I am grateful to have had the opportunity to share this sermon with New Creation Fellowship Church on August 21, 2022.
The reading is Judges 11, in its entirety.
Thank you for being here today. I know that if you came, it was with the knowledge that we’re doing hard work here today, just as we did last week, our first week in this series of challenging texts.
You heard it already in A—’s worship leading—and in the email she sent yesterday reminding us of what we’re doing here together today—but I will remind you, too: how you feel as you hear Scripture matters. We seek to make this sanctuary just that—a sanctuary, where we are safe and cared for. But I also know that we cannot always know, even about ourselves, what will prompt a sudden feeling or uncover a hard thing.
So I encourage us to be gentle with each other and tender with ourselves.
But we will also—I think, and this may surprise you—laugh a little today.
I know we can have strong responses to Scripture, even when we know, cognitively, that we are safe. I know because I experience it myself frequently in this very space! Just a few weeks ago, K– focused her children’s time on one of the very hardest verses for me personally:
“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your own heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask!”
You remember this children’s teaching? With the magic door, which was just enchanting? And the song on the ukulele, about how if you knock, knock, knock, the door will be opened unto you?
Versions of this passage, where Jesus invites us to recognize ourselves as God’s beloved children, appear in Matthew and Luke.
And K— taught it to innocent children, of all people. I was shocked.
I mean it—not because we should ever withhold the words of Jesus from our children, but because the message truly can take your breath away: that God loves us and wants us to have what we need. A lovely message!
The part of that passage that hurts is the comparison between our human parents and our Creator.
If you grew up in a family where a parent would have indeed given you a fish if you asked for a fish or bread if you asked for bread, then this little verse probably brings you a lot of comfort. It’s natural, says Jesus, that parents meet their children’s needs for safety and care. How much more, then, does God, who is infinite and perfect love, want to give us good things!
For children whose parents never or inconsistently handed them fish and bread, though, how do they feel when they hear this verse?
Those who were handed a snake or a stone? Those who needed a life preserver and got tossed a cinder block? Those who reached for a hug and got a slap? These verses land a little different for them. Parental love is not their model for God’s love–or, worse, it is, and God becomes unreliable, capricious, or even deceitful.
How would Jephthah’s daughter–who is never named–have heard Jesus’ words?
How do those who live today with neglect and abuse in their families hear it when Christians call God their “father” or speak of a “church family”?
For some of us, the verses that comfort others can shake us to our core.
And, in contrast, even some of the most terrifying verses we encounter can be a good word for us.
I hope that is the case for us today.
Let us back up to the story of Jephthah and his daughter, which is told in Judges, one of the most brutal and confusing books of the Hebrew Bible.
Jephthah is, we are told, a “mighty warrior.” But he faces an impossible barrier to becoming a leader among his people: his father is respected, but his mother is a prostitute, a woman with no name, no family, no social standing. His father’s sons with his wife have a legitimate claim to their father’s legacy, but Jephthah has none. He is rejected by his brothers, who drive him away to ensure he cannot take any of their inheritance.
If this story is familiar, it’s because it’s also the backstory of Abimelech, another character from Judges.
And that’s a good indicator that it was a common story: in a patriarchal society, women gained what little status they had through their relationships with men–and were able to pass along that status to the children they created. In ancient Judaism, there was no afterlife; you lived on only through your children. So to be childless, like Sarah or Hannah or Rachel, felt like death. We begin to understand now why Judges 11 stresses that Jephthah’s daughter was a virgin: it means when she dies, neither she nor her father will live on in any way.
And to be the child of a prostitute wouldn’t have felt much better than death.
Our story begins with a boy asking his brothers for a fish and receiving a stone. Jephthah wants to be part of a family but is driven away from his father’s care because of his brother’s greed and his father’s failure to protect him.
He falls among scoundrels and emerges as the leader of these ruffians. He develops a reputation as a scoundrel. And when his father’s family needs someone with his particular skill set to defend their territory, they come crawling back.
