Sunday, July 15, 2007

What I Have Vowed I Will Pay (Judges 10-12)

In the Law, the people are given this restriction:
No one born of a forbidden union may enter the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of his descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord.
I’m not sure what it means by “a forbidden union” – but if it includes prostitution, it includes Jephthah. Raised along with his father’s legitimate sons, he is later thrown out of his home by his brothers and has to make his way as a brigand in the wilderness.

About this time Israel is being oppressed by the Ammonites for their idolatry. They beg the Lord to save them, to which he sarcastically replies:
Go and cry out to the gods whom you have chosen; let them save you in the time of your distress.
Not daunted, the people continue to beg and plead, and even chuck their idols to prove their sincerity. The Lord finally softens and gets himself riled up over their misery. So, with classic Biblical irony, the he sends them Jephthah for a deliverer. His initial reaction has the same indignant cynicism we just heard from God:
Did you not hate me and drive me out of my father's house? Why have you come to me now when you are in distress?
The people again prove their sincerity by making Jephthah their leader, with all the rights and privileges thereof. As the Spirit of the Lord prepares him for battle, Jephthah makes a vow that will live in infamy:
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.
He proceeds to beat the Ammonite army, of course, and then heads back to his house:
And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter. And as soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.”
Jephethah is true to his word. His daughter is an amazingly good sport about it too. She tells her father not to feel bad about the vow, and just give her a few months to grieve with her friends over the fact that she will die a virgin. Apparently it later became a tradition for the young women of Israel to spend a few days each year mourning her fate. Meanwhile, we are left aghast and sputtering!

What are we to make of this? How are we supposed to react to such a story? There are so many questions and problems with it it’s hard to know where to start. What was the point of this vow? The law has firm restrictions on what can be sacrificed to the Lord, and it does not include daughters! How could Jephthah, in good conscience, vow to sacrifice what he did not know to be clean?

And doesn’t the Lord say he hates child sacrifice? Didn’t he make it quite plain that the inhabitants of Canaan sacrifice their Children in the fire to Moloch, which is a big reason why they were being dispossessed? Didn’t he specifically say Israel was not to worship the Lord in this way?

The text doesn’t really seem to give us any clues on how to deal with this. All we know is that Jephthah chooses to lead the people that have rejected him; that he makes an unconditional vow in order to deliver the people from the Ammonites; that this vow ends up costing him what is most precious in the world to him; that Jephthah keeps his vow despite the cost.

Indeed, after all this, poor Jephthah ends up having to fight off the Ephriamites, who call him a brigand and a fugitive. Jephthah is from Gilead after all, the land east of the Jordan that is not technically part of the Promised Land. They had built an altar of witness to remind the other tribes that they too are heirs of the promise to Abraham, but this doesn’t seem to matter.

Jephthah makes a rash vow, and ends up doing something that even he should have realized was indefensible. However, I can’t help but remember how the story began, and see Jephthah as an image of God’s heart towards his people. After all, the Lord has been rejected by them again and again. He made vows to Noah not to destroy the Earth, to Abraham to bless the nations through him, and to Moses to continue to go alongside the people of Israel. But these vows are looking increasingly rash. As we know, they end up costing him the life of his Son. Furthermore, many for whom Jesus died continue to reject God even after such a horrible sacrifice.

The author of Hebrews remembers Jephthah as one “of whom the world was not worthy.” Nor are the people of Israel worthy of their God; they are actually a rebellious and stubborn people. Yet they can rest easy in one thing: the God of Israel always keeps his promises, no matter the cost.

Maybe I'm trying to read my own questions into passages that do not address them, but this story has always struck me as being somewhat comforting in the realm of cultural sins that I worry I may be caught up in. If I had been a slaveholder in the antebellum South and hadn't had the wisdom and honesty to see my way out of it, would God still honor my faith? Am I caught up in cultural sins right now that future generations will scorn and condemn, and does God honor my faith anyway?

But I just made a post on a later passage that suggested that the terrible story of the Levite's concubine was a case of the ancient world's ideal of hospitality winning in out over the Gospel of the God of the underdog. Obviously, a simple lesson of "Just be faithful with what you think is right" can turn into a monstrocity.

And it does. Perhaps Jepthah is another monstrocity. And yet God calls him faithful.

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