Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Essential Passage #9 (Judges 11:12-40)

Then Jephthah sent messengers to the king of the Ammonites and said, “What is there between you and me, that you have come to me to fight against my land?” The king of the Ammonites answered the messengers of Jephthah, “Because Israel, on coming from Egypt, took away my land from the Arnon to the Jabbok and to the Jordan; now therefore restore it peaceably.” Once again Jephthah sent messengers to the king of the Ammonites and said to him: “Thus says Jephthah: Israel did not take away the land of Moab or the land of the Ammonites, but when they came up from Egypt, Israel went through the wilderness to the Red Sea and came to Kadesh. Israel then sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, ‘Let us pass through your land’; but the king of Edom would not listen. They also sent to the king of Moab, but he would not consent. So Israel remained at Kadesh. Then they journeyed through the wilderness, went around the land of Edom and the land of Moab, arrived on the east side of the land of Moab, and camped on the other side of the Arnon. They did not enter the territory of Moab, for the Arnon was the boundary of Moab. Israel then sent messengers to King Sihon of the Amorites, king of Heshbon; and Israel said to him, ‘Let us pass through your land to our country.’ But Sihon did not trust Israel to pass through his territory; so Sihon gathered all his people together, and encamped at Jahaz, and fought with Israel. Then the Lord, the God of Israel, gave Sihon and all his people into the hand of Israel, and they defeated them; so Israel occupied all the land of the Amorites, who inhabited that country. They occupied all the territory of the Amorites from the Arnon to the Jabbok and from the wilderness to the Jordan. So now the Lord, the God of Israel, has conquered the Amorites for the benefit of his people Israel. Do you intend to take their place? Should you not possess what your god Chemosh gives you to possess? And should we not be the ones to possess everything that the Lord our God has conquered for our benefit? Now are you any better than King Balak son of Zippor of Moab? Did he ever enter into conflict with Israel, or did he ever go to war with them? While Israel lived in Heshbon and its villages, and in Aroer and its villages, and in all the towns that are along the Arnon, three hundred years, why did you not recover them within that time? It is not I who have sinned against you, but you are the one who does me wrong by making war on me. Let the Lord, who is judge, decide today for the Israelites or for the Ammonites.” But the king of the Ammonites did not heed the message that Jephthah sent him.
Then the spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh. He passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering.” So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them; and the Lord gave them into his hand. He inflicted a massive defeat on them from Aroer to the neighborhood of Minnith, twenty towns, and as far as Abel-keramim. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel. Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing. She was his only child; he had no son or daughter except her. When he saw her, he tore his clothes, and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; 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.” She said to him, “My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has given you vengeance against your enemies, the Ammonites.” And she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: Grant me two months, so that I may go and wander on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, my companions and I.” “Go,” he said and sent her away for two months. So she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity on the mountains. At the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to the vow he had made. She had never slept with a man. So there arose an Israelite custom that for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.

I realize that this is only the eighth in my "Essential Passages" series and the second from the book of Judges. I'm fairly certain that 1/4 of all the posts will not be from this book, just 1/4 so far. Judges represents a peak in the Old Testament, wherein the Hebrew people are not able to follow God's laws and reject righteous leadership. The prophets get worse and worse until finally Israel demands a king, which doesn't work out much better for them in the end. Nevertheless, the story of Jephthah the judge, his rash vow and his daughter are significant- not only for the impact the story has on the biblical Israelites, but also for its impact on modern Biblical readers.

The story of Jephthah is an interesting one, starting with the first verses of Judges . He becomes a judge through a heart-felt plea from the elders of Gilead, basically asking Jephthah (whom they had previously run off ) to come back, with his gang, and defend them. After some discussion, Jephthah agrees. Jephthah faces off with the Ammonites and the Spirit of the Lord rests on him, a sign that the Lord will grant his victory. Maybe Jephthah doesn't know this or maybe he wants to show his gratitude, so he vows to sacrifice to the Lord "whatever comes out of the door of [his] house" when he returns in triumph. This turns out to be his only daughter, indeed his only child. And, eventually, Jephthah fulfills his vow.

I have encountered many people who use this story and others like it as proof texts for why they cannot believe in God or believe the Bible. However, I'm not sure that this story (and its cohorts throughout the Bible) reveal as much about the nature of God as they do about the nature of humans and God's reaction to that nature.

Throughout history, people have had free will and with that gift comes the somewhat less welcome gift of the ability to be really, really, really wrong. God's ability to allow us to make mistakes that have hideous consequences for ourselves and for those around us does not point to a deity who is totally hands-off, but rather to a Creator who is willing to allow us to fail, so that we might reconsider the idols we have made, mature and grow in faith.

God did not sacrifice Jephthah's daughter. In fact, other portions of the Bible point to God's particular distaste for child sacrifice. God did not give Jephthah power, knowing what was coming. God gave strength to Jephthah's hand so that Israel would not be overcome by the Ammonites. Despite the variety of sacrifices and praises Jephthah could have offered to God, he decided to go his own way, forge his own path, which led to unimaginable heartache and to the death of his only child.

The message of the Bible, in particular the book of Judges, is that whether we despair of our choices or revel in our decisions, God is with us. God's longing to guide us and to help us to avoid these kind of painful situations (though a pain-free life is not a biblical promise) is evident throughout Scripture.

We don't look to David's abuse of power by sleeping with Bathsheba as evidence that God loves an adulterer. We see that story and its heartbreaking outcome in the death of the child as part of the Davidic saga that reveals God's ability and desire to remain faithful to His servant in faithlessness and in frustration. Similarly, Jephthah's pain leads on through the book of Judges and through the prophets, where God's voice can be heard wooing, pleading with and cajoling the Hebrew people- saying, "It doesn't have to be this way."

And for those of us whose faith is in the empty cross, that is also God's call to us when we are determined to be worthy of salvation, to uncover all of the mysteries, to do everything just right to assure ourselves of our goodness. As a professor I had once said, "It ain't necessarily so. More importantly, it necessarily ain't so."

Think of Jephthah. Think of the cross. If God's Spirit is already with you, don't promise something to gain more of it. Trust in God's promises through God's Word. Don't do something that you'll regret and so will God.

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