by Rev. Thomas Maijamaa | ECWA USA DCC Church Planter | Instead of being marked by division and fragmentation, the church can and must shine forth as witness to the love and truth of God. (image: Palestinian refugees leaving the Galilee in October–November 1948)
A chain of losses resulting in the downward spiral of increasingly undesirable consequences in the midst of a military endeavor has been captured memorably in this well-known adage:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of the battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
Jephthah the judge, whose life is chronicled in Judges 11:1-12:7, is primarily portrayed as a military leader for the Gileadites of Israel. The elders of Gilead specifically seek him out when the Ammonites begin to stir up trouble in their land – a likely sign that Jephthah is known for his competence in battle even before he leads the Gileadites into war. As their head warrior, Jephthah first defeats the Ammonites and then the Ephraimites.
It seems reasonable to conjecture that even in his time; Jephthah was cognizant of the principle behind that poem: the loss of a key item, though it may seem insignificant, domino to the loss of something more important. As a military strategist, Jephthah succeeded and did not lose any battles. As a judge serving Israel and supposedly under the leadership of YHWH, however, Jephthah failed miserably and suffered the loss of life itself.
The inclusion of this passage in the book of Judges and ultimately in the canon of Scripture demonstrates at a microcosmic level the horrific fragmentation of relationships and of life that ensues when God’s people distance themselves from God, and in effect lose His Word.
This particular episode also operates as the hinge for a tragic transition in Israel’s history: from warring against foreign nations to warring against one another in the land YHWH has given them. The magnitude of loss increases correspondingly to the magnitude of Israel’s failure to know and obey YHWH’s voice. Is there any hope for a people so far gone as we examine below?
1. Losing the Way
The seven verses of Judges 11:24-40 are very clearly and intentionally structured by the author to draw the readers’ attention to the scene of an Israelite home, an Israelite father-daughter relationship, and the ignorance of God’s people toward God’s laws. Because of that final point, the former two are overcome by fragmentation instead of unity and fruitfulness.
The magnitude of Israel’s apostasy is already largely in view at the beginning of the Jephthah’s account. Chapter 10:1-9 describes how the Israelites had forsaken YHWH to serve not only the Baal and the Ashtaroth (as in 2:13), but also the gods of Syria, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites, and the gods of the Philistines. This shopping list of idol worship lies directly in the face of YHWH’s many commands to his people from the Exodus and the entrance into the Promised Land not to turn to foreign gods (e.g. Deut 12:30-31). It is not entirely surprising, then, that in response to oppressed Israel’s cry of distress, YHWH declares, for the first time in the book, “…I will save you no more. Go and cry out to the gods whom you have chosen; let them save you in the time of your distress” (10:13b-14). Although Israel pleads and puts away the foreign gods, YHWH still does not raise a deliverer. Finally, it is the people themselves who decided that the one who begins to fight against the Ammonites will become their leader (10:15-18). Jephthah takes on this challenge with a conditional promise (11:9) and the elders confirmed it by swearing an oath (11:10). Already, the theme of using human words to effect change emerges in this storyline. The action rises as Jephthah uses mere words to negotiate with Ammonite king by making an argument on the basis of Israel’s history, but the king does not listen (11:12-28). What do you do when the enemy seems stubborn?
2. The Spirit of the Lord and Jephthah’s rash vow (Judges 11:29-34)
Then the Spirit of YHWH is upon Jephthah vs 29. Japhthah is set for battle as the Spirit of the Lord comes upon him. At the very first act of creation in Genesis chapter one there is the mention of the movement of the Spirit of the Lord (Gen. 1:2). This demonstrates the power and the wisdom of God. God’s anointed men were marked by the outpouring of the spirit of God to make them fit for the task they were called for. God’s spirit strengthens and gives them wisdom and success. God’s Spirit is also associated with raising people for God’s service. Jephthah was thus empowered by the spirit of God but before he fights against the Ammonites, he opens his mouth once more to make a vow: “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering” (11:30-32). This vow was honored by God and the Lord does give the Ammonites into his hands, and they are subdued but his daughter falls victim. It is hard to clearly understand whether Japhthah’s daughter was really sacrificed or not. Whatever it was, Japhthah and his daughter saw a sense of sacrifice and were willing to give what was vowed.
