Stupid Vow

Judges 11:29-40
29 Then the Spirit of the Lord was upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh and passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. 30 And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, 31 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.” 32 So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them, and the Lord gave them into his hand. 33 And he struck them from Aroer to the neighborhood of Minnith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel-keramim, with a great blow. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel. 34 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. 35 And 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.” 36 And she said to him, “My father, you have opened your mouth to the Lord; do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has avenged you on your enemies, on the Ammonites.” 37 So she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: leave me alone two months, that I may go up and down on the mountains and weep for my virginity, I and my companions.” 38 So he said, “Go.” Then he sent her away for two months, and she departed, she and her companions, and wept for her virginity on the mountains. 39 And at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow that he had made. She had never known a man, and it became a custom in Israel 40 that the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year.

This story has, for several thousand years, confounded Biblical scholars and students. How could a story of human sacrifice (other than that willingly made by Jesus Christ) be a part of God’s story? We are horrified to read the words. With that in mind, realize that I am not going to be able to solve this conundrum here. All I can do is lay out the various thoughts on Jephthah and his daughter and let you make your own conclusions.

Jephthah makes an incredibly rash, and most would say foolish, vow in the heat of the moment as he prepares for a battle against the Ammonites. In a brash statement, he declares that should God give him victory over Ammon, he will sacrifice whatever comes out of his front door first. God does indeed give him victory and thus the controversy ensues. There are two distinct view of how this story turned out for Jephthah’s daughter. We’ll take them one at a time. There are numerous articles and books about this passage and they all seem to land one of these two camps.
  1. The Traditional (and Ancient) view: Jephthah’s daughter comes out of the house, not knowing that she has made a mistake that will end her life. Jephthah gives her 2 months to say farewell to her friends, mourn the fact that she will never have children (thus ending Jephthah’s line) and she is indeed killed and burned on an altar. Jephthah’s big mouth has brought him nothing but mourning.
  2. The Alternative: Jephthah’s daughter knows of the vow he has made because all vows were public knowledge. She actively participates in this vow by willingly being the first thing to walk out the door upon her father’s victorious arrival home. She makes a knowing sacrifice to honor the fact that God has given them victory. She is not killed, but instead set aside and never allowed to marry. Thus, her perpetual virginity resulting in the end of Jephthah’s line.
These are deeply abbreviated views of the two possible outcomes of this story. Each side makes compelling Biblical arguments for their case and I am inclined to lean toward the second. But – the text is mute on several of the details and so we are all only speculating. Regardless of where you land on this debate, Jephthah should not have included a vow in this battle plan.

And there’s the application for today. God does not ever need to be manipulated into helping His people. He is not impressed by our vows or promises. He is motivated by His love for us and His own will. The two are never out of accord with one another. I never have to say, “God, if You will do . . . . then I will do . . . .” That conversation is not a part of the Christian walk. While Jephthah does appear in Hebrews 11’s list of Old Testament heroes, his foolishly spoken vow is not praised. He did lead his people to victory and was used by God to free the people from captivity. As far as an ill-conceived manipulation of God – this is not held up for us to emulate. Just because God’s people made mistakes along the way doesn’t mean we have to repeat them.