A Sermon on Judges 11:29-40, Jephthah's Daughter

Russell-Coates Gallery and Museum

My text is Judges 11:29-40. But I’m going to start this sermon with the same prayer I started the last one. It seems appropriate for seminary students, one Thomas Aquinas would pray before his studies…so if you would, please bow your hearts and your heads with me.

Ineffable Creator,

You who are the true source of life and wisdom and the Principle on which everything depends, be so kind as to infuse in our obscure intelligence a ray of your splendor that may take away the darkness of sin and ignorance.

Grant us keenness of understanding, ability to remember, measure and easiness of learning, discernment of what we read, and rich grace with words.

Grant us strength to begin well my studies; guide us along the path of my efforts; give them a happy ending.

You who are true God and true Man, Jesus our Savior, who lives and reigns forever. Amen.

The book of Judges has quite a few summaries of the world where it was written, such as the last verse of the book.

In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes. (21:25)

Or consider this one,

Thus the sons of Israel did not remember the Lord their God, who had delivered them from the hands of all their enemies on every side. (8:34)

I’m not sure if you remember 9/11, but as someone from the States, I can tell you right when and where I was when it happened. I was eight years old, the exact same age as those kids George W. Bush was reading to in Florida when it happened; I was watching it on T.V. at ten in the morning from my classroom when the second plane hit the tower.

And over the next five or so years the replays became embedded in my mind.  And I’m not sure if the sentiment hit Canada quite as hard, but everyone in the States, especially in New York City, but all over the country, came up with varying responses to about the same question. “What am I doing with my life, and is it worth it?”

It hit people hard. And sure, since then, there has been plenty of division and strife, but for one moment in time the same thought seemed to be on everyone’s mind This is what we call ‘collective memory’ how a culture remembers something altogether.

But, what’s funny is you can almost divide the younger generations into two groups, those who saw it and those who didn’t. To them it just isn’t quite as intimate and personal. You see, there are these hinge moments in every society, and if significant events are not remembered, well, they get forgotten to time. And we live our lives differently without those memories.

And in the book of Judges, it portrays a world where everyone has forgotten, the collective memory of what God has done is no memory at all. And it doesn’t just impact what people think of the past, but remembering is a present tense thing that shapes the future. When you forget what God has done, you fail to have faith in the future. Let’s just jump right into the middle of it, a scene you might all be familiar with, the story of Jephthah and his daughter, Judges 11:1.

Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a valiant warrior, but he was the son of a harlot. And Gilead was the father of Jephthah. Gilead’s wife bore him sons; and when his wife’s sons grew up, they drove Jephthah out and said to him,

“You shall not have an inheritance in our father’s house, for you are the son of another woman.”

So Jephthah fled from his brothers and lived in the land of Tob; and worthless fellows gathered themselves about Jephthah; and they went out with him.

Jephthah’s story does not start off as a good one, because he is an illegitimate child, his brothers hate him and he runs away, gathers some worthless fellows around him. The people who drove Jephthah away because he was an illegitimate son beg for him to come back and deliver them from the hand of Ammon.

But the girl we want to focus on, who really is the center of the story comes much later, so we are going to jump to moment farther along in time. And he sends Ammon a message, saying that he is innocent, but if they don’t relent, he will come and fight. Skip down to 11:27,

I therefore have not sinned against you, but you are doing me wrong by making war against me; may the Lord, the Judge, judge today between the sons of Israel and the sons of Ammon.’” But the king of the sons of Ammon disregarded the message which Jephthah sent him.

He claims that he is innocent. So, the question is now, do we trust Jephthah? When he says he didn’t sin, is this integrity? Or is he lying through his teeth? The question is, what does Jephthah do in a world that has forgotten God? Does he truly believe that God is the Judge? And the real question too, is the same one everyone realized in New York City at the time of 9/11,

“If this world is so frail and so broken and my life could be taken from me at any time, how should I react? What should I do in my position of leadership, like Jepthath? To echo Mordecai’s line from the Book of Esther, “Don’t you think you have been put here, in this place and time, for such a time as this?”

