Jephthah’s Vow

Peace Mennonite Church

August 10, 2014

Barbara Yoder, speaker

Scripture:  Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 & Judges 11: 29-40

Jephthah’s Vow

This summer we’ve been revisiting some of the greatest hits of the Old Testament: So far, we’ve heard new takes on the stories of creation, the baby Moses, Moses and the burning bush, Samson and Delilah, Jacob’s ladder, and David and Goliath. As Andrea commented last week, hearing these stories again may conjure happy memories of vacation Bible school — think Kool-ade, flannel graphs and coloring pages. But, in typical Peace Mennonite fashion, our speakers have dispensed with the usual interpretations and offered us new ways of thinking about the familiar narratives.

Although I am on the worship committee and helped to come up with the idea for the series, I’m afraid I misinterpreted the bit about “greatest hits.” The story of Jephthah is so awful, so disturbing, that it just doesn’t make the cut. It appears to have little subtext, and certainly there’s no easy take-home message for the vacation Bible school set. But the more time I spend with the story, the more meaning I find in it.

If you were listening to the Scripture reading, you know the basic storyline: Jephthah, with God on his side, goes out to fight the enemy. Jephthah bargains with God. If God makes him victorious, he will sacrifice the first living being that greets him on his return. He defeats the enemy and arrives home triumphant. But joy turns to horror when his beloved daughter — his only child — rushes out to embrace him. The Bible says Jephthah tore his clothes in anguish, but he quickly recovered when he remembered his vow. I see him thumping his forehead: “Nuts! See, I’ve made this promise to God, so you’ll have to die. Honey, my hands are tied! I’m really sorry.” Jephthah’s daughter, who isn’t even given a name, receives her sentence calmly, but she comes back with a bargain of her own. “Well, a promise is a promise, but I’m really bummed that I’m going to die a virgin. Let me hang out with my girlfriends for a couple months so I can process this whole thing, and then you can burn me alive, okay?”

Here’s some context. God has rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and led them into the Promised Land, Canaan. He commands them to drive out the local heathens and establish a God-centered society for themselves alone. The Israelites set about to do God’s bidding, but they don’t finish the job. They spare the lives of some of the Canaanites, and subsequent intermarriage and integration lead to all sorts of sin, including idol worship, orgies, and child sacrifice. The Promised Land, the land “flowing with milk and honey,” is in a mess. The last verse of Judges sums things up this way: “Everyone did as he saw fit.” We can imagine God’s dismay.

Throughout Judges we see the Israelites trapped in a pattern. First, they turn from God and assume the sinful ways of their neighbors. Consequently, God punishes them by permitting their enemies to attack. When the Israelites repent and cry out for help, God sends a rescuer — a military leader, or “judge.” Hence, the name of the book is “Judges.” But soon again the people forget about God and return to sin, and the cycle begins over.

Our story begins in the second part of the cycle, when God, in his anger, has sold the Israelites into the hands of the Ammonites. The Israelites seek a deliverer in Jephthah. Here’s his backstory: Jephthah was born in Gilead to a prostitute and an unnamed father. The father’s legitimate sons, Jephthah’s half-brothers, ran him out of town so he couldn’t share in the inheritance. He fled to the land of Tob, where he became a fighter with a band of outlaw followers. Jephthah’s reputation as a fierce warrior traveled. His desperate half-brothers begged him to return and lead the battle against the Ammonites. But Jephthah was wary: “Didn’t you hate me and drive me from my father’s house? Why do you come to me now when you’re in trouble?” The brothers proposed that he could be their leader if he won the battle. But the emotionally wounded Jephthah remained doubtful: “If I win, will I really be your head?” The brothers replied: “With God as our witness, we will certainly do as you say.”

You know the rest. Jephthah routed the enemy and returned to Gilead. The doubt he expressed to his half-brothers ensured his status as their leader, but the doubt he expressed to God was his undoing. He vowed, “If you will really give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes forth from the doors of my house to meet me on my return in victory from the Ammonites shall belong to Yahweh.”

