Jephthah’s Idolatry

Over the past few weeks in our auditorium class, we’ve been using Jephthah as an example and an object lesson. When we went over the burnt offering, we observed that Jephthah promised, “[W]hatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering” (Jdg 11.31). We also considered him in light of the law of the sin offering, since there is a sin offering for rash vows (Lev 5.4, 6).

Jephthah is also an object lesson in idolatry and idolatrous attitudes, which we studied this morning in the auditorium class. The lesson comes from Jephthah’s negotiation with the king of the sons of Ammon in Jdg 11.12-27.

Most of Jephthah’s message to the king is a faithful recounting of Israel’s history: when Israel came through the wilderness, the kings of Edom and Moab refused them passage (Jdg 11.17; Num 20.14-21); they did not violate the borders of Edom and Moab (Jdg 11.18; Dtr 2.4-5, 9); Sihon not only refused Israel passage but amassed an army to attack Israel (Jdg 11.19-20; Num 21.21-23); so the Lord gave Sihon into Israel’s hand (Jdg 11.21-23; Num 21.24-26). If Jephthah were to stop there, we would have no objection. But, alas, Jephthah makes it plain that he is not faithful in what the Law of Moses requires.

Jepthah asks the king of the sons of Ammon, “Will you not possess what Chemosh your god gives you to possess? And all that the Lord our God has dispossessed before us, we will possess” (Jdg 11.24). Jephthah’s understanding of the gods is heathen to a T: each people has its own god, and each god rules over his own territory—including the God of Israel. Make no mistake about it: Jephthah is placing Chemosh on the same plane as the God of Israel. The sons of Ammon have their god who has given them their territory, and the sons of Israel have their God who has given them their territory. Jephthah’s appeal to the king of the sons of Ammon is simple: “We live with what our God has given us, so why can’t you live with what your god has given you?” This is a clear violation of the Law: “Pay attention to all that I have said to you, and make no mention of the names of other gods, nor let it be heard on your lips” (Ex 23.13).

Jephthah’s idolatry should strike us as even more egregious when we understand who Chemosh is. The name “Chemosh” is typically associated with the Moabites. We know him more commonly by his Ammonite name: Molech (cf. 1 Kgs 11.7). We also know what Chemosh accepts as his sacrifice: “When the king of Moab saw that the battle was going against him, …he took his oldest son who was to reign in his place and offered him for a burnt offering on the wall. And there came great wrath against Israel. And they withdrew from him and returned to their own land” (2 Kgs 3.26-27). The Law specifically forbids the sacrifices of Molech: “You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord” (Lev 18.21). The reasons are twofold: Israel is not to sacrifice to other gods at all, and they are not to engage in human sacrifice.

This naturally brings us to Jephthah’s vow: “[W]hatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering” (Jdg 11.31). We must consider for a moment just how stupid we think Jephthah is. He is evidently smart enough to lead a band of mercenaries (11.3); shrewd enough to negotiate his position as leader of Gilead (11.5-11); and educated enough to recite Israel’s history in the wilderness (11.12-27). For all that, do we consider him so stupid as to think that an animal would be the first to greet him in his triumph? Do we think him so uneducated that he does not know of the sin offering for a rash vow? Do we likewise think that no one in all of Gilead over the course of two months would have remembered the sin offering for a rash vow?

Consider the more likely alternative: Jephthah made no rash vow. Instead, he intentionally rendered to God the sacrifice of Chemosh: his own daughter.

This might offend us. How could the Lord count such a wretch as righteous? How could the Hebrew writer include him in his catalog of faith? Surely Jephthah’s sin must not have been so bad for the Lord to show him such mercy? Surely the Lord wouldn’t treat such a monstrous sinner so lightly?

Welcome to the Gospel, friends. The Good News is precisely what we find in Jephthah’s story: God has mercy on even the most monstrous sinners. Remember the parable of the unforgiving servant, how impossibly great the servant’s debt was—yet his Lord forgave him (Matt 18.21-35)! Remember the parable of the day laborers, how the Lord chooses for Himself how He will dispense His mercy and grace (Matt 20.1-16). And God does not treat sin lightly: He gave His own Son for it. Thank God that He is merciful!