Jephthah’s name is only used here (11:34) and at the very end (11:40) of the unite; he also has the first and last say, implying that he remains the controlling figure, while his daughter’s words stand at the heart of their brief exchange. Jephthah’s name means, God opens; ironic, given the fact that each time he opens his mouth in the wider narrative to the elders, to the king, and then to God, the results grows less and less desirable.
The structure of these verses filled out the content of the dialogue points to the fragmentation of the relationship between father and daughter in the heart of Israelite society. Not once does Jephthah’s voice concern for his daughter as he realizes the implications of his vow. He tears his garments in grief and mourning, but his words betray the orientation of his heart: “Alas, my daughter! You have heavily bowed me down. You have become my trouble.”
The daughter reacts with simple reverence and obedience, demonstrating that at least she had somehow been raised in the fear of YHWH (Deut. 5:29; 31:13)—the following narrative in Judges, the story of Samson, probes more at the theme of the disobedience child who does not possess the fear of YHWH). Her sad echoing of his words (“you have opened your mouth to YHWH”) emphasizes the score of their conundrum, and she insists that her father be faithful to keep his vow as the Lord has been faithful to grant him the victory. However, she cannot be seen as “the ideal Israelite,” for her father, she is ignorant of key elements of the Torah—namely, that YHWH detests the practice of human sacrifice, and He has made explicit provision for cases where humans might be inadvertently condemned to dead at the altar (Lev 27:1-8). Jephthah’s daughter could not have been spared for the price of a few shekels! Human sacrifice, while acceptable and pleasing to false gods, is an abomination to YHWH (Deut. 12:31). The only voice that the daughter hears is that of her father, however, and it is actually his words that she obeys, not YHWH’S. Although Jephthah demonstrates a strong familiarity with Israel’s factual history (Judges 11:15-27), that does not imply an equal familiarity with YHWH’s Torah.
3. Fulfilling the vow (Judges 11:35-40)
From the earliest times of human history, animal sacrifices were designed to establish atonement between a righteous God and his sinful men. Some Bible interpreters believe that the act of God in clothing Adam and Eve in Gen 3:21 was symbolic to blood sacrifice. Animal sacrifice is very important in the Pentateuch. This is seen in the practices of Abel (Gen 4:2-4; cf. Heb 11:4), Noah (Gen 8:20) and the Patriarchs (Gen 13:18; 26:25; 33:20; 35:7).
Imagery of the sacrificial atonement is extensively developed in the Law of Moses, for example the Passover feast (Exo. 12:1-30) where the blood of the sacrificed lamb was sprinkled on the doorposts of the children of Israel. Consequently, all three holiday ordinances in the Pentateuch made mention of the festival of atonement, which involves animal sacrifices (Ex. 23:1-17; 34;18-24; Deut. 16:1-17 cf. Exo. 29:36-30:16; Num. 8:5-22; 15:22-29; 17:9-15).
In Genesis to Deuteronomy the primary concern in the temple worship services was that priests ‘effect atonement’ for their client, regardless of whether this involved a burnt offering (Lev.1:4) or incense offering (Numb. 17:11ff)…or various purification ceremonies (Lev. 14:18ff.; 15:15, 30). In Deuteronomy chapter 4, Moses, warned Israel of the seriousness and the danger of sin and rebellion and emphatically says that, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that you will soon utterly perish from the land you are going over the Jordan to possess. You will not live long in it but will be utterly destroyed” (Det 4:26).
In God’s dealing with Israel, a vow is a religious act, drawing the deity into close relationship with the worshiper and may not be broken without a penalty (Exo 20:7). Though a vow could not be broken, the law allowed for the mitigation of vows, especially those involving persons (Lev. 27:2-8).
Perhaps Jephthah does not know the Levitical laws pertaining to sacrificial substitutions, or perhaps he knows them but does not understand that he can apply them, and he doesn’t know who to ask for clarification. It is highly unlikely that he knows yet chooses not to apply them, given his cry of despair in v.35. Jephthah’s ignorance of how and why to properly apply the Torah is reflected in his daughter’s silence on the matter as well.
