To Whom We Relate Religiously

Have you ever had a difficult friend, one no one else seemed to like?  Or were you more among the popular crowd, eschewing those rejected by the top tier of your “society”?  We choose fellows based on widely varied criteria, but, in every case, that criteria also excludes some sorts of people.  Would our criteria exclude God, if we believe what He says about Himself?

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.” (Judges 11:30-31 NASB)

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. (Judges 11:34 NASB)

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. (Judges 11:39-40 NASB)

Jephthah’s vow has been debated for centuries, and there’s no new perspective to be found here.  But, perhaps there’s a side you’ve not considered, personally.  First off, as you read this, keep in mind that this same Yahweh, to whom Jephthah vows, requires a “tithe” based on “the tenth animal under the rod”, wherein the rule says that animal cannot be substituted (Leviticus 27:32-33).  In other words, God’s choice of the animal cannot be changed by people.

Secondly, keep in mind that this same Yahweh commands His people to destroy people, utterly, considering them “holy” to Him.  Jericho was considered holy, and every man, woman, child, animal, and all property were destroyed, and no plunder taken.  That sounds vaguely “sacrificial”, and humans are included.

Balance those two things with the first part of Leviticus 27, where when persons are the subject of a “difficult vow” (NASB), they can be redeemed for a set value.  But, the passage continues valuing animals, differentiating between clean and unclean animals, and so on.  So, consider, as you think through this, are the persons valued part of the “household” in the sense of “owned” or slaves/servants of that household?  Or would they truly be “family” or children?

On that note, the firstborn belongs to Yahweh, but can be (and is expected to be) redeemed for a price (Exodus 34:19-29).  But, look at Leviticus 27:26-29 (especially 28 and 29) for additional guidelines.  These verses specifically refer to the “Hereem” or ban where everything so dedicated is destroyed.  But the context supports this concept within the teaching of a vow.  Or does it?  I suppose that’s the critical question.

Bringing these considerations to this story of Jephthah also has to include the acceptance that he was considered among the faithful of Israel, traditionally.  In Hebrews 11, he’s listed among those the Hebrews would consider an example of great faith.  Why do that if the popular belief was that he broke the law, and profaned a holy practice?

Now, if you’ve considered that, then also consider that the “rod tithe” means that God chooses what is given as an offering.  Next consider that this is consistent with what Jephthah does, he lets Yahweh choose what is offered.  Some can already see where this goes.  Consider next that this same Yahweh inspired this passage, so, this is what He wants us to know about Himself.  He reveals something of His character to us in this passage.  Let it be said, Yahweh wants us to know He chose Jephthah’s daughter to be offered as a whole burnt offering by her father.  And there it is in print.  The challenge has been laid down; will we worship and walk before God as He is, not some image we create in our minds?

Okay, now you can go back and read Luke 14:26 and 27.  Revisit John 6:60 through 69.  The challenge is to honestly love God.  The alternative is a false intimacy with our Creator and Master, an intimacy with a mask we put on His face.

On that note, what’s your view through the knothole this morning?


A Repeated Biblical Theme

We say that the God having inspired Scripture is all about redemption, but it still surprises us when we see it.  “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief corner stone.” (Psalm 118:22 ESV).  We know it, we’ve read it, but it still surprises us when we stumble over it in Scripture.

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.  It came about after a while that the sons of Ammon fought against Israel.  When the sons of Ammon fought against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to get Jephthah from the land of Tob; (Judges 11:1-5 NASB)

Does anyone else see David’s story here?  Not exactly, but the “exiled warrior” motif seems similar.  But what else should be similar is the rejection and redemption cycle.  The brothers of Jephthah exile him, as David was exiled by Saul.  Both are wronged by those who should have loved and supported them.  But it’s the kind of people who come around them, those disheartened and considered worthless.  Again with the motif of marginalized warriors.

But both show character, Jephthah, and, later, David both are examples of faith.  Both suffer tragedy.  Yet both stand, and both are faithful through the tragedy.  And, please keep that in mind, that both are faithful, even in tragedy.  We make much of David’s failure with Bathsheba, but he also suffers rejection and exile before, and still remains faithful.  Suffering doesn’t always come as a punishment.  Sometimes suffering just comes, and it becomes a test of our faithfulness.

