The Jephthah Cycle: A Salvation Marred by Tragedy (Judges 11:12-12:15)
CrossWay Community Church
May 8th, 2022
“Insofar as the preaching at our Sunday services is scriptural, those services will of necessity be evangelistic. It is a mistake to suppose that evangelistic sermons are a special brand of sermons, having their own peculiar style and conventions; evangelistic sermons are just scriptural sermons, the sort of sermons that a man cannot help preaching if he is preaching the Bible biblically. Proper sermons seek to expound and apply what is in the Bible. But what is in the Bible is just the whole counsel of God for man’s salvation; all Scripture bears witness, in one way or another, to Christ, and all biblical themes relate to him. All proper sermons, therefore, will of necessity declare Christ in some fashion and so be more or less directly evangelistic. Some sermons, of course, will aim more narrowly and exclusively at converting sinners than do others. But you cannot present the Lord Jesus Christ as the Bible presents him, as God’s answer to every problem in the sinner’s relationship with himself, and not be in effect evangelistic all the time. The Lord Jesus Christ, said Robert Bolton, is ‘offered most freely, and without exception of any person, every Sabbath, every Sermon, either in plaine, and direct terms, or implyedly, at the least.’ So it is, inevitably, wherever the Bible is preached biblically. And there is something terribly wrong in any church, or any man’s ministry, to which Bolton’s generalization does not apply.”
—J.I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Westmont, IL: IVP Books, 2012), pp. 62-63.
Introduction to the debate
The passage in view is Judges 11:29-40. It says that “Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever 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” (vv.30-31, ESV). Later when his daughter, his only child, is the first one that comes out to meet him upon his return, the passage states that he “did with her according to his vow that he had made” (v.39). Many therefore understandably conclude the Jephthah (wrongly) offered his daughter as a human sacrifice to God. For convenience, here on out, I’ll call this the “sacrifice view,” or SV for short.
However, as clear-cut as that may seem on the surface, some interpreters point to other details in the text that they feel lead in an alternative direction. Over and over the text places an interesting emphasis on Jephthah’s daughter’s virginity as the point of concern. This leads some to assume that, instead, Jephthah gave his daughter as an “offering” to the Lord in the form of dedicating her to the Lord’s service, like at the tabernacle, in a way that precluded marriage (see potentially Ex 38:8; 1 Sam 2:22; Lk 2:36-37; cf. 2 Mac 3:19-20; Pesikta Rabbati 26:6; 2 Baruch 10:19; Mishna Shekalim 8:5-6; Babylonian Talmud Kethuboth 106a). I’ll call this the “dedication view,” or DV for short.
Below I will list some of the reasons I can think of or have discovered for each of the two views, as well as some counterpoints where appropriate.
Not a prescriptive text
One thing first to note at the outset though: We do not find ourselves in a position of needing to defend Jephthah’s actions. So our motivation in asking this question, “Did Jephthah actually kill his daughter?” is not because, if he did, it puts a moral stain on the Bible, as if the Bible is holding Jephthah up as some moral exemplar. Rather, the Bible often records things that happened without necessarily condoning those things. So we don’t need to be motivated towards a particular interpretation because it “cleans things up” for us.
This is the classic difference between descriptive and prescriptive material in the Bible. That is, we should distinguish those times in which the Bible merely describes something that happened, without necessarily commending it or saying we should follow its example, and those times in which it prescribes things, like when it commands us to act a certain way.
The book of Judges, like most narratives, is almost wholly descriptive. Furthermore, the judges are hardly meant to be heroes we emulate. Rather, their imperfections are part of the message of the book. Their unsatisfactory character is meant to get us looking for something better.
The arguments and counterpoints involved
So with that throat-clearing out of the way, here are the arguments organized by the various issues.Continue reading
Hymnals are a great resource for both personal and family devotions. The hymns are “catholic,” songs of the universal church. They connect us to our past, showing us that our faith is a historic one. Many of the hymns are lyrically rich and able to teach us great theology. And their melodies have staying power, able to get lodged into our memories for life.Continue reading