Jephthah’s Vow…

Jephthah's VowI am reading through the book of Judges and once again ran across the account of Jephthah (ch. 10, 11), which has often been misunderstood. I am reposting an updated version of something I wrote several years ago to help clarify this fascinating story.

Jephthah lived in the area of Israel called Gilead. Though he grew up in a large and important family, Jephthah was never accepted. This wasn’t something he imagined; his rejection was very real. You see, he was born as the result of his father’s sin. His mother was a prostitute and Jephthah was such an embarrassment to his family that they disowned him. In fact, he was considered such a misfit that the entire town rejected him.

He ran away to a barren land and started hanging around with other rejects. They actually became a gang and made Jephthah their leader, and they probably made their living by robbing traders and fighting as mercenaries.

In those days Israel was made up of a loose confederation of tribes with no central government or army. When attacked or abused by a more powerful nation-state, God would raise up a leader (Judge) who would be the means of rescue and protection. Gilead’s nemesis was the Ammonite nation just across its boarder to the east, which had just declared war on Israel.

The Elders of Gilead were desperate and so they sent a request that Jephthah and his little army come and help them. “Why do you come running to me after you didn’t lift a finger to help when I got kicked out of my family?” Jephthah said. “OK, we screwed up. We are sorry that we didn’t do the right thing. Hey, we’re eating humble pie here by asking you to come and help us,” the Elders replied. Jephthah agreed on condition that they take him back into the community and allow him to lead the entire army against the Ammonites. They agreed.

This was Jephthah’s chance to start over and he grabbed it. He moved his family back to his home town and was thankful to God for the opportunity to regain his honor and establish a heritage for himself when his beloved daughter (his only child) was old enough to marry and bear him sons.

Like a wise leader, he negotiated with the Ammonites trying to clear up some historical baggage between them and Israel. However, the Ammonite king was hell-bent on revenge and nixed the peace negotiations. He basically said what we hear from a lot of politicians, “My mind is made up, don’t confuse me with the facts.”

Jephthah had no other recourse except the sword. He gathered his troops and prepared to march toward the enemy. Before he left, he made a vow to the Lord that “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 will be the Lord’s or/and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering” (Judges 11:31).

This was not a bargain, but a vow of gratitude and devotion. Leviticus 27 describes this kind of vow in detail. There was a redemption factor built into most vows so that one could buy back a vowed item by paying a certain value set by the priest. However, if someone dedicated another person in the family (1 Sam. 1:11), animal or family property, these could not be redeemed because they became holy (set apart) to the Lord.

So, when Jephthah returned and saw that it was his beloved daughter who first came out of his house to meet him, he was horrified. Was it because he had to kill her as a burnt offering to the Lord? Here we need to interpret Scripture by Scripture; human sacrifice was an abomination to the Lord and was forbidden because Israel was not to be like the surrounding nations (Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5; Deut. 12:31; 18:10).

Instead, Jephthah was horrified because he had to sacrifice his only hope for a lineage that would come through the marriage of his daughter. Instead she would now live perpetually as a virgin, as one of the women who ministered to the Lord at the Tabernacle (Ex. 38:8; 1 Sam. 2:22). This is why she mourned her virginity; not because she was going to die, but because she would never have children.

The rashness of Jephthah’s vow was not because it condemned his daughter to death, but because it sacrificed her future. It also dashed his hopes; of a family he never had and a dignity that he had never experienced. “Do not be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before the Lord…It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay” (Eccles. 5:2-5).

So, think before you make a vow to the Lord! Just a thought…

Justice was done… he got his

zero dark thirtyI watched the TV movie “SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama bin Laden,” which was released just before the election in November. I thought the timing was interesting and so was the movie. “Zero Dark Thirty,” a full length movie on the same subject had a limited release on December 19th and was released nation-wide on January 13, 2013. I have not seen it, but understand it is very powerful. Most Americans agree that justice was done in the killing of Osama bin Laden last May in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Yes, justice was done but very little else was accomplished.

Someone might say, “Well, it doesn’t matter if justice accomplished anything, we got him; he got what he deserved.” This shows that our understanding of justice is primarily one of punishment. The killer gets killed, the cheater gets cheated, the victimizer gets victimized- “good he got what he deserved”! However, I think this povertizes the concept of justice, and is the very reason why justice for one side will always be seen as injustice by the other. Bin Laden’s followers vowed revenge for his death and the Pakistani Taliban proceeded to send two suicide bombers to attack a paramilitary academy in the northwestern town of Charsadda killing 80 people. It was their first installment of vengeance. “There will be more,” they said; and there has been. You see, this is why “the wrath of man cannot accomplish the righteousness of God” (James 1:20).

