Answer me one question about an obscure story in Judges chapter 11, and I’ll tell you what your view of the whole Old Testament is. I’ve argued before that your view of the trees is determined by your view of the forest, and I think the story of Jephthah provides an excellent example of how this works.
In this post I’ll raise the question and you’ll answer it. Next week I’ll offer my analysis of what it all means.
First a summary of the story leading up to Judges 11: entering the Promised Land didn’t solve all of Israel’s problems. They brought those problems across the Jordan with them; escape from slavery in Egypt didn’t end their subjection to sin. After the death of Joshua, the successor to Moses, God’s people descended into a cycle of sin, oppression, repentance, and deliverance that lasted for several hundred years. God delivered his people through a series of leaders called “judges.”
Eighty years after the famous judge, Gideon, delivers Israel from the Midianites the Israelites are back into the bad part of the cycle: they do “what [is] evil in the eyes of the Lord” (Judg 10:6). So God sends the Ammonites and the Philistines against them. As often happens in the cyclical book of Judges, the people repent and cry out to the Lord for help. God’s reply is intense:
Go and cry out to the gods whom you have chosen; let them save you in the time of your distress. (Judg 10:14)
But those words were aiming at a reply, and they worked:
The people of Israel said to the Lord, “We have sinned; do to us whatever seems good to you. Only please deliver us this day.” So they put away the foreign gods from among them and served the Lord. (Judg 10:15–16a)
I love God’s response:
And [the Lord] became impatient over the misery of Israel. (Judg 10:16b)
The characters are poised
The Israelites are repentant, God is impatient, and the Ammonites come and set up an ominous military encampment in the Israelite town of Gilead.
Then God acts, the same way he’s acted throughout the book. He provides a judge, a deliverer: Jephthah. Because he was an illegitimate child, the son of a prostitute, Jephthah’s siblings had booted him from their household. But he’s back, and ready to lead the Israelites to a divine victory.
The story turns tragic
And this is where the story gets tragic. If you haven’t yet remembered from your Bible reading, Jephthah is the judge who makes a terrible, rash vow. Pay careful attention to the wording of that 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 offer it up for a burnt offering.” (Judg 11:30–31.)
The narrator just commented in verse 29 that the Spirit of the Lord was upon Jephthah. So we know what’s going to happen. Of course he and his forces will be victorious over the Ammonites. When the Lord gets impatient over Israel’s misery, it doesn’t take long for him to release his frustration on Israel’s enemies.
Sure enough, Jephthah is triumphant. And as he returns home, his vow hangs in the air.
Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter. (Judg 11:34)
Choose your own interpretation
NOW STOP! Here’s where we get interactive. Don’t peek at the rest of the story in your Bible. That’s cheating. Just answer this question:
What do you think he actually did? Did Jephthah actually sacrifice his daughter? Yes or No. Maybe you remember from past readings—so go ahead, trust your memory. Tell us what you think.[Poll closed]
If you said “Yes,” why did you say yes? You really think a God-empowered, Holy-Spirit-filled judge in Scripture killed and burned his own daughter? As they say in Yiddish, Yeesh.
If you said “No,” why did you say no? If Jephthah didn’t kill his own child, why wasn’t the Bible clearer? Why leave the impression in some minds that he did?
Next week I will reveal my vote, which counts for two because I’m a redhead. And next week, I’ll go somewhere with this. Don’t miss it. I think your answer to my question is a good indication of whether you understand the purpose of Old Testament narratives, even the very structure of the Bible. Stay tuned.
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.