“Now Jephthah the Gileadite, the son of a prostitute, was a mighty warrior.” That’s an interesting introduction sentence. Not many put that information on their business card. Hi, I’m a great warrior and the son of a harlot. The information is necessary as the text goes on to explain that Jephthah’s father had a wife (who was not a harlot) who gave him other children. Turns out the other children – the children of his father’s wife – didn’t appreciate their ‘brother of another mother’ in their face at the dinner table. When the wife’s sons grew up they drove Jephthah out, “No inheritance for you.” Exiled by his father’s legitimate children, Jephthah became a man of the wild. Outlaws collected around Jephthah and went raiding with him. Jephthah rejected by his family of origin becomes skilled outlaw – a Jessie James of the Israelites.
Israelite enemies grew strong and made war on Israel. Someone said, “hey, we need a really good warrior general to lead us in war. How about we get the baddest guy around to fight for us? Let’s ask Jephthah to come back to lead us to victory.”
Jephthah does not let their previous rejection of him go unnoticed, “As a son of a prostitute, I wasn’t good enough for you. You sent me away and wanted nothing to do with me, now you need me and want me to come back?”
“Yes.” So he did. Jephthah came back to lead them. He begins his leadership not by charging the men into battle which one might expect from the baddest warrior around. Instead he began by sending a message to the king of the Ammonites saying, “Hey, why do you want war with us?”
The enemy King returns a message, “Because when your people came out of Egypt, you stole our land. Give it back and we will be at peace.”
Jephthah returns a message, “That’s not the way we remember it. When we were coming out of Egypt, we sent your king a message, ‘We just escaped Pharaoh. We are a homeless nation of refugees. Let us pass through your land.’ Your king said no. We journeyed through the wilderness more and asked again saying, ‘let us pass through your land. Please!’ but the king said, NO. So after asking nicely twice, we fought for it and won it in battle. Our God gave us your land. You, go get whatever land your god gives you.”
Not surprisingly, the enemy king did not agree to surrender their claim to the land.
“Now time for war,” Jephthah says. But before Jephthah goes into battle, this warrior leader prays. That sounds nice. What could be wrong with a prayer- unless it’s not really a prayer, but more of a ‘Let’s Make a Deal’ with God. The text says:
30And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, 31then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt-offering.’
Wait a minute, Jephthah makes a vow to God. Give me a victory in battle, and I’ll give you a burnt-offering. He doesn’t offer a ram or a goat or a dove to sacrifice, but “Whoever comes out of my house to greet me when I return home.” Who does he think will come out of his house to greet him when he returns home from battle? It’s doubtful a stranger will be coming out of his house. It’s not the cable guy or the mail man.
Jephthah goes off to fight these nasty Ammonites. He inflicts a massive defeat. Kills every one of those Ammonites. Goes home a victor! Yay! Let’s all go out and greet the great warrior coming home from battle. Who runs out of his house to meet the homecoming warriors? Who goes to welcome our soldiers home?
Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing. She was his only child; he had no son or daughter except her. 35When he saw her, he tore his clothes, and said, ‘Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.’
Then he told her of the vow he has made, “I told God I would give a burnt offering for the military victory as the first person out of my house – that’s you.” She said, “Well, if you told God you’d kill me, then you’d better do it, but first give me two months so that I may go and wander on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, my companions and I.”
38‘Go,’ he said and sent her away for two months. So she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity on the mountains. 39At the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to the vow he had made.”
Another title for this summer’s preaching series, “I bet you didn’t know that was in the Bible!”
The text said, “he did with her according to the vow he had made.” That’s a pretty delicate description of roasting your daughter alive. It doesn’t describe the gathering and building a pile of wood. He needed a big pile of wood; this is not a little campfire here; he’s not roasting a marshmallow. Then he had to lash her to a post of some sort – it’s hard to stand still with fire all about you. Then he touched the flame to the kindling stuffed at her feet. He heard her scream. Through all of this, he was thinking this pleases God.
So we learn from this story: That at one point and time, our faith ancestors participated in human sacrifice. Hebrews did sacrifice their children. So, if someone says, the church is straying off course, those progressives are getting all loosey-goosey anything goes, let’s get the church back to the way it used to be. Tell them the story of Jephthah’s daughter. Is that the kind of obedience they have in mind returning? When we take up a vision that is returning to the past, we aren’t moving forward.
We also learn a bit about human relationships. We heard that Jephthah blamed his daughter for his actions. He thinks he is the victim of this story! Perpetrators do that to their victims. Domestic violence, abuse, and unhealthy relationships often work that way. The perpetrator tells the victim, “You made me… I wouldn’t have done that if you hadn’t…, it’s your fault!”
We hear a story of a young girl, known through the ages only as “Jephthah’s daughter.” She remains nameless, anonymous, powerless, voiceless. When we keep our victims nameless, they lose their power.
We also hear a commentary on Israel. Mahatma Gandhi said, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” In the initial stages of the Judges Era, when Israel was faithful to God, the women in the stories held positions of power and exercised independent initiative. They were some of the strongest women of the Bible. We heard about Deborah, prophet and judge, last week, but by the telling of this story, fate of women has deteriorated along with Israel’s religious life.
So, here we sit thousands of years later shocked and dismayed at the realization that our faith ancestors practiced human sacrifice of their children. We can easily throw stones and condemn this heartless, patriarchal pig Jephthah from our safe vantage point in 2017… or can we?
We have a national leader who might not have lit a match to start a burnt-offering fire beneath his daughter’s feet, but he certainly stirred a fire in the women in this country. He has claimed the privilege to violate women’s bodies and destroy their dignity as his right through celebrity status. And while we gasp in horror and march in defiance, our nation inaugurated him none the less, and women in this country are feeling the repercussions
Three-hundred-thousand. That’s a big number, and it’s the number of children who are kidnapped and forced into sex trafficking each year according to the U.S. Department of Justice. According to research done by Creighton University, funded by the Women’s Fund of Omaha, there are 900 people for sale online every month in Nebraska, and almost all of them are female. “From that HTI research, we know that 900 individuals are purchased for sex every month, often multiple times, in Nebraska. Based on this number, 70 to 75 percent show some sign of being underage or controlled by a third party – both indicators of trafficking,” Malik says.
Let’s be honest, we sacrifice our daughters. We allow our daughters to be sacrificed too. We might not tie them to a post and light them on fire, but we sell them out to sex trafficking, consumer marketing, social media intimidation, and bullying. We sell them out to gender discrimination, body image shaming and objectification. We sacrifice our daughters to poverty and violence.
This isn’t the last story of the Bible. Israelites came to understand that child sacrifice was not the way of God. They stopped. We can too. They changed their ways and gave up what at one time was central to their way of doing things. They came to new understandings of God of Love not sacrifice. They came to understand God of Justice – not revenge. They examined their ways and turned a new direction.
We can too. By the grace and power of God, we can too.
May it be so.