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Difficult Passages: Jephthah’s Faithless Vow

Last Week, I talked about an episode at the end of Judges. This week I’m going right into the middle of it. Someone from Facebook suggested I look at Jephthah. This passage, along with last week’s and a few others I’m going to attempt to tackle, was first brought to my attention as a problematic passage through the book, by Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror. There are a few things you should know about that book before you go out and buy it. 1) She is incredibly detailed ad technical author. 2) She is a feminist theologian, which puts her theologically left of center. 3) Despite being a feminist theologian she does not seem ready to simply discredit or neglect the biblical text. In fact, she seems to take it very seriously and refuses to simply state it is “hopelessly misogynistic” as some of the more radical feminist theologians do. In the book, then, she reads the stories of four women who have somehow been mistreated in the text, and examines the story from their perspective. The result is that the passages seem very troubling and tragic. Rather than offer an easy solution to the texts, she simply leaves it there, having told the woman’s story. In the vein of the numerous responses to that book, I am attempting to broaden the perspective and demonstrate that the texts are, while still tragic, at least are not out of step with the rest of Scripture, and in particular the gospels.

Today’s Passage

Today’s passage is the episode involving Jephthah and his unnamed daughter. It can be found in Judges 11. Here’s the summary. Jephthah has been appointed judge over Israel, despite being rejected by his own family earlier. Although he is reluctant, as many judges were, he accepts the post and, following negotiations that breakdown, heads into battle. Prior to any action taking places, the text clearly states that the “Spirit of the LORD came on Jephthah.” In the Old Testament, the Spirit of the LORD would only come upon one person (at Pentecost the Holy Spirit comes upon the entire Church). Particularly in the book of Judges, this was an indication that whatever task the judge was about to do would be successful. So Jephthah already had victory.

It is at this point that Jephthah makes a faithless vow. He does not seem to believe God will let him win until he makes a foolish and rash vow to sacrifice whatever comes “out the door” to greet him upon his return. It seems the indication was that he would be killing some person, which is a clear violation of the law. Although vows were intended to be kept, only vows that the LORD would honor would fall into this category, not such rash and criminal vows.

So, Jephthah wins the battle and his daughter comes out to congratulate him. For some reason, Jephthah feels he is bound by his vow and so sacrifices her. In light of what I said last week, that the judges are not to be held as models to emulate, we might be tempted to interpret this passage the same way. However, we have an additional hiccup. Jephthah is mentioned again in the New Testament. Specifically, he is mentioned in Hebrews 11 in the section that is known as the “faith hall of fame” by many. So how is it that a faithless man is counted in this cloud of witnesses when Hebrews is talking about keeping the faith? Is his sacrifice somehow good? Can we trust such a God who would condone, or even honor this behavior?

How I’d suggest looking at it

Well, I’ve already said something about the passage in itself as far as the character of Jephthah. We do need to look at what it means for him to be included in Hebrews 11. Does his inclusion there say that his actions were therefore correct? Well, let’s look at who is included in Hebrews 11. The characters mentioned there are by no means of sterling character. They all did something great for the Lord, but they weren’t perfect, and often made large mistakes. And yet, they are part of the people of God, the great cloud of witnesses, and are examples of faith, even if we don’t emulate them in every way. Not to single Jephthah out, because this could be said about anyone, but he is fallen and flawed to the core. His vow was a faithless vow. It seems as though the writer of Hebrews might be indicating that even someone like that is included as an example of faith. Why? Because ultimately faith is not about you, it’s about God. People are faithful, not at least all the time. We are fickle and easily prone to emotional shifts. Yet God is faithful. Maybe it’s not as important that you are faithful to God, but that God is faithful to you. Maybe faith is really about mercy and God’s grace. Maybe Jephthah did make a mistake, but God used him anyway, in the midst of his error. If God could do that, maybe he can use you too. It’s not about your faith, but God’s faithfulness.

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4 thoughts on “Difficult Passages: Jephthah’s Faithless Vow

  1. Just curious, but is there any evidence of a separate tradition surrounding Jephthah that could be influencing the Hebrews 11 text?

    I forgot that he was included there, and it makes me wonder if there is not something more that we have extant (or is lost) to give us further clues into how the author and (at least parts) of the early church interpreted his tradition.

    • It’s possible, and I’ve certainly heard people suggest that this was what is at play in Hebrews 11, but I’ve seen no evidence of it (and it doesn’t look like anyone else has either). There is an interesting stream of interpretation that says the sacrifice was that his daughter would remain a virgin. This was first suggested in the 18th century. The problem is, while it may resolve some of the difficulty in the passage, one has to bend the text quite a bit to get there. The plain meaning just seems to be that she was actually sacrificed

  2. Deborah on said:

    Again, great commentary Trey. To add a little levity, perhaps Jephthah thought the Mrs.might be the first one out the door.

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