Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Jephthah's daughter Judges 11

That horrible moment when the full consequences of Jephthah’s vow become unavoidably obvious …

The text for this sermon (the Uniform Series text for June 18) is the beginning of the story of Jephthah, one of the Judges, whose story is told in chapters 11 and 12 of the book of Judges. We are continuing our study of “call stories” in the book of Judges with this text; this beginning of Jephthah’s story happens when Jephthah, who will deliver the Israelites from their enemies the Ammonites, is called to that task by the elders of Gilead.

As with all the stories in the book of Judges, this story actually begins a little earlier, with the Israelites having done what was evil in the sight of the God of Israel, mostly having worshipped other, foreign, gods, and for that reason being given over to their enemies; now, once again, the Israelites cry out to God, acknowledge their sin, “put away” the foreign gods and worship the God of Israel; in fact, they pitifully accept their punishment (“do what seems good to you” they say to God) and in Judges 10:16 we learn that it’s breaking God’s heart. At the beginning of chapter 11, we also find out a little about Jephthah’s background: he is not his father’s legitimate child, the child of his father’s wife, but the child of another woman with whom his father has some extra-marital relationship; nevertheless, it seems he may have been raised in his father’s home, because it’s not until his brothers are grown up – and we assume, his father has died – that his brothers tell him to hit the road, not to expect any inheritance from their father’s estate. In the mental health literature, they would call this a “cut-off” – a family member who’s been separated from the family in a definitive way, and it’s usually taken as a sign of some family dysfunction, which it seems to be in this case. So with all of that in mind, let’s listen for the Word of God to us from Judges 11:1-11 and continuing with 29-31:

1/ Now Jephthah the Gileadite, the son of a zonah, was a mighty warrior. Gilead was the father of Jephthah. 2/ Gilead’s wife also bore him sons; and when his wife’s sons grew up, they drove Jephthah away, saying to him, “You shall not inherit anything in our father’s house; for you are the son of another woman.” 3/ Then Jephthah fled from his brothers and lived in the land of Tob. Outlaws collected around Jephthah and went raiding with him.

4/ After a time the Ammonites made war against Israel. 5/ And when the Ammonites made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to bring Jephthah from the land of Tob. 6/ They said to Jephthah, “Come and be our commander, so that we may fight with the Ammonites.” 7/ But Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “Are you not the very ones who rejected me and drove me out of my father’s house? So why do you come to me now when you are in in trouble?” 8/ The elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “Nevertheless, we have now turned back to you, so that you may go with us and fight with the Ammonites, and become head over us, over all the inhabitants of Gilead.” 9/ Jephthah said to the elders off Gilead, “If you bring me home again to fight with the Ammonites, and YHWH gives them over to me, will I be your head?”* 10/ And the elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “YHWH will be witness between us; we will surely do as you say.” 11/ So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and commander over them, and Jephthah spoke all his words before YHWH at Mizpah. …

29/ Then the spirit of YHWH 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. 30/ And Jephthah vowed a vow to YHWH, and said “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, 31/ then who-or- whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the Ammonites, shall be to YHWH that I will raise it up as a burnt offering.”

There are a lot of things that we could pay attention to in the story of Jephthah. The part of the story that has captured the attention of most artists, it seems, at least judging from what shows up in a Wikimedia search, is the moment of horror when Jephthah’s daughter comes out of the house to meet him as he is returning home, celebrating his victory over the enemies of Israel, and triggering his realization of the full meaning of his vow. As we just read, he had vowed this terrible vow – which probably didn’t seem all that terrible to him at the time – that whatever came out of the door of the house to meet him would be offered up as a sacrifice to the God of Israel. It’s pretty clear from the text, as well as from everything we know about human beings, that he hadn’t meant this to be his daughter – no doubt if that possibility had occurred to him a little sooner, he wouldn’t have made that particular vow in the first place. (Why didn’t it, we might ask ourselves?)

So a lot of commentary about Jephthah and a lot of thinking about this particular Biblical story focuses on why he made that vow, and whether he really was required to keep that vow, and whether people actually performed human sacrifice in the time of the Judges, and whether he should have kept the vow, and whether God would really have wanted him to keep that terrible vow knowing that God is against human sacrifice, and so on and so forth. I don’t want to suggest that any of that is unimportant, either. The terrible consequences of Jephthah’s ill-considered vow probably ought to remind us that vows have a way of working against us, so keeping them to a minimum is probably wise. The practice of making vows has fallen out of use – I don’t know about anyone else here, but I’m not sure I have ever made a vow, although I have made some New Year’s resolutions, which might be a little bit similar – and maybe that’s a good thing.

