October 23, 2014

Don’t rescue Jephthah

by Jesse Johnson

Judges 11 is one of the darkest chapters in the Bible. God’s judge, Jephthah, offers up his only child as a human sacrifice, under the incredibly sinful assumption that Yahweh is worshiped in the same way the pagan gods are. The story stands as evidence that without faith, God’s people are as depraved as the world, and that Israel is in desperate need of a savior better than a Judge.

(10-11) wrong becomes right

In the last few weeks I’ve read two articles (here and here) that have argued against that understanding of Judges 11, essentially saying, “no, no…you have it all wrong…God wouldn’t allow one of his Judges to do something that horrible… Jephthah didn’t sacrifice her, he asked her to live a life of chastity in service to Yahweh.”

I think this attempt to rescue Jephthah’s reputation comes up short though, and here is why:

The Vow:

Jephthah’s story is in the deep, dark days of the judges. His mother was a prostitute (Judges 11:1), and he had innumerable step-brothers who hated him. They forced him from his home, where he surrounded himself with “worthless fellows” for companions (11:3).

But even in his state of ill-repute, when the tide of war with the Ammonites turned against his step-brothers, they called for him and agreed to make Jephthah their leader. Jephthah agreed, and then led the Gileadites into battle against their foe, and Yahweh’s Spirit came upon him, so that he would deliver Israel.

So far—other than the companions who were worthless fellows—so good. But trouble comes at the start of the battle when Jephthah makes this vow to Yahweh:

If you really do hand the Ammonites over to me,  then whoever is the first to come through the doors of my house to meet me when I return safely from fighting the Ammonites– he will belong to Yahweh and I will offer him as a burnt sacrifice (Judges 11:30-31).

The problem with this is two-fold. First, God is not impressed by vows. But second, when the battle was won, his daughter emerged from their home to greet him. Jephthah told his daughter about the vow, she agreed that he should keep it, and simply asked for two months to mourn the fact that Jephthah’s line would end with him, as she was his only child. At the end of two months, Jephthah offered her as a burnt offering to Yahweh.

The debate:

This story bothers people for obvious reasons. Child-sacrifice is bad, and when it is done by those who have God’s Spirit, well…that makes it even worse.

This is perhaps why some commentators want to rescue Jephthah from his vow. They attempt to say that “offer it up as a burnt offering” means something along the line of just letting her serve Yahweh for the rest of her life. I’m actually not entirely sure what they think that means in the days of the Judges—maybe something like what Hannah would do with Samuel a few generations later: just drop the sacrifice off at the temple and let the person live out the rest of his/her days serving Yahweh vocationally.

Why this matters

While this debate may not seem that important, it is critical for understanding the book of Judges. In the traditional view (that “burnt offering” means Jephthah sacrificed his daughter), the book of Judges is a dark book. There are no heroes, only compromised leaders of an apostate people. Barack would not fight without a woman leading. Gidean was a coward, who usurped the priesthood and wore an Ephod, claiming to be the king of Israel. Jephthah thought God would be honored by human sacrifice. Samson apparently only knew three or four of God’s commands, but that’s good because he also made it his goal to violate all that he knew.

These were the days when Israel became worse than Sodom. They tried to anahiliate two of the twelve tribes, and were practically successful with one of them. Benjamin had accepted homosexuality that was every bit as evil as anything Lot oversaw. The point of the book of Judges is to simply show that nobody in Israel was righteous, and everyone did whatever they wanted because they rejected God as their king—the Judges themselves included.

But attempting to rescue Jephthah from his foolish vow changes all this. It’s not only that it takes Jephthah and makes him into a virtuous leader (just like Hannah!), but it also takes the whole concept of negotiating with God, and makes it into a something righteous. It legitimizes telling God, “If you give me this, then I will give you that,” as if God needed anything to begin with. Suddenly Judges 11 becomes an example to follow, rather than the pit of depravity.

The arguments:

Attempts to rescue Jephthah focus on these points: 1). The OT forbids child sacrifice, 2). The NT says Jephthah was a man of faith, 3). Jephthah had God’s Spirit so there is no way he would have done something that sinful, 4). Jephthah’s daughter mourned her virginity, not her death.

I think all four of these are insufficient to cast doubt on the clear meaning of the text.