So what does Jephthah do with his leadership? It seems so tragic. Let’s go one verse further, to 11:29, and read the scene that is most important to us.

Now the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, so that he passed through Gilead and Manasseh; then he passed through Mizpah of Gilead. And from Mizpah he went on to the sons of Ammon. Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said,

“If You will indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, it shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.”

So Jephthah crossed over to the sons of Ammon to fight against them; and the Lord gave them into his hand. He struck them with a very great slaughter…

…When Jephthah came to his house at Mizpah, behold, his daughter was coming out to meet him with tambourines and with dancing. Now she was his one and only child; besides her he had no son or daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and said,

“Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you are among those who trouble me; for I have given my word to the Lord, and I cannot take it back.”

And, we will pause here, and wait for her response. I’m going to tell you two almost contrary things in this moment. In Scripture, the person who gets the most words in a book, and/or is in the center, typically is the most important. And so in Judges we have Samson as the longest one in the center, his biography, but the one that is fairly long right next to it is Jepthath, and Jepthath’s daughter.

But in this sermon, it is reversed. The person who gets the fewest words, Jeptha’s daughter is the most important. And I know preacher’s often overstate these things for effect, but I am exegetically convicted that she has the most important verses in the whole book; it’ because she sets up the Samson biography. She is a hinge moment in Israelite society. But I have to walk through her father’s life in order to get to her. If you remember, over in Hebrews in the New Testament. Jephthah is in the hall of faith (11:32), right next to Samson, Gideon, and Barak.

So, is he in there because of this vow, or despite it? Right after Aaron died the Israelites made this very same vow, in 21:2, but instead of a daughter they offered up entire cities as a burnt offering. I think we all agree the way she acts is quite noble; but, how does her response correspond to his? Would he really kill his daughter? Is she a dead sacrifice, or a living sacrifice? Was she actually burned or was she dedicated to the service of the tabernacle?

A lot of people seem to think she was burned up: even though the law prohibits human sacrifice; we know that later on, about three-to-five-hundred years later the Israelites sacrificed children to another God, but Jephthah? A judge?

And what complicates it even more don’t you see, is the proximity of the statement, “The Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah” and Jephthah’s vow. There is hardly anything between. Obviously the first thing caused the other, and so the character of God is in question too, not just Jephthah. There are five episodes of Jephthah between here and there.

After apparently having a poor choice of friends, whom he becomes the leader of and goes around protecting Israel, Jepthath starts acting like Yawheh. Now here’s where the ambiguity starts, because Jephthah is a judge that doesn’t hear from the Lord directly. He doesn’t get an angel, like Gideon, or a prophetess, like Barak. It’s just him and what he knows about God’s character. Here’s what happens in chapter 10 and then in 11.

  • The Israelites reject God
  • They find themselves in a predicament.
  • They seek help from the one they rejected
  • And Yawheh refuses to help, but finally does.
  • The Gileadites reject Jephthah
  • They find themselves in a predicament.
  • They seek help from the one they rejected
  • And Jephthah refuses to help, but finally does.

And time after time Jephthah actually proves to be the only competent one among them. Contrary to first impressions, it seems like Jephthah has maturity, knows Yawheh as the Judge, is cool and calculating, and has an impressive ability to improvise. This doesn’t seem like the rash person he is always suspected to be. I just want to point out, though the judges seem to have a lot of moral failing, not each and every one of their actions was awful; but there’s more glimmers of hope than you would see at first glance, at a surface level reading.

Jephthah’s vow is usually attributed to impulse, but every action of his has been thoughtful and deliberate along the way. The way he outsmarted Gilead, the way he defeated Ammon, the way he evaded his brothers who wanted to kill him. Shouldn’t we maybe give him a second look?

