Have you ever had an experience in which you did something that you thought was harmless and it landed you into trouble? Have you ever made a situation worse by responding to something too hastily? If you answered “yes” to either of these questions, then you are going to identify on some level with the drama that we are going to watch unfold in Judges 11:29-40. In this ancient account, Jephthah makes two mistakes that collectively contribute to a tragedy that incurs an unusually awful blemish on Israel’s history. By observing the two acts of this play we will learn that two wrongs do not make a right. We will also learn what our reaction ought to be when we find ourselves in a mess that we have created for ourselves.
a. ACT 1: Jephthah’s Triumph-11:29-33
While in the last passage Jephthah had already assumed a leadership role in the lives of his people (read 11:4ff), it is in verse 29 that Jephthah becomes judge—“Now the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah” (11:29a). It is ultimately the Spirit of God that sets Jephthah apart—not his family, not his talent as a resourceful warrior, nor anything else. The Spirit has been the change agent for all of the judges in this book. It was the Spirit of the Lord that turned Othniel (a younger brother) into a successful deliverer (see 3:9ff). It was the Spirit of the Lord that empowered a left-handed knife wielder (Ehud) to kill an oppressive king (see 3:15ff). It was the Spirit of the Lord that turned a hesitant Barak and Deborah into a dynamic duo used to overthrow the king of Canaan (4:1ff). It was the Spirit of the Lord that turned the coward Gideon into a fearless victor (7:1ff). Here, once again, the Spirit of the Lord makes the difference. In Jepthah’s case, it was the Spirit of the Lord that turned a shunned brother and son of a harlot into a successful deliverer. In all these cases and in our case as well, it is the Spirit of the Lord that turns our weakness into strength, limits into surpluses, faults into fuel, and failures into victories.
Also, because it is the Spirit of the Lord that empowers Jephthah for his task, ultimately, God (through Jephthah) serves as judge. This is sympathetic to what Jephthah declared earlier in verse 27—“may the Lord, the Judge, judge today,…”. Because Jephthah acts as one empowered by the Spirit of the Lord, ultimately God gets the credit for the victory!
The Spirit directs Jephthah through the region to meet the oppressors head on in the remainder of verse 29—“then he passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he went on to the sons of Ammon…” (11:29b). Though we are not told what he did as he passed through this land, some speculate that perhaps he blew the trumpet throughout the region, summoning all able-bodied men to arms (not unlike Gideon in 6:34-35).
Though Jephthah has been empowered by the Spirit and appears confident in the coming victory, what he does next suggests that he wants to hedge his bets (he may not be totally convinced that God is going to come through). For this reason, Jephthah does something that looks pious and acceptable, but something that is going to throw open the door for great pain and tragedy—“Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, ‘If You will indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hand,…” (11:30). Make no mistake, Jephthah does not make this vow because of the Spirit’s influence on his life, he makes this vow independent of the Spirit’s influence. This demonstrates here that empowerment by the Spirit does not automatically negate human will (Chisholm). Jephthah is still allowed to say and do things on his own volition and at least here, his choice has the potential of getting him into deep trouble.
Jephthah tries to leave nothing to chance. Again, perhaps he is not yet completely confident of the victory that is coming and so, in a demonstration of extreme caution, he makes a vow to the Lord, promising the Lord something in return for granting the victory. Though there does not appear to be anything inherently evil about this promise (as vows to deities in prayers for deliverance were commonplace in the ancient world), it is unnecessary for several reasons. 1) God’s empowering Spirit should have served as its own confirmation that Jephthah and the Israelites would be successful. 2) As we have seen time and time again, God is not the kind of deity that can be bought or manipulated by mankind to do their bidding; he does what he wants. 3) Jephthah’s cause was just (as explained in 12-28) and God was already on their side. This suggested that victory was already God’s plan in the first place. Regardless of all this, Jephthah makes a vow anyway.
“Then it shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, it shall be the Lord’s and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.’…” (11:31). Perhaps negotiating is both a strength and a weakness for Jephthah. After all, had he not negotiated a leadership role with the same brothers who once shunned him? While bargaining/negotiating may have proven to be an effective tactic in his dealings with the Gileadites, Jephthah did not need to bargain/seek to manipulate God into showing him favor. Even still, Jephthah promises God whatever comes out the door of his house when he returns from his victory over the sons of Ammon—“It shall be the Lords and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.’…” (11:31). Though this might prove relatively harmless on the surface, this vow is both unnecessary and inappropriate, especially given the mosaic law that laid out very specific prescriptions concerning sacrifices. Only unblemished male sheep, ox, or goats were considered appropriate offerings to the Lord. If, say a chicken or lame lamb (or something even more inappropriate) came running out of the house, it would be unsuitable to the Lord. This vow smacks of ignorance concerning the law of God as given just two generations prior by Moses—the kind of ignorance that will land Jephthah in a great deal of trouble.
