The Social Construction of Reality helped me understand my own life in a new way. I didn’t take my Dad’s advice to avoid or watch out for women too much to heart. Though, now that I think about it, I’ve never had sex without the benefit of some form of birth control. I did, however, deeply internalize my uselessness and meaninglessness. And I learned even better than I knew that I was the cause of my Dad’s problems. They were my fault.
Now before I go too far with this I need to say that my Dad was not a son of his father’s youth but of his old age. My Dad’s father died when my Dad was eight, leaving the family destitute and my Dad fearful for his own welfare and survival. In other words, while I might fault my father for who or what he was, my father’s father for all practical purposes was not.
My father provided well enough for my survival and welfare that I grew up taking it and him for granted. And to be fair to him, the other legacy he bequeathed me was his constant admonition from Proverbs 4:7 (KJV): Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding. There are times, admittedly, when I look at myself with dismay as little more than a program carrying out my father’s command. But considering the relationship with my father in this multigenerational-social-construction-of-reality way made it fairly obvious to me that there are many ways to make a son less than a blessing, ways that fall far short of taking that son’s life. So I discarded that reason for the death of David’s first son with Bathsheba.
Another thought occurred to me: maybe the Lord Jesus didn’t want the child of an adulterous affair and a murderous cover-up to become king of Israel. But Jephthah—one of the Judges—was the son of an adulterous affair between Gilead and a prostitute, and The Lord’s spirit empowered Jephthah.
I’ve covered Jephthah pretty thoroughly elsewhere and won’t do it again here, except to comment on the reality that was socially constructed for Jephthah’s daughter by her father and other adults around her. They apparently wholeheartedly believed the Lord’s command, If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath of binding obligation on himself, he must not break his word, but must do whatever he has promised. Jephthah’s daughter’s response when she learned of her father’s oath, and who was to be the victim, indicated that she knew and believed this command, too. My father, she said, since you made an oath to the Lord, do to me as you promised. After all, the Lord vindicated you before your enemies, the Ammonites.
Nothing I believe or think or feel about Jephthah can or should taint my admiration for this girl’s childlike faith. It is as stunning today as it was to Jephthah’s contemporaries. She only asked for two months reprieve that she might mourn her virginity with her friends. Jephthah granted her request.
Perhaps he hoped she would flee. He would never see her again. She would be as good as dead to him, but she would live. But she, like her father, was true to her word and returned after two months as she promised.
Perhaps he hoped for a pardon as he prepared the sacrifice. The Lord Jesus had commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac and then at the last moment provided a substitute for the boy. No angel came to stay Jephthah’s hand. No substitute was provided. Jephthah sacrificed his daughter, his only child. Even after the fact the Lord Jesus remained silent. No prophets came, no dreams, no word from the Lord. Every year Israelite women commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite for four days.
Since the Lord was silent, what social reality could the Israelites of Jephthah’s day construct except that Jephthah was an honorable and righteous man, fulfilling his vow to the Lord, no matter the cost? After all, Jesus told his disciples, whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. It was many years after Jephthah’s time in the Proverbs of Solomon that I see the first glimmer of a subtle hint: It is a snare for a person to rashly cry, “Holy!” and only afterward to consider what he has vowed. To declare something “Holy” was equivalent to vowing it to the Lord. This proverb may have had Jephthah in view. Even so, it said little more than to consider your vows carefully or you may end up like Jephthah, sacrificing your daughter for righteousness’ sake.
It was many years after that, when the Israelites were sacrificing their children to Baal, the Lord Jesus finally spoke to the prophet Jeremiah and said: Such sacrifices are something I never commanded them to make! They are something I never told them to do! Indeed, such a thing never even entered my mind! The first time I understood this passage, I thought it was the most disingenuous thing I had ever heard. Actually, I went ballistic, “What did you expect them to think?!” I shrieked with that tone in my voice that said, “what, are you stupid or something?”
If you ever hear that I was struck by lightning, you’ll know why, though subsequent years of daily infusion of spiritual fruit have tempered my temper some, especially with the Lord. And beginning to recognize the religious mind as a human phenomena as opposed to a divine one, that God is always reaching out to communicate to us through this ungodly barrier, hasn’t hurt. Let’s face it, historically speaking God was late to the game with both a law and a religion. There is no indication in Genesis that Cain’s (or Abel’s) offering was God’s idea.
At the designated time Cain brought some of the fruit of the ground for an offering to the Lord. It was either Cain’s idea or if the phrase And it happened at the end of days actually carries the meaning At the designated time that the translators of the NET have assigned it, it was Adam’s idea. The Lord was pleased with Abel and his offering, but with Cain and his offering he was not pleased. So Cain became very angry, and his expression was downcast. His religion and his worship were unacceptable, but his younger brother’s religion and worship was? I am an older brother, believe me, I feel Cain’s anger and dejection.
