This story is strange and disturbing. On one level, Jepthah was one of Israel’s most formidable judges, a great warrior, brave, strong, intelligent – and profoundly insecure, though that’s the last word he would have used to describe himself. In a moment of insecurity, trying to impress God with his piety, he vowed, “Grant me military victory over the Ammonites, and I promise to sacrifice to you the first thing I see when I return through the city gates.” God then granted Jepthah a great victory over the Ammonites. But as he came back home, who should first come dancing out to congratulate him but his own only child, his vivacious, lovely, beautiful, enthusiastic daughter!
Only then does Jepthah reveal to her the vow that he has made to God. She responded, “If that is what you have promised God, you must go through with it. Just give me a couple of months to grieve that my life shall end prematurely, and that I will never know the joy of motherhood.” Jepthah allowed her that time of grieving and then, (as the Scriptures say with oblique embarrassment,) “He did unto her according to his vow.”
What do we make of this strange, disturbing story? On this Father’s Day, are there lessons that we can glean from Jepthah’s personality that would inform our family dynamics? Are there lessons that we fathers can glean from Jepthah’s behavior that would improve our relationship with our families? Could it be, Robert Young to the contrary, that “Father doesn’t always know best”?
To understand Jepthah in his totality, one has to understand his background. He was the son of the great warrior Gilead, but born through a liaison with a woman of ill-repute, a harlot. Gilead claimed him and raised him within his household, but eventually the so-called legitimate sons of the household banded together and, with the help of the town elders, drove Jepthah out of the house and community, forcing him into the badlands, where Jepthah became an outlaw and gathered around him a group of desperadoes. But along came the Ammonites, threatening Hebrew safety and security, violating Hebrew borders. Then the city fathers executed an about face, turning to Jepthah for help, asking him to save them. Jepthah savored the irony. “Come save you? You helped drive me out of the community! You helped my brothers expel me from my home. Why would I come save you? What‘s in it for me?” The city elders said, “You may be an outlaw. But you are our outlaw. If you defeat the Ammonites and rescue our community, we will make you judge over us.” Armed with that promise, Jepthah took command of the Hebrew army.
Here the Biblical text casts a surprisingly subtle light on Jepthah. He doesn’t reflexively gather up his soldiers and march into battle. Instead, he sends the Ammonites a well-reasoned, diplomatic letter, explaining that the property dispute between them was not worth bloodshed. He tried to show how the land Israel had come to occupy was not the Ammonites’ land in the first place and offered to negotiate a settlement acceptable to both sides. Jepthah shows himself to be a skilled communicator. But when the Ammonites opt to wage war, then Jepthah makes his foolish vow unto God.
This brings us to the first insight into Jepthah’s character: in his professional life, Jepthah reveals himself to be an excellent communicator. But he didn’t exercise that same skill in his personal life. It wasn’t until after he had made his vow and defeated the Ammonites that he bothered saying to his daughter, ‘Oh, by the way, I have made this vow to God that I would sacrifice the first person I saw if God granted me victory over my enemies.’ It has been my experience that many professional people fail to exercise the gifts in their personal life that they employ so skillfully in their professional life. Businessmen who show themselves to be amazingly patient in their engagements with their clients often do not exercise that same patience when dealing with their own family. Salesmen who are exceptionally solicitous of the welfare of their customers are often not so mindful of the needs of their families. Teachers who exercise infinite compassion and altruism with respect to their students don’t always employ the same virtues in interactions with their own children. Jepthah proved himself to be exceptionally adept at communication with the Ammonites, but he didn’t employ that same skill in his interaction with his own daughter. He never thought to say to himself, ‘Before I make this vow, maybe I should bounce this idea off my daughter and see what she thinks.’ Before making his vow he didn’t bother to say, ‘Maybe I should run this idea by a friend or two and see if it really makes sense.’ The skills he used professionally were not the skills he employed in his personal life. He is not the only person guilty of such a serious mistake.
Here is another insight into Jepthah’s personality: in response to his uncertain childhood, he developed a rigid, inflexible personality. He embodied the principle, “My way or the highway.” His daughter didn’t try to reason with him once he had told her about his vow, because she knew that further discussion was useless. She knew he was going to do whatever he had vowed to do. Rigidity had made him a good warrior. But rigidity had also made him a bad father and a vain parent.
Then again, wasn’t Jepthah in a tight spot? Didn’t God demand that Jepthah keep his word? No! Jewish scholars are unanimous in asserting that Jepthah could have redeemed his daughter’s life simply by paying a sizable sum of redemption money. The high priest could have assigned a sum of redemption, and Jepthah could have been released from his vow. In fact, rabbinical tradition asserts that Jepthah could have spared his daughter’s life without paying a cent. He could have been released from his vow if he had simply gone to the high priest and confessed, “I have made a foolish vow, a vow that is actually an abomination under God. I ask your forgiveness, and I ask to be released from that vow upon making a public confession.” The high priest would have released repentant Jepthah from his vow and spared his daughter. It wouldn’t have cost Jepthah anything. So why didn’t he? Because to go to the high priest and ask him to set a redemption price would have meant publicly admitting that he had made a mistake. To go to the high priest and ask to be released from his vow would have meant acknowledging the high priest as his spiritual superior, which would have meant “losing face” in the public eye. In the final analysis, Jepthah’s pride was more important to him than his daughter’s life, even though he loved his daughter.