This vow is followed by the statement of Israel’s victory. “So Jephthah crossed over to the sons of Ammon to fight against them; and the Lord gave them into his hand…” (11:32). Notice how the victory is framed—“the Lord gave them into his hand” (11:32). God is given the credit that he is due given that it was his spirit who empowered Jephthah to lead his people into the victory that he planned. This begs the same question introduced earlier: if God is so for this and behind all this, why did Jephthah feel the need to make a vow in the first place?
The nature of the victory God gave Jephthah and his people is captured in verse 33—“He struck them with a very great slaughter from Aroer to the entrance of Minnith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel-keramim. So the sons of Ammon were subdued before the sons of Israel…”. The way that this is framed suggests that Jephthah, unlike some of his predecessors, did not do more than he had to in his victory over this threat. While Gideon chased his enemies well into their territory and Abimelech who made overkill a habit, Jephthah targets those regions that traced the border between Israel and Ammon where the oppressive advances were being made—no more no less. Such restraint on Jephthah’s part is refreshing in the Book of Judges. By destroying these border fortifications, Jephthah eliminated the pressure the sons of Ammon were applying to Israel. What a triumph for God’s people!
b. ACT 2: Jephthah’s Tragedy-11:34-40
However, triumph quickly turns into tragedy upon the very next verse as we enter act two of this somber play. The reader suffers near whiplash as the next words are read in verse 34 and we are slapped with a disastrous situation wrapped in a wholesome and warm image—“When Jephthah came to this house at Mizpah, behold, his daughter was coming out to meet him with tambourines and with dancing” (11:34a). The portrait of the young girl is painted in the most sympathetic and attractive of colors (Block, Judges, Ruth, 370). Upon hearing of her father’s victories in battle why would Jephthah’s daughter not be first among those rushing out to greet him as be came over the hill or turned the corner. Her ecstasy is equal parts relief after missing her daddy and pride after hearing of his success.
These sentiments become all the more agonizingly sweet and somber as we learn more about this girl—“Now she was his one and only child; besides here he had no son or daughter” (11:34b). She was extra special as she was Jephthah’s “one and only!” This expression, used also in the context of Abraham and Isaac’s relationship in Genesis 22, links the two passages together. In Genesis 22 Abraham was called of God to prove his faith by being willing to offer Isaac as a sacrifice unto the Lord. Abraham goes through the motions of the ritual only to have it interrupted by God who provides a substitute in Isaac’s place—a ram caught in a thicket. This illustrated that Yahweh, the one true God, would not relate to his people (Abraham and his descendants) the same way that the pagan gods did of their subjects. While false Gods in the ancient world asked for and required child sacrifices to be appeased, God, after setting Abraham apart to start a new nation for the Lord, suggests a different way to relate—substitutionary atonement for sin via animal sacrifices. This new way celebrates a high value on human life while also maintaining a severe view of sin and how to deal with it.
Given this background and what has already been shared about the nature of suitable sacrifices as prescribed in the Law of Moses, Jephthah’s daughter was anything but a viable candidate for an offering. She is female, not male, and she is a human, not a sheep, ox, or goat.
Jephthah seems to have forgotten all this, perhaps because of the pagan influence that had so clouded God’s people during this period, or perhaps out of sheer ignorance, or perhaps out of self-preservation in lieu of the vow he made earlier. The text reads, “When he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, ‘Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you are among those who trouble me; for I have given my word to the Lord and I cannot take it back.” (11:35). Notice where Jephthah places the blame for his predicament—on his daughter! “You have brought me low…you…trouble me” (11:35). Jephthah does not appear concerned for his daughter as much as he is frustrated that she ran out to meet him, ensuring her death. Also, it appears as though Jephthah did not want God to somehow go back and return the victory that he had just given them if he didn’t follow through with his foolish vow.
What is perhaps even more surprising than Jephthah’s reaction and rationale to his daughter’s emergence is how his daughter responds—“So she said to him, ‘My father, you have given your word to the Lord; do to me as you have said, since the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the sons of Ammon’…” (11:36). It is obvious that the pagan notion of manipulating and/or bargaining with the gods had so infected Israel at this point that even Jephthah’s own daughter traced a direct relationship between Israel’s victory and Jephthah’s vow. However, once again, the God of Israel is not bought or pressured by anyone to do anything. He is not easily worked as the false gods were believed to be. That said, the daughter is just as misinformed as her dad and out of love and devotion to him and her people reaches the same conclusion that Jephthah reaches—I must go through with this lest God go back on the victory he has given. Jephthah’s “daughter agrees with him, parroting his faulty reasoning,” perhaps indicating that she “accepts the same foreign…assumptions about sacrifice that her father does” (Janzen, 2005, 347-48). However, did not Genesis 22 teach that sacrificing humans was intolerable to God and suggest that God would never require such from his people (as it was a pagan practice and would lump his chosen people in with the child sacrificers in the world)? Also, Leviticus 27:1-8 suggests that in cases involving on person vowing another, there were protocols in place that could annul that vow if the person found it impossible or impractical to fulfill the vow. While the case in Leviticus is quite different that Jephthah’s situation here, if there were measures that could be taken to annul vows in less serious matters, certainly these would apply in more severe cases involving the very life of a human being. Neither Jephthah nor his daughter seem to be privy to the context of Genesis 22 or aware of Levitical law, again highlighting just how desperate Israel was in this period.
