We are reading from Hebrews 12 in the Liturgy this week (Monday of the 4th Week) which mentions, among the heroes of ancient Israel, Jepthe. More on that in a moment.
But one of the most strange and horrifying stories of the Bible is the story of Jephthah (Pronounced “Jeff-tha” and alternately spelled Jepthe) and his ritual murder of his daughter. It is a tale of faith and piety gone terribly wrong and a teaching of what happens when error and false religion are substituted for the true faith. It is also a tale of how God can work even with the worst of us to accomplish his ends. Let’s look at this “fractured fable” of a story.
The story of Jephthah is told in Judges 11. He is described as a mighty warrior and would one day be numbered among the Judges of Israel. As the chapter opens we are told:
Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior. His father was Gilead; his mother was a prostitute. Gilead’s wife also bore him sons, and when they were grown up, they drove Jephthah away. “You are not going to get any inheritance in our family,” they said, “because you are the son of another woman.” So Jephthah fled from his brothers and settled in the land of Tob, where a group of adventurers gathered around him and followed him. (Jdg 11:1-3).
Jephthah the Ganger – Tob is a land to the extreme east of Jordan. Having been dispossessed of any personal resources Jephthah became ranked among the roving bands of dispossessed youth who had little to lose. While the text above says describes Jephthah as gathering “adventurers” around him, many translators render the Hebrew as “worthless men” or “ruffians.” In effect Jephthah is a gang member, the head of a group of marauders who allied themselves with local inhabitants who felt over-taxed or had other grievances against local rulers. They sustained themselves by raiding caravans or towns and enemies of their friends.
It is quite a remarkable thing that the likes of Jephthah would rise to Judge Israel for six years. Judges were those who, in the years prior to kingship in Israel, served as charismatic leaders. They usually rose to power in response to some crisis or need.
And, sure a enough, a crisis did arrive that would catapult Jephthah to power. The text says,
Some time later, when the Ammonites made war on Israel, the elders of Gilead went to get Jephthah from the land of Tob. “Come,” they said, “be our commander, so we can fight the Ammonites.” Jephthah said to them, “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 elders of Gilead said to him, “Nevertheless, we are turning to you now; come with us to fight the Ammonites, and you will be our head over all who live in Gilead.” Jephthah answered, “Suppose you take me back to fight the Ammonites and the LORD gives them to me—will I really be your head?” The elders of Gilead replied, “The LORD is our witness; we will certainly do as you say.” So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and commander over them (Jdg 11:4-10).
The Israelites needed a warrior and Jephthah had gained the reputation of being a skilled and fearsome warrior. He would be their man and he came to Judge (rule) over Israel. He first, as a formality, sent messengers to negotiate a settlement with the Ammonites. In a lengthy message he sets forth both an historical and theological basis for Israel’s claim on the Transjordan area to which the Ammonites were now laying claim. Among other things the Israelites had lived in the land over 300 years. But the Ammonites rejected all negotiations. So Jephthah prepared for war. (cf Jdg 11:12-28)
Here is where things get strange. Prior to going to war Jephthah vows a vow. It is an immoral vow, on the face of it. It is a vow that would require something wicked of him. The text says:
Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah. He crossed Gilead and Manasseh, passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from there he advanced against the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, Whosoever shall first come forth out of the doors of my house, and shall meet me when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, the same will I offer a holocaust to the Lord. (Jdg 11:29-31)
This is a wicked vow. It is wrong to vow to kill some as a sacrifice to God. It is forbidden explicitly by to offer any human being in sacrifice to any god let alone Him: You must not worship the LORD your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods. (Deut 12:31; cf also Lev 18:21) It is murder that Jephthah vows. It is false religion that he embraces.
Some have tried to soften the vow by translating the vow as “whatever” comes out of the house, Jephthah would offer in sacrifice. Thus he could have meant an animal. But it is difficult for the Hebrew (צֵא הַ) to support this notion. The gender of the word would have to be in the feminine form to support this theory. But the form is masculine which everywhere else means “whoever” and it is coupled with the verbs “to come out” and “to meet.” It does not usually pertain to things and animals to do this. Hence, it seems the plain meaning of this text is that Jephthah vowed to kill the first human who came forth to meet him upon his return. One may suppose he figured that a slave or servant would be the first to greet him?
