Judges 8-12: Jephthah’s vow

I would be remiss if I did not address the latter part of Judges chapter 11, but in doing so, understand that I am making comment on one of the most difficult and controversial passages in the book of Judges and the whole Old Testament.

In essence, there are two ways to interpret the fulfillment of Jephthah’s vow concerning his daughter. Either he did what he vowed to do in the literal sense, and sacrificed her life to God, or instead she was given over to a life of perpetual virginity and service to God (possibly in the Tabernacle).  So the sacrifice would have been her “fulfilled” life as a mother and wife. It is interesting to note that early church commentators and historians accepted the first, and perhaps more literal understanding of the passage and it was in the Middle ages that the second interpretation appeared.

It is suggested that the second interpretation came to light in order to spare the sensibilities of a more enlightened audience.  A couple of things need to play into our understanding of this passage. First, it is not explicitly stated that Jephthah killed her and gave her as a burnt offering. Second, it is plain through scripture that human sacrifice is abhorrent to God.  Thirdly, we can be reasonably certain that a human sacrifice would not have been permitted at the Tabernacle or any other consecrated place of worship.

The truth is, there is textual support for both interpretations, as much as it makes me squirm to say it.  I would like to lean toward the second interpretation, but I must be honest that part of that leaning is because it is the easier and less complicated understanding.

In either case, the story teaches us some things.

First, not to make rash vows.  Whether or not Jephthah sacrifices his daughter or just her future motherhood, the outcome is the same: Jephthah’s family line ends with his daughter.  He had no other children to carry on his name. The tragedy of the story is that Jephthah would not have any descendants.  Consider the judge who comes before and the judge who comes after Jephthah. All we know about both of them is their names (Jair and Ibzan) and that they each had 30 sons.  The really crazy thing about this whole story is that the vow is not necessary. God had already promised Jephthah victory, but in a moment of weakness, perhaps hesitancy and weak faith, Jephthah looks to bargain with God to ensure victory.  It could be that Jephthah did not truly understand who God was (given Israel’s poor spiritual state) or perhaps he was overcome with anxiety, either way he did not trust God at his word (somewhat like Gideon actually). It was Jephthah that caused this tragedy, not God.

The second place we can look for learning in this story is to Jephthah’s daughter herself. Note the way she approaches the situation.  She does not try to run away, or avoid her fate. She accepts it, submits to it. She loves her father, honours God and is calm in the face of a chaotic situation.

All in all this a fairly disturbing piece of scripture, and it could be tempting to just rush through it, not think about it and let it drift from our minds. But it appears in Judges for a reason and we must seek God’s face and voice even in the pieces of scripture we dislike or would rather not read.

Happy reading

  • What was familiar from this passage of scripture?  What was something I already knew?
  • What was new from this piece of scripture? What was something that really stood out for me that I have never paid attention to before?
  • Does Jesus appear in this passage of scripture?
  • How does this passage apply to my life, here and now?  Do I need to do anything about it?
  • What prayer would I offer up to God after reading this piece of scripture?

Tomorrow’s Reading: Judges 8-9

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