“And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, “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.” Judges 11:30-31 ESV
I noticed something new in my reading of Jephthah’s story this time around (Judges 11): Jephthah knows Scripture. He demonstrates a deeper knowledge of Israel’s history than anyone else in Judges. His message to the Ammonite king is rich with details of Israel’s wilderness wandering.
So how does the judge that seems to know the Bible best miss the heart of God so badly when he vows to sacrifice “whatever comes through the door” to greet him (11:31)? Because, to be clear, he totally missed the heart of God. Child sacrifice was one of the detestable practices of the Canaanites that caused God to drive them out of the Promised Land in the first place. Child sacrifice is never, was never, and will never be anything other than abhorrent to God. God is crystal clear in Jeremiah:
4 Because the people have forsaken me and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their fathers nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of innocents, 5 and have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it come into my mind— (Jeremiah 19:4-5)
Maybe because it just sounded so pious and impressive. Maybe Jephthah was living for the admiration of his warriors. “What a guy, that Jephthah! He’s willing to sacrifice anything that comes through the door to honor the Lord! That’s so holy of him!” Even today, you can find plenty of examples of sermons about Jephthah being an example of character and integrity and keeping one’s word, even when it hurts.
Which, no. Again, this is not the heart of God. Not ever. And for all Jephthah’s head knowledge about Israel’s history, he clearly had mixed it with some pagan pragmatism in order to come to the point of thinking sacrificing his daughter would please God. Worse, he either forgot, or never knew in the first place that the Law made a way for sin to be forgiven, including the sin of making a rash vow:
17 “If anyone sins, doing any of the things that by the Lord's commandments ought not to be done, though he did not know it, then realizes his guilt, he shall bear his iniquity. 18 He shall bring to the priest a ram without blemish out of the flock, or its equivalent, for a guilt offering, and the priest shall make atonement for him for the mistake that he made unintentionally, and he shall be forgiven. 19 It is a guilt offering; he has indeed incurred guilt before[g] the Lord.” (Leviticus 5:17-18)
Beloved, as you study God’s word this year, don’t miss the point. You aren’t doing this so you can get a higher score on Bible jeopardy. You aren’t going to win a trophy at Bible drill next year.
We grow in the knowledge of the Lord in order to grow in the grace of the Lord (2 Peter 3:18). It’s possible to accumulate facts and details and trivia and completely miss the heart of God and the character of God. Just ask the Pharisees about that one.