12–18 August 2018.
The story of Jephthah is one of the most horrifying texts in the Old Testament. It’s a story full of pride and hatred, rejection and tragedy.
The biblical writer begins the story by telling us directly that Jephthah was the son of a prostitute. Jephthah’s father also had other legitimate children with his wife, and when those children grew up they turned on Jephthah and rejected him. It’s not hard to understand their mean attitude. Jephthah was the son their father had with a prostitute, he didn’t properly belong to their family; so they chased Jephthah away. Left to a hard life on his own far away from home, Jephthah became an outlaw, a fierce fighter, and the leader of a bandit gang.
But back home, his family and tribe now found themselves threatened by attacks from the Ammonites. In this disaster, his family thought again of Jephthah. He had become a bandit and a mighty warrior. If the elders spoke with Jephthah, maybe they could convince him to come back now and save the tribe.
This hypocrisy doesn’t go unnoticed by Jephthah. His family threw him out, but now when his family need him they come begging for him to return. So Jephthah uses this opportunity to take revenge for the way he had been treated. He tells them that if he goes back to the tribe and leads them to victory, then he wants to be made the new head of the whole tribe. With no other options available, the family elders agree.
Jephthah, the prostitute’s son, now finally has a way to return to his people and even come back in glory – but only if he succeeds in the upcoming battle. To lose that war would mean losing everything, especially losing his chance to be accepted. So caught in this pressure to succeed, Jephthah does what many of us would also do: he tries to make a deal with God.
We often do this too. When we are in trouble, we too think we can buy God’s love and help by offering God something. If God will only help us, we pray, we will offer a donation to the church, we promise to come to church more regularly, or to do some good deed. Jephthah also tries to buy God’s help, but he does so by promising God something terrible: a human sacrifice. If God gives Jephthah victory, Jephthah promises to sacrifice “whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me” (11:31). We can’t know who Jephthah had in mind when he made that promise, but he certainly didn’t expect it to be his own daughter. So even though Jephthah succeeds, even though he wins his war and gets what he wants, it comes at the cost of killing his only child.
At one level, this story warns us against the idea that we can buy God’s help. Jesus teaches us that God always already knows our troubles and he is a good Father who will naturally gives us the things we need; we don’t need to buy his love and help.
But more importantly this story also warns us about the very real dangers of our desires for success. Sometimes we want to succeed so badly, that we are ready to make terrible sacrifices just to get what we want. Jephthah’s desperate desire for success led to the destruction of his family and the death of his only child. Today, in a world where our work life often tears apart our home life, are we making the same mistakes in our own pursuit of success? Is our work life and our desire for success actually hurting our families, and hurting the ones we love? Success is a tempting goal, but what horrible sacrifices are we making to reach it?
Pastor Stephen Lakkis