Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible
Mark 4:35-41; 1 Corinthians 11:17-34; Psalm 89:30-38; Judges 10-11
The story of Jephthah and his daughter should shock us. How could a father follow through with such a vow? How could he think that God would want him to sacrifice his only child? Did God want him to do such a thing? Part of why we are so shocked by this story is that promise-keeping is not as important in our society as it has been in others. Today we have a higher tolerance for people changing their minds, cancelling an appointment, or breaking a contract. That Jephthah keeps his promise shocks us because we know we wouldn’t.
Something seems inherently wrong with what Jephthah does. While the passage does not explicitly state that Jephthah’s vow was wrong, it uses literary means to show that this was the case. The general context of Jephthah’s story is the downhill moral slide of Israel, and of the judges in particular. Jephthah himself is not described as a dedicated follower of God, but introduced with questionable origins, rejected by his family, and living on the run surrounded by scoundrels (11:3). Tob was at the far end of Israel where many nations and religions intermixed. We get a hint that Jephthah may have been overly comfortable with other gods. In his message to the Ammonite king, he puts the God of Israel on a par with Chemosh, a pagan god (11:23). Although the Spirit of God came upon him (11:29), this is not an indication that he was fully committed to following the Lord.
As Jephthah prepares for battle, he vows to sacrifice whatever first comes out of his house (11:30-31). He may have spoken rashly, not thinking that this could be a person. He may have fully realised what he was saying, believing a human sacrifice was necessary to win the battle. A Moabite king sacrificed his firstborn son hoping it would ensure victory (2 Kings 3:27). Either way, Jephthal made an immoral vow.
In the first place, he did not need to make any vow. God had heard the Israelites’ prayer and placed his Spirit on Jephthah. His vow fits a pattern in Judges of people responding to God more conditionally. God tells Barak he will give him victory, but he agrees to go into battle only if Deborah comes with him (4:6-8). Gideon tests God repeatedly before going into battle even though God had promised victory (6:36-40). Jephthah’s vow is an attempt to bargain with God and stay in control. These approaches contrast dramatically with the prayer of the Israelites in this same passage. They confess their sin and ask God to do what he thinks best (10:15). This exemplifies the attitude God seeks. It reflects a humble acknowledgement that we do not know what is best, and must rely on God completely.
Reliance on human wisdom is further exemplified by Jephthah’s daughter. Rather than questioning the morality of his vow, she says ‘Do to me just as you promised’ (11:36). Although her commitment to honouring her father’s vow is admirable, they both show a lack of awareness of God’s law. Human sacrifice, specifically of children, is clearly and repeatedly condemned in Israel (Leviticus 18:21; Deuteronomy 18:9-10). When parents fail to teach their children what is truly right and wrong, the consequences can be tragic (Deuteronomy 4:9).
Some try to reduce the shock of this passage by claiming that Jephthah did not kill his daughter but put her away in perpetual virginity. Such attempts may be well-meaning, but do not coincide with the plain meaning of the text. The tragic dimension of her death is further highlighted by her being an only child and a virgin. Not only did her life end, but Jephthah’s family line ended now too. In ancient Israel, this was a huge loss, highlighting once again the rashness and illegitimacy of his vow.
Vows made should be kept (Numbers 30:1-2). But in many situations, vows are not necessary (Deuteronomy 23:21-23). In some cases, a vow is an illegitimate attempt to control God rather than trusting God’s promises. Jesus says we should not make vows, but instead be true to our word (Matthew 5:33-37). We need to know God’s laws and commands, and remember that God is faithful to his word (Psalm 89:30-38). We can trust in his promises without making vows or having to convince him to come through for us. We can have confidence in his faithfulness, and likewise we should be faithful to our promises. But we must also be careful with what we promise, and not commit to do things which we should know are wrong.