There have been times where I needed to make a decision about something, and so I would sort of leave things to fate. If such-and-such happens, I would tell myself, I’ll do this; and if the thus-and-such happens, I’ll do the other thing. In a way, I was leaving the matter in God’s hands; which might sound very pious and worthy, except that almost invariably events always fell out so that I’d wind up having to make the decision for myself anyway. It was as if God was saying, “Oh no, you don’t! You aren’t getting out of it that easily! It’s your decision, YOU make it!”
So I pretty much know better than to try making those sorts of deals with God anymore. They never turn out they way I expect.
Although they’ve never gone as badly as they once did for a guy named Jephthah.
During the period in the history of Israel prior to the establishment of the Monarchy, the individual Tribes of Israel were ruled by Judges, leaders who seem to have mostly served as arbiters and lawgivers, but who sometimes would lead their tribe, or on rare occasion a coalition of tribes, into battle.
The Book of Judges describes successive cycles in which the people would fall into apostasy, worshiping the local Canaanite gods; then face attacks from hostile nations; then ultimately be delivered by hero. Samson is probably the most famous of these heroes, followed by Gideon, who has a nice, adventurous story that goes over well in Sunday School. Many of the Judges get only brief mention. In the middle of these, though, we have Jephthah, whose tragic story is alluded to briefly by Hamlet, but who mostly gets overlooked.
Jephthah lived in Gilead, the territory east of the Jordan river, and belonged to the tribe of Manasseh. His father was named also named Gilead and might have been a person of some importance in the region. His mother, mother, though was a prostitute, and Jephthah bore a social stigma because of this. Gilead seems to have adopted his illegitimate son, but Jephthah’s half-brothers drove him out of the family so that they wouldn’t have to share their inheritance with him.
Jephthah settled in the land of Tob, which I assume was near Gilead, and gathered a group of fellow outcasts around him. The King James Version calls his followers “vain men”; other translations call them “worthless” or “empty” men, or even "outlaws". The NIV diplomatically calls them “adventurers”. His band of mercenaries must have been successful, though, because Jephthah gained a reputation as a mighty warrior.
This is why, when the tribes of Israel found themselves beset by the Ammonites from the East, the elders of Gilead sought out Jephthah asking him to lead them in battle.
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.” (Judges 11:7-8 NIV)
Jephthah takes some convincing, but once he is assured that the elders are serious about their offer, and the offer is ratified by the populace, Jephthah agrees to become Commander-in-Chief of Gilead.
Here the story takes an unusual digression, something we don’t usually see in these Bible stories about battles. The first thing Jephthah does upon taking command of Gilead is to engage in some diplomacy.
Then Jephthah sent messengers to the Ammonite king with the question: “What do you have against us that you have attacked our country?”The king of the Ammonites answered Jephthah’s messengers, “When Israel came up out of Egypt, they took away my land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, all the way to the Jordon. Now give it back peaceably.”
Jephthah responds with a rather lengthy message, stating the case for his tribe’s right to possess the Transjordan. The gist of it is that to begin with, Israel took this particular territory from Sihon, the king of the Amorites, not from the Ammonites, who moved into the region later. Secondly, that the Israelites had conquered it fair and square. (“Will you not take what your god Chemosh gives you? Likewise, whatever the LORD our God has given us, we will possess.” (Judges 11:24)) Lastly, Jephthah observes that the Israelites had held these lands for three hundred years now. “Why didn’t you retake them during that time?”
“I have not wronged you, but you are doing me wrong by waging war against me. Let the LORD, the Judge, decide the dispute this day between the Israelites and the Ammonites.” (Judges 11:27)
The king of the Ammonites isn’t impressed by Jephthah’s argument and simply ignores it; or perhaps he likes the idea of fighting it out and letting their respective gods settle the matter. In either case, the die is cast, and Jephthah advances his forces to meet the Ammonites.
