Jephthah: The Danger of Designer-Dog Faith (Judges 10-12)

Glynwood Baptist Church, Prattville, AL June 8, 2021

Jephthah: The Dangers of Designer Dog Faith

By James Jackson

Judges 10-12

Summary: The tragic, awful story of Jephthah shows us what happens when we try to piece together our own version of what it means to follow God.


Please open your Bibles to Judges 10.

Happy Father’s day! The stereotype with going to church on mothers day and fathers day s that on mother’s day, mothers get built up, and on fathers day, fathers get beat up. 

But today, I guarantee that every dad is going to come away encouraged, because NO MATTER WHAT, you are a better dad than Jephthah, the judge we are going to meet today.

Judges 10… a lot of the stories in the book of Judges people know… Samson; Gideon; maybe even Deborah… Almost nobody knows the story of Jephthah here in Judges 10. Because it is terrible. I mean, terrible. It’s going to leave you feeling deeply unsettled. Disturbed.

But before we get into the story, let’s talk about dogs. About a month ago, our sweet little pug that we’ve had for 13 years had to be put down. And I started doing some research online to see what kind of dog, if any, we should get next. And I learned that really dogs kind of fit into three categories:

Mutts: You can go to the shelter and for around 50-75 dollars, you can pick out your very own dog. He won’t have any papers, you wont know any of his history. You’ll just kind of accept what you get, no questions.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have purebreds. Unlike mutts, with purebreds you know exactly what you are getting. You’ve got papers. You’ve got bloodlines. You’ve got breeding experts who are able to tell you exactly how big they’re gonna get, what their characteristics are, and so forth.

But in recent years, there’ s been a growing demand for what they call designer dogs. This is when you want to mix and match the best characteristics of one breed with the some preferred characteristics of another breed. Say you want the playfulness and intelligence of a golden retriever, but without all the shedding. Voila! Breed a golden retriever with a poodle, and you get a golden doodle. Or, you want the watchdog characteristics  of a schnauzer, but you want him to be more cuddly,  so again, breed him with a poodle and you get… a Schnoodle. 

Poodles are the most popular ingredient for designer dogs. Kinda like oregano. You also have cockapoos, cavi poos, malti-poos, labradoodles, the list goes on. Which makes you wonder, if poodles make everything better, why not just get a poodle. I think its because when most people think of poodles, they think… Poodles. And they’re thinking, I wouldn’t be caught dead with that thing in a dog park.

Now, there’s a point to all of: Many Americans think they can build their faith like designer dog. They take a little bit of something from this, and mix it with a little bit of something from that, and the result is a concoction that you can hardly call Christian… which is more than simply bad for you; it is spiritually toxic.

That’s what you’re going to see with Jephthah today… he’s got a little bit of Yahweh worship, mixed in with a whole lot of beliefs and practices he’s picked up from the religions around him.

Let’s dive in and see how he got there. Judges 10:6:

The people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth, the gods of Syria, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites, and the gods of the Philistines. And they forsook the Lord and did not serve him.

If you were counting, seven  gods are listed. That’s the number of completion in Hebrew, which is to say that Israel has completely abandoned God. This is the lowest they’ve fallen thus far!

So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of the Philistines and into the hand of the Ammonites, and they crushed and oppressed the people of Israel that year.

We’ve seen this pattern before. Remember SWORDS: Now, this is a familiar pattern—the Israelites serve false gods and they end up in slavery. But here the author presents a twist: the Israelites care serving the gods of the ammonites and the Philistines, and look who winds up oppressing and crushing them: the Philistines and the Ammonites!

And so, verse 10:

10 And the people of Israel cried out to the Lord, saying, “We have sinned against you, because we have forsaken our God and have served the Baals.”

And for the first time in Judges, God says, “No. I’m not going to save you.

13 … “You have forsaken me and served other gods; therefore I will save you no more. 14 Go and cry out to the gods whom you have chosen; let them save you in the time of your distress.”

Why does God say no? Well, we’ve seen this before, too. What the people are expressing isn’t true repentance. They are hating the consequences of their sin, but they aren’t hating the sin itself. These people don’t want God for God; they are just in pain and want somebody, anybody, to make it stop.