What a gratifying sight it must have been for him! To see the people who rejected him beg him for help.
We’ve seen this story before, too–when Joseph’s brothers, who left him for dead, had to beg him for food once he became a high ranking Egyptian official. Joseph embraces his brothers, giving them the bread they ask for. Jephthah is different. He demands their loyalty before he delivers for them: “Suppose you take me back to fight the Ammonites and the Lord gives them to me—will I really be your head?”
They promise, and so the first bargain of this story is struck: he leads them. And, as a leader, he’s not a fool. He knows his history–and he knows his theology. He appeals to the opposing king’s own sense of history and the long-standing peace between them. He recognizes the authority that the Ammonites cede to their own deity and appeals to it: “Will you not take what your god Chemosh gives you? Likewise, whatever the Lord our God has given us, we will possess.” It’s not a flourishing peaceful religious pluralism, but the division of land by deity had been an effective way for both groups to survive for about 300 years.
But the other king won’t listen, and Jephthah proves that he’s not just a leader of desert bandits or military historian or Bronze age theologian: he’s also a fighter. We are told that he obliterates 20 towns, thus subduing the enemies of Israel.
Along the way, he makes a promise to God: he’ll make a sacrifice of the first thing that comes out to greet him when he returns home if he’s victorious. But notice the order of events in the story: First, the “spirit of the Lord comes upon him,” from verse 29. Then, he makes his rash promise. In other words, God’s presence with him was never dependent upon his promise. God was already what God was going to do (if we are to believe that God had a hand in killing Jephthah’s enemies, which we have every reason to doubt). There was, then, no reason at all for Jephthah to even offer any sacrifice to God in an effort to win God’s favor.
But he makes this promise: that he will kill the first thing that walks out his front door.
We don’t know how many precious Ammonite daughters were killed as Jephthah led his men through this war. The story ignores them entirely as it turns toward a different tragedy:
It’s Jepthah’s own daughter who greets him.
Not just a beloved daughter–but his only child.
And he makes good on his promise.
How many of you heard this story for the first time in Sunday school? Vacation Bible School? Good News Club? Youth group? Family Bible study? Veggie Tales?
I am teasing, of course. Veggie Tales did NOT turn this story into an episode of their animated musical TV show. [Though it turns out that Adventures in Odyssey, a Focus on the Family radio show for children, did–stressing since child sacrifice was an anathema to God, the passage likely meant that Jephthah’s daughter was dedicated to the temple, like Samuel is dedicated by Hannah.]
How many of you heard it today for the first time?
I heard it for the first time as a child, from the 1984 version of the Doubleday Illustrated Children’s Bible¸ which is both a beautiful and deadly serious retelling of Bible stories, including ones I had never encountered elsewhere. In fact, when I read from this book to my own children, they facetiously call our time together “Terrifying Bible Stories with Mom.” You know the classics: Pharaoh Slaughters Baby Hebrew Boys, Herod Slaughters the Baby Hebrew Boys, Elisha Sends She-Bears to Tear 42 Children to Bits, Abraham Almost Sacrifices Isaac, Lot Attempts to Trade His Daughters to Save His Houseguests, and, of course, Jephthah’s Daughter.
Above, the cover of my favorite children’s Bible, a gift from my great-grandparents. The cover shows animals entering Noah’s ark in pairs. The watercolor illustrations are by Tony Chen.
Don’t know these classics? Well, I imagine you slept better than I did as a child, then!
As a child, I I was fascinated by stories of violence and oppression. I saw in their repetition in the Bible a reminder that history doesn’t repeat but it rhymes. Violence, oppression—and the duty to end it—runs throughout the Scriptures. And if we believe that we are called to that work of dismantling oppression, then I think we, too, should know these stories.
But it was this story of Jepthah’s daughter, among them all, that most captured my attention.
The Doubleday Children’s Illustrated Bible offers no commentary on its stories. So I didn’t learn from it whether Jephthah was right or wrong. I just learned that everyone was sad.
