Text: Judges 11.29-end, in which Jephthah, a great warrior, makes a rash promise to God. He swears that, if God will give him victory over his enemies, he (Jephthah) will sacrifice whatever or whoever comes to greet him on his return to his house. To fulfill his vow, he ends up sacrificing his own daughter!
See also Matthew 22.1-14 - Jesus parable of a King who throws a wedding banquet, and ends up inviting people off the street into the feast.
The Book of Judges contains the very grizzly story that we have heard just now. Jephthah was a judge who presided over Israel for a period of six years, prior to the establishment of the Jewish/Israeli Monarchy. He led the Israelites in battle against the nation of Ammon and, in exchange for defeating the Ammonites, made a vow to sacrifice whatever, or whoever would come out of the door of his house first on his return home. When his daughter was the first to come out of the house, he immediately regretted the vow, which would require him to sacrifice his daughter to God. Jephthah then carried out his vow.
What?! Yes, really. For such was Jephthah's primitive understanding of God. It may seem incomprehensible to us, but he honestly and sincerely believed that God was the kind of God who would require such a sacrifice. Not only that, but he clearly also thought that God could be persuaded to fulfil a man's desire, in return for a big enough bribe.
As I have taught, many times, context is everything when we approach the pages of Scripture. Jephthah's understanding of God was extremely basic, and frankly rather badly formed. The text itself gives us no clue that God himself approved of Jephthah's bargain. There is no visiting angel, with whom Jephthah strikes his bargain. God doesn't speak from the sky or through a dream or a prophet to say that he approves. The bargain is entirely one-sided. This is a desperate man, desperate to win a battle, making a rash promise (and then believing that he has to follow through with it, lest an angry God exacts some sort of punishment on him). In addition, of course, the consequences for Jephthah's poor daughter are beyond horrendous.
The thing about Scripture, though, is that when we read it intelligently, we find that it also 'reads' us. We find ourselves mirrored on its pages, and in the lives of its characters. I wonder whether there is anyone here who, at some point in their life, has not looked to Heaven and been tempted to strike a bargain. "Oh God!" we are tempted to say. "If you would just get me through this exam, or job interview, or personal financial crisis - I promise I will go to church every Sunday from now on!". The making of desperate rash promises seems to be hard-wired into our human nature.
Regretfully, rash promises are rife within the everyday world too. Marketing Managers are excellent at promising to revolutionise our lives with their latest product. Politicians, especially around election-times, often make fantastic promises that they later find are impossible to fulfil. Many who have watched the collapse of Afghanistan this past week have remembered the promises that were made 20 years ago, and wondered whether the politicians of that day were rather rash, or at least over-ambitious, in what they promised.
It is easy to scoff at those whose understanding of God seems rather primitive to us. But examining a story like that of Jephthah invites each of us to consider whether we, too, are sometimes rather guilty of forming God in our own image.
We each have our own mental picture of what God is like, don't we? It's a picture that, in most cases, was formed in the Sunday School, usually taught by a well-meaning but often poorly educated Sunday School teacher - a volunteer, without theological training, who had relieved the rest of our congregation of the annoyance of children clattering around the Sunday morning service. Such Sunday School teachers will have planted ideas about God in our heads which are hard to shift – especially if we haven’t done any theological thinking since we left Sunday School.
Our well-meaning (but ultimately flawed) teachers will have painted word-pictures of a God who created the world in six literal days, whatever the hard facts of Science have taught us. He will be an angry God, who is capable of destroying his Creation in a Worldwide Flood, whatever the lack of evidence in the geological record. He will be a God who can be persuaded to bend his purposes to accommodate our personal wishes and desires - if we only have faith, and pray even harder. He will be a terrifying judge, who demands a blood sacrifice as a legal penalty for sin.
This, of course, is a very different picture of God than the one Jesus knew, and taught. As we saw in today's Gospel reading, Jesus' God is the one who throws a banquet for his Son, to which he invites all those who the rich and powerful have left out in the street. Jesus' God is not the angry God of the Mountain, rumbling in the distance, but a Father who wants to live alongside his children, sharing his wisdom and love.
Yes, in the parable, there are also some deadly consequences for those who steadfastly reject God's love - his offer of a banquet - but these are consequences we bring upon ourselves. The God of Jesus' parable has some darker tones in his character too - especially in the apparent finality of casting out of those who reject his offer of love. Weeping and knashing of teeth are involved - and this is part of the complex mystery of God. It's a mystery we do well to never assume we've fully understood. But we must also be careful of turning to parables for absolute truth. They are allegorical tales, not detailed theological treatises. (And that's a whole sermon series, just there!).
May we never make the mistake of Jephthah; the mistake of assuming that we have understood all the great mystery of God. May we always remain open, receptive, and anxious to understand more of who God truly is, and of how much God truly loves us, despite all our failings, and all our rash promises.