The seventh sermon in a summer series
on Joshua and the Judges
If last Sunday’s episode with Gideon was a bit of the divine comedy with its unexpected and miraculous plot twists, today’s story of Jephthah is definitely a tragedy in the classic sense. The hero’s rise to greatness and his fall to an even greater sorrow come by his own hand, and by the rashness of his own words.
And like the tragedies of ancient Greece, our hero’s rise to acclaim, is made the more remarkable because he begins, as he ends, in the depths. V1, “Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior, but he was the son of a prostitute.” Think of the songs and stories that could be written from that sentence alone!
Ah…but before we pious folk do too much tut-tutting over Jephthah and his origins…as also over the social outcasts of our 21st Century…it’s always a good thing to remember that in the Bible it is a major theme that the last are first and the first are last, the lowly are lifted up and the mighty are brought down! And that is most certainly true for Jephthah, going up and coming down. Hence the tragedy!
The author gives us a little of the back story in vv2-3, “Gilead’s wife also bore him sons. [Gilead is the name of Jephthah’s father but also the region where they live.] And when his wife’s sons grew up, they drove Jephthah out…” In other words, same dad, different moms. And even if Jephthah’s mother had been more… um, respectable…those kinds of rivalries in families are as old as the human race.
So these other sons, Jephthah’s half brothers, say to him, v2, “‘You shall not have an inheritance in our father’s house, for you are the son of another woman.’ [That woman!] Then Jephthah fled from his brothers [the language implies a threat of violence by those brothers] and lived in the land of Tob, and worthless fellows [my, my, the translators are trying to be nice] collected around Jephthah and went out with him.” You can easily picture this surly lot loudly tearing up the roads of Gilead on their Harleys, while the good citizens of the land shake their heads over them. “Well, what can you expect given his birth!”
And that might have been the sum total of the man’s life. Live fast. Die young. But war intervened. V4, “After a time the Ammonites made war against Israel. And when the Ammonites made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to bring Jephthah from the land of Tob.” It was a violent job and it called for a violent man.
V7, “But Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, ‘Did you not hate me and drive me out of my father’s house? Why have you come to me now when you are in distress?’” But the elders make no apology to Jephthah for how they treated him. They just ask him to help and they promise to make him Judge. V8 “‘…and be our head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.’” V8, “And Jephthah spoke all his words before the Lord at Mizpah.”
It’s interesting to note here, that while the people are doing a lot of talking, God is not. With Joshua and Deborah, God told them to lead Israel into battle. “I will give them into your hand,” He told them. He said the same thing to Gideon, though it was through an angel. But here, there is no call from God. That is significant! It doesn’t mean that His hand is not involved. It just means that we don’t get to know God’s involvement in this episode.
Now, over the next several verses we learn that this is a territorial dispute, like the Crimea recently. The Ammonites claim territory that Israel has held for 300 years, ever since Moses defeated the Amorite kings soon after crossing the Red Sea. But Jephthah sends messengers to the king, v26, “‘While Israel lived in Heshbon and its villages, and in Aroer and its villages, and in all the cities that are on the banks of the Arnon 300 years, why did you not deliver them within that time? I therefore have not sinned against you, and you do me wrong by making war on me. The Lord, the Judge, decide this day between the people of Israel and the people of Ammon.’ But the king of the Ammonites did not listen to the words of Jephthah that he sent to him.” So it’s war!
Again, while Jephthah vows to let God decide the outcome of this war, neither he nor we the readers know anything of what God intends! As Abraham Lincoln said of God during the Civil War, “The Almighty has His own purposes.” It’s not wise to assume which side He’s going to be on.
Now we come to the fateful turn of events. It’s the first time God is mentioned taking hand in the story. V29, “Then the Spirit of the Lord was upon Jephthah…” Jephthah had been on a roll up to this point, a meteoric rise to power by events of human decisions. Now God joins the ascent…which makes what comes next very confusing!
Having demonstrated a fondness for vows, v30, “Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, ‘If You will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.’” If we had a soundtrack, the music would suddenly turn dark and ominous. “You shouldn’t have ought to have said that, Jephthah!”
Well…Jephthah wins the war. Of course he does. V34, “Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dancers. She was his only child…” Now what? That vow! And in an instant, victory is swallowed up in the jaws of personal defeat!
V35, “As soon as he saw her he tore his clothes and said, ‘Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.’”
Seriously? Would God hold a man to such a rash and reckless vow? Is God so cruel that having given Jephthah victory over the Ammonites He would require the death of the man’s daughter?!
The author doesn’t give us so much as a hint about God. Instead, the daughter replies, v36, “‘My father, you have opened your mouth to the Lord; do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth…’” Really? She acquiesces to this vow?!
Where’s the voice of God intervening here, telling them both to stop such nonsense! Even Abraham didn’t have to go through with it and actually kill Isaac. God intervened! But this time the heavens are silent, as they have been through nearly all of this story. And Jephthah fulfills his rash and dread vow.
V39, “..and it became a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year.” And that’s where it ends. Ugh!
He killed her?! Sacrificed his daughter?! Maybe he sent her off to the OT equivalent of a monastery, to serve the Lord all her life. Many scholars have written on this dilemma, much ink has flowed, trying to get Jephthah off the hook…to get God off the hook…and to spare the girl. But they miss the point!
The writer doesn’t tell us God’s thoughts here, so it’s risky to make assumptions. The writer doesn’t comment on whether Jephthah’s vow was a good thing or not; nor does he imply his own view by the way he relates the story. The whole thing just sits there and bothers the reader…a lot!
But in this story which begins with a scandalous birth and ends with a tragic death, we who know the life of Jesus see other things at work here. A father sacrifices his only child, whom he loves. God’s people are given a great victory, though it comes at the cost of that child’s life. How could a father do such a thing? How could the child go along with it? Is the price of victory worth that cost?
We sing in Lent, “For vainly doth our human wisdom ponder—Thy woes, Thy mercy, still transcend our wonder. Oh, how should I do aught that could delight Thee! Can I requite Thee?”
No, of course we can’t. We can’t make it easier or any less tragic than it is. We can do no more in the face of the story of Jephthah than we can in the face of Good Friday. Or for that matter in the face of any tragedy, whether by our own hand or by another’s, and the heavens seem as silent as the grave! We may agonize over it. “Why God, my God, why?!” We may stumble over it. We may choke on it. But faith sees…
Faith sees in the sad story of Jephthah, that by the death of an innocent, Israel was given a great victory. More so, faith sees in the greater story of Jesus that by the death of The Innocent the world has been given a great victory. But what price glory!
Yet despite all the terrible trappings of tragedy, any tragedy, faith sees Christ crucified in that tragedy! And because Christ is there…despite every bit of its God-forsakenness…because Christ crucified is there, faith receives the oh-so-expensive, yet oh-so-priceless gift of His victory and life within that tragedy.
And even if the heavens themselves are silent to us, faith still finds a voice to sing, “What language shall I borrow To thank Thee, dearest Friend, For this Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end? O make me Thine forever! And should I fainting be, Lord, let me never, never, Outlive my love for Thee.”