Nevertheless, none of that is what I would like to focus on this morning. Instead, I would like to focus on the issue of Jephthah’s call, on what’s going on there … partly because the Uniform Series lessons are directing our attention to thinking about calls, and partly because it seems to me the circumstances of Jephthah’s call in particular might be similar to the circumstances of calls we ourselves receive from time to time, and so perhaps there is some insight for us hidden in the circumstances of Jephthah’s story. So let’s look more closely at this part of the story – and it won’t hurt us to remember that we know both how well, and how badly, the story turns out for Jephthah and for the Israelites.

Almost the first thing the Bible tells us about Jephthah is that he has a specific talent. He’s a “mighty warrior,” a gibor chayil in Hebrew, and chayil is a word that’s often used to describe pretty great people. It doesn’t just mean strong, it means something like strong-and-brave-and-good, worthy. Boaz and Ruth, who also live in the time of the Judges, are chayils, for example, as are the seventy elders Moses appoints in the wilderness to help shoulder the job of judging Israel. So are all of the mighty warriors of Israelite history from the time of Joshua on. So this is no incidental description of Jephthah, it’s an identity-defining characteristic.

Unfortunately, the first thing the Bible tells us about Jephthah is that he has dubious social credentials. He’s the son of a zonah, which is a Hebrew word that is usually translated “prostitute” or sometimes something cruder. We can’t quite conclude from this that his mother was a person whose profession was having sex with men for money, because there are arguments that some other arrangements in ancient Israel, that weren’t marriages but that weren’t exactly what we’d in our day call “sex-work,” would also have been described with that word. So it might not be entirely fair to conclude that Gilead, who is clearly identified as Jephthah’s father, wouldn’t have had a significant relationship with Jephthah’s mother, or with Jephthah, or that he wouldn’t have taken any responsibility for his son.

But we also know that Jephthah’s father does not provide for him socially. We know this, because when his half-brothers don’t want him around and tell him to hit the road, when they tell him “you’re not wanted around here,” nothing and no one stops them. The good people of Gilead apparently offer them no resistance, even though they have presumably read their Torah and presumably know that they are supposed to provide justice to widows and orphans, and presumably Jephthah and Jephthah’s unnamed mother would fit those descriptions. Jephthah doesn’t seem to make a stand against them, either. We don’t know why the half-brothers do it, really. Maybe they don’t like the reminder that their father was less than impeccable in his behavior. Maybe they don’t want to share their stuff with Jephthah and figure his social questionability is a good excuse not to have to. Maybe they just don’t like him. The Bible doesn’t tell us why they do it; just that they do it. And that they do it turns out to matter in this story. Because if this part of the story had never happened, the story would undoubtedly have been different. We don’t know for sure how, but I think we can be sure it wouldn’t have turned out the same way.

So although Jephthah is a mighty warrior, he has no way to offer that important and valuable talent and skill to his people. And the community initially goes along with the exclusion of Jephthah – “bastards’ lives don’t matter” seems to be their attitude. So off Jephthah goes to the land of Tob, and a band of outlaws collects around him there – which makes perfect sense, when we think about it. A bunch of social outcasts collects out there, forming the kind of community a band of social outcasts tends to form – a little community where not being proper doesn’t count against you, and where they don’t have to be on the defensive all the time against the little digs and kicks that would be dished out by the respectable types.

That’s how things stand at the beginning of verse 4, when the Ammonites make war against the Israelites, and the elders of Gilead start to wish maybe they hadn’t kicked all those guys out. Who can we get, they evidently start to ask themselves, to defend us against these Ammonites? Who’s good at fighting, at leading people in battle? Now they start to think about Jephthah a little differently.

So the “elders of Gilead” head off to the land of Tob to “fetch” or “bring” Jephthah. The Hebrew word that gets translated here as “fetch” or “bring” is a businesslike word that has more than a few connotations of picking up and dragging off. These elders mean business, they are not in a mood to let Jephthah turn them down, they intend to get this guy for their anti-Ammonite army. So now they’re going to overlook the fact that Jephthah is the son of a zonah. Now they’re for letting bygones be bygones. “Hey, man, your mom … what difference does that really make, eh?”

The Bible doesn’t record a single word of apology or remorse from these elders of Gilead. The Bible doesn’t record a single expression of concern for how Jephthah’s life has gone since leaving Gilead. The Bible doesn’t record a single note of human compassion or sensitivity in this awkward situation. “Come be our commander” the elders of Gilead say. As in, “Hey, man, we’ve got a job for you, a really good job, the kind of job people will look up to you for … whaddaya say?”

And Jephthah, to his credit to my way of thinking, points out the irony of the situation: weren’t you the ones who hated me and drove me out in the first place? You elders of Gilead? What happened to “get the heck out of here, you bastard?”

