“Then the Spirit of the Lord came on 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, 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.’ 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” (Judges 11:29-33 NIV).
Have you ever made a promise to do something if something happened that we wanted? Perhaps we haven’t done this with God, although sometimes we may try to bargain with him in this way, but most of us have said something similar to someone.
Jephthah was from Gilead, the area east of the Jordan River and south of the Sea of Galilee. He is described as a “mighty warrior” (Judges 11:1). He became the leader of the people of Gilead and led Israel for six years.
The Ammonites, who lived south of Israel, had attacked the Israelites. Although Jephthah sent a message to ask why they had done this, the reason they gave was that Israel had taken territory from them. This territory, of course, had been given to Israel by God. Although Jephthah explained all of this to the king of Ammon, he would not pay any attention to the message (see Judges 11:12-28).
Jephthah put together an army and advanced against the Ammonites. And this is where his promise to God came in. He made a vow to the Lord that if he were to have victory over the Ammonites, then when he returned home he would sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house to the Lord.
Although this might seem to be a rash vow, he probably thought it would be an animal he saw first coming out of his house. The type of houses that were lived in at this time had animals living in close proximity to the people who took care of them, so this would have been a common sight.
Jephthah was victorious! Ammon was defeated and he returned home a hero. But this was when he came to regret what he had said.
“When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels! 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 no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break’” (Judges 11:34-35).
His daughter, his only child, was the first to come out of the house. Jephthah was devastated! Even though it was a rash vow, he realized that once a vow had been made to God it was unbreakable.
This incident makes us uncomfortable because it has someone killing their child as a sacrifice to God. Because God never asked for human sacrifice, nor even considered it, we often try to minimize the impact of his vow. But when we read the remainder of this chapter, we can only arrive at one conclusion: he sacrificed his only child.
If our word only meant as much to us as Jephthah’s did to him! We often go back on our word because of a change in circumstances or because it is no longer convenient for us. From Jephthah, we can learn not only the importance of keeping what we say we will do but also not to make rash promises.
Readings for next week:
16 July – Judges 8
17 July – Judges 9
18 July – Judges 10-11
19 July – Judges 12-13
20 July – Judges 14