Jephthah’s daughter and a kilogram of flour

(Credit: Getty Images)

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I don’t know about you, but I’m not that fond of the Book of Judges—all those nasty stories. It’s not something I turn to when looking for a comforting promise from God. Nor Leviticus, with all those grisly sacrifices.

Give me Genesis, the Gospels of Luke and John, Ephesians: you know, something encouraging, inspiring. Isn’t it good that there are 66 books in the Bible, with plenty to pick and choose from? Some of us can even ignore the fact that all Scripture is given by God, and happily choose what suits our need, or personality, or theological bent.

But there I was, right in the middle of that wonderful, uplifting, encouraging Hebrews Hall of Faith Fame, and confronting me was the name of Jephthah (Hebrews 11:32). Jephthah, a man of faith? Surely not! I mean, wasn’t he the guy in Judges who sacrificed his daughter? How could anyone include him in a list of inspiring, faith-filled people?

Now, to be fair, Jephthah didn’t have a good start to life. Son of a prostitute, his nice, legally legitimate brothers threw him out of the home, and he went off to the land of Tob, probably the near-desert to the west of Gilead, where various wild social misfits attached themselves to him, indicating he had leadership ability. This ability became known further afield, and when Ammonites came raiding Gilead—who should the Gileadite leaders call on but the unloved, unwanted, outlawed Jephthah. “You fight for us,” they said, and after a bit of bargaining, Jephthah agreed.

The story has a surprising twist here. Unexpectedly, not only did Jephthah the outcast have a good knowledge of the history of his people (although not his Bible, as we shall see), but he proved to be the only person in all the gory Judges narratives who tried to avert war by using good diplomacy on the enemy. The fact that it didn’t work didn’t mean he didn’t try. He pointed out that Gilead had never belonged to the Ammonites, and had been settled by Israel for no less than 300 years. Unable to avert outright war, Jephthah turned to God and, significantly, “the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah” (Judges 11:29). He was truly God’s man. As he headed for the battle he knew he could only succeed with God’s help, so he promised that, if God gave him victory, he would offer as a sacrifice whatever came to meet him when he returned home. Presumably he had a pet lamb or some such, and was willing to give his best for God. God heard his cry for help, and gave him a great victory.

Joyfully, triumphantly, Jephthah returned home, only to be met by his happy, dancing, timbrel-playing only child—his daughter! No wonder he tore his clothes and wailed that his daughter troubled him! It must have been the saddest homecoming in history.

But Jephthah was a man of his word. God had kept His side of the bargain, so he would keep his, even to sacrificing his beloved daughter.

Clearly a very special bond of love and trust bound Jephthah and his daughter, and she shows amazing faith in her father, and he in her. He granted her sad request that she go away to have two months to bewail her fate, and then, incredibly, she returned to her father, knowing what would befall her, and he sacrificed her. I don’t know about you, but I think this nameless girl needs to be in the Hall of Faith, along with her agonised father who, to honour his (mis)understanding of his commitment to God, went through with what Abraham, provided with a ram in the thicket, was not asked to do. [pullquote]

But, oh but! If only this anguished father and daughter (and no doubt mother) had known, had they consulted their sacred scrolls (the Torah of Moses), the awful outcome need never have occurred. No doubt in the desert Jephthah didn’t have a copy of Leviticus, nor too many opportunities to attend worship services led by a knowledgeable priest or Levite. He did not know that God had already made provision for just such a terrible plight as was his and his daughter’s. He was totally committed to his God, and knew his faith had been honoured by a signal victory. But if only he had known Leviticus 5:4-11, which says, “if anyone utters with his lips . . . a rash oath to do evil or to do good, any sort of rash oath that people swear, and it is hidden from him, when he comes to know it, and he realises his guilt . . . he shall bring to the Lord . . . for the sin which he has committed . . . a lamb or a goat for a sin offering . . . and if he cannot afford a lamb, then he shall bring two turtle doves or two pigeons . . . but if he cannot afford two turtle doves or two pigeons, then he shall bring . . . a tenth of an ephah of flour.” A tenth of an ephah of flour in modern weight is about one kilogram. In my supermarket that costs about $NZ2.

Just think, if only Jephthah had known his Bible, he could have been forgiven his rash oath and his daughter become a free woman for the price of a kilogram of flour, worth a mere couple of dollars!

God understood Jephthah’s heart, knew he acted out of faith and love for God, and honoured him, but the terrible sacrifice of his only daughter was totally unnecessary. God had already made provision. A lamb, a pair of turtle doves or even a kilogram of flour, could have saved her. If only he had known his Bible. And, as he sacrificed his flour—flour that could have been made into a good, crusty loaf of bread—he would have known that it should have been a lamb, and maybe, just maybe, he might have understood the enormous sacrifice that God would make to ultimately save him (and me) from all his rash vows, and every other sin.

How much heartache and petty arguing could we avoid if only we studied our Bibles diligently, all of those 66 books, not just our favourite parts, our proof texts. How often we are ignorant of God’s righteousness, and strive to establish our own (Romans 10:3) instead of accepting what God has already provided in the great sacrifice of our Lord and Saviour, Christ Jesus.

Even the books of Judges and Leviticus show us that God is a God of not only justice, but of great mercy.

Dr Elizabeth Ostring is a retired musculoskeletal and family physician with a doctorate in Theology.

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