Friday, August 01, 2008

The Riddle of Jephthah

Judges has to be about the saddest book in the Bible for me. There are probably sadder portions of scripture, the end of 2 Kings, for example, and the end of 2 Timothy is very poignant, but for full on verse after verse chapter after chapter sadness, Judges has to be the nadir. In the time of the Judges, there was no King, and Israel did what was right in their own eyes. Which was a disaster. Will any of these Judges be the promised serpent crusher, or one like Moses, or just an honest judge that won't die?

In chapters 10-12 of Judges we come across Jephthah. At this time Israel was being oppressed from all sides, the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Ephraim were under attack from the Ammonites. Jephthah was run out of house and home by his step family, because he was the son of a prostitute, and spent his formative years wandering in the desert with a band of 'worthless fellows' attached to him. Eventually the Gilieadites turn to him in the war and ask him to lead their people, an offer which he accepts. 

Jephthah fights successfully against the Ammonites, with the Lord on his side, but not ebfore making a vow. He vowed that whatever came out of his house first to greet him would 'be the Lord's and i will offer it up as a burnt offering' (v31 ESV) or shall surely be the Lords and/or i will offer it up as a burnt offering' (v31 KJV). Tragically, it's his daughter who meets him first from his house.

Jephthah is upset, and explains the situation to her daughter. She willingly accepts what's about to happen, but only asks that she might be allowed two months in the mountains to 'weep for her virginity' (v37 ESV). At the end of the two months her father 'did with her according to the vow he had made. She had never known a man'

When i first read this, it seemed like a tragic example of how terrible things had gotten in Israel. Here is a war hero sacrificing his daughter, returning to his old barbarian ways upon his return home. But now i'm not so sure. The Bible doesn't tell us he killed his daughter, but merely, did what he vowed. The and/or in the KJV makes all the difference. Jephthah would have said or because something might have come out his house first, that wasn't suitable for a burnt offering. A dog, or cat, or mouse...or his daughter. His daughter asks to go and weep for her virginity, not her life, she is remembered in verse 40 for four days in the year. Surely a festival wouldn't grow out of a sinful wrong action? Surely Jephthah wouldn't return from fighting the child killing Ammonites to kill his own child, surely no one with the Spirit of the Lord upon them (v29) could make such a foolhardy vow, even in those days? 

As i prepare to go through this for Sunday school this week, i'm struggling to come to any conclusions about the fate of Jephthah's daughter. Is Jephthah at this point a tragic war hero who's lost his daughter, and any change of succession, or is he a foolhardy, blood hungry man, (as he appears in chapter 12) with no fear of the Lord or love for his family?

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