The deal maker.
Jephthah’s story is awful. He seemingly ends up sacrificing his own daughter as a burnt offering. There is dispute about this… He may have just given her into divine service, like a temple servant. But the text certainly as translated gives the former impression.
He’s the victim of prejudice despite being recognised as mighty and valiant, as the son of his father’s prostitute.
Cast out by his family, he lives in a different land and a leads a band of disreputable and worthless raiders. These descriptions are contradictory and important.
Is he a good man or a bad man? He’s certainly a great fighter. He knows and respects God. The commentary describes him but doesn’t editorialise.
He’s sought out by the elders and a deal is done that he can rule despite their earlier distain of him, if he gives them victory.
This is a departure from the selection of, say Gideon, by God, as an unlikely champion whose weakness would show god’s strength, or Deborah, who was already recognised for wisdom and leadership and speaking with god’s voice. She went to war as an extension of her central message to live a life of courage not fear based in faith in god’s grace. Her courage came from conviction that God would give victory.
Jephthah’s courage comes from the leaders’asessment of his own fighting track record, and he’s in it to become Israel’s leader. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but it’s deal making. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. After the deal is done though, he puts all the words before God.
There is a beautiful exchange between the king of Ammon, who has taken Israel’s land, and Jephthah. Israel’s case is that he has no more historic right to the land than they do, and it’s elegantly argued. Needless to say, the peace option passes.
Before the battle Jephthah does his most notorious thing, a deal with God for victory… He says he’ll sacrifice as a burnt offering whatever greets him first at home if he wins.
I don’t know why he felt the need to do this. The other judges relied on God for victory because of a sense of fulfilling His destiny. Jephthah thinks he is enlisting god to fulfill Jephthah’s destiny.
He wins a huge and decisive victory, but that is tossed off in the narrative. His vow becomes the story because the thing who greets him is his only beloved daughter. She accepts her fate and takes two months in the mountains to “mourn her virginity” – the life she will never have – before coming back.
The narrative circumspectly says that his vow is carried out… spares us the gory details, which perhaps opened the door to interpreting it not as death but a lifetime of chaste service to the lord.
But it’s not what the lord wanted either way – death or virginity, surely. He chose Israel, he wanted the victory. no deal was needed.
Jephthah is named in Hebrews as a hero of faith… Though what aspect of the story demonstrates it is not spelled out.
I think his vow was a faithless thing. God has control over the fate of nations whether they do deals or not. He values repentence, not deals, not works.
I think deal making is the spirituality of atheism and humanism. You promise god your abilities, your goodness, not your faith. You keep God at arm’s length and tick the God box by doing a morality deal.
Some of the most admirable and effective people who ever lived are probably deal makers. It hurts my heart to think about. I hope it’s a way to heaven, Hebrews holds out some hope.
Deal making is much more insidious for people who are believers. That way lies a messy world of mixed motives and inconsistent results.