What makes the vow even more troubling is that it was generally presumed that one who was called to be a judge had an anointing from God. Verse 30 does speak of the Spirit of the Lord coming upon Jephthah How could one anointed by God be guilty of such a gross violation of God’s law. We can only recall that God’s approval of one area in a person’s life is not an approval of every area of their life. Most of Israel’s greatest leaders had serious flaws: Moses and David had murdered, Jacob was a usurper, Abraham “pimped” his wife and so forth. God can write straight with crooked lines. St. Paul reminds us that we carry the great treasure of God within “earthen vessels.” An old gospel hymn says, “If you can use anything Lord, you can use me.” God does not call the perfect, that much is clear.
The story of Jephthah then has it’s horrible twist and dreadful end:
Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the LORD gave them into his hands. He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon. When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of tambourines! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. 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.” “My father,” she replied, “you have given your word to the LORD. Do to me just as you promised, now that the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites. But grant me this one request,” she said. “Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.” “You may go,” he said. And he let her go for two months. She and the girls went into the hills and wept because she would never marry. After the two months, she returned to her father and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin. From this comes the Israelite custom that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite (Jdg 11:33-40).
In the end, Jephthah is met by his only daughter and is “forced” to fulfill his vow to kill her as a sacrifice. But in fact he is not forced for no one is compelled to fulfill a wicked vow. Yet the plain meaning of the text indicates that did just that. There are attempts by some scholars to try and show that Jephthah really didn’t do it. But, their attempts are very contrived and, in the end, set aside the plain meaning of the text which quite clearly indicates Jephthah went through with his vow.
What happened to Jephthah? We can only speculate. But it would seem that he had come under the influence of the false religions of the pagans. In particular, he seems to have come under the influence of the Canaanite practices of human sacrifice. The Jewish people had often fallen prey to just such a syncretism. Their faith in the God of Israel was often selective and weak. Superstition often drew them to the Baals and other gods of the surrounding nations. Their straying often led them to great wickedness, sexual promiscuity, deviance and even human sacrifice. Jephthah seems to have been among their number. His rejection by his brothers in Israel and his wandering at the fringes of the land were surely factors in his religious confusion and the evil that flowed from it.
And what of us? We too do well to consider the rapid descent into evil of our culture as we have increasingly and collectively rejected the true faith. Things once thought shameful are now practiced proudly by many. Things once thought immodest are flaunted. A terrible toll of abortion also mounts as our children are sacrificed to the gods of promiscuity, contraception, illicit sexual union, career, and convenience. As God has been shown the door in our culture, and kicked to the curb, we have descended mightily in to confusion and corruption, to debauchery and decay. It begins with forsaking faith in the One, True God. This nation, though always pluralistic and non sectarian, did once have a clear place for God. Now He has been escorted to the margins. And we, like Jephthah, are increasingly able and willing to do the unthinkable.
On the Bad Memory of God – One final thought on the story of Jephthah. It occurs to me that God has a “bad memory.” I say this because God the Holy Spirit holds Jephthah up later in scripture for our admiration. It’s right there in Hebrews 11 where Jephthah is said to be among the cloud of witnesses:
And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies….. Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus (Heb 11:32-34; 12:1-2)
It is a remarkable thing to see Jephthah listed among the great Old Testament saints. Perhaps we can say that Jephthah repented? We can surely hope. But it is also possible to celebrate the “bad memory” of God. I hope you will understand, I mean no irreverence here. Scripture says, For I [the Lord] will forgive [my people] their wickedness and will remember their sins no more (Jer 31:34). And also, “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more,” says the Lord (Heb 10:17) I don’t know about you, but I am depending and the “poor memory” of God. I am hoping for a poor recollection on the part of God of certain incidents and passages in my life 🙂 And if Jephthah can make the cut, perhaps there’s hope for me too!
There have been a number of musical oratorios based on the Story of Jephthah. One of my favorites is “Jepthe” by Carissimi. In this first video I have assembled some images to the story and set it to a Chorus from Jepthe by Carissimi. The song is led by the daughter and is one of the happy moments in the Oratorio. The text says, Cantemus Omnes Domino! Laudemus belli principem, qui dedit nobis gloriam et Israel victoriam (Let us all sing to the Lord! Let us praise the prince of war, who gave glory to us and Israel Victory).
The final chorus of Jepthe by Carissimi is a minor masterpiece and a deep lament for the only daugther of Jepthe. The text says: Plorate filii Israel, plorate omnes virgines, et filiam Jephte unigenitam in carmine doloris lamentamini (Weep O children of Israel, weep, all you virgins, and in sorrowful songs lament the only daughter of Jepthe). The final lamentamini repeats over and over as we are drawn into the deep sorrow of loss.