The First Thing I Lay My Eyes On
The story of Jephthah proves that there are some things you can't take back.
Jephthah makes a deal with the Lord that he soon comes to regret.
Back in the day there once was a man named Jephthah, from the tribe Gilead of Israel, who was a powerful and mighty warrior. If we go by the actual definition of the word, Jephthah was also a bastard (he was born out of wedlock). Jephthah also had a couple of half-brothers who felt that he had no claim to their father’s inheritance and with the support of the family, chased him away.
Sometime after this incident, the Ammonites probably heard that the Israelite hero Jephthah was cast out and decided to wage war on the Israelites. The elders of Gilead went to look for Jephthah and try to convince him to come back and help in the war effort but understandably, Jephthah refused.
After all, they were the people who cast him out as he so eloquently put it:
Judges 11 (New International Version)
7. 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 saw that Jephthah was driving a hard bargain and knew that despite his illegitimacy, he could be the man to save Israel. So, to convince Jephthah to return, they decided to offer him a sweet incentive:
8. 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."
Now when my man Jephthah heard the words “head over all who live in Gilead”, his ears probably perked up and his stance towards returning completely changed. Sure, he might have disliked the family for chasing him out, but they were offering him an opportunity to return.
There was no way Jephthah was going to turn that offer down, but he didn’t want to show his eagerness to the elders that easily, so he decided to play it cool:
9. Jephthah answered, "Suppose you take me back to fight the Ammonites and the LORD gives them to me-will I really be your head?"
10. The elders of Gilead replied, "The lord is our witness; we will certainly do as you say."
11. So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and commander over them. And he repeated all his words before the Lord in Mizpah.
And just like that, Jephthah was back in business!
However, there was no time for him to celebrate his return; he still had to hold up the end of his bargain by ending the war so he began negotiations with the Ammonites, who rejected all his offers.
With Israel on the brink of war, Jephthah gave the Ammonites an ominous final warning that God will settle this war:
27. 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."
But the Ammonites didn’t take heed and thought they would defeat the Israelites.
Did these guys not know just who they were messing with?!? These weren’t some random hill tribes; these were Gods people! They have God as their backup; there was no way the Lord was going to let the people he liberated from the Egyptians just die at the hands of the Ammonites!
However in a case of contingency planning, Jephthah decided to make a deal with the Lord:
30. And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord: "If you give the Ammonites into my hands,
31. whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord 's, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering."
The Lord obliged and gave Jephthah the means to defeat the Ammonites:
32. Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites and the LORD gave them into his hands.
33. He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon.
And the war ended with the Israelites victorious.
With their victory, the Israelites headed back home expecting the celebrations to last long into the night, whereas Jephthah was just looking to be reunited with his family and spend time reconciling.
How unfortunate for the poor man that the following had to happen:
34. 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.
Remember that Jephthah had a deal with the Lord before the war?
Let’s just say Jephthah didn’t take things well:
35. 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."
However to be fair, his daughter took the situation in great stride and let her father carry out his part of the deal with the Lord.
There has been dispute amongst theologians as to what exactly the sacrifice The Lord asked of Jephthah was. For all His sternness, The Lord wasn’t one for human sacrifice (as seen with Abraham) and besides, the Bible contains passages that clearly state that The Lord doesn’t look favorably on human sacrifice.
In any case, if you look at the wording of his vow, you would be led to believe that the guy was probably planning to sacrifice an animal so when his daughter came out, she threw a spanner in the works.
Regardless of what the nature of the sacrifice was, it was a bittersweet moment for Jephthah. He had been vindicated and led the Israelites to victory at the cost of his daughter.
I guess that if anything, the story wanted to show the importance of understanding God and what is and is not acceptable to Him when we want to worship Him.