Well, the Ammonites happened. Everybody in the story knows that. Now the elders of Gilead need what Jephthah can offer, and they know it, so they’re willing to set aside their false respectability for the sake of their survival, at least momentarily.

We have a word for this, in English: “opportunism.” If someone calls us opportunists, they’re not paying us a compliment. An opportunist is someone who is willing to set aside whatever principles they hold, or claim to hold, for the sake of getting done whatever they think needs to get done at the moment. In fact, the essence of opportunism is that an opportunist doesn’t let something as inconvenient as moral principles get in the way of anything. An opportunist is someone who takes advantage of whatever opportunities present themselves, regardless of the ethics they require him or her to go along with. The elders of Gilead are opportunists, and Jephthah calls them on it.

Things didn’t have to be this awkward in v. 6, by the way, and if the Israelites had been observing the Torah they got on Mt. Sinai in the first place, they wouldn’t have been. The elders of Gilead would have taken that opportunity they had to do the right thing, back in verse 2 – that opportunity they had to step in and defend the rights of a young man who everyone knew was Gilead’s son, and to include that young man in the community regardless of the circumstances of his birth. They would have stepped up and cared for the rights of widows and orphans, as the Torah instructs them to do. If they’d been doing that all along, Jephthah would have been in Gilead, contributing to the community, one of his people. Instead, Jephthah has been paying for their callous unconcern with the fate of a fatherless young man ever since he left town. And while the Bible doesn’t tell us what happened to Jephthah’s mother, about whom all we know is that she was never married to his father, we can probably guess that the good people of Gilead were as callous and unconcerned about her fate as they were about Jephthah’s – just one more thing Jephthah has probably been living with all this time.

Not following the way of the God of Israel is why … the Ammonites in the first place. So the messy situation in Tob, and the embarrassment of the elders of Gilead, and their shameless opportunism, are part of the whole situation facing the Israelites, they are in a sense emblematic of the larger problem Israel has been having, the problem of worshipping the wrong gods in the first place, the gods of fertility and wealth and position, rather than the God of Israel, the God of justice and mercy. Because what happens when we worship the wrong gods is precisely that we come to love the wrong things … our social standing, for instance, instead of our humanity.

So the elders of Gilead are opportunists, but whether Jephthah is an opportunist is a little less clear. This is one of those rather awful places in the Bible where we have to come face to face with our own psychology, our own mixed motives – in the act of “inferring” what’s going on with a Biblical character about whose psychology the Bible is, as usual, silent.

Do we think Jephthah is contemplating the sweetness of revenge on these hateful, rejecting, driving-away elders of Gilead, savoring the opportunity to return and “show them” that now they need old Jephthah? Why would we think that? Could it be because we recognize that we, ourselves, might have that impulse if we were in Jephthah’s situation? What other reason for that inference could we possibly have?

Or do we think Jephthah might be wondering whether he should even bother, might be contemplating the option of saying “Hey, guys, flattered to get the offer, but frankly … these days, Gilead’s just not my circus, not my monkeys, y’know? So … good luck with that Ammonite problem, and don’t let that door hit you on the way out.” Again, why would we think that? Is it because we recognize that we, ourselves, might have that impulse, might figure that would be the best course of action?

Do we think Jephthah might think “well … maybe this is the chance I’ve been waiting for … under these circumstances, surely … maybe this is my chance to go back, to really have a family, finally …”? Why would we think that? Maybe because we, ourselves, recognize the motive of someone who has been hurt by people who should have loved and accepted him, should have treated him like family, and who still hasn’t given up hope for some decent relationship, despite all the evidence that he can’t count on that?

I’m afraid that what we think about Jephthah probably tells us more about us than about him. When we recognize that, we may be able to acknowledge that many of us, maybe most of us, ourselves, have been living with some burden of shame, and have been through some painful episodes with family members, with friends, co-workers, neighbors, even members of the church we belong or used to belong to. Many or maybe most of us have “been there,” wherever we think “there” is for Jephthah. Some of us have been right there – have been kicked out the house because we didn’t live up to mom and dad’s standards, or been excluded by some group because we didn’t quite measure up. So we know that when people peg us as not good enough, and exclude us because of it, it hurts. And often, we ourselves some satisfying stories about fixing that situation – the story where we show up and save the day, the story where the people who wronged us apologize and ask our forgiveness, the story where they get what’s coming to them, the story where things finally turn out all right somehow. I’m afraid that the motives we imagine inform Jephthah’s final agreement to answer the call of these elders of Gilead probably tells us a lot about what would be going on with us if we decided to do that same thing. Although we’re probably not completely wrong to imagine that Jephthah is at least something like us.

