JUDGES 11: HOW CAN A VOW TURN TRAGIC?
HOW TRAGIC CAN A VOW BE?
Have you ever made a promise you wish you hadn’t made, but then felt compelled to honor it? That’s Jephthah’s story in Judges 11, and it goes like this. Once “again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD” (Judges 10:6), and the Ammonites are about to wage war against them. Although Jephthah’s resume as the son of a prostitute would not normally make him the top candidate for the role of a judge/deliverer, he is, after all, “a mighty warrior” (Judges 11:1), so the Israelites call on him to lead them. Jephthah initially tries to use diplomacy to avoid war, but when the Ammonite king doesn’t back down, there’s nothing left to do but knuckle under or fight.
So, when “the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jepthah” (v. 29), he decides to fight, and the reader knows by now that the outcome of the upcoming battle is not in doubt. As Jephthah advances against the Ammonites, he makes a vow that proves to be the most foolish thing he ever says. He vows that if God will give him victory he will offer as a burnt offering whatever walks through his door upon his return home. God gives Jephthah victory (v. 30). What follows is one of the saddest, most troubling, and most bizarre stories in the Old Testament. It’s hard to read and even harder to comprehend.
The "what" walks through the door would not be an animal but a very special human being to Jephthah. The "who" walking through the door upon Jephthah’s return home is his only child, a precious daughter, dancing joyously to the sound of tambourines. Jephthah is heartsick and overcome with regret because he believes his vow requires him to offer his daughter as a burnt offering. But, instead of reversing his vow, he tells her he cannot break his vow to the LORD.
Trying to deal with the horrific nature of this story, some well-meaning interpreters have attempted to make these verses say something other than what they say. Some have said that Jephthah thought an animal would come through his door, but that’s not likely. Others have suggested that it meant Jephthah’s daughter could never marry and would remain a virgin all her life. But that’s not what the passage says. As hard as it is to stomach, Jephthah had vowed to make a human sacrifice to God if God would give him victory—he just never expected his beloved daughter to be the first thing to walk through his door.
Deuteronomy 12:31 says human sacrifice is “detestable” and something “the LORD hates.” God certainly did not approve of Jephthah’s vow or his resolve to fulfill it. It was a stupid vow which he should never have made. Then, why did Jephthah make such a vow?
Timothy Keller believes that Jephthah had grown so accustomed to the violence of the cruel pagan cultures around him (which included human sacrifice) that offering a human sacrifice wasn’t a shocking thought to him. Keller suggests another reason that may strike closer to the core of the matter, and that is that Jephthah had no concept of a God of grace. He saw God as basically like the pagan gods whose approval required lavish sacrifices. Jephthah seems to believe that if he breaks his vow, God will strike him down, which essentially means he didn’t really know God and didn’t trust him.
Two next step applications. First, we must be extremely careful with our words. Jesus even warned us about making vows. Jesus tells us to simply let our “yes” be “yes” and our “no” be “no” (Matthew 5:38-42). The broader principle is that we must control our tongue (James 1:19, 26; 3:3-6). What we say can get us in a lot of trouble and can hurt other people deeply.
Second, Jephthah demonstrates how much we can be influenced by the culture around us. We are all far more influenced than we realize. We are not nearly as influenced by the Bible as we might think. Consistent reading and study of the Bible will help us not to be conformed “to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).
Lord, how many times have my words gotten me in trouble and also hurt other people? Please forgive me and help me be much more careful with my words, both spoken and written. Fill my mind and heart so full of your word that your Spirit transforms and changes me from the inside out, no longer conforming to this world, but thinking and acting more like you every day. In Jesus' name. Amen!
Dr. Dan Dozier
Dan Dozier preaches for the Rural Hill Church of Christ in Antioch, TN. Dr. Dozier holds degrees from Lipscomb University, Harding School of Theology, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a Doctorate from Abilene Christian University. He has been married to his high school sweetheart, JaneLee, since 1972. They have three married children and eight grandchildren.