Instead, “she said to her father, ‘Let this thing be done for me; let me alone two months, that I may got to the mountains and weep because of my virginity, I and my companions,…” (11:37). All Jephthah’s unnamed daughter asks is that her father give her leave for two months before they follow through with this. The emphasis on her virginity is meant to highlight her unmet potential. She had not yet married and not yet birthed a child. These were culturally significant milestones in the ancient world that she would never meet, adding to the tragedy for the original audience.
Jephthah consents to this request in relatively cold terms and places distance between her and himself as the story unfolds—“Then he said, ‘Go.’ So he sent her away for two months; and she left with her companions, and wept on the mountains because of her virginity. At the end of two months she returned to her father, who did to her according to the vow which he had made; and she had no relations with a man….” (11:38-39a). In seeking to do good by making good on his vow, Jephthah performs an unspeakable horror on his daughter—a horror for which God was not pleased and did not required of him in the first place.
Here is where it might prove instructive to compare this tragic play with the triumph of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22. In Genesis 22 we have a test of the commitment of Abraham. In Judges 11 Jephthah seeks to test God by making his vow. In Genesis 22 God takes the initiative in commanding the sacrifice by speaking directly to Abraham. In Judges 11, God makes not such demand of Jephthah and instead Jephthah is the sole speaker. In Genesis 22 the father demonstrates great love for his “one and only” by traveling to the place of sacrifice with his son. In Judges 11 love is less defined for the “one and only” as she leaves to the mountains for a time before things are fulfilled. In Genesis 22 there is a passive acceptance of the fate that is coming on Abraham’s part. In Judges 11 there is an energetic insistence on the fate that is coming on Jephthah’s part. In Genesis 22 the ritual is interrupted by the voice of God and in Judges 11 the ritual is fulfilled because of the silence of God. “Whereas Abraham’s (near) sacrifice of his son assured him of a hope and a future, Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter robbed him of both” (adapted from Block, Judges, Ruth, 372).
This tragic play ends with a memorial in verses 39b-40—“Thus it became a custom in Israel, that the daughters of Israel went yearly to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year,…” (11:39b-40). We are not told what happened during these days of remembrance, but what we do know is that this episode proved to be a stain on Israel’s history for many years to come following the events in Judges 11:29-40.
Ultimately what we learn from the triumph and tragedy in Judges 11:29-40 is that two wrongs do not make a right. In this tragedy, Jephthah is wrong on both ends—wrong for making a vow he did not need to make (and an inappropriate one at that) and wrong for following through on this vow after his daughter runs out to meet him. Concerning the first infraction, it is wrong to barter with God. We cannot manipulate God into doing what we want any more that I can make a round square! “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). This was Jephthah’s first mistake. Rather than accept in faith the victory that God would bring Israel, he makes a careless vow in an added effort to assure himself that God would come through for him and his people. In so doing, he landed himself in a very precarious position—a position for which he believed there was only one way out (sacrificing his daughter). This was Jephthah’s second mistake. Rather than learn from those who have gone before him (Abraham and Isaac), rather than explore the mosaic protocols that were given that could annul this vow, his ignorance or race to preserve what he believed he had a hand in earning caused him to quickly conclude that the only way forward was to fulfill a vow he shouldn’t have made in the first place. In so doing, he killed his one and only daughter. Jephthah should have understood upon a moment’s reflection that God does not delight in such sacrifices (“You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. ”—Psalm 51:16). Instead of offering his daughter as a burnt offering to the Lord (making a bad situation unthinkable), Jephthah should have come confessing and contrite before the Lord after his first mistake (making the vow). This would have been pleasing to the Lord – “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise” (Psalm 51:17).
Such is pleasing to the Lord because there is nothing that we can offer him that will make us right with him. When we mess things up, our first inclination should not be to rush to be our own savior. Instead, we should rush to the salvation God alone provides. God made things right with us by offering his one and only Son—the only suitable human and divine sacrifice, capable of forgiving us all our wrongdoing and restoring us to the Lord. Jesus Christ came, was offered on the cross, and found victory from the grave so that all of our wrongs might be made right. We cannot do this for ourselves and when/if we try, we make a mess of things. So rather than rush to fix the problems that you may or may not have gotten yourself into, be led by the Spirit to run to the Lord Jesus. There is where you will find healing, answers, reconciliation, and hope. There is where we are kept from making a bad situation far worse.