Only God can accomplish “perfect justice,” which gets at the true meaning of the word. Justice means to make things righteous or right; to adjust things so that they fit properly together. In the case of bin Laden, if his death was “perfectly just” then it would have led to reconciliation and the resolution of the hatred and bitterness that have separated the West from the Muslim world for centuries. (One could only imagine what perfect justice would accomplish between Israel and the Palestinians.) Does this mean that we should not work for justice in his world? Not at all. However, we need to be aware that justice carried out by sinful human beings in a sinful world will always be inadequate and in dire need of safeguards and boundaries, laws and force.

While this does not let us off the hook of the doing the best we can “to act justly and to love mercy” (Micah 6:8), it should make us yearn for that Day when Jesus will come to judge the world, and when “justice will roll on like a river and righteousness like a never-failing stream” (Amos 5:24). Even Islam believes that Jesus (ISA, Peace Be Upon Him) is alive in heaven and will return from heaven to destroy the Anti-Christ and establish the reign of perfect peace and equity. [Islam does not believe that Jesus is the Son of God and, therefore, when he comes he will deny his divinity and renounce all Christian teaching.] However, we believe that Jesus Christ will come as the very fulfillment of human history, and because he is the Son of God has the authority to judge the quick and the dead. Only then will perfect justice be accomplished and every living thing will recognize the rightness of that justice to the Glory of God. Even so, come Lord Jesus…

The Laboratory of Suffering

9-laboratory-equipment-in-science-research-lab-olivier-l-studioDid you hear about the teacher who was helping one of her pupils put on his boots? He asked for help and she could see why. Even with her pulling and him pushing, the little boots still didn’t want to go on. By the time they got the second boot on, she had worked up a sweat. She almost cried when the little boy said, “Teacher, they’re on the wrong feet.” She looked, and sure enough, they were. It wasn’t any easier pulling the boots off than it was putting them on. She managed to keep her cool as they worked to get the boots back on, this time on the correct feet. He then announced, “These aren’t my boots.” She bit her tongue, rather than get right in his face and scream, “Why didn’t you say so?” like she wanted to. Once again she struggled to help him pull the ill-fitting boots off his little feet. No sooner had they got the boots off when he said, “They’re my brother’s boots. My mom made me wear ’em.” Now she didn’t know if she should laugh or cry. But she mustered up what grace and courage she had left to wrestle the boots on his feet again. Helping him into his coat, she asked, “Now, where are your mittens?” He said, “I stuffed ’em in the toes of my boots.” I will leave it to your imagination as to what happened next.

A young man once asked Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse, pastor of the Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, if he would pray that God would give the young man more patience. Dr. Barnhouse told him “I will pray that God will give you suffering.” The young man was startled and repeated his request. Barnhouse again said that he would pray for God to give him suffering and then explained what he meant by quoting Romans 5:3 “for we know that suffering produces patience.” Patience is the first thing most of us would admit we need, but the way it is normally achieved it’s the last thing any of us would want. Certainly there are those trials which come upon us that leave us numb and bloodied; the death of a loved one, or a tragedy out of the Twilight Zone. As I write this I am thinking of a wonderful family in Massachusetts whose oldest daughter, Kris, has been in a coma for several weeks due to Viral Meningitis. I am also thinking of the great sadness experienced by the family of one of my college roommates who died on Christmas day. They are learning patient endurance as they hang onto their God and His goodness through their tears. Please pray for them.

For most of us, however, our laboratory of suffering is more akin to a mitten in the toe of a boot by comparison. The annoying people at work or school, a selfish spouse, your ungrateful kids, demanding parents, or the frustrating people in your church who don’t see things the way you do. All of these situations are also the petri dishes in which patient endurance grows and develops. Why? Because God uses these situations to show us that everyone else is wrong and we are right, so we have to develop patience in order to live with these yahoos? I don’t think so. Rather, God uses these situations to show us our own loveless and selfish hearts so that we will humble ourselves before Him, repent, and trust His grace and mercy to change us to be more like Jesus. That is why Paul finishes his thought in Romans 5:3, 4 by saying “for we know that suffering produces patience; patience, proven character, and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by his Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”