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So what is relevant to us in this story?

Perhaps there’s a lesson here about doubt and the futility of trying to bargain with God. Verse 29 says, “Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah.” God’s spirit was on Jephthah, and still he doubted! He did what many other people throughout history have done— he tried to make a deal. In first Samuel, the faithful Hannah told God that if he’d only give her a son, she’d hand him over to be raised in the temple. Centuries later, in the middle of a terrible thunderstorm, Martin Luther vowed he would become a monk if God would save him. Some of us could probably tell stories about deals we’ve tried to make in moments of doubt and fear. It seems to be in our nature to do this, so we can’t really fault Jephthah for his lapse in faith. (The bit about human sacrifice is another matter.)

Jesus tells us not to make vows at all. In Matthew 5, he says, “You have also heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not break your vows: You must carry out the vows you make to the Lord.’ But I say, do not make any vows! Do not say, ‘By heaven!’ because heaven is God’s throne. And do not say, ‘By the earth!’ because the earth is his footstool. And do not say, ‘By Jerusalem!’ for Jerusalem is the city of the great King. Do not even say, ‘By my head!’ for you can’t turn one hair white or black. Just say a simple, ‘Yes, I will,’ or ‘No, I won’t.’ Anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” If we back up a bit in Matthew 5, Jesus also admonishes his followers not to worry about material possessions. “See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.” This passage supports the Mennonite belief in our ultimate powerlessness and the need to keep our affairs simple. Not only are we to keep our possessions spare, but we are to keep our speech spare, too. I first became aware of the speech thing when my family went abroad in 1972. Getting a passport was a formal process in those days, and we were required to pledge our loyalty to the United States before a courthouse official. My parents explained to us children beforehand that Mennonites don’t say, “I swear to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God,” but simply, “I affirm.” As Christians, our truth is our truth, and we don’t need to make an oath to guarantee it.

This is one example of Mennonite nonconformity, and it leads to my second point. There is relevance in the story of Jephthah concerning God’s desire for us to keep our focus on his kingdom and to resist the allure of the world. Jephthah got in trouble because he’d accepted the ways of the Canaanites. His rash vow could only have been made if he were okay with the local practice of human sacrifice.

It makes me uncomfortable to think of God commanding the Israelites to kill their neighbors. We’re told that Israel sinned against God by not eliminating all of the natives. My Amish ancestors didn’t need to kill their English neighbors in order to maintain a God-centered society. They simply constructed communities apart, and although they did commerce with the outside world, they were not drawn to behave as non-Amish. I doubt any of us wants to be Amish, but maybe we have something to learn from them. The point is, God wants his children to be more focused on him than on the Kardashians or on Wall Street.

Finally, the story of Jephthah reminds us that we must recognize the enduring problem of patriarchy and work to overcome it. Simply put, this is a tale of terror, with a woman as its victim. Jephthah is a male figure, trained in violence. He is heroic because he kills people. A woman is blamed for his status as an outcast: His mom was a prostitute. The nameless daughter is a typical female of the time. She submits to her father’s foolish vow, and her big regret is that she will not bear children, preferably male children. Jephthah even blames the victim for his own recklessness: “When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh! My daughter! You have made me miserable and wretched, because I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break!” And absolutely no one intervenes to protest!

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What are we to do with all this?

Well, we can keep the memory of Jephthah’s daughter alive. The final verse says that it became an Israelite custom that each year the young women went out for four days to commemorate her. We can remember the millions of subjugated women — and men — sacrificed for the foolish promises of the powerful, and we can speak out against the systems that support those powers. We can resist the attempt to control outcomes with a simple faith that God knows best. We can own our truth, and we can express it simply and eloquently, as Jesus taught. We can keep our focus on God and resist conforming to the world, because it is within God’s kingdom that we will find our true home.

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