In both instances, Jephthah and David, they remained faithful in exile.  Yahweh sees, and approves of them, eventually using them to lead His people.  The redemption part isn’t to glory and fame, as much as redemption to the purposes of Yahweh.  He uses them in His plans, these who the people rejected.  He changes the course of His people using the ones in whom they saw no value.

Here’s my takeaway:  1) If you’ve been rejected by people, take heart.  And 2) if you’ve rejected people, take care you see them as their Creator sees them.  There are those Yahweh rejected, but there are far more who were rejected by people only to be redeemed by Yahweh.  We need to be careful we see people and their value as Yahweh sees them.  This takes a sense of our Master found only in learning His character from Scripture and time with Him in prayer.  There’s no short cut.

Well, that’s my simple view this morning.  I could probably work up some more complex application, but, why cloud what seems so clear?

What do you see through your knothole of our Master?

The Negotiator

It’s very easy to read the Hebrew Scriptures about characters from the Late Bronze Age, and be prejudiced about their intelligence and sophistication.  It’s one of the ways we read into a passage assumptions based on our own culture and practice.  The author of Judges, and Jephthah the judge, are two such people for whom I am guilty of prejudice.  But I’m learning…

Then Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and chief over them; and Jephthah spoke all his words before the LORD at Mizpah.  Now Jephthah sent messengers to the king of the sons of Ammon, saying, “What is between you and me, that you have come to me to fight against my land?” (Judges 11:11-12 NASB)

Jephthah is an outcast.  And those who cast him out brought him back to be their leader, all he had to do was defeat the “Sons of Ammon”.  The Sons of Ammon are like the Sons of Israel, in that they are descendants from Abraham’s family (actually Lot, Abraham’s nephew).  Because of this familial association, Yahweh has defined boundaries with Israel and how they interact with Ammon.

Where my prejudice begins is in my assumption that the people of the Late Bronze period in Canaan weren’t literate.  So far, we’ve run across two instances where that wasn’t true, one where even a youth can write, and Gideon can read it.  It’s not as uncommon a practice as I thought.  And now we have Jephthah, a rogue surrounding himself with vagabonds, who now recounts the specifics of the history of his people entering the land, and the relationship with Ammon.  That’s a lot of detail to remember.

From verses 15 through 27, Jephthah replies with a detailed history of why the King of Ammon is wrong to claim the land between the Arnon and the Jabbok, two prominent rivers feeding the Jordan Valley from the east.  This region wasn’t Ammonite, it was Amorite, and there is an important distinction.  While the Ammonites were “family”, the Amorites were not.  The Amorite king, Sihon, attacked Israel, and was defeated.  Israel took that region from this Amorite king.

The important things here are that 1) God had set apart Ammon as family, and Jephthah still honors that position of God, and 2) Jephthah remembers these details from 300 years of Israelite history.  He negotiates with Ammon because God wants Israel to treat them better than the Canaanites, and Jephthah does.  Some commentators will criticize Jephthah for being wordy, or sending so many messengers, or other details of his negotiation tactics, but they, too, are prejudiced.

The writer of Judges has an audience among the people of Judah’s kings, and it is they who need read this negotiation.  For whatever reason, this detail helps them understand better their relationship with Yahweh.  Jephthah is represented as faithful.  God honors him, and he’s honored among the people of Israel, right up through Hebrews 11, where he’s listed among those having lived by faith.

But to be that negotiator, Jephthah has to be able to read, write, and be educated about his heritage to a very high degree.  He didn’t find a book while cleaning the Temple in Jerusalem.  He didn’t discover a lost scroll, or find a scrap of some historical record in a jar.  Jephthah knew the story already.  He knew the history from hearing it or reading it.  And clearly, he knew it well.  He knew the details, the order of events, their significance, and from that, what God wanted him to do in this situation.

And therein lies the value of such study, searching Scripture, sifting through narratives and poetic lines and prose, all to learn what God would have us do in a given situation.  Like Jephthah, we study before we encounter the situation.  Then, when the situation arises, we’re already prepared.  We study, seeking the purpose and character of our Master, so we too will be able to act according to His character and desires.  We’ll know Him so well, we’ll know what He would do in a given situation.

