What does it say?
Tola and Jair are two relatively minor judges of the 12 recorded in the book (Jud 10). Following them, the fifth cycle of sin begins. The Ammonites are the oppressors from the east while the Philistines are a constant threat to the west. As before, when things are bad enough the people cry out to God for help.
Jephthah is the judge that will bring deliverance to Israel (Jud 11). Despite being the son of a prostitute with a rough upbringing, Jephthah is an imposing leader and fierce warrior that provides victory over the Ammonites. His devotion to Jehovah appears genuine, but he makes a foolish vow to give God the first living thing that comes from his house when he returns in victory. He undoubtedly thinks one of his animals will be his offering, but is shocked when his daughter, his only child, is the first to come from his house.
The Ephraimites are again offended that they were not included in the victory over Ammon (Jud 12). Abimelech appeased them with diplomacy; Jephthah responds with a sword and kills 42,000 of Ephraim in a civil war. When order is restored, the judges Ibzan, Elon and Abdon follow Jephthah.
What does it mean?
The cycle of sin, oppression, crying to God and deliverance continues. The cycle continues because biblical living in submission to God’s mission never follows deliverance. Many believers today go through the same trials repeatedly because they never engage in God’s mission and biblical living.
The tragedy of Jephthah’s daughter results from the legalistic thinking that one needs to negotiate with God – God, if you give me this, then I will do that. Whether or not Jephthah literally offered his daughter as a sacrifice is a matter of great debate. The text allows for two options: 1) he does literally sacrifice his daughter, or 2) she lives the rest of her life unmarried in sacrificial service to God, much like a nun.
Jephthah was a great warrior and his devotion to God was beyond question as witnessed by his follow-through on his vow that unexpectedly involved his only child. Sadly, he was ignorant of the scriptures that prohibited human sacrifice and provided options for him to be faithful to his vow and at the same time redeem his daughter (Lev 27:1-8).
How will I respond?
Do I attempt to negotiate with God? When confronted with a foolish decision, have I learned to turn to the scriptures to discover my options? Is there a step I can take today to learn more about the Bible and how to apply it to my life?