Judges 11:34-40, The Aftermath
The Context for Understanding Jephthah’s Vow
I ended my previous essay on Jephthah with the cryptic comment that Jephthah’s loss, after a signal triumph, may be attributed more to an excess, rather than deficiency, of faith. Here is what I mean. From the beginning of his life, Jephthah either was the product of humiliating circumstances or was rejected. My thesis was that in this situation he did what many people do: he “leaned into” God. All human sources of comfort, meaning and love had disappeared for him. Then he was only needed when the hometown folk faced a scary foreign enemy, and they refused to take responsibility for abusing and tossing him out when he asked them to do so.
So, Jephthah exacted a pledge from his hometown people—that he would be their “head” if he fought and defeated the Ammonites. His long verbal exchange with the Ammonite legation showed that he not only was a careful reader of his own people’s history, but he didn’t mind saying 10X as many words as the delegates from Ammon to get his points across. This 10X as much I also interpret as an expression of the extreme earnestness of his faith. God, in a word, has meant everything to him. Humans failed him, but God wouldn’t.
The Vow Itself
That, in my judgment, is the proper context for understanding his vow. He utters the vow not because he must but because he is likely imitating another person (Jacob) who, in a like situation (exile), vowed fidelity to God if God delivered him. Faith is loaded up on faith; Jephthah is acting in a “super-faithful” manner. But there is also a problematic feature to his vow. He will offer up to God whatever first meets him upon his victorious return from fighting the Ammonites. If we look more closely at the language of the LXX of Jud. 11:31, in fact, he says “whoever” comes out “of the doors (door in B)” of his house he would sacrifice as a whole burnt offering to God.
I think he unwisely uses more extreme words than necessary. He uses “whoever” rather than a “whatever” and “doors of the house” rather than something more innocuous such as “whatever meets me when I enter my property.” Of course, even the “whoever” might refer to a “dog” coming out of the doors of the house, because the word “dog” is masculine in Greek (ο κύων), but it would have been much “safer” for him to talk about “whatever” met him on entering his “property” than “whoever” met him coming “from the doors” of his house. But even though these words may be unwise, they are “super-faithful.” What I mean by that is that he believes that, figuratively speaking, God could raise up Isaac from the dead if Abraham had plunged his knife through his heart, so great was the power of faith. He believed it, so to speak, because it was absurd.
Jephthah’s vow comes from the fulness of faith and an extreme version of “God can do anything”-type of faith. He perhaps was comforted or strengthened in that belief because of what God had already accomplished in his life. Just think—the utterly rejected one now being recalled to lead the forces of the people who formerly had rejected him? What COULD be more of an expression of God’s infinite power than that? Certainly God could see to it that a “whoever” who comes from the “doors” of his house would be an appropriate sacrifice. Jephthah is full of faith.
Until. . .
Until reality hits. Nature often seems to triumph over grace when grace has just manifested itself so powerfully. In this case we are simply told that “behold his daughter was coming out of the house to meet him with tympani and dancing” (v 34). The text then goes on to state that she was his “only-begotten” (μονογενὴς) and his “beloved” (ἀγαπητή). Christian readers might hear an echo of a reference to another important figure in those words. Jephthah immediately recognizes what he has done and what is at stake, and he uses rare and strong language in verse 35 to capture his feelings. But he has made a vow to the Lord, and now his daughter has appeared. He cannot back down from his vow. He has to go ahead and sacrifice her. He is caught on the horns of a terrible dilemma, a dilemma brought about by his super-fidelity to God.
Adding to the poignancy of the scene is that while Jephthah is realizing the implications of his statement, his daughter, before she realizes what he has vowed, warmly affirms the importance of daddy’s vow. She knows his faith. She knows how much he loves God and has devoted his entire life to the divine service. “Do to me whatever has come out of your mouth,” she says (v 36). After all, the Lord has avenged you on the sons of Ammon. He has heard your prayer. Now it is only right that you fulfill your vow. That is the gist of Jephthah’s daughter’s words.
We aren’t really told in the text when she realizes the implications of Jephthah’s vow in relation to her. Is it in his tearing of his clothes? His utterance of the words in verse 35? After her words in verse 36? It seems that there is a little meaning hiatus between vv 36 and 37 that may have been the time she realized the implications of his vow, but that is a guess. In any case, she doesn’t complain. She asks for time to bewail her virginity on the mountains with her companions, and it is granted. The chapter ends with layers of sadness, of sadness upon sadness, as Jephthah loses the possibility of heirs and she loses her life. He is the victor over Ammon, but he faces an almost larger loss. Chalk this up not to a rash vow but to a faith that was “too faithful.” And that too-faithful faith resulted from his reaction to abuse and rejection in his younger years.
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