Here is the image that accompanies that story. We see her friends weeping for her as she prepares for her death:
I like this one better, by the French painter Jacques Joseph Tissot. She’s beautiful. You can see why her father loved her. You can see in how she is arrayed in beautiful clothes that she is loved and cared for.
His only child.
Remember that he is a man with many brothers–yet also the only child of his mother and father and isolated because of it. He understands what it means to be an only child. And he loves her with all the love he wishes he had been given.
His daughter is his future. No son will carry on his legacy.
Here she is, running out to greet her father, grateful that he has returned alive, knowing that this restores him to his place in their family line and she is restored, too—and that her own hoped-for children will be children of honor, not desert robbers. A whole family tree has been changed, its past rewritten so that the one cast out for his parentage has now ensured that his descendants will be esteemed.
But suddenly the story is rewritten again! Jephthah fought in vain. His daughter will die. He has no future grandchildren. The family line he worked so hard to restore will end with him. And because there is no afterlife for him without children, this is the end of his life, too.
His daughter asks for two months to go to the mountains with her friends and mourn her fate. We’re told that from then on, the women of Israel took four days each year to commemorate the young woman.
When I read this story, I couldn’t believe it. So many passages of the Bible were a rebuke of the pagan practices of child sacrifice—how did this make sense in light of the anger that God felt at those who would harm children in the name of faith? Yet so many other passages do describe cruelty, physical and emotional, to children.
I left that story, night after terrifying night of reading it, thinking about the intergenerational consequences of sin. I worked hard to find a meaning in it that verified God’s goodness and tenderness for the vulnerable. And at first, I found an easy answer: that Jephthah’s daughter was killed not because Jephthah was faithful but because he lacked faith in God’s protection of him.
His faith was shallow and insecure, more transactional than rooted in gratitude. In trying to impress his faithless brothers, Jephthah allowed himself to measure his worth by men whose praise he should never have wanted.
This is, indeed, what the Jewish commentators tend to say about him: he’s a fool–one who makes a foolish promise to God and also doesn’t understand that God rejects his sacrifice.
I think there is another reading, too, possible, one that is more generous to Jephthah and more challenging to us, and it’s informed by sociology and psychology.
In sociology, one theory–the social strain theory–to explain deviance says that most people in a culture want the same things. In ancient Israel, that was acceptance in your family, to feel that people are proud of you, to have a sense of a future, to experience the feeling of belonging to your pride–and maybe to have riches and power.
Not so different from us today.
When their pathway to getting those things legitimately is blocked, people may turn to deviant ways of getting them. If a teenager has respect, friendship, and a sense of purpose through his family and school, he doesn’t usually join a gang, which also can provide those things.
The strain theory of deviance might explain Jephthah’s choices. As a child without a legitimate claim to his father’s status, he cannot achieve the goals that he sees his brothers reach. It’s built into the patriarchal system, seen as inherent in his very genes: he will never be accepted, respected, or lauded.
So he fulfills that need by joining a gang of desert scoundrels and taking a leadership role there. The fraternity his brothers refused to give him, he finds elsewhere. But we see by his willingness to return to the family that hurt him that even his status as the leader of a band of thieves can’t quench his desire for respect from his family.
It’s that desire–to be accepted by his brothers–that drives him first into negotiations and then into battle with the kind of Ammon. It’s also, I think, what drives him to make this rash promise.
But let’s not judge him too harshly. Have you ever tried to bargain with God?
God, just let me pass this test and I promise I’ll study next time.
No? How about this one?
God, please let there be no train at the crossing. I promise I’ll leave on time tomorrow.
God, just let all the lights be green this morning. I promise I’ll leave on time tomorrow.
God, please don’t let that have been a police officer in that car behind me when I snuck through that yellow light. Okay, yes, God, it was more red. Could we call it “pink”? If you let that police officer look the other way, I promise I’ll leave on time tomorrow.
God, please let the officer be in a good mood. If I don’t get a ticket, I promise I’ll donate half the cost to the church elevator fund.
