Wednesday, September 30, 2020

What About Jephthah?

One of the most disturbing incidents in the Bible involves a man named Jephthah offering his daughter as a sacrifice to God after leading Israel to military victory.

A bit of background is in order. Jephthah was one of those Old Testament figures known as judges. They were leaders or champions of God's ancient people Israel. The judges were used sometimes by God to call the people to repentance when they fell into sin, including idolatry and its usual concomitant, injustice. 

At other times, the judges were used by God to deliver Israel from enemies God had allowed to conquer tHis people for their sin; once they repented, turning back to God in faith, God would send a judge to free them from their conquerors. 

Jephthah was one of these judges. He lived in the twelfth-century BC. Empowered by the Spirit of God, Jephthah led Israel to a military victory over their enemies, the Ammonites. 

But as he faced battle, Jephthah made a rash vow to God. “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.” (Judges 11:30-31)

Jephthah should have known better than to have made such a vow for two main reasons.

First, God has never conditioned His acts of mercy, grace, or help on human performance. God acts with mercy, grace, and love because that's Who He is and how He operates. All He asks us to do is trust in Him.

God called Israel into being through the elderly Abraham and his post-menopausal wife, Sarah, building a people that would be a light to the nations from this unlikely seed. 

In his personal farewell address to the people of Israel, Moses told God's people three centuries before Jephthah was born, "The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples." (Deuteronomy 7:7) There was nothing that Abraham, Sarah, or the people of Israel did to earn God's favor. God acts for us out of fatherly goodness and grace that we can neither earn nor deserve.

No "religious act," including the barbarism of offering a human sacrifice, would cause God to look favorably on a prayer request or a vow like the one that Jephthah made in Judges 11. Jephthah presumably would have known that.

The second reason Jephthah should have known not to make such a vow is that God had specifically forbidden His people from engaging in the practice. In Leviticus 18 and 20, chapters that are part of the holiness code that explicates God's enduring moral code for the human race, the sacrifice of human beings was forbidden.

“‘Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molek [a foreign deity, the worship of which demanded child sacrifice], for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the Lord." (Leviticus 18:21)

"The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘Any Israelite or any foreigner residing in Israel who sacrifices any of his children to Molek is to be put to death. The members of the community are to stone him. I myself will set my face against him and will cut him off from his people; for by sacrificing his children to Molek, he has defiled my sanctuary and profaned my holy name. If the members of the community close their eyes when that man sacrifices one of his children to Molek and if they fail to put him to death, I myself will set my face against him and his family and will cut them off from their people together with all who follow him in prostituting themselves to Molek." (Leviticus 20:15)

Besides all of which, this specific prohibition was nothing more than an explication of what we know in my Christian tradition as the Fifth Commandment. That commandment is often rendered as, "You shall not kill," but is more aptly translated as, "You shall not murder," the word in the original Hebrew being 
,תִּֿרְצָֽ֖ח׃, meaning murder or slay. Murder is a distinct act, different from the killing that may happen when one is defending one's family or country. From this commandment, God's intention is clear though: We aren't to take the life of those who act innocently. In The Small Catechism, Martin Luther explains how significant and encompassing this commandment is, saying that it tells us: "We should fear and love God so that we do our neighbors no bodily harm nor cause them any suffering, but help and befriend them in every need."

So, Jephthah, a man of God who had been blessed by God, did an ungodly thing condemned by God when he made his vow, one that probably reflected the influence of the human-sacrificing cultures among which he and his people lived. Disturbing though the passage is to read and consider, God isn't, as some might say, to blame. Even saints are sinners who do sinful things, as Jephthah did. But God "didn't make him do it."

What, some ask though, what about the incident in which God told Abraham to sacrifice his one and only son, Isaac? 

Abraham and Sarah had waited a long time for this child promised to them by God, a child on whose survival God's promise of a whole people were to become the conduits by which salvation was to come to the world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Does God's command that Abraham kill his son show that the God worshiped today by Christians is sick? Does Abraham's willing obedience to the command show that he too was sick?

For those who haven't read the Bible's account of the incident, it should be pointed out that, in the end, Abraham did not sacrifice Isaac. Genesis 22 tells us that Abraham, in obedience to God, had bound Isaac and was about to sacrifice him when "the angel of the Lord," a phrase often used in the Old Testament to describe God Himself communicating with believers, said:
“Don't hurt the boy or do anything to him,” he said. “Now I know that you honor and obey God, because you have not kept back your only son from him.” (Genesis 22:12)
At that moment, Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket of thorns, and sacrificed it to God instead. Abraham called the place where this happened, the Lord will provide, because at the right moment, God had provided the appropriate sacrifice for Abraham to offer.

I can't claim to be able to penetrate the mind of God, but this strange story seems to have several points.

The first is that God was dead-set against human sacrifice, a stark contrast to the practcies of ancient Israel's surrounding cultures. He was emphatically underscoring His will for human beings as He interacted with Abraham even as He strengthened Abraham's faith.

The second is that God would be the one to provide whatever sacrifices Israel's eventual sacrificial system would require as symbol of the people's repentance and faith in God. In later centuries, the sacrificed species would include grains, doves or pigeons, and sheep, for example. In New Testament times, with the coming of Jesus, God would provide another sacrifice.

The first Christians discerned that ultimately, all of Scripture, including the Old Testament, points to Jesus. So, it's not a stretch to see in this passage that in the incident with Abraham and Isaac. God was anticipating that time when He would provide the ultimate, definitive sacrifice for our sins, "the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29), God's only Son (John 3:16-18), Whose call to us is to repent and trust in Him for life with God that never ends: Jesus Himself. Jesus is the sacrifice and the Savior God provides to all the world. 

I don't understand and can't explain everything about God or the Scriptures. But as I read the Bible through Jesus-colored glasses, I see the God Who loves me and provides for me despite what I deserve. I'm grateful!

 [The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio]

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