Judges 11 and 12 are a wild ride, not least because they introduce us to Jephthah the Gileadite: owner of one of the Old Testament’s more colorful biographies, and whose Biblical story is a roller coaster of ecstatic highs and miserable lows.
The Bible tells us that Jephthah was the son of Gilead and a prostitute; as such, his half-brothers (the sons of Gilead’s wife) considered him illegitimate when they grew to be adults. They drove him out of the family after declaring that he was not eligible for the inheritance, and Jephthah himself implies – with his words to the elders of Gilead later in the chapter – that this shunning is at least implicitly sanctioned by his community.
Unwanted and in dire straits, Jephthah flees and settles in the land of Tob, where the Bible tells us that “a gang of scoundrels gathered around him and followed him.” Yet he had some renown as a warrior, and when the Ammonites begin waging war on Israel, the elders of Gilead seek out Jephthah’s aid.
Jephthah, who must have been grimly satisfied by the way this all played out, agrees in exchange for the promise that he will become Israel’s head and commander. When his attempts to reconcile with the Ammonite king breaks down (the king actually ignores his message!), Jephthah decides to go to battle. But not before making a vow:
“If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”
I hope you’re cringing. As I discussed at length in my Jonathan study, the Bible warns people all the time about making vows, begging them to consider what might ensue from having to keep their word. Scripture is full of vow-breakers and oath-destroyers, almost all of whom gave their word in haste without considering what that might mean. And Jephthah – who is easy to root for, who seems to have earned his rags-to-riches rise in this story – is no different.
Because God gives the Ammonites into Jepthah’s hands. And to his horror, when he arrives home “who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels!”
It’s clear from Jephthah’s reaction that he is devastated, and that he probably didn’t anticipate this outcome: she is his only child, and he has no other children. When he sees her, he tears his clothes and cries “Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break” (35).
I don’t know what Jephthah was thinking when he made his vow, but I am almost certain it was not of his child. He probably mentally excluded her from his calculations, thinking instead of valuable animals he might be forced to give up: a loss, sure, but a worthy one. Something to be missed, but not something irreplaceable. This is what we do when we bargain with God, when we make promises, when we swear this or that: we don’t see the enormity of our own words, and often can’t comprehend the implications of our actions.
What gives me a pang reading this is that it’s clear Jephthah loves his daughter, and – if I had to guess – part of that love comes from the memory of his own miserable treatment as a child. Rejected and shunned by his family, Jephthah now has a daughter that he, by contrast, has chosen to treasure – and yet his vow has cost him what is most precious.
Jephthah’s daughter is dutiful, and understands the situation; she recognizes the seriousness of a vow made to God. So she requests that her father give her two months to go and weep with her friends for the marriage she will never have, and then she comes back and Jephthah makes good on his vow. He leads Israel for only six years, and then he dies; the tragic tale relayed in Judges 11 comprises the bulk of his story.
And what strikes me about it all is that Jephthah, unlike some other Biblical vow-makers (I’m looking at you, Saul) seems to have the best of intentions. His desire for victory doesn’t seem inherently self-aggrandizing; he isn’t pursuing a vendetta or destroying for the sake of destruction. Indeed, he does his best to resolve the issue with the Ammonites peacefully! The vow that he makes to God seems to be done with a right heart and a right spirit, and even a right motive.
But that’s exactly the problem, isn’t it?
Peter, too, had a right heart and a right spirit when he said “even if I must die with You, I will never disown You” (Matt. 26:35). I’m sure He felt very, very close to Jesus then, and that the act of betrayal would have been unthinkable. He felt that he knew himself and his feelings. He felt that he could predict how he would behave. And yet Luke 22:62 finds him weeping having done exactly what he swore he would not do.
Human arrogance knows no bounds. But what strikes me the most reading the stories of the Bible’s vow-breakers is that our arrogance often goes much deeper than we think: we really do believe we know ourselves better than God does. The Bible warns over and over again: don’t make a vow if you can help it. You’ll be hopelessly bound to it. Be careful what you say. Seriously, don’t make a vow if you can help it. Even so, the human response is often to shrug off the warning, make a vow anyway, and suffer consequences later.
You may not make explicit vows to God, per se. But I imagine you’ve made vows to friends, to family, to other believers. And you have probably said to God, at one point or another:
God, I am definitely going to _______.
God, I will never ______.
God, I will absolutely ________.
God, I will always _____.
The danger in those statements is that we simply don’t know ourselves well enough to be sure of what we’ll do. When we speak with such surety about our actions and intentions, we refuse to acknowledge our own frailties, our own temptations, our own fickleness. We live in certainty of our own good intentions, what we predict we will do, and how we will grow. But in doing so we often overlook our own propensity to fail and fall. We overlook how our circumstances might change. And as a result, we cost ourselves a lot.
Short-sightedness leads to impulsive action. To thoughtless words. To snap judgments of ourselves and our situations that don’t withstand the test of time. If this sounds like you – and frankly, to me it sounds like all of us – then it’s worth taking some time to expand the way that you think about the world. To calculate your own frailties, your own weakness and your own foolishness. To realize that “thinking it through” doesn’t mean you’ve thought of everything.
Because we can’t possibly imagine all that is in store for us. And we can’t see five and six moves ahead. Only God can. Better by far, then, to abide by His vows rather than by any we can make.