Awhile back, the preacher at my (teeny-tiny) church approached me about giving a sermon. He was interested, he said, in having different voices represented in the church, more than just white guys.
I declined, explaining that I’m not a speaker, I’m a writer. A couple of months later, though, he approached me again. We’ve been doing a series on the broken heroes depicted in the book of Judges and we were coming to Judges 11, the story of Jephthah. He knows how fascinated I am by the story of Jephthah. (In the early 2000’s, I wrote a book with this story as the underlying theme (though not the story).
The story of Jephthah and his daughter is the saddest story in the Bible. It makes Romeo and Juliet look like the pilot for a sitcom. I’ll spare you the theological analysis, but I thought I’d share my retelling of the story itself.
Jephthah was a great warrior from the land of Gilead, but his mother was a prostitute. His father had other sons by his legitimate wife and when he died. Jephthah’s brothers said, “You are the son of a whore. We are not sharing Dad’s estate with you.”
So Jephthah left Gilead for the land of Tob, where he gathered a band of ne’er-do-wells and malcontents and they lived off the land as bandits.
And life was good.
But then, back home in Gilead, the Ammonites attacked. And the leaders of Gilead sent for Jephthah, begging him to come lead their army against the Ammonites.
And Jephthah said, “Um, excuse me, remember the part where you called me a son of a whore and kicked me out? Why would I help you now?”
And the leaders said, “Because we need you. Look, if you’ll come be our commander-in-chief against the Ammonites, we will make you the king of Gilead.”
And Jephthah said, “Sure you will.”
And they said, “No. Really. We swear.” And they agreed to set up a legally binding contract making Jephthah commander-in-chief and king in exchange for defeating the Ammonites.
And so they did that.
As his first action, Jephthah sent messengers to the King of Ammon, demanding to know why Israel was being attacked.
And the King of Ammon said they wanted the land that Israel took from them, the whole territory from the Arnon River to the Jabbok and the Jordan.
And Jephthah said, “Dude. It’s been 300 years. Don’t you think it’s time to move on? Also, no one else is demanding their land back.”
And the King of Ammon said, “Don’t care. We want it back.”
So they went to war.
And even though Jephthah was a very talented and experienced warrior, no one wins all the time. He got into a battle where he was losing. Badly. And in the panic of the moment, he offered God a bargain. He said, “If you will let me win this battle, when I get home, I will sacrifice as a burnt offering to you the first thing that comes out my door.”
And the Bible says, “When Jephthah returned home, his daughter—his only child—ran out to meet him, playing on a tambourine and dancing for joy.”
Because her father was home.
And Jephthah said: “Alas, my daughter, you have brought me to the dust. For I have made a vow to the Lord and I cannot take it back.”
She asked if she could have the summer to roam the hills with her girlfriends, mourning the fact that she would never marry. He agreed to let her do that. Two months later, she returned home and he had her killed.
All of which puts a pretty depressing spin on “girls just want to have fun.”
I have lots of thoughts on this but I promised to spare you the theology.
How about you? Have you ever run across an ancient story that just grabs you by the heart and won’t let go?
If the idea was to get your congregation engaged, thinking and debating during the week ahead, I bet you succeeded. I can’t imagine what your takeaway from the sermon would be.
I talked about where Jephthah was coming from–that his need to belong, to be recognized by his brothers as his father’s heir–made him reckless. In the heat of the moment, he didn’t consider the cost.
And I talked about whether parents today sacrifice their children. An informal poll among friends said that today’s parents sacrifice FOR their children, but I’m not so sure I agree. The college admissions scandal last spring felt, to me, more like parents who sacrificed their kids to their careers and now wanted to make up for that by buying their kids’ way into good schools.
And I talked about gun control here in the U.S. Our refusal to put even rudimentary common sense safeguards into place when we know that the current setup puts our children at risk demonstrates our willingness to let them be killed if it means we can continue to buy all types of weapons with almost no regulation.
In this, we’re much like Jephthah–we’re willing to sacrifice other human beings for something we want and we’re just rolling the dice that it won’t be our child who walks through that door.
Is that story related in any way to the Balm in Gilead song or spiritual or whatever it is called? This made me think of it. If anyone had to deal with a sin-sick-soul, it would seem to be Jephthah.
Also, yay! you for standing up and doing something new. Think you’ll do it again some time?
Weirdly, I’m currently reading book 10 of Louise Penny’s series, the one that talks about Balm in Gilead, and I had the same thought.
Great minds think alike – or at least have read the same book. 🙂
Oh, my. The Bible has some really sad stuff in it.
I’m not terribly familiar with lesser known Bible stories, but old stories have a special place in my heart. It touches me that even though we may be separated by a thousand years or more, people are people, and still act the same way, in many cases.
I love the story of Baucis and Philemon. Two wandering and disguised gods were rejected by most of the village, but B & P gave them food and shelter, and in return, when they died, they were turned into trees that wound around each other.
Now, the Greeks have a lot of sad and weird stuff, too. (Really, Zeus? A SWAN?? Poor Leda.)