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why is your expression downcast? Is it not true that if you do what is right, you will be fine? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at the door. It desires to dominate you, but you must subdue it.” My mom tells a story about a time when I was angry with the boy next door. She tried to soothe my anger with counsel about Jesus and turning the other cheek. Apparently, I didn’t get the message any better than Cain did. I left the house, saying, “I’ll make him turn the other cheek.” Cain subdued his brother Abel by killing him. I don’t recall what I did to the boy next door. I know he survived it.
What have you done? The Lord said to Cain. The voice of your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! So now, you are banished from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you try to cultivate the ground it will no longer yield its best for you. You will be a homeless wanderer on the earth. Cain said, My punishment is too great to endure!
For a long time I believed Cain. But as I look back now this banishment from his occupation as a tiller of the field sounds more like the events that became David’s life after the Lord forgave his sin. Cain’s punishment would have been his death. Now scripture rolls and boils and tumbles in my mind: before the law was given, sin was in the world, but there is no accounting for sin when there is no law.
So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you could be joined to another, to the one who was raised from the dead, to bear fruit to God. For when we were in the flesh, the sinful desires, aroused by the law, were active in the members of our body to bear fruit for death. But now we have been released from the law, because we have died to what controlled us, so that we may serve in the new life of the Spirit and not under the old written code.
The Lord is not slow concerning his promise, as some regard slowness, but is being patient toward you, because he does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance. He was not slow to establish a law of specific commandments and punishments, or a religion of specific rites and obligations. He was positively resistant to the idea. He chose to drown all but eight human beings and start over rather than establish a law or a religion. I can only assume that He relented when it proved to be the only way to communicate to and through the ungodliness of human religious minds. Even as He gave the law and founded the Hebrew religion He resisted it, saying defiantly to Moses, I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy.
But that was all in my future the first time I understood Him to say, such a thing never even entered my mind! “All this started when you told Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac,” I continued my rant. “It culminates with God the Father sacrificing his only begotten Son, and somewhere in the middle of it all is Jephthah. It never entered your mind that desperate people might think this was a good way to get your attention?”
I calmed down eventually and felt bad. But I didn’t have some wonderful intuitive answer. For me at the time it was a matter of brute faith. I had to force myself to give the Lord Jesus the benefit of the doubt and simply believe that He is self-aware enough to determine the boundary between his thoughts and ours, to distinguish between his intent and his foreknowledge of our misunderstanding of that intent, and that He speaks sincerely and without guile.
Finally, with his feet firmly planted on earth, Jesus gave a definitive answer to Jephthah, to Israel and to me in the Sermon on the Mount: Again, you have heard that it was said to an older generation, “Do not break an oath, but fulfill your vows to the Lord.” But I say to you, do not take oaths at all….Let your word be “Yes, yes” or “No, no.” More than this is from the evil one. The NIV translated this verse: “Simply, let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”
Now if I ask, Why would Jesus consider Jephthah’s oath from the evil one? the answer seems fairly obvious. If you really do hand the Ammonites over to me, Jephthah vowed to the Lord, then whoever is the first to come through the doors of my house to meet me when I return safely from fighting the Ammonites – he will belong to the Lord and I will offer him up as a burnt sacrifice. I’m going to give Jephthah the benefit of the doubt that he intended to offer a goat to bribe God to help him defeat the Ammonites, and he was willing to let God choose which, or any, or all, of his goats. I think the translators of the NET have deliberately made Jephthah’s oath even more from the evil one.
But imagine with me for a moment that Jephthah intended to bribe God with any or all of his goats. God could have brought any goat, or as many goats as He wanted, out to meet Jephthah on his triumphant return. But God didn’t bring any goats to meet Jephthah. God wasn’t satisfied with goats as a bribe. God wanted Jephthah’s daughter, his only child. What was Jephthah to do? Certainly God deserves to be bribed with something better than goats.
Jephthah acted on a kind of faith. It would have been very difficult for him to see that the bribe, the oath, was the evil, and the thing that Jephthah should have repented. To paraphrase Paul, I can testify that Jephthah was zealous for God, but his zeal was not in line with the truth. For ignoring the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking instead to establish his own righteousness, he did not submit to God’s righteousness. But Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and Paul’s letter to the Romans were not part of Jephthah’s socially constructed reality. Why not? I began to wonder.
Why were You silent for so long? I asked the Lord.
 Consider the same passage in the KJV: And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands, Then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD’S, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.
 Paraphrase of Romans 10:2, 3 (NET)