Saturday, 25 August 2012

The Jephthah Dilemma

A nice posting appears on the Auckland Theology blog by Caroline Blyth, called "Before you say a word..."  it's a shortlist of the stupider examples of 'verbal folly' (foot in mouth disease) recorded in the Good Book.  There's the story of Jephthah, the genius who vowed to make a burnt offering of the first thing to meet him on his return home - only to be met by his daughter (who was he expecting, his mother-in-law?)  Adam, the excuse-maker (it was the little woman who did it!), and Yahweh himself, enjoying a gentlemen's wager, and in doing so agreeing to the ruin of Job and the murder of his kids just so the Adversary could prove - or not prove - a point.

What do we do with stories like these, apart from grimace?  Even allowing for the characteristics of the various genre - what edifying lessons are there to be learned?  Preachers strain mightily in such tasks but, as it says in Ecclesiastes, usually bring forth little more than wind.  Is the very best possible something like "look before you leap"? 

In the case of Job it's generally agreed that the author has an intentionally subversive agenda, so perhaps we can cut some slack there.  Even then, literary subtlety in a largely preliterate society would, you have to suspect, have been an underdeveloped skill, and dangerously easy to misinterpret.  Do we risk imputing shades of meaning and depth where none were intended?  Obviously. The finger pointing in Eden is more a cause for hilarity than reflection, and a wonderful resource for cartoonists.  The Jephthah incident simply horrifies us, moreso because there's absolutely no indication in the text (Judges 11) that he did anything wrong by following through on the vow; the poor chap had no choice! 

So what  do those of us who love the Bible, warts and all, do with stories like these, apart from avoid shallow homilies?  Yes, you can "preach against the grain", but why bother with something so counterintuitive when we could all be enjoying a nice selection from Tolstoy instead?

I doubt there's a short answer.  Therein lies the problem.


  1. It's not on the same plane as heinous cruelty committed by God's people, but one of my favourite biblical dilemmas is the story in 2 Kings 3 where Israel, Judah and Edom go to war against Moab with Yahweh's blessing and promise of victory. But when the Moabite king sees he's losing, he sacrifices his own son to the Moabite god (Chemosh) and it works. The Israel-Judah alliance is defeated.

  2. I rather like this useful story. "

    " And the LORD was with Judah; and he drave out the inhabitants of the mountain; but could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron. (Judges 1:19)"

    Evidently the lesson is that if you wish to avoid defeat by the Lord, invest in chariots of iron. Like kryptonite, the Lord simply cannot compete with them. I am suspecting all of his energy went into drowning the Equptian charioteers in the Red Sea and never quite recovered the strength to do it again. :)

  3. During the period of the Judges, God had a specific relationship with Israel and Judah. It was not a relationship characterized by gracious engagement. God let Jephthah do something unwise. God lets us do things that are unwise every day. If he did not, we would scream about "lack of autonomy."

    In the case of the chariots of iron, God permitted his support to extend only so far because of his purposes and plans. Other scriptures can be consulted to understand the extent of God's powers and that will place this scripture in context.


    1. Then there are people who think they have to defend God and his incompetence as a God and will make up any excuse for him until it becomes ridiculous. Oh, and those mysterious "plans" that no one knows about but certain people think they know all about 'em - even though it's a secret, shhhh.

  4. Seems to me that you are scratching the surface of problematic biblical stories.

    What do you do with stories of the atrocities that are God-ordained:

    the drowning of every single man, woman, and child on earth, except Noah's family;
    the killing of every first-born son in Egypt from infant to old man;
    the total destruction of entire tribes/cities (men, women, and children) in Canaan;
    the selling of daughters into slavery;
    the taking of virgins as spoils of war

    . . . and the list goes on. Jephthah's dilemma is mild faux pas by comparison.

  5. All books contain a certain amount of vicarious experience. This is of value because life is not 100% "good" or 100% "bad". When we hear of the consequences erroneous thinking or wrong decisions bring about, it is just as instructive, in fact possibly even moreso, than simply being told what is "right" or "good".

    This stuff that has been brought up is thought-provoking. The fact that some of it is catalogued here is proof
    positive that it is still provoking thought and discussion. With that in mind, it's difficult to fault the Bible, at least on that basis.


  6. It is not surprising that everyone who commented on this topic is either confused or completely mystified by the story of Jephthah. Jephthah was a strange child, being the child of a harlot. He was therfore outside the natural mecy of God, because he was in same condition as the Gentiles.

    His calling and redemption was a prophecy of the eventual calling of the Gentiles, which began with the calling of Cornelius, and continues to this day through the revelation that was given to the chosen vessel.

    The sacrifice of his daughter, who was a virgin, was not a disaster-as is believed by the unwise! It was the greatest blessing that God could have bestowed on her and her father(1 Corinthians.7:34).

    Jephthah is mentioned in the epistle to the Hebrews as a man of faith.

    Of course, the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven can only be understood by Jesus' true disciples(Matt. 13:11). So it in not surprising that many are appalled and confused by God's mercy.

  7. I'm not confused nor mystified at all. The only mystery is how the key points in the story of Jephthah managed to survive being edited out of the bible, or at least toned down, over the years. Yet, there it is. This story was clearly written at a time when human sacrifice was common and accepted, and at a time when keeping one's oath to god was much more important than losing a daughter. To sacrifice one's daughter to God is not considered unusual in the least. We should face it, God's so-called chosen people were really no different from the people around them, they just worshiped a truer God.

    What is actually more surprising is that Jephthah gets praised in the New Testament for his actions. I guess that anonymous New Testament writer was a true disciple similar to Tom, and understood God's mercy better than I.

  8. I guessed that it was emphasizing the importance of sacred vows in a society where courts upholding contracts might have been weak.
    See: Vows: Bible and the Ramayana