There has been no change of heart toward God; this is a ‘let me use you to get out of trouble.’ Did you know that it is possible to come to God in an idolatrous way… It’s like there’s purebred faith, with all its expectations of surrender and exclusivity and surrender to the absolute Lordship of Christ, but then there’s designer-dog religion, where you want to mix and match what you like about Christianity with what you like from materialism, or self-fulfillment, or whatever.

The people realize their sin, and in verse 15, they truly repent:

15 And the people of Israel said to the Lord, “We have sinned; do to us whatever seems good to you. Only please deliver us this day.” 16 So they put away the foreign gods from among them and served the Lord…

Well, believe it or not, they get it. See how different what they said in vs. 15 is from what they said in vs. 10? In vs. 10, they say, we want peace from you. In vs. 15, they say, “We want peace with you, even if it continues to mean trouble for us here…. (We’d rather not have trouble, of course, but having you is the essential part.)” That’s true repentance. I don’t care if life gets easy or hard; I just want you. Well, they genuinely repented, and the Lord became impatient over the misery of Israel.

I love that phrase. Put a pin there, because we’re going to come back at the end.

So in verse 1 of chapter 11, we meet our hero, Jephthah:

Now Jephthah was a mighty warrior, but he was the son of a prostitute. Gilead, Jephthah’s father, had many other sons. 2 And when his wife’s sons grew up, they drove Jephthah out and said to him, “You shall not have an inheritance in our father’s house, for you are the son of a prostitute.” 3 Then Jephthah fled from his brothers and lived in the land of Tob, and worthless fellows collected around Jephthah and went out with him.

Now its worth noting that unlike most of the other judges we’ve talked about so far, Judges doesn’t say that the Lord “raised up Jephthah. Jephthah was a rejected man; driven out by his own brothers. • Flees to a far away land and worthless men (thugs) gather around him, where he becomes a kind of crime boss, a land pirate.

But then the Ammonites made war against Israel. Verse 5 And so the elders of Gilead went to bring Jephthah back, and said, “Come and be our leader, that we may fight against the Ammonites.”

And in verse 7, Jephthah says, “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?” And so, vs. 8, they say, “No, no. We’re really sorry this time! If you come home, you can be in charge. And so Jephthah agrees and, verse 11 says that the people made him head and leader over them.

And so here’s the first lesson from Jephthah’s life: We are far more influenced by our culture than we realize.

The people didn’t seek out Jephthah because God told them to, or because, like Deborah,  Jephthah had demonstrated spiritual leadership. They came to Jephthah because he was a thug. They looked at him and said, this is a strong man who can whup up on the Ammonites. And maybe his morals are a little shaky—that’s ok.  We aren’t electing a Sunday School teacher, we are electing a leader! And so they make a decision based on culture. They aren’t abandoning worship of Yahweh—they’re just cross breeding it with practicality and pragmatism.  They’re thinking, the end justifies the means, and if an amoral mafia boss can get us out from under this oppression, then maybe Jephthah is God’s man for the moment!

Jephthah didn’t realize it, but a lot of his outlook on God and life were more shaped by his culture he was in as God’s word… and he ends up with a designer dog faith that doesn’t honor God at all.

… and as we will see, it is going to have devastating effects.

In 1 Peter, God’s Word tells us to put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. 2 Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation— 3 if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.

Here’s the second lesson we learn from Jephthah: We can know facts about God and still miss the heart of God.

In chapter 11, you get a long history lesson from Jephthah to the king of the Ammonites.  And we’re not going to take the time to recap it, except to say that the details Jephthah gives about the Israelites wilderness wanderings are all pretty spot on from what Moses wrote in Leviticus, numbers, and Deuteronomy. 

We actually get our timeline for the book of Judges from Jephthah– 300 years up to this point, according to verse 26.

So Jephthah knew a lot about the Bible. But for all his knowledge of biblical history, he didn’t seem to have a clue about the heart of God or the character of God. Because look at what happens next: when 28 But the king of the Ammonites did not listen to the words of Jephthah that he sent to him (verse 28)…

29 Then the Spirit of the Lord was upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh and passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. 30 And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, 31 then whatever[a] 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[b] up for a burnt offering.”