Before the battle, Jephthah makes a vow unto the Lord: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph form the Ammonites will be the LORD’S and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.” (Judges 11:30-31) And then Jephthah proceeds to kick Ammonite butt. “The LORD gave them into his hands” the text tells us, and Jephthah devastated twenty Ammonite towns.
Happy ending, right?
You might recall I said that Jephthah is brought up in Hamlet, didn’t I? Well, Hamlet wouldn’t have mentioned him if he wasn’t tragic. “O, Jephthah, judge of Israel, what a treasure hadst thou!” Hamlet says to Polonius. “One fair daughter and no more / The which he loved passing well.”
I’m sure you can see where this is going.
When Jephthah returns home to the town of Mizpah after his victorious campaign, the first one to come out of his house to greet him is his daughter, his only child, who is dancing in celebration.
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.” (Judges 11:35)
His daughter bows to the inevitable. Since he has made a promise, he must fulfill it. She only asks her father one thing: “Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.” (v. 37) And so he does. And two months later, she comes back. And then, the text simply says, “he did to her as he had vowed.”
What kind of a God makes demands like that? Well, strictly speaking, God didn’t; Jephthah made the vow himself and has only himself to blame. But couldn’t God have intervened and prevented the daughter from being the first one to meet Jephthah? Maybe. But if we’re going to go that route, God also could have intervened and prevented Jephthah from making the stupid vow in the first place, or prevented his stepbrothers from kicking him out of his family, or prevented king Sihon from attacking the Israelites three hundred years previously.
There are places where the Bible depicts God as the micro-manager, fiddling with the lives of his people and laying down precise rules and regulations; but in other places, the Bible seems to show God sitting back and letting people deal with the messes they’ve made by themselves, and try to work out for themselves what he wants them to do. And this seems to be one of the latter.
This story seems to me like a relic from a transitional period, between a more barbaric era in which human sacrifices were common, or at least not unheard of, and a comparatively more humane one in which sacrifices were limited to livestock and agricultural produce. The story has some parallels with the story of how Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son, Isaac; and perhaps the Isaac story reflects the same kind of transition. But more than Abraham and Isaac, I see parallels between the story of Jephthah and his daughter and the Greek legend of Agamemnon and his daughter Iphigenia.
Did Jephthah have no options? The Learned Rabbis who wrote the midrash commentaries on the Scriptures pretty much agreed that it is no sin to break a vow if fulfilling that vow meant performing an immoral act. One midrash states that Jephthah was an ignorant man with an unsophisticated understanding of God, and that if only he had gone to consult Phineas, the high priest at that time, he might have been better advised. But Jephthah was too proud to go to the priest; and Phineas was too proud to go to Mizpah to visit the Gideonite bastard; and so both men suffered tragedy.
But some interpreters have tried to give the story a happier ending. Just as the Lord provides a ram as a substitute for Isaac in the story of Abraham and Isaac, (and as a fawn is used as a substitute in the story of Agamemnon and Iphigenia), it’s been suggested that Jephthah also found a way to fulfill the letter of the vow. The idea is that Jephthah kept his daughter in seclusion rather than allowing her to marry, or that she dedicated the rest of her life to serving God. Essentially, she becomes a nun; either way, she remains a virgin.
Perhaps this seems like something of a stretch in order to get a happy ending (such as it is), but one point in its favor is that the vow “whatever comes out … will be the LORD’S, and I will sacrifice it…” could also be translated as “… will be the LORD’S, OR I will sacrifice it;” meaning that Jephthah has the option of either sacrificing his daughter, or dedicating her to the Lord.
The text is vague; it gives no details, other than to mention a tradition that arose from this episode:
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. (Judges 11:39-40).
This verse is the only mention of such a custom, either in the Bible or in any other Jewish sources, so perhaps it was a local tradition in Gilead that fell out of practice. But in this custom, the innocent and blameless girl received more honor than her rash and warlike father.