Scripture is not unfamiliar with mankind’s penchant for talk. Many a hero parades across its pages with something to say (1 Sam. 17:43-47), or not to say in some cases (Ex. 4:10-17)! Perhaps one “hero” that we wish never said anything at all would be Jepthah, the unlikely and unusual deliverer found in Judges 11:1-12:7. Not only does Jepthah have a tainted background as the illegitimate son of an Israelite and a prostitute (Jud. 11:1-2), he is an opportunist and takes every opportunity to manipulate the situation to his advantage (v. 9). He was certainly not a candidate for “Father of the Year”! Although Jepthah had been driven from his home by his half-brothers, he earned a reputation as being a mighty man of war. When Israel was threatened by the Ammonites, Jepthah’s kin pressed him into service on their behalf with the promise of becoming their leader. It is ironic that the man who bargained his way into leadership could not find the words to avoid war, but that is the case, even though his reasoning is as solid as God’s own promises and Israel’s history (vv. 11-27).
Empowered and marked by the Spirit of the Lord (v. 29) Jepthah marches to war. While on the way to Ammon, he makes a slight detour to Mizpah, where the Tabernacle is temporarily located, and makes a vow. Some commentators have rightly noted that this was not a necessary thing for Jepthah to do. After all he had the Spirit of the Lord with him! But perhaps this is another piece of evidence that demonstrates to us the fallibility of this man in particular and humankind at large. Whatever the reason may be, Jepthah’s big mouth is about to get him into trouble. It is interesting to note that the Hebrew is quite clear about his intentions. Even in English his vow is unmistakable. Jepthah promises to offer whatever comes through the door when he returns as a burnt offering (v. 31). Although Jepthah proclaims “whatever” comes through the door, it is hard to deny he had anything else but a human in mind. And sadly, that human turns out to be his one and only daughter (v. 34). Scholars debate as to whether or not she was actually sacrificed this way. Certainly the most compelling argument is that it’s completely against God’s law and the Lord does not tolerate human sacrifice. But her life was rather bleak after that. Before her father’s impetuous promise, her future held marriage and a family- something every ancient Israelite woman desired. These desires will be unfulfilled now thanks to her father’s vow.
That the Scripture is silent about the details of her end is interesting. Perhaps it is not revealed to emphasize a point: watch what you say. Proverbs is full of warnings concerning what comes out of the mouth (Pr. 10: 11, 13, 18-21; 11:9-11; 12:6, 17-19 et al), James offers instruction on tempering one’s words (Js. 5:9-12), and Jesus taught that all the words we speak have weight in eternity, so to be careful with what comes out of our mouths. It most certainly reflects what is in the heart (Mt. 12:35-37). While we could apply this principle to parenting and the impact parents’ words have on their children, the application should not stay there. This lesson is valuable to all of us. Jepthah’s rash promise cost him what was most dear to him in life. What will your words cost you? Peace of mind? Your integrity? The value of your witness? If you struggle with controlling your tongue you are not alone (Js. 3). Perhaps memorizing Ps. 19:14 will help you when you are tempted to speak in a manner which does not honor God: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. Remember Jepthah’s example and strive to be like Jesus instead.
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
Week of 6/25/2017