Thoroughly Equipped: Hasty Vows

I’m back!  I had to take a week off, but am excited about getting back to studying with you!

Today’s reading includes Judges 11:1-12:15, John 1:1-28, Psalm 101:1-8, Proverbs 14:13-14.

Jephthah was one of the judges of Israel.  He ruled for six years.  His situation was a unique one in that his background was questionable, and his people questioned his association with them until they realized they needed him.  His father was Gilead and his mother was a prostitute.  After Gilead died, his half-brothers disowned him and forced him to leave the area.  Later, they realized they needed him, as he was a great warrior.  Finally, he had a chance to redeem himself and overcome the shadow of suspicion due to his tainted heritage.  In his zeal for victory (and for proving himself), he made a hasty vow to the Lord.  He said that if the Lord gave him victory over the Ammonites, he would sacrifice to the Lord whatever came out of his house to meet him.  Surely, he envisioned a servant or slave being the first one to come out of the house.  But to his dismay, his only child, his beloved daughter, came out joyfully celebrating his return.

He was devastated.  He tore his clothes in anguish and cried out, “You have completely destroyed me!  You’ve brought disaster on me!  For I have made a vow to the Lord, and I cannot take it back.”

Her calm submission and her insistence that he keep his vow is surprising to say the least.  Her only request is for a two-month grace period, so that she and her friends could mourn the fact that she would die a virgin.

This passage is disturbing and confusing.  For Jephthah to offer his only daughter as a sacrifice to the Lord is a bit barbaric.  However, it is a foretaste of what God Himself would do in the future.  Like Abraham called to sacrifice his only son, so Jephthah sacrifices his only child, only this time God does not intervene.  The difference, however, is that Jephthah made a rash vow to the Lord.  This is warned against in several passages in the Bible.

As I studied this passage, I found that there are two main interpretations of Jephthah’s vow.  Some scholars say that Jephthah kept his vow to God (though God did not request that he make this vow) and killed his daughter.  Some scholars, however, bring up some interesting points about the translations of the wording and the customs of the day.  Some believe that Jephthah did not actually kill his daughter, but he killed the seed within her, thus killing her purpose and her future, by dedicating her to the Lord as a life-long virgin.  This view makes sense to a certain degree, as it explains why the daughter asked for two months to mourn the fact that she would die a virgin, rather than mourn the fact that she would lose her life.  In either case—through sacrifice or through dedication—she would die a virgin.  It would also make sense why Jephthah said, “You have completely destroyed me! You’ve brought disaster on me!”  He had worked so hard to overcome his illegitimate heritage.  Whether through death or dedication, his family would end without any future generations.

It is interesting to note that hundreds of years later, Jephthah was listed in the Faith Hall of Fame in Hebrews 11.  What did he do to be acknowledged in this esteemed listing?  We must conclude that he was a sinful man, just as we all are.  We must also conclude that God’s mercy and grace overrides our sinfulness and when that is washed away, he sees the true state of the heart.  That state of Jephthah’s heart was faithful, despite a tainted heritage, despite a sinful past.  Read what Betsy McPeak has to say on the website,

If Jephthah did sin either by making a rash vow or by sacrificing his daughter, he is still listed in Hebrews as one of the faithful.  But then so is Rehab who was also a prostitute.  But then so is Gideon who made a golden ephod with which Israel played the harlot.  But then so is David who took another man’s wife and then had her husband killed.  But does this not give us all hope that we can be considered faithful, even though we make huge mistakes?

We must also remember that just because the Bible reports events does not mean that it sanctions the events.  The narratives of the Bible describe what happened, but we ought not to treat the descriptions as prescriptions.  We find it difficult when particular acts are not commended or rebuked within the historical narratives of the Bible.  But when Scripture is silent in one place we must let the whole counsel of God speak.  The narrative in Joshua does not commentate on the immorality of Rehab’s harlotry.  But the law of God tells us clearly elsewhere that harlotry is wrong.  In Jephthah’s case, it is unclear exactly if and how he was sinful in his vowing, and since there is no internal commentary on those actions, we must look elsewhere for principles on vows.  The Biblical passage does not say that God was bloodthirsty or desirous of a human sacrifice!  Dawkins and other atheists attribute those qualities to God without textual support.

We certainly do not think that CNN approves of every murder it reports, or that historian Robert Leckie approves of every event he records in George Washington’s War.  We must treat the narratives of the Bible as narratives.

We must never be more clear than the Bible is.

UNCLEAR:  Did Jephthah make a rash vow? Did Jephthah’s vow contain an either/or element?  Did Jephthah sacrifice his daughter in the end or did he just devote her to the Lord in temple service?  Did Jephthah sin in making the vow?  Did Jephthah sin in keeping the vow?  What did God think of Jephthah’s post-war actions?

CLEAR:  God’s law prohibited child sacrifice (Leviticus 20:1-5; Deuteronomy 12:29-32; Deuteronomy 18:10). God’s law made a provision to deal with the guilt of rash or thoughtless vows (Leviticus 5:4-13).  Vows to the Lord are not required, but if they are made, they must be kept if lawful (Deuteronomy 23: 22,23).  When a person vows to give persons, cattle, houses, or land to the Lord, ordinarily, there is a way to redeem what was promised through a sacrifice, although the firstborn is not included in the redemption possibility, because the firstborn is already devoted to the Lord (Leviticus 27). Jephthah and other imperfect followers of God are said to be faithful (Hebrews 11).

So how do we make sense of Jephthah when in a conversation with an unbeliever?  Perhaps we could say something like this:

We  know that Jephthah was a valiant man, because the Old Testament tells of his bold leadership and trust in God in a battle defending against those trying to take Israel’s land.  Jephthah is also recorded as being faithful in the book of Hebrews.  But just because he was faithful, does not mean he was perfect.  Hebrew scholars and theologians disagree on the details of the Biblical account of Jephthah’s vow.  But whether or not Jephthah sinned regarding the vow and in whatever happened with his daughter, we can be sure that if he did do wrong, God did not approve of it.  We know this because of the clear passages that tell us what God thinks about vows and human sacrifices.  The Bible does not condone every event that it reports.  Narratives and histories do not always give moral analysis of the accounts they record.  We know from clear passages that God does not approve of child sacrifice or rash vows, therefore if Jephthah did either of those, God did not like it.  That God allows evil, whether that applies to this case or not, shows that God made man in His image – including the dignity of choice – not that He approves of evil.  If God approved of evil, He would not orchestrate such a costly plan to defeat it. 

2 Comments Thoroughly Equipped: Hasty Vows

    1. Avatar photoSara Berry

      Thanks for studying along with me! I certainly don’t understand everything (or even most things!), but I believe the Holy Spirit can teach us what He wants us to know.


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