Jephthah’s daughter then makes a rather cryptic request for her father to leave her alone that she might go and descend upon the mountains with her companions.
To descend upon mountains, however, is an activity solely relegated to YHWH, with this one exception. It is not likely that the daughter is here being compared to YHWH Himself; rather, it is possible that the author is calling to mind the image of YHWH descending upon Mount Sinai to give His commandments to His people (Exod. 19:11, 18, 20). Nehemiah 9:13-14 reflects back on this event with a clear link between God’s condescension and the giving of His Word: “You came down on Mount Sinai and spoke with them from heaven and gave them right rules and true laws, good statutes and commandments, and you made known to them your holy Sabbath and commanded them commandments and statutes and a law by Moses your servant.”
Since the coming down of YHWH unto the mountain and the giving of the Torah are so closely connected, the author may here be intentionally calling to mind the central place that the Torah should have in the Israelites’ lives; this terrible grief is the result of losing sight of God’s good statutes, for the standards and statutes of foreign nations have overtaken the hearts of His people. Equal ignorant are the daughter’s companions, who also portrayed passively doing what the daughter does, no more and no less. They, as a representative of “a community” (and Jephthah’s daughter as a representative of Jephthah’s “community” seem to underscore the inability for community to do what it can and should do when one of God’s people has veered to the right or the left of the book of the Law (Josh. 1:7)—tell the offender what should be done according to the Word of YHWH. Instead, these voices merely echo down the wrong path and follow the offender down it, away from true success and towards sure destruction.
The loss for Jephthah is not only his child, but also his entire lineage. In a sense, Jephthah himself dies as his vow is fulfilled. Upon her return, the text reads that Jephthah “did to her his vow which he had vowed” (11:39).
A raging debate exists over whether Jephthah actually offered his daughter as a burnt sacrifice or whether he merely consigned her to a life of perpetual virginity at a temple. It does seem odd that Jephthah would not literally fulfill his vow from Judges 11:30-31, so the former reading is likely more accurate. However, it is bad enough that this vow is carried out at all; such a thing simply ought not to be, and it would not have been if knowledge of the Torah still permeated this community of Israelites’. Scripture says, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6).
The wording was ambiguous, and put all the inhabitants of Jephthah’s house at risk. To our horror, and his, it was his virgin daughter, his only child who became the victim (34-35), and the real tragedy is that such a vow was totally unnecessary (as previous episodes have shown). In context it can be seen as nothing other than a mistaken attempt to bargain with God. Jephthah the master negotiator overplayed his hand and paid a tragic price. The second half of this episode reads like a grim inversion of Gen. 22, the story of another father and another only child. But Jephthah was no Abraham, and in his case there was no voice from heaven, only a punishing silence. We can only conclude that the Lord was as angry with Jephthah’s vow as he was with Israel’s ‘repentance’ depicted by the action of king of Moab in 2 Ki. 3:26-27. It is worth considering how often modern prayers contain elements of bargaining with God. Scripture says, “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Eph. 4:30).
4. A lost generation
Judges 11:34-40 reveals the extent of the corruption that Israel has undergone by this point in redemptive history. Large cracks are starting to appear over the Abrahamic promise of land and descendants—not due to the fault of the promise itself but on Israel’s continued failure to keep the covenant. This little window into a domestic, familial setting vividly underscores the destruction caused by the intensifying cycles of chaos, which are ensnaring disobedient Israel. Disobedience leads to a loss of something much more crucial than a horseshoe nail.
The heart of the land, the home of an Israelites family and the surrounding mountains, is drenched with tears of weeping instead of abounding in fruit. YHWH’s voice is no longer clearly in their midst, and so even the blessing of deliverance from the Ammonites is a mixed blessing, leading to in-fighting amongst two groups of Israelite Brothers. No longer is Israel a blessing to all nations; instead, its people are increasingly reflecting the confused practices of the foreign nations encircling them. Instead of commemorating the mighty acts of YHWH, it is the sad loss of Jephthah’s daughter that is commemorated.
