September 16, 2020

Jephthah’s Daughter

I don’t know about you, but I’m not that fond of the book of Judges—all those nasty stories. It’s not something I turn to when looking for a comforting promise from God. Nor Leviticus, with all those grisly sacrifices.

Give me Genesis, the Gospels of Luke and John, Ephesians: you know, something encouraging, inspiring. Isn’t it good that there are 66 books in the Bible, with plenty to pick and choose from? Some of us can even ignore the fact that all Scripture is given by God and happily choose what suits our need, personality, or theological bent.

How much heartache and petty arguing could we avoid if only we studied our Bibles diligently, all of those 66 books, not just our favorite parts.

But there I was, right in the middle of that wonderful, uplifting, encouraging Hebrews Hall of Faith chapter, and confronting me was the name of Jephthah (Heb. 11:32). Jephthah, a man of faith? Surely not! I mean, wasn’t he the guy in Judges who sacrificed his daughter? How could anyone include him in a list of inspiring, faith-filled people?

Jephthah’s Colorful Past

Now, to be fair, Jephthah didn’t have a good start to life. Son of a prostitute, his nice, legally legitimate brothers threw him out of the home, and he went off to the land of Tob, probably the near-desert to the west of Gilead, where various social misfits attached themselves to him, indicating that he had leadership ability. This ability became known further afield, and when Ammonites came raiding Gilead, who should the Gileadite leaders call on but the unloved, unwanted, outlawed Jephthah. “You fight for us,” they said, and after a bit of bargaining, Jephthah agreed.

The story has a surprising twist here. Unexpectedly, not only did Jephthah the outcast have a good knowledge of the history of his people (although not his Bible, as we shall see), but he proved to be the only person in all the gory Judges narratives who tried to avert war by using diplomacy on the enemy. The fact that it didn’t work didn’t mean he didn’t try.

He pointed out that Gilead had never belonged to the Ammonites and had been settled by Israel for no less than 300 years. Unable to avert outright war, Jephthah turned to God, and, significantly, “the Spirit of the Lord came on Jephthah” (Judges 11:29). He was truly God’s man. As he headed for battle, he knew he could succeed only with God’s help. So he promised that if God gave him victory, he would offer as a sacrifice whatever came to meet him when he returned home. Presumably, he had a pet lamb or some such animal and was willing to give his best for God. God heard his cry for help and gave him a great victory.

Joyfully, triumphantly, Jephthah returned home, only to be met by his happy, dancing, timbrel-playing only child—his daughter! No wonder he tore his clothes and wailed that his daughter troubled him. It must have been the saddest homecoming in history.

A Man of His Word

But Jephthah was a man of his word. God had kept His side of the bargain, so Jephthah would keep his, even to sacrificing his beloved daughter.

Clearly, a very special bond of love and trust bound Jephthah and his daughter, and she shows amazing faith in her father, and he in her. He granted her sad request that she go away to have two months to bewail her fate; then, incredibly, she returned to her father, knowing what would befall her, and he sacrificed her. I don’t know about you, but I think this nameless girl needs to be in the Hall of Faith along with her agonized father, who, to honor his (mis)understanding of his commitment to God, went through with what Abraham, provided with a ram in the thicket, was not asked to do.

But, oh but! If only this anguished father and daughter (and no doubt mother) had known, had they consulted their sacred scrolls (the Torah of Moses), the awful outcome need never have occurred. No doubt in the desert Jephthah didn’t have a copy of Leviticus nor too many opportunities to attend worship services led by a knowledgeable priest or Levite. He did not know that God had already made provision for just such a terrible plight as was his and his daughter’s. He was totally committed to his God and knew that his faith had been honored by a signal victory.

But if only he had known the text that says, “If anyone thoughtlessly takes an oath to do anything, whether good or evil . . . even though they are unaware of it, but then they learn of it and realize their guilt . . . they must bring to the Lord . . . for the sin they have committed . . . a female lamb or goat from the flock as a sin offering. . . . Anyone who cannot afford a lamb is to bring two turtle doves or two young pigeons. . . . If, however, they cannot afford two doves or two young pigeons, they are to bring . . . a tenth of an ephah of the finest flour” (Lev. 5:4-11).

A tenth of an ephah of flour in modern weight is about one kilogram. In my supermarket, that costs about NZ$2.

Just think, if only Jephthah had known his Bible, he could have been forgiven his rash oath, and his daughter would have become a free woman for the price of a kilogram of flour, worth a mere couple dollars!

God understood Jephthah’s heart, knew he acted out of faith and love for God, and honored him. But the terrible sacrifice of his only daughter was totally unnecessary. God had already made provision. A lamb, a pair of turtle doves, or even a kilogram of flour could have saved her. If only Jephthah had known his Bible.

And as he sacrificed his flour—flour that could have been made into a good, crusty loaf of bread—he would have known that it should have been a lamb; and maybe, just maybe, he might have understood the enormous sacrifice that God would make to ultimately save him (and us) from all his rash vows, and every other sin.

How much heartache and petty arguing could we avoid if only we studied our Bibles diligently, all of those 66 books, not just our favorite parts. How often we are ignorant of God’s righteousness and strive to establish our own (Rom. 10:3), instead of accepting what God has already provided in the great sacrifice of our Lord and Savior, Christ Jesus.

Even the books of Judges and Leviticus show that God is a God not only of justice but of great mercy.

Elizabeth Ostring is a retired musculoskeletal and family physician with a doctorate in theology. She lives in Helensville, Auckland, New Zealand. This article originally appeared in Adventist Record (May 2, 2020) and is used with permission.