DON’T MISS THIS!– The spirit of the Lord was on Jephthah BEFORE he made this vow, NOT as a result of it. But then he makes this vow that he will offer up as a burnt offering whatever comes out of his house to greet him.

Here’s  Jephthah’s designer dog faith. He had taken what he knew about Yahweh, the one true God, and combined it with some of what he had heard about other gods.  Chemosh, the god of the Moabites, and Molech the god of the Ammonites both required humans sacrifice, so maybe Yahweh did too.

God couldn’t have made his heart any more clear. In Dt. 12, God explicitly warned the Israelites about this very thing:

29 “When the Lord your God cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, 30 take care that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods?—that I also may do the same.’ 31 You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.

As much as Jephthah knew the story of Leviticus and numbers, somehow he missed how God felt about child sacrifice.  And he makes this horrible, horrible promise.

Some commentators have tried to make Jephthah look better by saying that he was thinking an animal would come out the door to greet him– a sheep or a bull or maybe even a Schnoodle. But there are two problems with this. First is that people of this culture didn’t keep animals in the house as pets.

Second, the noun that’s translated “whatever” actually should have been translated “whoever,” because the form its in in Hebrew is typically used for humans and not animals. 

So Jephthah had in mind a human sacrifice. He just expected the first one out of his house to be one of his many servants or comrades-in-arms.  And in his culture, this was actually acceptable.

This was just the way they did things in the culture around Israel, and Jephthah had just become desensitized to the idea that he was supposed to live by a different set of values.   Human life was cheap when it came to the idol of military dominance.

Now, before you and I shake our heads in bewilderment, we commit similar excesses with our idols… and we don’t wince nearly as much… For example…

•           We’ve made finding romantic or sexual fulfillment an idol, to the point that a husband or wife could meet someone on the Internet, become convinced that they married the wrong person, and walk away from their vows, their family, their life, all because we’ve made an idol out of being happy.

•           Or take the idol of “living out your truth:” Suppose I, as a conservative Baptist pastor, suddenly decided I’d been living a lie for the past 35 years of public ministry, that I was gay, and that I left my wife and sons for another man. Within 24 hours of posting that on Instagram, I would be hero for how true I was being to myself. Within a week I’d have a book contract. Why? Because we’ve created a designer dog faith that mixes up the clear moral teachings of Scripture with the idolatry of self fulfillment.

It’s how even Christian young women from godly families can justify terminating an inconvenient pregnancy.

There’s a story about a man who was kept in solitary confinement in a Spanish prison for 33 years, with nothing to read except the Bible. With only one book to read, he read it over hundreds and hundreds of times. The book became his constant companion.

After thirty-three years of imprisonment, he died. When they came in to clean out his cell, they found some notes he had written using nails to mark the soft stone of the prison walls.

•           The notations were of this sort: Psalm 118:8 is the middle verse of the Bible;

•           Ezra 7:21 contains all the letters of the alphabet except the letter j;

•           the ninth verse of the eighth chapter of Esther is the longest verse in the Bible;

•           no word or name of more than six syllables can be found in the Bible.

individual who spent thirty-three years of his life studying what some have described as the greatest book of all time yet could only glean trivia. From all we know, he never made any religious or spiritual commitment to Christ, but he became an expert at Bible trivia.

Friends, we want to produce more than people who can win bible drill.  It isn’t enough to have head knowledge about the Bible if that knowledge isn’t transforming you.  It reminds me of the teachers of the law that brought the woman caught in adultery to Jesus in John 8…

So Jephthah makes this vow.. And the next part of the story is just horrible. It’s the worst thing we’ve seen in Judges so far. After God gives the Ammonites into his hand, he goes home.

34 Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. 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. 35 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.”

Why? Because Jephthah had mixed in an incredibly toxic ingredient to his designer-dog faith: a works-righteousness understanding of God’s character.

He felt like he had to earn God’s favor, the way you earn a pagan god’s favor, by making sacrifices that guarantee it; and now he feels like if he doesn’t keep his horrific vow, God will punish him.

But God doesn’t give victory or favor or salvation because we earn it… “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy, he saved us.” He bore in his own body the price for our peace, by his stripes we are healed.

