The Bible introduces us to God. Through this inspired book, God reveals who He is. Now, the Bible doesn’t tell us everything about God, but it does tell us everything we need to know about God—enough to walk with Him and trust Him. As we continue our study in the book of Judges, we’re going to watch Jephthah, the judge, make an unwise decision instead of trusting the Lord.
We are in Judges chapter 11, where Jephthah is offering peace to the enemy nation of Ammonites. He gives them a little history lesson on why Israel had a divine right to their land—the land of God’s promise. Well, the Ammonite king is not interested, and a war between them begins to brew.
As the battle approaches, Jephthah knows he needs the Lord’s help. But instead of trusting the Lord, he makes a foolish vow. If you want to know the truth of the matter, this is nothing more than a spiritual bribe to get a guarantee from God.
Jephthah says to God:
“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.” (verses 30-31)
Now making vows isn’t necessarily wrong. In fact, vows are mentioned throughout the Old Testament. But Jephthah’s vow comes from a lack of faith; Jephthah doesn’t believe God’s promise can be trusted. He says here in verse 30, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand.”
The problem is that God already had said He would do this. Let me say this, beloved: God is faithful to His promises whether you make a vow to Him or not. You might not keep a promise, but God always does.
You might remember from our last study that Jephthah’s father was an unfaithful man. He didn’t keep his wedding vows to his wife. Later on, he wouldn’t defend Jephthah from his half brothers and the elders of Gilead so that Jephthah was driven into exile. Frankly, Jephthah’s father was an untrustworthy man who didn’t keep his word.
A young person’s view of God is greatly influenced in the formative years of life by his or her father’s character. The way a father keeps his word will shape that child’s view of whether or not God is going to keep His word.
I had the privilege of growing up with godly parents. I couldn’t imagine my parents telling a lie. I knew I could trust their word, and that helped shape my view of my trustworthy heavenly Father.
I’m not defending Jephthah here; I’m trying to understand him. His father could not be trusted; the elders of Gilead could not be trusted. And Jephthah now doesn’t think God can be trusted.
But Jephthah isn’t alone in his perspective. Many people today think God can be bribed by good deeds or church attendance. They think His promises are for sale—send in a little money, and God will make sure you get promoted at work.
My friend, God cannot be bought or manipulated. You don’t pay Him off to keep His word.
I remember as a kid out on the playground, it was one thing for somebody to make you a promise, but if you reallywanted to make that person’s promise to you binding, you would say, “Cross your heart and hope to die?” I mean that proved you were serious! I wonder if we try to get God to “cross His heart and hope to die” because we don’t fully trust Him.
Well, just as God promised Jephthah, verse 32 tells us that “the Lord gave them into his hand,” and in verse 33, “the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel.”
Jephthah has vowed to offer as a burnt offering the first thing that runs out of his house when he comes home from battle. He assumes it will be a goat or a chicken or, better yet, one of the household cats—which would be fine with me!
But verse 34 informs us that it isn’t a goat or a chicken or a cat, but his only child—his daughter. And Jephthah is devastated.
Now there are a lot of opinions on whether or not Jephthah actually offered his daughter to God as a burnt offering, and since I can’t list all those opinions here, I will just give you the right one. Let me start by giving you four reasons why Jephthah did not literally sacrifice his daughter to God.
First, God’s law condemned human sacrifice. If you’re thinking maybe Jephthah didn’t know God’s law, verses 37 and 38 tell us there was a two-month delay before he fulfilled this vow. In that time, the elders surely would have told him that God would not accept this kind of sacrifice.
Second, the tragedy described here is Jephthah’s loss of future children, not the death of his daughter. Verse 34 says:
Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter.
The emphasis is on the fact that she is the only hope he has for grandchildren and a family legacy in Israel.
Third, Jephthah’s daughter does not weep over losing her life but over never being able to marry. She says to her father in verse 37, “Leave me alone two months that I may go up and down on the mountains and weep for my virginity.” She’s not weeping over being sacrificed on an altar; she’s weeping over the fact that she will not get married and have children of her own.
Now I personally believe that Jephthah’s vow is going to be fulfilled by dedicating her
to God for tabernacle service for the rest of her life. You might remember that Hannah does this with her son, Samuel. Jephthah’s daughter will serve in the tabernacle at Shiloh, and Jephthah will seldom, if ever, see her again.
There’s one more reason I believe this is what happened. We are told in verse 40 that “the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah.” The Hebrew word for “lament” can be translated “commune,” or “talk with.” This verse says they went every year to Shiloh, to spend time communing—talking with—Jephthah’s daughter.
Unfortunately, Jephthah’s foolish decisions are not over. In Judges chapter 12, those angry Ephraimites show up again to cause trouble. They are angry that Jephthah did not invite them along in the victory march against the Ammonites. They’re so angry that in verse 1 they say, “We will burn your house over you with fire.” They’re so angry, they want to kill him!
And Jephthah responds like that old gangster he had been back in the land of Tob. He attacks them and drives them back across the Jordan River, killing many of them along the way. This brings a sad ending to what should have been a time of celebration, following their victory over the Ammonites.
Jephthah will serve for six years in Israel until he dies. At the end of chapter 12, we are given the names of three little-known judges who followed him. Very few details are given about them.
The primary lesson here is that we need to trust the Lord when He makes a promise. He never breaks His promises. We don’t need to bribe Him or manipulate Him; we simply need to obey Him and trust Him.