It’s popular to be pessimistic these days, haven’t you noticed. ‘The Spirit of the Age’ is filled with fear and negativity. That’s why I think Calvinism is making a comeback (Just kidding, I say this will Calvinistic convictions myself). In all seriousness though, our churches, the evangelical community, are not immune to it. There is that phrase too, the devil is in the details; but, I promise you here, the diamonds are in the details. The book of Judges is read like a downward spiral, starting with Gideon, and ending with that awful scene at Gibea, which seems exactly like Sodom and Gomorrah, the closest thing to a description of hell in the Old Testament.

But in the midst of Judges, there is more hope than you would think. Some people say this is just a change of strategy not a change of heart, that he is coercing God, but I don’t buy it. I’m going to put us on the fast track as to why Jonathan Edwards and others do not think that Jephthah sacrifices his daughter.

  • We already noted that the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah before he did this. So, firstly, the imagery is suppose to resemble a burnt offering. Jepthath clearly is doing this as a model of Abraham’s faith in Genesis 22. Isaac was going to be offered to the Lord too. And the only other place a person gets offered up like a burnt offering to the Lord is Samuel. Hannah dedicates him to the temple. Isaaac, didn’t die. Samuel didn’t die; so, there’s a good chance Jepthath’s daughter doesn’t die, but chose to go to the tabernacle.
  • Secondly, Human sacrifice clearly violates God’s law. The Jephthah that seems to be doing good all this way would have to seriously misstep in order to confuse this. You could always redeem your offering, in this case his daughter. with thirty pieces of silver, And if Jepthath was unfamiliar with the guidelines in 27:1-8, any priest should inform him. Besides, you can’t dedicate unclean animals to the Lord, let alone people. What he did was what he could lawfully do, dedicate her to the Lord – just as an unclean animal could be dedicated to holy service.
  • Thirdly, in 11:31, the verb “to meet” is always used for people, never for a person encountering an animal. The text should probably just read “whoever comes out”, not “whatever comes out.” Jephthah knew that, he knew a woman would come out. Who else would?
  • When men returned from battle, women would customarily come forth in procession in order to participate in celebratory dancing Miriam did it, the women did it for David when he beat the Philistines. Not that surprising of an occurrence.
  • Fourthly, she cries for her virginity, not her death, and one does not imply the other.
  • Fifthly, this seems a lot like a Nazarite vow, the same vow that Samson has next.

But Jephthah’s vow if it is only dedication to the temple requires a response from his daughter. It requires her willingness. Read 11:34-40 with me.

So she said to him,

“My father, you have given your word to the Lord; do to me as you have said, since the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the sons of Ammon.”

She said to her father,

“Let this thing be done for me; let me alone two months, that I may go to the mountains and weep because of my virginity, I and my companions.”

Then he said, “Go.”

So he sent her away for two months; and she left with her companions, and wept on the mountains because of her virginity. At the end of two months she returned to her father, who did to her according to the vow which he had made; and she had no relations with a man.

Thus it became a custom in Israel, that the daughters of Israel went yearly to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year.

But she is the hinge. She is almost exactly in the center of the book. She is the opposite of Samson. Let’s play a game of compare and contrast with Samson and Jepthath’s daughter. Both had vows given to them by their parents, but Samson’s is definitely a Nazarite vow, and hers probably is too.

Yet he touches so many dead things, and eventually tells Delilah about his hair, it’s almost like he pretended he didn’t have it. Samson is male, she is female, clearly, but she was faithful and willing, while Samson was reluctant most of the time. You see Jepthath’s daughter is the one child in the whole book who gets it, the one successful time a father-to-child relationship results in a more sincere, faithful trust in the Lord.

He offers her up like a burnt sacrifice, the imagery is supposed to remind you of Isaac, because Jephthah is the only one with faith like Abraham. The only one with faith like Hannah, who dedicates Samuel to the service of the tabernacle, using the same kind of language. Jephthah is the only one who voluntarily raises up his children to remember the Lord. Do you, or will you raise your children like that? Do they see the kind of faith you have?

