Judges 11:29-40 is one of those puzzling episodes in Scripture, with skeptics wondering how Jephthah could do such an awful thing to his daughter, and believers trying to figure the story out, as well.
To start, we want to focus on the daughter. Like the servant girl of Naaman’s wife, this young lady was a remarkable person. She met her victorious dad with a dance of welcome. She was glad to see him.
She may as well have plunged a dagger into her dad’s heart, even though, in her innocent joy, she had no idea what she was doing. Regardless of what may have happened afterward, it’s clear what Dad thought when he saw her come to meet him….
He was devastated….
But our focus here is on the girl.
1. She had a submissive spirit, v. 36, So she said to him, “My father, if you have given your word to the LORD, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, because the LORD has avenged you of your enemies,….”
This doesn’t mean that she was beaten into submission by her father, or that she struggled against the idea. When she found out what was going on, she simply said, “Do it.” We don’t know anything about such an attitude in our willful and insolent society, where parents are mocked and scoffed at by their children, and “children’s rights” have pretty much cancelled out parental rights – until the kid does something “society” doesn’t like, and then, watch out!
Granted, we live in a different time than Jephthah and his daughter did, but the subject of the fifth commandment is still valid today: Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother,’ which is the first commandment with promise: that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth, Ephesians 6:1-3.
The idea of respect for parents has almost disappeared in our time.
But there was something else, and this is the main thing:
2. She had spiritual perception, v. 36. She recognized that it wasn’t about what our society would likely call an abusive father, but about a vow that her father had made to the Lord. We don’t know anything about this in a culture where “a man’s word” isn’t worth the paper it’s written on, and the saying is, “A contract [a vow] is made to be broken.” When things get tough, people make promises to the Lord all the time, but how often, when things get better, do they follow through?
And it doesn’t matter if Jephthah’s vow was “rash” or “foolish,” as it’s often described. Perhaps it was. It was still binding. Leviticus 30:2 says, “If a man vows a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath to bind himself by some agreement, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” And Deuteronomy 23:21, 23 says, “When you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay to pay it; for the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and it would be sin to you. … That which has gone from your lips you shall keep and perform, for you voluntarily vowed to the LORD your God what you have promised with your mouth.” The key word there is “voluntary,” as Jephthath’s was. V. 22 says, “But if you abstain from vowing, it shall not be sin to you.”
Who knows what was going through Jephthah’s mind before and as he was making this vow. Perhaps he felt pressure because of his background. Judges 11 tells us that he was unwelcome among his brothers, and they had disowned him. He’d left home and became the head of a band of raiders, vs. 2, 3. After a time, the Ammonites threatened war against Israel, and Israel’s leaders turned to him to lead Israel against them, vs. 4-11. He wasn’t too thrilled with the idea, but after some haggling with them, he agreed.
Though Jephthah tried to reason with the king of the Ammonites, the king wouldn’t listen, but went ahead with his plan to attack Israel, vs. 12-28.
One thing I find very interesting is found in vs. 28, 29: then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah, and…he advanced toward the people of Ammon. And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD…. Granted, some time passed while he was moving toward the enemy, but he wasn’t just some wild-eyed revolutionary when he made his vow. As I said, who knows what was going through his mind. Perhaps just the heat of the moment….
Regardless, he was stuck.
Now the Law did have something to say about the redemption of a sacrifice. In Leviticus 27:1-8, if the “vow” concerned a person, a certain monetary value was placed on him or her, depending on age. They weren’t killed, as was an animal. There were some other provisions in the Law, as well. However, Leviticus 27:28 says, “Nevertheless no devoted offering that a man may devote to the LORD of all he has, whether man or beast…; every devoted offering is most holy to the LORD.” Whatever happened, the daughter had become “most holy to the LORD.” Perhaps this is a key to understanding this episode.
There are those who harshly criticize Jephthah, believing that he went ahead and sacrificed his daughter on an altar. Perhaps he did. In v. 40, the phrase, “the daughters of Israel went four days each year to lament” her, could refer to her death. Another view, the one which I hold with others, is that she, as “most holy to the LORD,” was given over to perpetual virginity. This is confirmed, possibly, by the fact that she requested 2 months to go with her girlfriends to lament her virginity. She could never marry or have children. To our society, this is no big deal, but back then, it was.
To be barren was almost worse than death, because a woman could never fulfill her destiny as a mother. If this is the case, then “the daughters of Israel” came to lament her remaining single. Again, to our society, no big deal. “Virginity” isn’t considered all that important: “it’s just sex.” Indeed, such a view as hers can hardly be understood by the rampant feminism and/or immorality of a “Fifty Shades of Grey” society.
For the father, either way, this meant the end of his family. His daughter was his only child. For something of the importance attached to this, see the post I did on the daughters of Zelophehad, or read their story in Numbers 27. Indeed, even the sordid action of Lot’s daughters was prompted by the desire to keep their father’s line going, Genesis 19:32.
Jephthah is mentioned later in Scripture. Samuel remembered him as one whom the LORD has sent to deliver Israel, 1 Samuel 12:11. Hebrews 11:32 mentions him as one of the heroes of the faith. It’s interesting that every one of the four men mentioned in that verse was very much less than perfect.
Perhaps Psalm 15:1, 4 gives us an answer. In v. 1, the Psalmist asks a question, Lord, who may abide in Your tabernacle? Who may dwell in Your holy hill? The rest of the Psalm gives the answer. V. 4 is relevant here: He who swears to his own hurt and does not change.
I don’t really know for certain what happened between Jephthah and his daughter. Maybe he stands as an object lesson not to be hasty in making promises we later might not want to keep. Maybe he just stands as a testimony to being faithful to your word, regardless of what it might cost you. In any event, God doesn’t sugarcoat the records of our lives. He doesn’t photoshop or airbrush the pictures of His people to make them look better than they are. He shows warts and all.
Whether this is a story of “warts” or not is a subject for a lot of discussion. Perhaps only the Judgment will finally clear it all up – along with a lot of other things. In the meantime…