I have some sympathy for Jephthah. I could be Jephthah. I have that same drive to be right, or righteous, that at times owes as much or more to my ego than my faith in the righteousness that comes from God. I have that same philosophical, or legalistic, bent of mind. David wouldn’t have killed his daughter, no matter what foolish oath he made. I could see that. But I don’t always know how to be that.
Oh, I wouldn’t kill my daughter, not today. I wasn’t socialized in the time of the Judges of ancient Israel. If I started building an altar in my backyard and making preparations to sacrifice her, the neighbors would call the police. And my daughter wasn’t socialized in the time of the Judges either. She wouldn’t go willingly to death because I shot off my mouth once too often to God. You see, we were both socialized in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries in the United States of America. All human sacrifice has been banned here except for the sacrifice of unborn children, and that not to God but to a twisted human ideal of “The Good Life.”
I began to see, or maybe feel, something of a similarity between Jephthah’s daughter who died and David’s son who died. And I gave one of my imaginary accounts. I think they are imaginary. I certainly wouldn’t say they are the word of God. It went something like this:
“What would you have me do, Dan? Should I have struck Jephthah with lightning?”
“No! He was doing the best he could, given who he was and what he understood.”
“Then why won’t you consider him righteous?”
“He should have confessed that he’d spoken foolishly out of turn and thrown himself on your mercy, like David would have done, not murder his daughter!”
“Jephthah lived a long time before David was born. Do you blame him for not knowing David?”
“You blame me.”
“Well…yes, you should have explained all this better before Jephthah faced this situation.”
“Teach me, Dan, what law should I have written that would define the difference between David’s contrite faith and Jephthah’s egoism?”
“Well, uh, I mean, okay, obviously I don’t know how to do that.”
“Tell me, Dan, what better way could I have gotten you, of all people, to begin to distinguish between your desire to be right and your desire for my righteousness than to recount the stories of David’s and Jephthah’s lives and let you wrestle with their significance?”
And so I am struck silent. The Lord Jesus is clearly not to blame for the death of Jephthah’s daughter. I am—hopefully not completely alone. But I am to blame in the sense that had I lived Jephthah’s life in Jephthah’s time and circumstances I, of all people, would have likely made the same mistakes. And I am also to blame in the sense that I can imagine little else than the death of Jephthah’s daughter that might have gotten my attention enough to wrestle with these passages and learn that about myself.
In a letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament Jephthah is included along with David in the roll call of faith. Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see. For by it the people of old received God’s commendation. After describing the faith of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua and Rahab the prostitute, the author continued, And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets.
Obviously Jephthah wasn’t commended for sacrificing his daughter any more than Rahab was commended for prostitution. But both were remembered for their faith. It was a relative, not an absolute, faith, relative to the time and circumstances, the socially constructed realities they lived in. And their faith was credited as righteousness. But to the one who does not work, but believes in the one who declares the ungodly (ἀσεβῆ, a form of ἀσεβής) righteous (δικαιοῦντα, a form of δικαιόω), his faith is credited (λογίζεται, a form of λογίζομαι) as righteousness (δικαιοσύνην, a form of δικαιοσύνη). So even David himself speaks regarding the blessedness of the man to whom God credits (λογίζεται, a form of λογίζομαι) righteousness (δικαιοσύνην, a form of δικαιοσύνη) apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the one against whom the Lord will never count (λογίσηται, another form of λογίζομαι) sin (ἁμαρτίαν, a form of ἁμαρτία).”
The death of David’s first son with Bathsheba has functioned for me in a similar way. I wouldn’t have questioned my evaluation of the events that followed David’s sin and the Lord’s forgiveness as punishments if I hadn’t questioned the justice of punishing David’s son for David’s sin. And I have to wonder if anything less would have broken through the perverted thinking of my depraved mind (Romans 1:28-32 NET).
And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what should not be done. They are filled with every kind of unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, malice. They are rife with envy, murder, strife, deceit, hostility. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, contrivers of all sorts of evil, disobedient to parents, senseless, covenant-breakers, heartless, ruthless. Although they fully know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but also approve of those who practice them.
If asked to judge the Lord Jesus for the deaths of these children, I, for one, will be compelled to declare them justifiable homicides. Against hope I believe in hope that God is not only the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, of David and Solomon, but of David’s son and Jephthah’s daughter. Paul wrote about this kind of faith and hope against a lifetime of evidence to the contrary. What makes it possible is faith in the God who makes the dead alive and summons the things that do not yet exist as though they already do. Against hope Abraham believed in hope…
Without being weak in faith, he considered his own body as dead (because he was about one hundred years old) and the deadness of Sarah’s womb. He did not waver in unbelief about the promise of God but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God. He was fully convinced that what God promised he was also able to do.
The result for Abraham was that he became the father of many nations according to the pronouncement, “so will your descendants be.” Imitating his faith I look forward to a timeless eternity when I can search out David’s son and Jephthah’s daughter, chat with them and thank them for the impact of their lives and deaths on my life, not to mention my death.