You may be thinking, ‘No parent would make such a decision in real life.’ I say to you that it happens all the time. I have seen families destroyed because one family member or the other had such ambition, such fealty to certain habits or hobbies, and they pursued their agenda with such oblivious determination that they didn’t care how it affected their spouse or the entire family. Adherence to one’s own agenda, pursued with inflexibility, a lack of humility, a refusal to engage in meaningful communication or ask for meaningful forgiveness, an inability to admit that one’s judgment could be flawed, these dynamics destroy families every day. You don’t have to sacrifice a child to God to destroy a family. There are a thousand other ways to do it.
Years ago I came across a little book called Threading the Needle written by Bud Paxson, founder of the Home Shopping Network – a multi-millionaire. One Christmas morning Paxson awakened in a lavish Las Vegas hotel room to find a note from his wife saying, “I just can’t do this anymore. I am leaving you for someone who really loves me.” His children figured that even on Christmas Day he would be so busy as to not have time for them, so they had all made other plans. So Bud Paxson woke up in this lavish apartment filled with expensive Christmas presents and found that he had no one to give them to. If you had asked him, “Do you love your wife?” he would have said yes. “Do you love your children?” He would have said sure. But he knew that at his core being a successful businessman was more important to him than his familial ties. That attitude had torn asunder his every meaningful personal relationship. That morning, having understood what his warped value system had cost him, served as the catalyst for him beginning a pilgrimage toward faith.
Jepthah won’t pay a debt to redeem his daughter because that would prove that he has spoken rashly. He won’t humble himself to the high priest because that would entail acknowledging a superior. In truth, Jepthah was a rigid man who needed a rigid God. If he had gone to the high priest, and the high priest had extended grace to him, if he had bounced his idea off a friend and the friend had reminded him, ‘God has expressly condemned human sacrifice. Such an idea is offensive to God, and even though the pagans around us engage in such a practice, God has expressly forbidden us to do the same,’ Jepthah would not have accepted the priest’s grace or a wise friend’s insights. Jepthah was a rigid man who needed a rigid God. Martin Luther once noted, “As you believe God, so you have God.” Even though, in countless ways, God had revealed the divine self to be a deity of grace, kindness and forgiveness, Jepthah needed a God as rigid as he was.
In fact, the Midrash, the rabbinical commentary on the Old Testament, envisions a conversation between Jepthah and his daughter just before he takes her life. She says, “Father, you know Hebrew law condemns this practice, and God will not accept your sacrifice, for God has expressly condemned such an action.” Jepthah responds, “I have to keep my promise.” She says, “You know that Jacob promised to tithe a tenth of his possessions unto God, but that didn’t mean he sacrificed a son unto God.” Jepthah says, “I have to keep my promise.” She says, “You know that when Hannah promised to give God her firstborn, she gave him to God as a priest, not as a sacrifice.” Jepthah says, “I have to keep my promise.” He was a rigid man who needed a rigid deity, and the truth is, the god Jepthah worshipped was as much as an idol of his own construction as were the deities worshiped by the pagan people around him.
Of course, these relational dynamics never occur in our households do they? In our households, when we fathers make decisions that are foolish or pursue agendas that prove to be destructive and exercise an unhealthy effect upon our families, we are quick to admit our errors – right? Or maybe not. Maybe rigidity, inflexibility, a lack of humility, a refusal to engage in meaningful communication – maybe such errors in our character render our households dysfunctional as well.
It would be nice to say that Jepthah grew in character after this incident, but he didn’t. He soon waged war on the neighboring Hebrew tribe of Ephraim, and, once again, the old soldier prevailed. Having defeated his enemy, he could have been magnanimous. After all, this was Jew killing Jew, kinsman killing kinsman, tribe smiting tribe. But no, he slaughtered 42,000 of his own Hebrew brethren. Shedding the blood of his daughter was not enough. He had to multiply his guilt 42,000 times. Because Jepthah always knew best.
The Bible says that Jepthah died and was buried in one of the cities of Gilead. But the great Hebrew writer Elie Wiesel says that there is an alternative translation: “Jepthah died and was buried in the cities of Gilead.” Many Bibles offer this second translation as a possibility. But how could a man be buried in several cities? The answer, says Wiesel, is that, according to tradition, because Jepthah’s great pride was vanity, God subjected him to leprosy in which parts of his body withered and dropped off until nothing much was left of him by the end. He died slowly, by degrees, and parts of him were buried in cities throughout his homeland. Having torn his family and his nation into pieces, Jepthah was sentenced by God to die ingloriously, piece by piece.
When I was in college, searching for a Christian faith that made sense to me, I was exposed to a line of thinking that said God intended for families to operate like a military command center, based on a hierarchy of authority. God passed the word down to the father, the father communicated decisions to the wife, who obediently passed the word down to the children, and everyone fell into line. That definition of family didn’t make sense to me. I had a strong-willed father; but I also had a strong-willed mother, and the reason our household worked is because they forged a mutual affection, a mutual communication, a mutual humility, a mutual interconnectedness, a mutual engagement in agenda-setting. I have learned over time that households that operate on the principle of one person setting the agenda, expecting everyone else to follow it, ultimately prove dysfunctional. There are a variety of ways to create a successful household. There are a variety of ways that make for dysfunctional households. And in my experience, sad to say, father doesn’t always know best. The story of Jepthah proves it.