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Bible Study – Jephthah’s Tragic Vow (Judges 11:30-31)

Today’s Reading: Judges 10-11

Today’s Reflection: Judges 11:30-31

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 offer it up for a burnt offering.”

What is this text saying?

In this chapter Israel was under attack by the Ammonites and the Lord raised up Jephthah to judge them. Just before leading soldiers into a climactic battle with the Ammonites, Jephthah made this vow to God.

Why is it important?

In Bibles with subject headings, this verse often falls somewhere under the title “Jephthah’s Tragic Vow”. Tragic because the word ‘whatever’ in his vow can also be translated ‘whoever’. This meant that if it were a person who was the first to meet Jephthah upon his return he would have to sacrifice that person as a burnt offering.

And tragically that is what happened.

After defeating the Ammonites, Jephthah returned home to see his daughter, his only child, coming out of the house happily singing and dancing to greet her father. This sight which normally would have filled him with joy instead made Jephthah tear his clothes in grief, for he had made a vow to God and could not take back the words he had spoken. After a time of mourning, Jephthah fulfilled his promise and sacrificed his daughter (Judges 11:32-35).

How can I apply this?

This is again, one of those stories that challenges our belief in God as a loving Lord and Saviour. How could He ask one of His servants to sacrifice the life of his daughter, his only child?

But wait, did God ask for that? Did God require a vow from Jephthah at all? Why would Jephthah make such a reckless vow? And what does this mean for us?

First we have to consider the historical context. Israel had conquered Canaan, but had failed to fully remove the pagan and idol-worshiping nations from the land as they had been commanded to do (Judges 1:27-36). As a result these nations became a persistent negative influence, waging battles and wars with God’s people, enticing and influencing them with un-godly practices. Judges 2:1-4 says they became ‘a thorn in Israel’s side’.

The worship of pagan gods and idols was very superstitious. These beings were believed to be very demanding and in need of constant appeasement in order to win their favour and provision (protection, fertile lands, etc.) This was most often accomplished through sacrifices, even the sacrifice of their own children. In the Bible, whenever you see the Hebrew idiom ‘made their children to pass through the fire’ it is a euphemism for offering up children as a burnt sacrifice.

The God we serve is very different. He doesn’t demand obedience in exchange for favour. Instead He asks for our service because He has already given us His favour. He doesn’t demand obedience before He saves us. Rather He asks us to obey Him because He has already saved us. Our God does for us first, then asks us to follow Him. And He always gives us the choice to obey, rather than making demands.

So even though we are often encouraged to demonstrate an attitude of sacrifice and show our submission to God’s authority so we can draw closer to Him (for example, fasting from food, or giving up TV or other distractions for a time), our God never asks someone to perform a sacrifice as payment for an answer to a prayer or fulfillment of a need. These are gifts God gives gladly, not commodities for sale.

But given how far Israel had fallen from the knowledge of and obedience to God, it was quite possible that Jephthah didn’t understand this. He may have assumed that the God of Israel, though having real power the foreign idols lacked, was a God who would require a sacrifice, even a human sacrifice, just as the pagan gods did, before guaranteeing victory in battle.

Secondly, note that just before Jephthah makes his tragic vow, the Word tells us the Spirit of the Lord was upon him. Many assume from this that his vow must have been according to God’s will. I have a different, more disturbing suggestion. For us as fallen beings, the line between manifesting the Spirit of God and the Spirit of the enemy is a fine one.

In one moment Elijah was in harmony with the Spirit of God, praying for fire to come down from heaven and having that explosive sign fulfilled by God in the sight of all Israel (1 Kings 18:20-40). But in the next moment, an idol threat from the vain and wicked Queen Jezebel sent Elijah fleeing for his life, an act that caused God to ask him “what are you doing here?” (1 Kings 19:1-9). In one moment the Apostle Peter was in perfect harmony with the Spirit of God, recognizing Jesus was the Messiah. In the next Jesus had to rebuke Peter as an adversary to God with the words “Get thee behind me Satan!” (Matthew 16:17-23).

We cannot assume that being in harmony with God at one moment means we’ll always remain in harmony with Him. We must be in a constant state of repenting from our own thoughts and ways of seeing the world. We must be in a constant state of surrender to God so that He can renew our minds from the worldly and un-godly influences we’re surrounded with. This is the only way to ensure we are not double-minded in our behaviour (James 1:8) and that we don’t confuse the thoughts and motivations God sends to inspire us with the flawed and prideful thoughts that come from within our own imperfect hearts and minds.

