Judges 11:29-40 – Have You Ever Made A Deal With God to Do Better?

Posted: September 11, 2017 in 07-Judges
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Judges 11:29-40
Jephthah’s Vow

I am not going to spend a lot of time on my illustration before the text under examination today. The reason is that this is a very complex and difficult passage to understand. It is one that you have to peel back the layers on. As a result, I will have to spend more time on explanation after the reading of the text that I normally do. I usually set up the point of the passage that we review together by some example of the idea in the passage from events in my own life, events in the lives of people that I have known, or events that are going on in our world today. Here, is the very serious matter of making a vow that seems like a human sacrifice is to be made. That’s pretty heavy stuff that we must really read beyond the surface. So my example is that we have all made vows to God to do better. You know those times where we bargain with God to get us through something or to end something. We vow to do better. We make a promise to be more attentive to God’s do’s and don’ts as we see them. If you get me through this test Lord, I will do better. If you end this offering up chunks of your stomach to the toilet after a hard night of drinking, I promise to quit drinking Lord. If you bring my wife back to me, I will go to church every Sunday. If you do this God, then, I will do this. We act as though we have some negotiating power with God. In this passage, we see how these vows, these negotiations with God are just wrong. We must quit negotiating with God and admit our weaknesses and ask Him to come into our lives and really change us. Let’s then go right to the passage, Judges 11:29-40, and read it now:


29 Then the Spirit of the Lord came on Jephthah. He crossed Gilead and Manasseh, passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from there he advanced against the Ammonites. 30 And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, 31 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.”

32 Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the Lord gave them into his hands. 33 He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon.

34 When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. 35 When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “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.”

36 “My father,” she replied, “you have given your word to the Lord. Do to me just as you promised, now that the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites. 37 But grant me this one request,” she said. “Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.”

38 “You may go,” he said. And he let her go for two months. She and her friends went into the hills and wept because she would never marry. 39 After the two months, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin.

From this comes the Israelite tradition 40 that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.

Man, this passage is a difficult one to swallow just based on what we can see in the English translation. We are left to wonder what to make of it. There is the literal reading of the fact that Jephthah offered up his daughter as a burnt offering. There are so many problems with seeing this as the outcome, though a literal reading would lead us to believe that this is exactly what happened. Let’s consider the problems with that literal of an interpretation.

First, all Israelites would have been acutely aware of God’s prohibition against the pagan practices of the surrounding nations including child sacrifice (Leviticus 18:21). A self-respecting Jew would know this from childhood that such practices were a sin against God and would not have been condoned by Israelite society. No priest would have assisted him in such a practice.

Second, to support the claim that an actual child sacrifice did not occur, one can point to the fact that the passage opens with a very clear statement that the “Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah.” The Holy Spirit would have certainly not have influenced him to make a vow that involved something that was strictly forbidden in God’s Word. That would raise a conflict as to the fallibility of God’s Word while operating under the influence of the Holy Spirit that a person would consider offering up a person, particularly an child not of age. With the Holy Spirit actively working in Jephthah at the time, if we consider God to be constant, to be consistent, and to have one truth for all time, then, this human sacrifice then becomes more difficult to believe. Maybe, the burnt offering is something other than a human being. Maybe, it is a symbolic burnt offering in that burnt offering is the future ability of his daughter to bear children – the primary purpose of females in the ancient world. The inability to bear children would make a woman seems less than whole in those days. Bearing children meant that you were not only culturally accepted by other woman, but also that were a desirable mate for a man (so that his family legacy would live on through your fertility as a woman) and being able to bear children was seen as blessing. That her main purpose in life was taken away would have been lamented.

Third, that lamentation is supported by the text as well. The daughter was allowed by her father to go away for a while to lament the fact that she would never bear children. For this to have been a human sacrifice makes the two month lamentation by the daughter seem almost incongruous with the idea of a human sacrifice. Her lament over not being able to have children seems to be an odd reaction for a person about to be voluntarily burnt to death. Most persons would be lamenting the far baser fact of simply losing their lives abruptly and early in their lives. Her lament though is for being able to fulfill her role as a woman. If she was being offered up as a living sacrifice, in service to the Lord for the rest of her life, that reaction of lament of fulfilling the main role of ancient women would make more sense.