No longer are YHWH’s mighty deeds being proclaimed from one generation to the next; indeed, Jephthah not only fails to do so, but also foolishly exterminates his own next generation. Victory is turned into mourning, unity dissolves into division, and barrenness takes prominence over fruitfulness. The only begetting that occurs by the end of this chapter is the begetting of further loss. Is there any hope for the people of God? What has become of the God’s promise to Abraham? God will not change his mind nor break his promise. Through Christ he will bring his promise to fulfillment. Therefore, the hope in this passage is that the messianic kingdom will prevail and the messianic people, the perfect people of the new kingdom will be brought to certainty with the Lord where justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an overflowing stream (Amos 5:24), instead of mourning the mountains will drip sweet wine, and the people will plant gardens and eat its fruits (Amos 9:13-14).
5. Once Lost, Now Found
The literal finding of YHWH’s Book of the Law in 2 Kings 22 significantly carries forward the theme of how important the word of God must be in the life of His people. The finding and reading of the scripture lead to immediate repentance, the destruction of idols, and the re-establishment of God’s word, divinely ordained festivals. However, with Josiah’s passing, that nation once again dissolves into serving false gods and suffering loss because of it — the ultimate loss being exile from the Promised Land. Divine judgment comes in form of exile and alienation from the land. All human beings must daily confront the reality that nature is under God’s curse due to humanity’s disobedience from Adam and Eve. Thus, the divine gift of land to Abraham in Genesis (chapter 12) is significant. It is indicative of Abraham’s positive relationship with the Lord.
The Psalms are full of praise to the law of the Lord (e.g. Psalm 1, 119) and the prophetical literature both forth tells and foretells the Word of YHWH. Undoubtedly, the laws, commands, and the statutes of the one true King are to have a central place in the lives of His Subjects. To obey His voice is to choose life and blessing; to disobey means death and curse (Deut. 30:19). Every Israelite at heart, however, is as unwilling and unable to turn to YHWH and know and keep His Torah perfectly as was Jephthah. Their repeated failures led to increase divisions in the land and amongst themselves. It was their hearts that needed to be circumcised (Joel 2:13). Ultimately, the Lord said to Israel “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Eze. 36:26). This promise is been fulfilled though divine condescension in the person of Jesus Christ—“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). The same will latter become the ultimate sacrifice. The imagery of animal sacrifice, especially blood sacrifice, is the dominant Old Testament image for atonement based on the principle that ‘under the Old Testament law almost everything is purified by blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin (Heb 9:22 RSV).
It is important to note that though God’s forgiveness was achievable through the atonement rites, it was not a mere observance; it involves sincere self-discipline and true repentance. In fact the practice of sacrifice apart from appropriate inward commitments stirs the judgment of God. For instance Isaiah reports God’s rebuke: ‘I have had enough of burnt offerings; … I do not delight in the blood of bulls. … Bring no more vain offerings (Is 1:11, 13 RSV). Amos and Jeremiah also warned against vain sacrifice.
It is also important to note that, through the course of the Old Testament story, it becomes clear that the system of animal sacrifice is inadequate. The Old Testament prophets not only made it clear to Israel that their rebellion will result in exile, but also prophesied their restoration not through animal sacrifice, but by human sacrifice. The clearest expression of this expectation appears in Isaiah 52:13-53:12. Isaiah speaks of God’s ‘servant’ (Is 52:13), the son of David who will be ‘wounded for our transgressions’ and ‘bruised for our iniquities’ (Is 53:5). ‘The lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all’ (Is 53:6). In fact, this servant will become ‘a guilt offering’ for the people of God (Is 53:10), and, of course, for the whole world.
Christ in his earthly life and work meets all the demands of the Torah. In the New Testament Jesus’ death fulfilled the entire intent of the Day of Atonement. In fact, because Jesus was both the perfect high priest and the offering free from blemish, his death consummated the entire Old Testament sacrificial system.
It is important to note that in the New Testament, the doctrine rests on the prophetic concept of the suffering servant of Isaiah. Thirty four times we find various New Testament writers referring to Isaiah’s proclamation as fulfilled in Jesus (e.g., Acts 8:32-35; 1 Pet 2:22-25). Jesus’ death is the substitutionary suffering of the son of David that brings appeasement of Divine wrath and sets God’s people free from guilt and sin. As symbolized in the Old Testament scapegoat (Lev. 16:20-26), Christ by his suffering bore away our sins by taking and nailing them on the cross so that we can be free from its penalty.