1). The OT forbids child sacrifice. True, but the whole point of the book of Judges is that Israel had become worse than Sodom. The OT forbids all kinds of things that all kinds of Judges do. Honey out of a dead lion, murdering concubines, marrying Philistines, slaughtering a tribe or two, kidnapping wives, and worshiping Baal—these are all things the OT prohibits, and all things that happen in every chapter of Judges. Obviously what happened in Judges 11 was displeasing to God—that’s the whole point!

2). But doesn’t the NT say Jephthah was a man of faith? Yes, along with Samson and Gideon, two other Judges whose sins are somewhat famous. Oh, and Noah was a drunk, Moses was a murderer, and Rahab was a prostitute, yet they all eek into Hebrews 11 too. The point is that all of those were terrible sinners, but they still trusted Yahweh over the idols that their compatriots worshiped. [Its’ worth a quick side-note here to point out the irony that people who otherwise are so “gospel-centered” suddenly miss the point of the gospel in Hebrews 11—of all places!—by trying to rehab the reputations of sinners who were saved by grace; as if the pinnacle of the gospel would be better illustrated if those who believed it sinned less. But I digress].

3). Jephthah had the Spirit of God on him. Of all the arguments here, this is the one that most betrays a person’s position on the continuity/discontinuity spectrum. Is being used by the Sprit in the OT the same as being sealed in the NT? If you say yes, then you are likely to want to separate Jephthah’s indwelling from his human sacrificing. But the truth is Yahweh sent his Spirit to raise up Judges to deliver Israel from her enemies. His Spirit did not sanctify them, but simply used them to accomplish his purpose and drive Israel to repentance. His Spirit also came upon Samson (whilst tied up with a prostitute), to say nothing of Saul, or even Baalam.

4). Would Jephthah’s daughter have mourned her virginity if she was going to die? I remember a classmate of mine in seminary (who himself was notoriously single) asking this question to the professor, as if it was the insurmountable question for the traditional understanding of the passage. The idea being, if she was about to die, would she really spend a few months mourning the fact she had never married? The professor responded to the classmate: “You obviously don’t understand women.”

I understand that Judges 11 is uncomfortable. But that is the point. Every chapter of Judges is worse than the one before it, and even after Jephthah, things get worse—much worse—in Israel. Rather than trying to rescue Jephthah, we should let the text stand, let God rescue Jephthah through his faith, and through the coming of the better judge.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Thomas Kovacs

    Great article, Jesse! Context is key. Thanks for posting.

  • Dan Freeman

    Thanks for posting this Jesse. I have gone back and forth on my view of the correct interpretation myself, but I think I land where you do.

    One point that I would be interested in your answer to is David Murray’s point #8, that rash vows could be repented of and money payment made instead. I am not as familiar with Leviticus as I should be, so there may be something that I am missing, but it seems like Jephthah would have taken that option.

    • Sure. Listen: if you make a stupid vow, you should break your stupid vow. With or without Leviticus. If you vow to do something sinful, realize its sinful, then DON”T KEEP THE VOW! The point here is that both Jephthah and his daughter obviously thought what they were doing was virtuous. That doesn’t mean it was virtuous, but rather indicates how wicked they were.

      • Dan Freeman

        Thanks, I had not fully considered the possibility that they thought they were doing an excellent thing, but it certainly makes sense in the context of Judges.

    • Daryl Little

      The other question related to breaking his vow would be…then why the mourning period by his daughter and her friends. It’s true that Leviticus provides an out, but it’s an out by payment, not be vow-downgrade.

      It seems to me that either he kept his stupid vow or he didn’t. I see no evidence of a further negotiation with God.
      Jephthah – “It’s my daughter, see. And I don’t want to kill her, see. So how about she just doesn’t get married?”

      God – “How about you obey the law and don’t kill her?”

      Jephthah – “But I promised”

      Can’t see it.

  • Gabriel Powell

    This for this, Jesse. You make the critical points that others seem to miss. It seems as though there’s an attempt to not only rescue the reputations of sinful men, but to rescue God from any appearance of affirming evil (by allowing evil people into Hebrews 11).

    One of the comments in the TGC article asks a question about Nadab and Abidu. The questioner seems to be uncomfortable with God’s judgment and Aaron’s sober response. To me, that is indicative of a problem among Christians today. On the one hand they’ve lost the reality of the holiness of God, and on the other hand they’ve lost the reality of the sinfulness of man. The resulting questions become, “How could God do that?” and “Man couldn’t have been that bad, could they?”

