And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.” (Judges 11:30-31)
The more troubling the passage in the Bible, the greater our desire to explain it. As we hear Jephthah’s rash vow to offer to God ‘whatever’ comes out to meet him, we want an explanation. Even as we feel his grief and devastation as he finds his daughter running toward him with joy, we want some way to make sense of it all?
What did Jephthah really expect to have meet him?
Why make such a ridiculous vow in the first place? Was he trying to bribe God?
Would God really hold him to his word when it involved child sacrifice?
Did Jephthah really sacrifice his daughter as a burnt offering?
For that matter, where is God in this whole story?
There is an important impulse behind these questions. The Christian faith is one of ‘faith seeking understanding.’ It is not afraid of questions, even difficult ones. We are right to search for ways of holding together our larger confessions of faith with the particularities we find in each story and verse. Explanation can be helpful. This challenging and arduous work can help shed light on the dim places in scripture. It can serve to put a passage into focus so that what should be clear is made clear to us.
For instance, it may be helpful to know that there is no way that God would honored Jephthah’s vow if it included human sacrifice, since the vow goes against God’s own law. Human sacrifice was clearly forbidden by the law of Moses and considered an abomination against God (Lv. 18:21, 20:2-5; Dt. 12:31, 18:10). It may also be helpful to know that historically there has been some disagreement on the translation of this passage, with a significant minority arguing that Jephthah’s vow should read: “[whatever meets me] will be the Lord’s or I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.” This reading suggests that Jephthah did not sacrifice his daughter on an altar (something never explicitly stated in the passage), but committed her to perpetual service in the Tabernacle. The grief and mourning would then be for her never marrying and bearing a child to carry on the family line (‘give me two month to roam the hills and weep with my friends because I will never marry’).
There are great benefits to studying a passage like the story of Jephthah. It is complex and stretches our minds to search the whole of Gods’ word and use all the gifts and resources he has given us in order to help make some sense of it. The search for an explanation can be an act of faith – an act of trust that God’s truth is made known even in stories like this.
And yet, the desire for an explanation can too easily lead into the temptation to ‘explain away’ the difficult places in this story. Explanation seek to shed light and truth where there is confusion. ‘Explaining away’ seeks to reduce or remove the tension of a story to ease our discomfort. No matter how long and hard we search, there are questions we cannot answer. No matter how much Hebrew we study, scripture we memorize, or commentaries we read, the story of Jephthah’s daughter defies easy explanations. It is a difficult story. We should be troubled when we read it.
Any explanation we give should not remove the horror that a father would act so foolishly and that it is his daughter that would pay the price. We should be disturbed that a man would swear away his daughter’s freedom and future and believe it honorable and faithful. We should not forget the dignity and character of Jephthah’s daughter, despite the flaws of her father.
Living in the tension and unanswered questions of this story can be an act of faith too. Not only ‘searching and finding’, but ‘searching and living with mystery’ are essential parts of the life of the Christian.