as a human sacrifice.  Some have pointed to this story as an indicator of the gruesome morality of the God of the Old Testament.  "How could God sanction such actions?"

Let's look a little closer.  First, the Old Testament clearly forbids offering human on the altar of sacrifice (see Lev. 18:21; Lev. 20:2-5; Dt. 12:31; Dt. 18:10 for starts).  No where does God approve of any sort of action whereby Jephthah would offer his daughter as a burnt offering.  If he did this (and I believe that he did not), he would have been actually violating God's law rather than obeying it.  Certainly that would be a stupid thing for ANYONE to do, much less a national leader of God's people.

Second, we are not, in fact, told that Jephthah offers his daughter as a sacrifice.  He had vowed that "whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me ... shall surely be the Lord's" (Jud. 11:31).  He then says, "and I will offer it up as a burnt offering" (Jud. 11:31).  This sounds at first like he will offer whatever comes out of the door as the burnt offering.  However, it might be understood differently.  Jephthah is saying that whatever comes out of the door will be dedicated forever to the Lord and His service.  He then says that he will consecrate this vow by making a burnt offering. 

Lastly, Jephthah's daughter's reaction indicates what really happened in this story.  When Jephthah sees her come walking out to meet him, he reacts strongly.  He tells her what he has vowed in order to get the victory from the Lord.  She accepts what her father tells her, but requests that se be allowed to go for two months into the mountains to "bewail her virginity" (Jud. 11:37).  She does not appear to be grieving over her impending loss of life, but instead over the fact that she will never be able to marry and have children. 

In essence, Jephthah's daughter becomes a nun -- she enters "holy order" similar to Anna in the New Testament (Luke 2:37).  At the end of the two months in the mountains "bewailing her virginity", Scripture says that Jephthah "carried out his vow with her" (Jud. 11:39).  As a result, "she knew no man" (Jud. 11:39).  For the balance of this young girl's life, she would live in dedication to the service of God and God alone.  It appears that she became somewhat legendary in the history of Israel.  For years to come, her example of service was honored among the other young women.

The reason for Jephthah's extreme distress was not that he had to offer his daughter as a sacrifice.  It was because she was his only child (Jud. 11:34).  One of the most important aspects of ancient Jewish life was the development of a family line -- a heritage.  Jephthah knew that because of his rash vow, his own family lineage would cease to exist.  His daughter would never marry and he would have no family to follow him.  His grief was the same that Hanna would have years later when she dedicated her only son Samuel to the Lord (I Samuel 1:11). 

This is not a story about the awful human sacrifice of an innocent daughter by an ignorant and foolish father.  It is rather a story of the keeping of vows.  It has been said before, "Be careful what you promise the Lord.  He might take you up on it."  We need not be fearful of our merciful and gracious God.  We should however be ready to fulfill all our vows to Him (Ps. 50:14; Ps. 56:12). 

His daughter speaks to us today.  May the vows of our mouths be fulfilled.  "If you have given your word to the Lord, do to me according to what had gone out of your mouth" (Jud. 11:36).  He has always kept His promises to us.  May we keep our promises to Him.

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