Eventually Jephthah says “yes” to the elders of Gilead. And we know that there’s something right about this, because the spirit of the God of Israel comes upon him, he pursues diplomacy, which doesn’t succeed, but he tries; he does lead the Israelites to victory over the Ammonites, and relieves the oppression they’ve been experiencing from that quarter. So that “yes” to Jephthah’s call is, actually, blessed in an important way. But it’s also blighted, by this vow that he makes in verses 30-31, and by the aftermath of that vow.

And here again, we might want to remember all the opportunities to do the right thing in the situation that are foregone by everyone concerned: the opportunity to challenge that vow in the first place – which was always something people could do; the opportunity to question the ideology of the vow, if it led to obviously negative consequences, that were bound to dishonor God; the opportunity to check things out with the authorities, which later commentators (like Rashi, the great medieval commentator on Hebrew scripture) insist would have changed the outcome; the opportunity on the community’s part to intervene and point out “hey, this is wrong!” But once again, we’re reading a story about the time of the Judges, when people were having well-documented trouble behaving well. The problem of the day was precisely that people weren’t taking the opportunities they had to do what God had instructed them to do.

It’s fairly obvious to us, I think, that Jephthah didn’t have to make that vow, could have left well enough alone. And with the recognition that how I read Jephthah may say more about me than it does about him … I can’t help thinking that the appetite for excess that vow indicates – in Jephthah’s case, what seems to have been the desire for that extra sweet satisfaction of being the big leader of the people who had earlier rejected him and driven him away – is sometimes whetted by injustice. In Jephthah’s case, that might have been the underlying dynamic: he had been denied something entirely legitimate, and if my reading of his motives is even close, that denial fueled his drive to show himself worthy, respectable, someone when he finally got the chance – and that drive drove him over the edge of what was reasonable risk – as battle always is, let’s face it – into the territory where fatal mistakes get made.

Stepping back from that territory, is there anything we regular Bible-reading people a long way from the Israel of the time of the Judges can learn from this sad story?

I think so. For one thing, some of us are Jephthahs. Things have not gone as well for us as they might have gone. We have not had the happiest of families, or maybe we have literally had families from hell. We may live with shame – either in ways that are known to everyone, so we don’t travel much with “respectable” folks, or in ways that we keep hidden, so that when we do hang out with “respectable” people, we don’t hang out “all the way,” if you know what I mean – we keep parts of ourselves hidden from people we think would … think differently about us if they knew about … the abuse we’ve taken, or the alcoholism we learned to live with and manage as kids, or the addiction that we’re always hoping our brother or sister is past, but in the meantime we walk on eggshells … whatever it is that makes us feel like we belong with the outcasts. There are plenty of Jephthahs, whether hiding right here among us, or in places like Tob, where the pain of that not quite fitting in with the so-called respectable folks is less, because it’s not in our face all the time.

We all need to remember that Jephthah was, truly, a mighty warrior. His might, his value and worth, were no less than that of Ruth and Boaz and the elders of Israel. He had real talent, and his talent was vital for the welfare of Israel in his day. He really was in a position to be used by God for something great. The fact that he was an outcast because of the short-sightedness of the elders of Gilead and his half-brothers didn’t change that, although it made it messier, and harder for his real and valuable gifts to get connected with his real calling, and although it complicated his discernment with mixed motives, making it harder for him to say yes with clarity and confidence, and tough for him to separate his legitimate from his less legitimate motives in the situation.

The Jephthahs of the world have a lot to offer. And yet, it may be hard for the Jephthahs of the world to make that offer. The obstacles they face to making a contribution aren’t simple, and aren’t simply “their own fault.” Often they are intimately bound up with the situations they have had to live into in order to survive. The Jephthahs of the world can use support to recognize their might and their worth, and to turn those to the benefit of the community. So when we have an opportunity to give that support, to make it more possible for someone to answer their call, let’s take it – because it makes a real difference.

For another thing, if some of us are Jephthahs, all of us are from time to time in the position of the elders of Gilead. All of us have opportunities to step in and advocate for justice from time to time; to intervene with good counsel on behalf of someone who is being wronged; to urge our family and friends and neighbors to take the kinder, better course of action. When we are face to face with an opportunity to defend the defenseless, to defend “other people’s children,” who are also in a real sense our children, we need to take it. We need to care what happens to the vulnerable members of our communities, before we wake up to the fact that we “need” them. In other words, we need to worship God – because that care for and involvement with our neighbors is the most basic worship we can offer God – the God who calls us to heed God’s instruction for the conduct of human life, the God for whom “hearing” and “keeping” God’s word is the essence of worship.

So let’s not be opportunists; instead, let’s be makers and takers of opportunities to worship God – by affirming peoples’ real talents and worth, and holding fast to God’s principles of justice and mercy.

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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