Maybe you all are more punctual than I am and never have to make bargains like that. Maybe yours is a more mature and serious faith.
But have you ever been a child and prayed:
Please, God, make my father stop drinking. I’ll never make him angry again if you just make him stop drinking.
Or have you ever taken a pregnancy test and prayed:
God, please don’t let it be positive. I promise I’ll be more careful next time.
God, please let it be positive. I’ll do anything if you let this pregnancy happen.
Please, God, bring my teenager home safely tonight. I’ll never let him out of my sight again if you just bring him home safe.
God, please save this marriage. I promise I’ll get my act together if you just don’t let this marriage fail.
God, please let that tumor be benign. I promise I’ll get up every morning and pray right away if you just don’t let it be malignant.
God, please don’t let this flight be late. I want to see my mother one more time before she passes. If you just make sure I make my connection, I’ll try to fix my relationship with my sister.
If you haven’t tried to make that kind of deal with God, you are lucky.
In a moment of desperation, Jephthah was trying to make that kind of deal with God. God, if you let me win this battle, I’ll make a sacrifice to you to the first thing that walks out the door when I return home. It’s stupid. It’s irrational. It’s human.
Jephthah was fighting for his life, remember–and not just in the sense that he was in battle against the Ammonites. He was in a battle for the future of Israel–but also, more meaningful for him, I think, in a battle for his own place in the world.
If he wins, he gets his family back.
No, not back, because he never had them. He gets a family for the first time.
The psychologist Lindsey Gibson speaks of children who have been emotionally neglected as creating a “healing fantasy.” Some of you know this because you’ve read her work or are reading along with the Facebook page for Insight Peer Support Services, where Marva, who manages that page, is writing about it. The “healing fantasy” is what we imagine will happen if we only finally figure out how to please the parent who has failed to nurture us.
For Jephthah, his healing fantasy is that if he wins this war, he will be welcomed like a brother–the best brother, in fact! The lifetime of rejection will be healed because his family will finally see his worth. He will be restored to a place of honor–which means that his own children will have a future that, presently, he can’t give to them, not without a heritage of some kind.
So he’s not just fighting for Israel. He’s fighting to invent a past he never had, one where he is admired by his brothers, and create a future for his family that was previously impossible.
Of course he promises anything in exchange for that. We bargain for it all the time. We exchange our authenticity for acceptance–another of Gibson’s phrases. We exchange our own health and well-being. We trade our dignity. We trade it for the promise that, this time, the healing fantasy will come true. We’ll be accepted by our families at long last and will, by extension, know our place in the world and be rooted in it.
How ironic, then, that what he bargains away is his own daughter–the best family he has!
She greets him at the door with timbrel, rejoicing and dancing. While his brothers only celebrate him if he is successful in battle, his daughter’s love for him is unconditional–that he is home is enough! She doesn’t know if he’s returning home defeated or successful–she celebrates him before she even knows the news because, for her, the news that matters most is that he is safe.
Do you think she was praying those days he was away: God, please keep my father safe. I promise I’ll always say my bedtime prayers and clean my room and make my bed without complaining if you just bring him home alive?
Maybe, but we don’t know. We know she loves him, because she is waiting for him, perhaps looking for him all the time, stationed by the front door for days or weeks or even months for his return. Maybe she has been practicing her welcome song and dance every day since he left.
The tragedy is stark: Jephthah’s desire for acceptance and love by his brothers, who can never give it freely, will result in the death of the only person who actually loves and accepts him. He chooses the ones who gave him stones and snakes over the one who gave him fish and bread.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. Again, the Jewish literature scorns Jephthah for not understanding that his deal with God is invalid from the start. There is an inherent inequality of bargaining power in any deal a person tries to strike with God; God never needs to bargain with us because we have nothing that God needs. Jephthah’s promise lacks what the law calls consideration, a commitment from both parties to do what they would otherwise not do. Jephthah cannot bargain God into helping him win the war because God is going to make happen what God wants anyway. Additionally, the promise that Jephthah makes is also unconscionable, in legal terms—a sacrifice too great for what he thinks he is getting in exchange. Again, legally, in a deal, the two items exchanged have to be of equal value. And, here, they are not, not because Jephthah’s promise for an unconditional sacrifice is too big but because it is too small–even in the worst case scenario, which is what we get, it’s the life of one precious child for the people of twenty towns.