And Jephthah has to make this vow. He knows it, to be faithful to the Lord, that he has to remove his great temptation. And what is that greatest temptation in the time of the Judges? The temptation to be king. And being king involves having sons and princes who will one day assume that kingship.

He and his daughter know that to be faithful they can’t have a dynasty.  The same reason George Washington became the first President of the United States, because he couldn’t have kids. You see, Jepthath makes his vow so specific because he knows his daughter is going to come out. Of course she would be the first one to come out.

He prays that the Lord give him the success to save God’s people and do so at the cost of his only child, because he and her both know that the temptation will be there to become a king. What is the main concern of the day in age of the judges.

It was whether Israel would forsake God for a king. Gideon said, “No, no; don’t make me king” but his son’s name is “Abimelech”, my dad is king. Apparently someone thought Gideon was a king! Why do people think Jeptha is was an idiot and a fool when he proved us wrong so many times? It hurts to know your daughter can’t achieve something should would otherwise, have suitors and a family.

And the reason he is sad isn’t because he did something wrong he is going to regret, but because doing the right thing often still hurts. Jesus took that feeling all the way to the cross. How many times has doing the right thing cost you time, and happiness, and pleasure?

But Jephthah’s daughter knows there is something more meaningful than all these. How many times has doing what is right in a relationship, abstaining from sex or over sensuality cost you? How many times has waiting and offering someone else your place and space cost you an opportunity? But it will save you in the future, so long as it is done because of your faith in God.

Jephthah is the one judge who has radical faith in God, and he doesn’t even hear from God directly like Gideon, or have a prophet by his side like Barak did with Deborah, and his daughter is the last person in the book. Jepthath is like that person on the street you look at with disgust, but who at the end of the day, when God looks at the heart, they might be more righteous than you.

Jephthah, Samson, and Ruth, the three most central and important stories in the time of the judged, all allude in one way or another to Genesis 38, Tamar and Judah. Like Judah said to Tamar, “She is more righteous than I,” that’s what Jepthath is like too.

You see, Jephthah’s daughter knows the same thing Ruth knows. If she stays in the place where she is with has opportunity and wealth and prospects her faith will whither and temptation for those things will overwhelm her. The temptation to have a family and such will eventually compromise her circumstances. How many of you go to such extremes to prevent yourselves from sinning?

Jesus talks about cutting of your hand metaphorically? Whatever temptation it may be; would you rather go to the grave or never have your wildest dreams come true to stop yourself from doing it? Do you put your phone out of reach? Do you purposeless take a pay cut so that you have better opportunity to serve the Lord?

Now, I don’t know to what degree this relates to your own life at present, and maybe neither do you. But consider Jesus’ saying that following the Lord involves relativizing all other relationships compared to God, and that’s exactly what his daughter did. In a world where the continual refrain is this generation forgot the Lord, Jephthah’s daughter remembered.

Compared to Samson, Jephthah’s daughter is an angel. Samson is figurative to all of Israel. He represents Israel at its best and at its worst. He has this intense loyalty to his first wife, who was stolen by his best friend, but then falls into his various lusts. But most importantly Samson represents Israel in one way yes, but the women in his life represent the world of the Judges as well.

After Jephthah’s daughter, all the women are either coercive or coerced, they either are mistreating others or are terribly mistreated. Judges actually gives more prominence to women than a number of Old Testament books. Deborah and Jael, Sisera’s mother, but as time passes the women are terribly mistreated. See this book started off with Israelite women having opportunity, and it ends in the girl murdered at Gibea. And so see how amazing this is that she realizes that her father can’t have a dynasty.

By the end, Gideon must forsake his family, Jephthah must offer up his only child (cf. Gen. 22:2), and Samson must die in order for God’s people to experience salvation from sin and oppression. I’m sure you can make the clear connection to Christ. That’s the hope that we have; all these, even his daughter, foreshadow the great redeemer.

These are the redeemers, but I want to ask you if you are like Jeptha’s daughter. Do you have faith in God like that? Will your children? Do you remember?

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