Working our way through the Old Testament, and particularly the Judges, it becomes painfully obvious that the patriarchs and heroes of our faith are anything but perfect. Abraham slept with his servant to expedite God’s promise of offspring, Jacob deceived his father, Isaac, to obtain his brother’s birthright, and Gideon judged Israel with a fierce temper that led him to destroy many of his own people. But when we get to Jephthah, it becomes even harder to overlook his imperfections. Here, we will look to examine one of the elements that led to his tragic outcome.
Un-learning to Fly
A few years ago, I underwent training to fly a new aircraft. Surprisingly, one of the most difficult aspects of learning to fly the new aircraft was “un-learning” all of the habits I had developed on the old aircraft. There were similarities between the two, but in order to operate the new aircraft properly I needed to follow the procedures and rules specific to the new one. We would verbally review the emergency procedures for the plane before each flight, but I would find myself confusing the new with the old. Only through hours of study and practice was I able to commit the procedures to memory and carry out the appropriate actions for the new plane. Failure to do so could, at best, result in a careless error, or much worse, if you look at the history of airline accidents.
Old Habits Die Hard
Jephthah runs in to this same problem of un-learning. Although he practiced the language and laws that were specific to Yahweh, he let some of his old procedures creep in. For 18 years, Jephthah and the Israelites developed habits specific to the foreign gods of the Ammonites and the Philistines. With Jephthah leading the Israelites, there are two instances where he reverts to his old habits.
Firstly, Jephthah attempts to bribe God in Judges 11:30-31:
“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.”
Jephthah had already made a conditional vow in verse 9 to lead Israel if he was successful in defeating the Ammonites:
“If you bring me home again to fight against the Ammonites, and the Lord gives them over to me, I will be your head.” (ESV)
There was already a deal on the table to determine whether or not Jephthah should continue to lead Israel based on the outcome of the battle. A victory would be attributed to God and would be viewed as a sign that Jephthah was the rightful judge. Attempting to entice God to act through unlawful sacrifice, Jephthah treats Yahweh as if he is a god of the Ammonites, able to be swayed and coerced into delivering victory. This was common practice among the foreign gods, but a foreign concept to the true God of Israel. Several examples could be given of God “changing His mind”, but always in response to prayer – never in response to a bribe.
Secondly, by carrying out his rash vow, Jephthah failed to comprehend the practices that were acceptable to Yahweh, instead reverting to the abominable practices of the Ammonites and Philistines. The foreign gods required human sacrifice (Deut. 12:29-31), but not Yahweh. God expressly forbid human sacrifice and even provided the conditions of release from a rash vow in Leviticus 5. Several airline tragedies have been caused by procedures being carried out that were improper for that specific aircraft. Jephthah found himself in a worst-case scenario by using practices specific to ruthless foreign gods with a God that had a completely different set of requirements.
If you get a moment, read through Psalm 144. Although flawed in his own ways, David demonstrates a heart that trusts in God for victory, and shows that daughters are to be treasured not sacrificed. David reaches this understanding by delighting and meditating on the words of the Lord (Psalm 1). Old habits die hard, but they can be defeated and new habits can be formed.
For us, the struggle to guard against old habits and practices is a daily one, at times. To overcome my old tendencies and learn to fly my new aircraft properly, I had to study and immerse myself in the manuals. We need to be doing the same thing with God’s word, searching the Scriptures daily to “see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). Next, be committed to a church, where community can help identify ingrained habits and sins that we, ourselves, may be blind to. Finally, be absorbed in prayer, to align our imperfect will with God’s perfect will. Being transformed through these relational practices through the power of the Spirit, we can truly say that the mission we strive to accomplish is Christ’s and not our own.