During a retreat last year I read again the story of the judge Jephtah (Judges 11-12). What an extremely sad, tragic and heart-rending story – this tale of a man who, in a moment of thoughtless over-enthusiasm, made a preposterous if not completely outrageous promise to God. “I will sacrifice whoever comes out to meet me first if you will let me defeat the Ammonites and come home safely” (Judges 11:34) - that was what he whispered in prayer before going into battle. And we read that God heard his plea, gave him victory and brought him home safely…
But then, of all unthinkable possibilities, who should come out to meet him first? – It turned out to be his one and only daughter, playing a tambourine, laughing and dancing wildly to celebrate his victory. Surely it must have been the most devastating experience of Jephtah’s life - that moment when he saw her coming towards him, realising that he had just lost this child, his most precious gift, the innocent young woman who had been the constant light in his eyes. No wonder we read that he cried out in agony and tore his clothes in sorrow and dismay (Judges 11:35).
There are many theories on how it came about that Jephtah got himself into this predicament. Some see it as the bitter fruits of blind ambition. Others blame it on what they call, his overexuberant and misplaced diplomacy with God. According to the commentary of yet others, who take into account the testing circumstances of his childhood and youth as the son of a prostitute who had been rejected and driven into the wilderness at an early age – there is however, a deeper reason for Jephtah’s tragic lapse in discernment and judgement. They refer to it as ignorance.
Sadly, denied the opportunity of experiencing the warmth and safety of a normal home; also not being exposed to the traditions of his people – the stories of God’s dealings with them – he lacked some fundamental knowledge. In the words of one commentator: “Jephtah’s fatal flaw, his error portrays a lack of comprehension of the basic tenets of Jahwist belief…He does not comprehend the spirit of his faith and commits a basic error against God”.
If Jephtah had known God better he may timeously have reconsidered his own foolish pledge. Perhaps he would have pleaded and struggled with God more earnestly. Perhaps then he would have discovered that God is a God of mercy and love, a God who never intended children to be sacrificed in such a way, a God who offers life and who is willing to forgive us when we become foolish or make stupid decisions. Tragically, Jephtah did not know God. He persisted in his ignorant ways, thereby robbing his only child of her youth as well as ruining his own life.
The sad fact of Jephtah’s life is that, although he experienced a brief moment of glory in victory over enemies, he eventually died alone, almost in shame, without any descendants, without public recognition, without reaping the fruits of upright morality – all because he had been ignorant and foolish. A highly talented person, his life seems wasted because he failed to grasp the immensity of God’s love – the very same love that kept calling him, even after his tragic death, a hero of faith. Jephtah’s story not only calls us to review the course and meaning of our own life, but also to scrutinize again our relationship to, and our knowledge of, God.
“Die Via Dolorosa” – ‘n Paasherinneringsdiens
12 years ago