Did Jephthah keep his tragic vow? He did. Verse 36 says His daughter asked permission to go into the mountains for two months with her friends and weep for the fact that she would never know a man, would never have kids or grandkids, would never grow old.

39 And at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow that he had made. She had never known a man, and it became a custom in Israel 40 that the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year.

Could Jephthah have gotten out of it? HE HAD TWO MONTHS, while his daughter was off weeping in the mountains, to say, “You know what? That was a stupid thing to say… God, you never said you’d give me victory only if I sacrificed something… no, you give your people victory as a gift of grace… So instead of fulfilling this wicked vow in which I thought I could purchase your grace, I repent of making it in the first place; I repent of thinking there was something I could do to earn your favor, and I receive your grace for what it is, a gift!

Instead, Jephthah is trapped in this mindset of works righteousness. And that brings us to the third truth we learn from this awful story:

3. God’s grace runs deeper than we will ever understand.

See, what Jephthah failed to realize is that God’s deliverance wasn’t set in motion when Jephthah made this horrible vow. Look back at the beginning of the story. When God’s people truly repented– not just because they wanted to get out of trouble, but because they wanted to have their relationship with God restored, they said,

 “We have sinned; do to us whatever seems good to you. Only please deliver us this day.” 16 So they put away the foreign gods from among them and served the Lord, and he became impatient over the misery of Israel.

I love that phrase. In the NIV it says, “and the Lord could bear it no longer” It shows you how God feels about his people… He hurts with them. He says enough, and Yahweh  rises to his feet.

So the deliverance didn’t come because of Jephthah’s vow. It came because of God’s great mercy.

This is the gospel: You never have to make promises or sacrifices to God to earn his favor… God’s favor is GIFT! It’s like the favor I give to my son or daughter. They don’t earn it; they just receive it.

There is only one way to please God. Only one. Faith. Faith in his grace, his lovingkindness toward you.

Glynwood, my prayer for you is the prayer Paul had for the church at Ephesus.  Paul prayed that

Christ dwell in our hearts through faith. That we would become so rooted and established in love that the love of Christ would be our measuring stick for all things.  That we would stop trying to crossbreed the purebred gospel of grace with the characteristics of any other false gospel breed.

The last and most important lesson from Jephthah’s horrible story is this:

4.         We are in desperate need of a better judge (12:1-6).

Believe it or not, the story actually gets worse from here. In Judges 12 we see the roots of the first civil war in Israel. The men from the tribe of Ephraim got ticked off that Jephthah didn’t call on them to fight against the ammonites. And the Israelites turned on each other, but since they all looked alike they decided they could tell the difference between an epraimite and the other tribes by the way they pronounced a certain word, and the men of Israel wound up killing 42,000 of their own countrymen because they had a different accent.

And you see in this how the world’s mindset divides instead of unites. As long as we keep looking to human saviors and human solutions, we are just going to be more divided. So we are in desperate need of a better judge.

A recurring theme in Judges is that human saviors fall short. … Jephthah was a savior, but a very broken savior, and not the true Savior Israel needed. But he presents to us a picture of the true and better Judge that was coming…

Like Jephthah, you see, Jesus was driven from his brothers. “He was despised and rejected of men.” But unlike Jephthah, Jesus didn’t wait for us to bargain with him before he saved us.

Jephthah offered to sacrifice someone else to secure his victory. Jesus sacrificed himself to secure my victory.

Purebred  Christianity… is the grace of God received as a free gift.

CONCLUSION Faith in the grace of God is the only way to health in Christianity. It’s gospel all the way through. Faith in the finished work of the gospel is what Peter calls the pure milk and meat of God’s Word… God’s acceptance is given as a gift… not as a reward for perfect righteousness, not as a response to our extreme sacrifices, but as a gift of righteousness from God for all who will simply admit how badly they need it and receive it for what it is, a gift of grace.

Author: James

I pastor Glynwood Baptist Church in Prattville, Alabama. I read a lot, write a little, and drink lots of coffee. I have three callings in life: surrender to Christ, be a husband to Trish, and be the best father/grandfather I can be. Everything else is an assignment, because everything else can be done by someone else.

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