Christ is the substitute who takes the place of sinners, suffering the punishment that sterns from God’s justice in their place (Is 53:4-6; Rom 5:12-21). The double imagery that Christ was both ‘made sin’ for us (2Cor 5:21) and that he ‘carried our sins’ (1 Pet 2:24) matches the role of both goats on the Day of Atonement—the one sacrificed as a sin offering and the one that carried off the confessed sins of the people. Even when the Adversary attempts to attack him with twisted interpretations of God’s voice, Christ knows the truth and is able to overcome temptation to idolatry with the sword of the Word of God (Matt. 4:1-11).
Jesus is the perfect Torah-keeper, and all those united to him by faith have circumcised hearts (Col. 2:11) and partake of the new-eschatological blessings that come with having perfectly kept YHWH’s Torah. As the once-for-all sacrifice, God’s only Son satisfies every demand of the holy Creator in order that He might be present with His people both in this life, provisionally, and in the life to come, consummately.
Additionally, Christ is faithful over God’s house as the Son (He 3:6). In this household, all things broken are made new, and all things estranged are reconciled (Rom. 5:10; 2 Cor. 5:18-20; Eph. 2:16; Col. 1:20, 22). John’s Gospel clearly shows the deity of Jesus and points to him as the Christ, the Messiah who was to come. He is the word that existed from eternity and became flesh and dwelt among us. Throughout John’s gospel also, Jesus shows himself as the coming Messiah who has come not only to save but also to bring true light into this dark world.
The apostle John later exhorts those who believe to model their life in terms of intimate “fellowship with one another” (1 Jn 1:7) in the light. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians says, “Therefore do not become partners with them; for at that time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to God” (Eph 5:7-10).
Those who are in Christ “are children of light” (1 Thess 5:5). To those who believe in him Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mt 5:14-16). In contrast to this are the Jews who at a point “saw themselves as the light of the world (Rom 2:19), but the true light is the Suffering Servant (Is 42:6; 49:6), fulfilled in Jesus himself (Matt 4:16; cf John 8:12; 9:5; 12:35; 1 John 1:7).
Scripture says, God “has neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings’ (these are offered according to the law), then he added, ‘Behold I have come to do your will.’ He does away with the first in order to establish the second. And by that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once and for all” (Heb 10:8-10). So the will of the Father is the atoning sacrifice of the Son by which alone all will be saved—Amen.
With this fuel of truth in our recreated hearts, we are empowered to live lives of obedience and fruitfulness unto the Lord. We are called to be lights. While we undoubtedly have troubles in this world, and while sin still rages against us, we can stand strong when we look to and lean upon Christ, because He has overcome this world and therefore the powers of evil have no real grip on us. Consequently we who are in Christ are no longer a lost generation but once lost, but now found.
Wives and husbands, parents and children, employers and employees in Christ— are called to unity and service towards one another. Instead of being marked by division and fragmentation, the church can and must shine forth as witness to the love and truth of God. For the believer in this life, instead of painful loss, there is a joyful loss and an immeasurable gain (Phil. 37-9a).
In fact Jesus says “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23) and that “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt. 10:39). Even after this life, there is only more gain, since “for me to live is Christ, and to die is Gain” (Phil. 1:21). Because of Christ, no longer are we trapped in vicious cycles sliding downwards from loss to loss. Instead, we are called to live in freedom as children of the living God, growing upwards from faith to faith, glory to glory, resurrection to resurrection and gain to gain—Amen.
In John’s vision of the consummation of all things in the New Jerusalem, he saw “no temple in the city“, for its temple is the Lord God the almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamb is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk (Rev 21:23-24). But before the final consummation of things, we live in constant struggle with darkness and light, good and evil, faith and doubt. But through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross, victory has been won—Amen. The lost have been found, yet the final victory will be at the second coming of Jesus and the renewal of everything.
We long to see this day—Amen, come Lord Jesus
Rev. Thomas Maijamaa is the ECWA USA DCC Church Planter. He worked with EMS in several areas and has pastored churches over the years. He is the founder and CEO of Rishama International Ministry.