    The historical/spiritual context of Judges is the key to understanding the accounts within. Ignoring that leads to a reluctance to allow the text to speak accurately of the horrors that occurred.

    • Yeah, and one of the articles above tries to say that “offer a burnt offering” doesn’t necessarily mean “burn by fire,” and points to Aaron’s sons as an example. I couldn’t help but wonder how in the world that is an example for the other side of this argument…I mean seiroulsy, they were literally burned by fire.

  • george canady

    “rehab the reputations” I see it. Thanks

  • Jas25

    I know I’ve heard this discussion before. I honestly can’t remember where I ended up at the time. However, reading the text in context I really don’t see how you could take it more than one way.

    His vow was to offer the first thing from his house to greet him as a burnt offering. No other vow (say to offer his daughter as a living sacrifice of service) is mentioned. It ends with “who did to her according to the vow which he had made”.

    If it had said “and he gave her as a sacrifice to God” there may have been room to read between the lines, but it says he did precisely as he had vowed and the only vow mentioned at all was the original. This connects the start to the end, and leaves no wiggle room between.

    It’s clear by the vow that he thought it appropriate to offer burnt sacrifices of any living thing to God. With that in mind, he would actually be *less* God fearing to try to squirm his way out of the obligation just because he didn’t like the end result. The only argument against this I could see is if someone had, at that point, informed him it was actually against God’s law, which they never mention.

    I’ve always wondered what he’d hoped would greet him first… Did he have a dog he figured would run out fastest? Was he trying to make offing his wife seem more legit? If he was disappointed to see his daughter it wasn’t like he was equally willing to just give up anything. He was hoping for something or someone else to be first.

  • 4Commencefiring4

    I guess my question would be: Who makes a vow to sacrifice the first person to step out the door of their own home? Unless a dishonest contractor was at his place that day for an estimate on a new kitchen, what were the possibilities? Let’s see. Wife…daughter…that’s about it. He was going to lose a family member either way.

    Not a good look, mon.

    • Jas25

      Sadly, many people back then sacrificed their own family members in attempts to gain favor (usually children, I suppose).

      Certainly a scary look at what humans are capable of when they’re not conforming to the direction of God and try to take matters (even of worship to a true God) into their own, very misguided hands!

  • Chris Sees

    This is a pretty good reminder of what is wrong with Reformed hermeneutics.

  • pearlbaker

    Not to nitpick, Jesse, but I think this reference: “Jephthah’s story is in the deep, dark days of the judges. His mother was a prostitute (Judges 10:1)” should have been Judges 11:1, “Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior, but he was the son of a prostitute. Gilead was the father of Jephthah.”

  • Robert Sakovich

    Don’t people understand that when we try to perfect some of these people, we take out the message of the Bible that we NEED Jesus? And that if we just go around doing what is right in our own eyes, then it isn’t honoring to God. If Jephthah would have made decisions that were firmly informed by Scripture, he never would have made the rash vow. Just like Saul did when telling the army not to eat before Johnathan ate the honey. And these serve to teach us to trust God and not ourselves or our “bargains” with Him.
    The fact that we have all of this history to teach us the results of positive and negative actions shouldn’t surprise us…Paul wrote that the OT is there to teach us. So why do we feel the need to change its meaning instead of read what Scripture says and learn from it? In doing so, we are bypassing God and trying to work things out for ourselves. Sad.

  • Joshua Grauman

    Great article. Agree with everything you wrote here except that vows were inherently negative in the OT. This vow of course was, but other vows were commended in the OT (ie. Lev 22:21 and lots of other places).

  • arlen67

    Heard lots of debate over this. Thanks for clearing it up for me. Did King Herod make a stupid vow when he offered up to 1/2 his kingdom to a dancer?

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  • Jason Alligood

    Jesse, you literally posted this four days after I preached on Judges 11 and you have definitely got me thinking as I wrap up on the life of Jephthah this Sunday night. Thanks for lending your thoughts. I will definitely be referencing this!

  • tovlogos

    Good exegetical insight, Jesse. If any of us is waiting to be perfect before God uses us for His service; we will be waiting far longer than the brief interval of time we are allotted on earth. This realization should convict the extreme legalist.

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