Boy did I get the short straw this week: produce a sermon on Jephthah.
You know, the one who vowed to God that he’d sacrifice his daughter, and then actually went and did it.
Jephthah’s story is quite a tragic one. You can find it in Judges 11 and in the first half of Judges 12. The result of a clinch between his father and a prostitute, he was raised in his father’s family but turfed out by his brothers and the village elders when he came of age. I imagine this was merely the culmination of a lifetime of name-calling and bullying. It’s unlikely they suddenly turned on him.
So he hooked up with a gang of ne’er-do-wells (or ‘worthless men’ – I love the NKJV) and went a-raiding. He lived his life like that until the same village elders who threw him out on his ear, called him back because they thought he was just the sort of person to help them deal with a little border dispute they were having with the Ammonites.
Things started to look up for Jephthah at this point. He proved himself a gifted negotiator and knowledgeable about his own national history. And when it became clear the King of Ammon wasn’t going to be persuaded to drop his territorial claims, Jephthah was empowered by the Spirit to chase after his army.
Sadly, Jephthah used this flush of power and divine appoval to show some of the less attractive sides of his personality. For starters, an apparent tendency to speak without thinking (fancy vowing, without qualification, to sacrifice the first thing that came out of the door of his house when he returned home from victory. Was he used to being greeted at the end of a hard day’s raiding by his pet goat?). Secondly, a tendency to blame other people when his rash actions ended in trouble (yes, the first thing out of the door was his daughter. And Jephthah’s resulting state of depression was, he claimed, all her fault). Thirdly, such monumental pride as to claim he had to see his vow through, despite it being clearly against the Law of Moses, which Jephthah was obviously familiar with.
Even in Biblical times, personal, dramatic interventions by God in the lives of his people are rare. God didn’t speak from the clouds or appear before Jephthah to prevent him carrying out his vow. He fulfilled it, leading the women of Israel to institute an annual lament for the girl who died without ever growing up, marrying and having children of her own.
After this, Jephthah went on to give the English language the word Shibboleth – to us, a “distinctive practice that is indicative of one’s social or regional origin” (Wikipedia), but to him, a means of identifying Ephraimites. Thus identified, several thousand Ephraimites were put to death, and all because their leaders were a bit boorish and unhelpful to Jephthah and his army. Well, OK, they threatened to burn his house down, but still … Gideon dealt with the same bunch of people, in a very similar situation, with a great deal more finesse. And we know Jephthah was quite capable of top-level diplomacy, if the mood took him.
So what do we make of the man who God was pleased to fill with his Spirit, who saved Israel by chasing down an army, but who was willing to sacrifice his daughter and slaughter thousands of his countrymen for pride’s sake? Only what is said of him in Hebrews chapter 11, where he takes his place alongside many of the greatest heroes of the Old Testament, identified by the writer as the great men and women of faith who should inspire us:
32 And what more shall I say? For the time would fail me to tell of Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah, also of David and Samuel and the prophets: 33 who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. (Hebrews 11:32-34, New King James Version)
God used Jephthah, despite his parents, his background, his career choices, his pride and his tendency to make rash promises. And God considers Jephthah to be a man of faith. If that doesn’t inspire you, I don’t know what does!