Jephthah and the Dangers of Deficient Theology
The book of Judges is a minefield for even the most experienced Bible readers. Idolatry, civil war, incest, and rape—and that’s just God’s people. Jephthah’s story in Judges 11–12 is particularly disturbing. You know the gist of it: Jephthah, a judge or “warlord,” led the Israelites during the tumultuous period before the monarchy. Oh, and he murdered his daughter.
Many details mark Jephthah as quite an unconventional judge. For example, like Saul later in Israelite history, the people, not God, chose Jephthah to lead them. Jephthah also has a checkered past. That’s not all that surprising—after all both Rahab the Canaanite prostitute and Ruth the widowed Moabitess play key roles in salvation history.
Further, the Lord will tell the prophet Samuel when he is looking to anoint the next king after Saul, “Do not look at his appearance or his stature because I have rejected him. Humans do not see what the Lord sees, for humans see what is visible, but the Lord sees the heart” (1 Sam 16:7, CSB). Nevertheless, it seems significant that Jephthah is by all accounts an outcast—the illegitimate son of a prostitute who was disinherited and driven away by his father’s legitimate heirs, his half-brothers.
Jephthah has fundamentally misunderstood who Yahweh is.
In exile, “a gang of scoundrels gathered around him” (Judg 11:3, NIV). Later, the leaders of his hometown requested Jephthah’s help in fighting the Ammonites. It’s not until after he agrees to lead Israel in fighting the Ammonites and sending a message to that effect to the king of Ammon that the Spirit of Yahweh comes upon Jephthah. And directly after this lighting of the Spirit, Jephthah makes his fateful vow to sacrifice to Yahweh “whatever comes out of the door of my house” in exchange for victory over the Ammonites. This vow, along with his misidentification of the Ammonite god (Jephthah names Chemosh, not Milcom), indicates Jephthah’s lack of theological understanding.
Jephthah’s vow and whether and how it was carried out overshadows the narrative as well as its history of interpretation.¹ Had Jephthah let his statement to the Ammonite king suffice—“Let the Lord who is the judge decide today between the Israelites and the Ammonites”—then the story would have ended with Jephthah’s victory, and thus the deliverance of Israel yet again from their enemies.² But Jephthah doesn’t let his statement stand as-is, instead invoking a vow in an attempt to ensure his victory over Ammon.
Scholars disagree on whether or not Jephthah, one, intended to sacrifice his daughter (could he have envisioned a sheep coming to meet him?), and, two, followed through on the sacrifice. The majority of interpreters, however, and a plain reading of the narrative indicate that Jephthah did murder his daughter, even if his intentions remain ambiguous. What are we supposed to do with that? I think there are at least two aspects to Jephthah’s bad theology that can instruct us today.
First, Jephthah has fundamentally misunderstood who Yahweh is. It’s most obvious in the vow itself, which indicates that Jephthah views God as someone to bargain with rather than submit to: “If you do X, then I will do Y.” As Old Testament Scholar Barry Webb points out, Jephthah is good at negotiating, and now “he has tried to conduct his relationship with God in the same way he has conducted his relationships with men. He has debased religion (a vow, an offering) into a bribe.”³
Sacrifice is not what God requires—and certainly not human sacrifice!
By attempting to bargain with God—offering him something that Jephthah thinks he needs or wants in exchange for something Jephthah needs or wants—Jephthah reveals that he views God through the lens of the Canaanite religions around him. Humans across time and culture are accustomed to bargaining with God, but such give-and-take attempts reveal a deficient understanding of who God is and cast him as something less than the almighty Creator.
Second, Jephthah has misunderstood what the Lord requires of those who live in covenant relationship with him. Centuries later, the audience in Micah would share a similarly deficient understanding of what the Lord requires when they sarcastically ask God if he would be happy were they to sacrifice their own children to him or offer up to him rivers of oil. Sacrifice is not what God requires—and certainly not human sacrifice! Rather, God requires faithful obedience to him—doing justice, loving covenant faithfulness, and walking humbly with him.
Further, in going ahead with fulfilling the vow he’s made, which entails murdering his own daughter, Jephthah shows that he does not fully understand how to interact with God. Had he better understood the laws God had established in the Torah, then he would know that God had made provisions for redemption in the case of foolish vows. He did not, and his daughter paid the price for it.
I would like to say that Jephthah presents a unique case—that most people don’t make enormous, world-shattering mistakes in their understanding of who God is and how we relate to him. But Jephthah’s not really an anomaly. How many of us, me included, have suffered because people misuse and abuse Scripture–even when they don’t intend to. Good theology matters; it’s often the difference between life and death, as Jephthah’s daughter would attest.