“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing!” So said a famous football coach who once lived up here in the North.
This week at Woodland we meet an Old Testament figure who clearly believed in winning at any cost. It’s a tragic and horrific story that (frankly) I wish weren’t included in the Bible. Even so, I believe with Paul in Roman 15.4 that ” … whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”
So, let’s look for this hope.
The account of Jephthah begins in Judges 10 with Israel returning again, in a pattern that has now lasted for 300 years, to the worship of its neighbors’ gods. God’s people are now oppressed in the west by the Philistines and in the east by the Ammonites. And this time, maybe, God is really finished with His rebellious people!
Anticipation of God’s deliverance (10.6-18). Important for understanding this account is the recollection that, east of the Jordan River in the region known as Gilead, Israel has three cousin nations. The Edomites descend from Esau, Jacob’s older brother. The Moabites descend from Lot, Abraham’s nephew, through his incestuous relationship with his older daughter (see Genesis 19). The Ammonites descend from Lot through his relationship with his younger daughter. God never gave the land of these three nations to the Israelites. But, God did give the land of the neighboring Amorites (also called Cananites) to Israel, and that’s where the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh settled, east of the Jordan in Gilead.
Now, in chapter 10, the Ammonites have moved into Gilead and massed for war. Israel is without a champion, and it looks like God has forgotten them. But, wait …
Negotiation toward God’s deliverance (11.1-28). We meet Jephthah. Beginning life behind the 8-ball as the son of a harlot, he’s been disposed and has run off to the wilderness where he’s become a renowned fighting man. When the leaders of Gildead approach him, he promises to lead them, if they will give him total command. Notice, God doesn’t “raise up” Jephthah. Jephthah promotes himself to be their “head”. Then, Jephthah negotiates with Ammon. Basically, the Ammonite king stakes claim to Israel’s land east of the Jordan (11.11b). Jephthah responds with a history lesson (11.27). The exchange doesn’t avert war, but it’s good. Jephthah remembers God, and I have to believe that his faith at this point is genuine, registering him even for the list in Hebrews 11.
But, there is a serious flaw in his thinking!
Manipulation of God’s deliverance (11.29-40). The Spirit of God comes on Jephthah, and God’s Spirit should have been enough for him. But, look what he does. Instead of trusting God, Jephthah makes a vow: And 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 give it up for a burnt offering.
What’s gone wrong here? Well, Jephthah has begun to think about people like the Ammonites think about people. Worshippers of Molech (or Chemosh, as the same god is named here) offered their children to try to manipulate circumstances in their lives. The better the sacrifice, the better the expected results. Jephthah wants to give God his best, but he can’t imagine it will be his own daughter.
And, here’s what God thinks of this: … Any one of the people of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn in Israel who gives any of his children to Molech shall surely be put to death. The people of the land shall stone him with stones. I myself will set my face against that man and will cut him off from among his people … (Leviticus 20.2-3b).
Even worse, if possible, Jephthah has begun to think about God like the Ammonites think about their god. He’s assuming that the One, True, God of Israel must be (can be) won over by something he has to offer!
Jephthah wins the war. His daughter runs out to greet him. And, Jephthah responds by blaming the victim: 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 (11.35).
He’s ruined his family, because he doesn’t have another heir. And, he can’t take back his vow, because, apparently, his reputation and self-righteousness is at stake. (See Leviticus 5.4 to learn how, even at this juncture, his oath was not binding, but who’s paying attention to God in Israel?)
Jephthah’s daughter the submits to her understanding of God’s will. She laments she’ll never have children, then offers herself to her father: 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 (11:36).
And, so, she’s sacrificed needlessly, so her father can save face, even though Jephthah could have glorified God by taking any curse on himself. His account ends in the next chapter with civil war and the desolation of Ephraim, Israel’s strongest tribe.
Jephthah’s daughter becomes the heroine of this account. She credits God with the victory, doesn’t try to manipulate the situation, commits herself willingly to her understanding of what God wants, and (I believe) points us to Christ.
In Matthew’s account Jesus prayed: My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will (26.39). Jesus didn’t go to the cross because of a blunder, but willingly out of design. And Jesus didn’t go to the cross to manipulate the Father. Instead, He went to satisfy the wrath of a holy God who allowed all the sins His people to be covered—Jephthah’s and mine.
The lesson of Jephthah is that God doesn’t have to be manipulated for blessing, but gives freely to this who depend on him by faith.
There’s applications in this account we need to hear: First, bad things happen when God’s people misplace God’s Word. At a number of points in the account, Jephthah might have turned back. And His thinking about God could have been repaired, if the Israelites had risen up and opposed his sin. But, they’d forgotten God’s law. Disaster also results when we forget what God has said!
Also, many of us who read this account have done some terrible things. This account reminds us that we don’t need to go the rest of our lives trying to manipulate our way back to God’s good graces. If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 Jn 1.8).
Finally, the Spirit of God came on Jephthah to win a battle. On this side of the cross, He baptizes us and fills us when we trust Jesus by faith. Then, He works in us for a changed life. Romans 12.1-2 describes us as living sacrifices. So, we offer ourselves to God, not to manipulate our circumstances, but out of gratitude to our good God who gives freely.
God won’t be manipulated for blessing, but gives freely to those who depend on Him by faith. And, knowing this gives me hope and helps me understand why I find the account of Jephthah in my Bible.