Lastly, we must be wise when we contemplate making any commitment to God. The Word teaches that when man swears an oath to God or makes a vow by God he is bound to perform whatever has come out of his mouth (Numbers 30:2). Furthermore it cautions us that it is better not to vow than to vow and not pay (Ecclesiastes 5:5). In our communications with and concerning God we need to be three things Jephthah was not.  Despite his obedience in responding to the call to lead Israel, Jephthah failed to be Honest, Honourable and Humble.

1) Honest – When Jephthah said he would sacrifice whatever first came out of his house to greet him he was not being honest. In truth he was not willing to sacrifice anything, or else he would not have been grieved to see his daughter emerge from his front gate.

We at times make promises to others or to God based on things other than what we’re truly willing or able to do. Whether it is pride or fear that drives us, this fundamental dishonesty often leads to us doing things we’d rather not do, things that unintentionally hurt us or others, and things that God never asked of us in the first place.

2) Honourable – When Jephthah made his vow, he probably had an idea of what (or who) he thought would first come out of his house upon his return. He was not being honourable. He made a bold public boast of being willing to sacrifice ‘anything’, but in his mind he already knew the thing (or person?) he was willing to sacrifice. Possibly Jephthah already knew this thing (or person?) had a habit of racing out of the front gate to greet him and that knowledge influenced the vow he made. Perhaps he felt he needed a new wife, and knew his current wife was normally the first to greet him upon his return?

How many times do we publicly declare we’ll do ‘anything’ for God, but in actuality we’ve already decided on the things we’re truly willing to do or give for Him? We shouldn’t be surprised when God actually takes us at our word, and asks us to give up something we weren’t willing to let go of. And we should understand that when He does this it’s not to punish or harm us, but to make us aware of our mistake and to remove the obstacles separating us from Him—our own self-deception and self-righteousness.

3) Humble – Finally when Jephthah saw the consequences of his rash action, did he ever consider asking God to release him from what he had bound himself to? For the God who knows and loves us, is willing and able to forgive when we see our mistakes for the destructive and deadly sins they are. But to do so would have required him to be humble. Humble enough to admit his error and his need to repent and be forgiven. Humble enough to bear the public insult and disrespect that would have accompanied breaking his vow and going back on his word. For Jephthah pride was likely an issue. Judges 11:1-3 tells us he was the son of a prostitute and had been left out of the family inheritance and rejected by his father’s house for this reason. After spending much of his life carrying disgrace due to circumstances beyond his control he was likely sensitive to the possibility of further damaging his reputation. It is possible that at this point in Jephthah’s life and relationship with God he just didn’t fully understand how loving He was (and that He would never have requested the sacrifice of Jephthah’s child). Perhaps Jephthah just didn’t understand how forgiving the Lord could be and assumed he had no choice but to fulfill his vow no matter what the cost. But it may be that his pride really was more important to him than anything else, even the life of his beloved daughter.

If we have foolishly made a commitment to God beyond our ability, rather than cause untold suffering to ourselves and to others we would be wise to humble ourselves and ask for forgiveness. For our God is faithful to forgive even when we have been faithless (2 Timothy 2:13; 1 John 1:9). If pride has caused us to make a vow or swear an oath unwisely, let us not allow pride to continue taking us down a course of action we will live to regret.



2 thoughts on “Bible Study – Jephthah’s Tragic Vow (Judges 11:30-31)

  1. Upon reading this I wdoner what he might of thought would come out of his tent first. I am guessing either his wife or his daughter, maybe there were other moving things in his tent that would come out but i would guess not. I wdoner if we sometimes make promises to God that are outrageous to appear a certain way, when in reality He wants our heart, our faith, and our trust, instead of some rediculous offer. I do respect that he honored his promise to God, how many times do we promise God something and do not follow through?

    Posted by Tiernos | April 6, 2012, 9:25 am
  2. I have been reading the bible peiecsally vows made by Hannah,Jephthah and Jacob, I know God is not someone one can play with, and making a vow is a serious business but I’m determined to go all the way to redeeem it as long as i have breath in my nostril.There’s no point living if i won’t live in reverence of God and i will lean on his grace which is sufficient for me. thanks

    Posted by Alyssa | April 6, 2012, 4:03 pm

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