And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said, “If thou wilt indeed deliver the children of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth from the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, it shall be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt-offering” (Judges 11:30-31).
The vow certainly seemed to be a good idea at the time.
The Israelites were suffering under the oppression of the Ammonites. Jephthah was certainly not the first choice – the son of a prostitute (Judges 11:1), and now a gang leader (Judges 11:3) – but he’s the one that the Gileadites beg to help them defeat Ammon. If he is victorious, he will rule over Gilead. If he is defeated, he will bear ignominy and shame if not death! Thus he makes his vow, in all seriousness, to God. If he is granted victory, whatever comes out to greet him will become a burnt offering to God – a princely sacrifice indeed!
Yet Jephthah’s vow is a tragic one. He was, no doubt, expecting an ox, a sheep, or a goat to meet him first. The LORD grants him a mighty victory (Judges 11:32-33). But, as Jephthah comes home, his daughter – his only child – comes out to meet him (Judges 11:34). The text then indicates that she mourns for her virginity for two months and that Jephthah then “did with her according to his vow which he had vowed” (Judges 11:35-39). He had paid his vow. He offered up his daughter as a burnt offering.
People today recoil at this story. How gruesome! How terrible! Many wish to soften the story by declaring that Jephthah really didn’t sacrifice her, pointing out that God condemned human sacrifice, and saying that she was just left a virgin. While it is true that God does not demand human sacrifice and would not have commanded Jephthah to offer such a sacrifice, the text is pretty clear. It doesn’t make a lot of sense for his daughter to mourn her virginity for two months if she will be mourning it the rest of her life beyond that. And the text does say that he did to her according to his vow – and his vow was to offer up whatever met him as a burnt offering. The Judges author is describing the events that took place in the days of the Judges – he’s not necessarily condoning them.
Nevertheless, we rightly recoil at the horror of this story. The tragedy is that it was all very avoidable. The problem was not with Jephthah making a vow, or the victory the LORD gave him, or with his daughter coming to meet him. The problem was with the specific vow that Jephthah made. He was operating under a certain set of assumptions and did not factor other circumstances into those assumptions. Had the thought crossed his mind that it would be his only child that would come to meet him first, he would never have made that vow the way that he did!
Jephthah’s vow should be a great reminder for us about the power of words. As it is written,
Death and life are in the power of the tongue; And they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof (Proverbs 18:21).
And I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned (Matthew 12:36-37).
We have all, at some point or another, spoken casually, not really thinking about the whole range of consequences of what we have said. We may feel blindsided when the unintended consequences of our words come back to us and we realize that we have “put our foot in our mouths,” so to speak. Hopefully our words will not cause the same type of devastation as Jephthah’s did – but we will be called into account for everything we say.
Vows to God were serious business, serious enough that Jephthah considered it worse to break his vow than to offer his daughter as a burnt offering. Words, despite how easily they may flow off our tongue, are serious business, and life and death may even hang in the balance. Let us learn from the tragic story of Jephthah and his daughter, and be circumspect about how we speak!