But knowledge without experience leads to destruction.  We need to add to our study time in prayer.  We need to spend time listening to our Master, prayerfully seeking His face, so that we will be able to discern His Spirit from the other spiritual noise around us. Prayer and study combined into a daily practice opens us up to the presence of our Master.  Let’s be characterized by the mindset of Jesus.

What’s your view through your hole in the fence?

Choose Belief?

One of the challenges we have, as followers of God, is to relate to Him as He is, rather than as we want Him to be.  It’s the false intimacy, imagining God different than He reveals Himself in Scripture, which forms our “iniquity”; the twisting of our relationship with Him.

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 of Gilead 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.” (Judges 11:29-31 NASB)

The wording of this vow of Jephthah may seem peculiar, but what does it actually say about Jephthah’s belief in, and about, Yahweh?  Whatever comes out of his door will belong to Yahweh.  The options of things that could potentially come through his door are greater than we might think.  They could include some livestock.  The options could also include his family.  In a sense Jephthah is taking a risk about what will come out of the door, but the vow gives Yahweh the choice.  That detail is often overlooked in commentaries.

The practice of making vows isn’t unusual in Scripture, but it’s not common either.  Jacob made one at Bethel (Gen 28:20-22), the entire nation of Israel while migrating through the wilderness (Num 21:1-3), Hannah made one in order to get Samuel (1 Sam 1:11).  The unusual thing here is that what is vowed to Yahweh isn’t specified, which is why I believe it was left up to Yahweh to choose.

Leviticus 27 has some very interesting things to be said about vows, redeeming what was vowed, and when that’s not possible.  Animals, land, and people (slaves?), were given values by the priests for redemption.  But, particularly interesting is verse 29, where anyone “devoted” to Yahweh for destruction can not be redeemed.  Since Jephthah has, as his dedication, a whole burnt offering, whatever is chosen by Yahweh is to be destroyed.  Granted, it won’t be “disassembled” as is often implied by the process, but there won’t be anything left either.

Therefore, whatever Yahweh chooses will be completely destroyed for Him, regardless of value, and without the option of redemption.  And so we come to the triumphant return:

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.” (Judges 11:34-35 NASB)

There are few, if any, commentators or scholars who will agree that Yahweh chose Jephthah’s daughter.  It goes completely against His character to choose a person to be sacrificed to Him.  It does, right?  Does it?  Jericho might disagree, as may Achan, who violated the devotion to destruction of Jericho.  If one worships an idol, they are utterly destroyed since what they do is detestable.  Cities following other gods are to be destroyed, devoted to Yahweh completely in destruction.  In a way, this is a religious practice of sacrifice where human beings are destroyed completely.

Jephthah’s daughter understood completely what her father did, and what that meant for her.  Did she understand herself as chosen to die by Yahweh?

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.”  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.” (Judges 11:35-36 NASB)

The response of the daughter to her father implies she understands herself to be about to die.  Keep in mind that the people of Judah, reading or hearing this for the first time, knew of kings who had “made their sons pass through the fire”. Yet, the abomination was idolatry, the worship practice of a pagan.  Perhaps they wouldn’t see this as an abomination to God as much as a tragic sacrifice to God.

My challenge here is to understand my Master as One who would choose the loss of an only daughter.  I have only one child, and she is a daughter.  This whole chapter freaks me out because I see a character of God where He just might require my child of me.  He gave Isaac back to Abraham, but he doesn’t condemn Abraham for his willingness to sacrifice.  In fact Abraham is honored.  Here Jephthah as a similar challenge, but Yahweh permits him to follow through with it.

Why would my Master choose such a thing?  How could He?  I desperately want a passage that clearly states that my Master does not permit or that He detests human sacrifice.  I’ve looked, and I can’t find anything but possible allusions to such a thing.  Please comment on this with something tangible, a verse reference, specifically on this topic.  Because, otherwise we’re left with following a Savior Who will ask of us to hold nothing back, and is deadly serious about that requirement.  Can I follow such a King?  Can you?

What do you see (and please let it be that God does not accept human sacrifice)?