Finally, the fact that she was allowed by her father to go away for two months to lament over a vow that he made and over which she had no control seems to support a living sacrifice and not a human sacrifice. If the vow was for a human sacrifice, she most likely would have been offered up as a sacrifice right then and there. There would have been no reason to delay the fulfillment of such a vow. Delaying death would have made no sense. There would have been a get-it-over-with mentality.

Regardless of what we think happened here, in this passage, we see that Jephthah’s rash vow brought unspeakable grief to him either way. If it was an actual human sacrifice, the death of his daughter was certainly not the desired result of his bargain with God. If it was not a human sacrifice but a living sacrifice, where he vowed to offer up his child to a lifetime of service to the Lord, it would not a desired result. Since she was his only child and a daughter, the vow would end his family. Since she as a living sacrifice would remain childless, the family would end with her. Regardless of which is the case, the vow was a promise of future behavior.

Often, in the heat of personal turmoil, it is easy to make foolish promises to God. These promises may sound very spiritual at the time that we make them, but often we are simply filled with guilt and frustration when we try to fulfill them. Making spiritual deals with God only bring frustration. Goes does not want promises for the future, but, rather, He desires our obedience now. According to Tim McQuade in his sermon on this passage, at http://www.preaching.com, he says,

“So, what should we do when we are tempted to strike a deal? We must trust. Think how different this account would have been had Jephthah trusted rather than bargained. If Jephthah had only said, “Lord, I’m scared! I know you are with me, but I have my doubts! Please help me!” He would have had both his daughter and his victory. When you face a scary time when you are tempted to make a deal, don’t. Do what Jephthah did not do. Trust God. If you’re scared or worried or having a difficult time trusting God tell him so. God is much more impressed with that than with any deal you could offer him. When you face challenges you must not bribe God, but rather trust him. Rely upon His grace and mercy. In that way you avoid making Jephthah’s terrible, tragic mistake! Do the wise thing. Avoid the tragedy of trying to bribe God. Give Him your trust instead.”

When we promise to do better at some future point, we are delaying obedience now. When we make deals with God, we are saying that I want to take my obedience on a layaway plan. I want to obey you Lord but just not right now. I want to obey you but let me do this first. I want to obey you, Lord, but just let me have this freedom to sin right now. When we make deals with God, we are saying that we see obedience to the Lord as something less than desirable currently. At these points in our lives, we see obeying God as a set of rules that bind us from doing the things that we like to do. At these points in our lives, we see keeping the vow we made as giving up our desire to do what we want and like to do.

Do you bargain with God? Are you delaying a decision to follow Jesus Christ as your Savior? Would you rather put off obeying Christ because you are having too much fun doing what you are doing? Let me tell you that I was the same way. I would bargain with God and I would be serious about it at the time…to try to do better. But then things fall apart when it takes this perfect obedience to fulfill the vow. God does not want our promises to behave. God does not want us to begrudgingly fulfill a vow to do better. What he wants is our heart. He wants us to want to obey Him. He wants to come live in our hearts and change our perspective on obedience. He wants us to be changed. He doesn’t our best behavior. He doesn’t want our vows. He wants real life change. He wants us to be so in love with Him that obedience is thanksgiving not some begrudgingly given temporary behavior modification. I ran from God myself because I thought Christianity was about does and donts. What I found when I gave my life to the Lord was that it was not about the dos and donts or about forced behavior compliance. It was about loving Him. It was about wanting to please Him more than anything else. It was about admitting to Him that I weak in all areas and especially weak in some areas. He already knows that we are dreadful sinners and that is why He gave us Jesus to cover our sins and sends the Holy Spirit to live in us to change us from worldly to godly. I have experienced more peace and more feelings of freedom from seeking to please God through obedience than running from him or making vows to do better before.

Maybe you need to stop making vows to do better and simply seek a realistic relationship with God where you are honest with Him about the fact that you are a sinner in need of forgiveness and grace and in need of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that is coupled with submission to Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord. Maybe you need to have faith in God rather than bargain with Him.

Amen and Amen.

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