Jephthah’s Vow

“When Jephtha came to his house at Mizpah, there was his daughter, coming out to meet him with timbrels and dancing; and she was his only child.  Besides her he had neither son nor daughter”.

I don’t know how anyone can say that the Bible is a boring book.  This haunting story, found in the book of Judges, chapter 11, is utterly tragic.  Jephthah was an outcast.  He was driven away from home by his adult brothers “for you are the son of another woman”.  The Bible says his mother was a harlot.

He moved to the land of Tob, where “worthless men banded together with Jephthah and went out raiding with him”.  He was the leader of a gang.  But he was a leader.  And he was fearless.  When his brothers’ people got into trouble with the neighbors, who did they turn to? Jephthah.  They sent an envoy to him and begged him to come lead them “against the people of Ammon, and be our head over all the inhabitants of Gilead”.

The story continues, with Jephthah first trying to negotiate with the Ammonites, who believed they had a right to the land Israel was living on.  (Does this sound familiar? Even the negotiation part!) When negotiations failed, “The Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah” and he advanced on the enemy (v. 29).  Now here’s the awful part:  “And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD, and said, ‘If You will indeed deliver the people of Ammon into my hands, 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.”

Now this story takes place well after the Law was given.  Human sacrifice is forbidden in Deuteronomy 12:31 and 18:10.  Indeed, God gives this practice as a major reason for using Israel to destroy the nations that occupied the promised land. Jeremiah 32:35 says “And they built the high places of Baal which are in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire to Molech, which I did not command them, nor did it come into My mind that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.”  Our God does not approve of human sacrifice.

So what happens next cannot have been the will of God.  Jephthah’s daughter comes out of the door to celebrate his victorious return with dancing and singing.  Jephthah is heartbroken, tearing his clothes and saying “Alas!”

My commentary says that archaeologists have found that the common home in Jephthah’s day was built over the barn, with animals occupying the ground floor and people occupying the upper floor.  It is highly conceivable that Jephthah did not expect it to be a person that would come out of the door when he arrived home.

There is a wonderful Hebrew word used here.  Yachid.  It means “an only one, an only child, a precious life”.  It is derived from the verb Yachad, “to be one”. This is the word used in Genesis to describe Isaac, the son God did ask a father to sacrifice.  It is the word used of Jesus in the Hebrew translation of John 3:16.  “For God so loved the world, that He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Jephthah’s daughter was his only child.  Precious.  And obedient.  “If you have given your word to the LORD, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth.” v. 36.  How awful! Jephthah did not have an understanding of God’s character. My commentary says “The episode reflects tragic deterioration of understanding God’s ways, a condition resulting from the recurrent backslidings during this era.”

Am I so different? Do I truly believe the Father’s grace is enough?  Do I try to earn His love by sacrifice?  By vows? How does my broken personality twist my view of Him? How different my thoughts and actions would be if I trusted His character!

Oh, may we just draw near and learn Who He is.


6 thoughts on “Jephthah’s Vow

  1. I don’t really know what happened between Jephthah and his daughter. Perhaps he did actually sacrifice her. Or perhaps, as others and I believe, her sacrifice consisted of perpetual virginity – she could never marry ahd have children. This is no biggie in our time, but it was huge back then. Regardless of what happened, Jephthah is included in the “Hall of Heroes” in Hebrews 11. So perhaps God isn’t as critical of him as we tend to be.

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