And importantly, God never accepts the promise or the sacrifice. This is not a promise to God at all because God has no part of it.
Yet if you read many Christian commentaries on the story, they will tell you that the moral of the tale is not to make rash promises to God because then you have to follow through with them.
Why did Jephthah feel that way? Why, for heaven’s sake, do Christian commentators still argue that Jephthah’s problem was that he made a rash promise rather than that he followed through on it?
For Jephthah, we can imagine that he feels terrified of not following through. We know that God is gracious, good, and kind, but Jephthah’s most meaningful experience of God is that he begged God for military victory and got it. In other words, his transactional view of God–where God gives you something, so you have to give something back–seems to be working. After all, he got what he asked for, right? And that means that if he doesn’t deliver what he promised in exchange, God will be angry. Perhaps will even undo the victory he delivered to Jephthah.
Think about it: if the first half of your bargain came true, would you dare to negate the contract now? Would you dare to back out of an agreement with God after God had already delivered for you?
But perhaps there is another reason: If the strain theory of deviance explains why Jephthah chose to seek acceptance and power as a desert raider, then perhaps now that acceptance and power within his family is finally a possibility, he doesn’t want to begin by not following the rules.
And so he gets stuck on this “rule,” which is that you must honor your promises to God.
Let me give you a silly illustration from my own life:
Two of my children were arguing because one had entered the other’s bedroom without permission and apparently touched something. It turns into a physical fight. G– and M– are a tangle of flailing arms and legs, fighting over “who started it.” G– has his hands around M–‘s throat, and she’s pummeling him in the stomach. Then she gets him down on the ground. Sitting on top of him, still punching, she demands, “YOU HAVE TO SWEAR YOU”RE NEVER GOING TO GO INTO MY BEDROOM AGAIN.” To which G–, with his hands still around her throat says, “Oh, we can’t swear. We’re Mennonite. I’ll have to AFFIRM.”
I was a proud Mennonite mother, as you can imagine! They’d remembered that we don’t take oaths–though they’d seem to have forgotten the more important commitment we have not hitting.
We can laugh at that, but it shows a kind of fundamentalism in thinking that informs Jephthah’s own situation–and explains, I think, why many Christians today continue to understand his story as mostly about keeping your commitments to God.
It’s why we have Christians today who continue to promote commitment to a bad idea over care for actual people. It happens
- When we insist that a person stays in an abusive marriage because they made a vow to their marriage–as if fidelity to spoken words is more important than their own safety.
- When we tell a child to respect their elders, even if those people are abusing them.
- When we shame adults for being estranged for elderly parents who have abused them and would continue to do so if given the chance
- When we insist that swearing is taking God’s name in vain–but support war fought in God’s name and Christian nationalism.
- When we tell poor people to accept the rules of our society that keep them in poverty rather than doing anything illegal that might challenge those rules.
All of these are examples of how everyday Christians maintain a devotion to a social contract that harms vulnerable people because we, like Jephthah, are more focused on the rule than on the outcome of enforcing it.
And sometimes, if we are honest, we hide behind the rule, even when we know its evil outcome. We say “I can’t help the situation–I’m just following orders”–even when we are the ones issuing the orders!
But we can resist this impulse, and some of us have. We’ve done the work that Jephthah was unable to do. We’ve ended cycles of family abuse. We’ve chosen our children’s futures over our parents’ and grandparents’ and siblings’ comfort. Even if, like Jephthah, we’ve been handed snakes and stones by people who said they loved us, we can hand over bread and fish to those we love.