“And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.'” (ESV – Read the chapter)
Here we see yet another dark chapter in the record of the judges. Jephthah was a scoundrel and an outlaw. When the leaders of Gilead sought him out, they had not sought the Lord. In fact, although we are told near the end of chapter 10 that the Lord had grown impatient over their misery, He had told them rather explicitly that He was not going to come and save them this time because they had shown over and over again their dogged intention to reject Him. He does relent a bit and helps the guy they foolishly choose win the battle, but beyond that He does not have a hand in the events here.
That’s important to understand in light of these couple of verses and their aftermath. This is a troubling passage to many and for good reason. Jephthah’s vow is awful. He essentially promises to offer God a human sacrifice in exchange for victory. Yet this is not something God commanded or expected. He had already sent His Spirit into Jephthah which, as the rest of the book demonstrates, was the key to victory, before this vow was made. Jephthah was going to win because God was with Him. This vow is something Jephthah made as an extra bit of insurance he felt he needed. Nothing about it was sanctioned by God.
In fact, there is no comment on God’s thoughts on the vow at all. Jephthah tells the Lord he’s going to do this and doesn’t wait around for an answer. And, from the full record of the Old Testament, we can say with a high degree of confidence that God would not only have not expected this vow, He would have not wanted him to make it in the first place. Everything about it was wrong. At its core, it was pagan, magical thinking the likes of which Israel’s enemies would have used to try and gain some control over God. And, while Jephthah honors his vow, even that we are not told God expected or wanted.
So, what do we do with this? Well, for starters, we don’t make ungodly promises to God to try and get Him to do what we want. We cannot control God. We have no power over Him and nothing we will ever do or say will give us such a thing. He is God and we are not and that distance will never close or even lessen a bit.
Second, when we set off on a path of action and do not bother to bring God along, we are setting ourselves up for pain and heartache and failure. We shouldn’t expect otherwise. Even still, our God won’t simply abandon us to our fate. He loves us too much for that. Even when we rush off into the wilderness without consulting Him or looking back to see if He’s coming with us, He will still often keep us from completely undoing ourselves.
Third, this is another of those hard episodes that the Bible simply presents as having happened. We must not take the lack of formal condemnation as a commendation of it. The overall picture of the Scriptures clearly reveals that it is an example to be avoided, not followed. We must read the Scriptures with wisdom and interpret one hard passage in light of the whole. Sometimes the best lessons can be learned from the failures of others. Let’s make sure we pay attention and don’t repeat them.