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The Call of Sacrifice
Jephthah was a believer in sacrifice, as long as someone else made the sacrifice. We have chosen The Call of Sacrifice as our theme this Lenten season. There is something in us that responds to the call of sacrifice, but we often seek to satisfy that call with someone else's sacrifice.
The scripture lesson for this sermon, not from the lectionary because it is probably too gruesome to have made the lectionary, is Judges 11:29-40, the story of Jephthah and his sacrifice. I am indebted to Phyllis Trible and her book, Texts of Terror, for the exegesis. The story takes place in the eleventh century B. C. when Israel lived in tribal societies, ruled by judges, before they had kings.
The tribe of Gilead was at war with Ammon (spelled with an "o",) known today as Amman, the capital of Jordan. Jephthah had a reputation as a mighty warrior, one well trained in combat who could supply his own equipment as well as a contingency of soldiers. So, the elders of Gilead approached Jephthah to lead their battle. Jephtha, a master of negotiation, negotiated a deal where the elders agreed to accept him as their leader not only during the war with Ammon, but the permanent leader of the tribe once the victory was won.
The initial confrontation between Jephthah and the king of the Ammonites was an exercise in diplomacy, but the talks failed, and they went to war. Incidentally, the Ammonites were attacking Gilead to reclaim land they contended were taken from them by Israel when Israel came from Egypt. The current middle east struggle over land ownership between Jews and Arabs is not a new phenomenon on the face of the earth.
Because the talks failed, Jephthah went to war. There was a great deal at stake. Not only did he seek a victory over Ammon to preserve their land, but the victory would make him the undisputed leader of Gilead. Jephthah must win. So he decided to get God on his side, promising anything, anything for victory, anything for success. He made a vow, a sacrificial vow, but someone else's sacrifice. Judges 11:30, And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, "If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord's, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering."
In return for a victory, Jephthah promised to sacrifice whoever came out to meet him. Whom did he expect, I wonder? A servant, a slave? An animal? Actually, the vow was unnecessary because in the previous verse, verse 29, "The Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah." He had already received the power of the Spirit. Why did he feel the need to make a vow? The making of the vow was an act of unfaithfulness. Jephtha desired to bind God rather than embrace the gift of the spirit. What came to him freely, he tried to manipulate. The meaning of his vow is doubt, not faith. He wanted control, not courage. To such a vow the Lord made no reply.
Jephthah led his army to Ammon and achieved a monumental victory. He defeated 20 towns, and returned victorious to Gilead. Remembering his vow to sacrifice the first one to come out from his house, he arrived at his house, filled with the joy of his victory, and to his horror cried, "Oh, no!" Just at that very moment his daughter, his only child, came out to meet him with timbrels, dancing a victory dance, glad to see her father, rejoicing in his victory, anxious to honor him, anxious to please him.
Her joy was short lived. After the initial shock of realizing his daughter would be his sacrifice, Jephthah tore his clothes which was an ancient gesture of despair, grief, and mourning. But, the mourning was not for his daughter, but for himself. He tore his clothes and then proceeded to blame the victim. It's her fault. Anxious to absolve himself, he blamed her. Judges 11:35, "Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me." It was her fault he must sacrifice her. She came out of the door. She caused his calamity. She is condemned by her father.
Though he called her his daughter, he offered her no comfort. Nor did he offer to release her from his vow. After all, his future was at stake. All he had ever dreamed of--being the leader of his tribe--was at hand. He did not dare to go back on his vow, take the chance of angering his God, and losing all he had gained. He said to his daughter, (v. 35), "For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow." He did not release her from the vow; nor, did he offer to die in his daughter's place. Have you noticed in this story the daughter has no name? She is nameless. She is, after all, only a sacrifice. And, it was all her fault, anyway, for coming out to meet her father! His logic is strange.
With courage, understanding, and compassion, the daughter answered her father, (v.36) "My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has given you vengeance against your enemies, the Ammonites." She did not seek to deny the vow or defy the vow. Nor did she show anger or depression. No sentiment of self-pity passed her lips; instead, she felt for her father the compassion that he did not extend to her.
Then, she made a request. She asked if she might take some friends and go wander on the mountains to "bewail her virginity;" in other words, to lament, to mourn her unfulfilled life. She asked for a respite, a time and place away from her father and his vow, a time to go and wander on the hills to lament her virginity. Her death will be premature, ending before its potential has unfolded. Her death will be violent. Death by fire is torture, and particularly bitter because its author is her very own father. And, her death will leave no heirs because she is a virgin. The bearing of children is what alone designated fulfillment for every Hebrew woman. With no child to succeed her, she may be numbered among the unremembered, among those who have perished as though they had not lived. Indeed, she died with no name for history to remember, like a tomb of an unknown soldier.
After two months in the wilderness, she returned to her father who, verse 39, "did with her according to the vow he had made." When Abraham took his son, Isaac, to be sacrificed, Isaac had a name. Isaac was given hope and promise: "The Lord will provide the offering for the sacrifice," Abraham told Isaac. When Abraham took his knife to sacrifice his son, an angel of the Lord stopped him. But, when Jephthah sacrificed his daughter by burning her, she had no name, no hope, no promise, no intervening angel. "He did with her according to the vow he had made." The daughter was silent. She breathed her last breath in silence, not even with the cry, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"
However, she was remembered for a time. She became a tradition in Israel, at least among women. Her friends did not let her die in oblivion. v.39-40 "There arose an Israelite custom that for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to mourn the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite."
But, what about Jephthah? What happened to him? How is he remembered, he who sacrificed his daughter for the sake of his military victory and leadership of the tribe? Jephthah was remembered and honored for his victorious accomplishments. When he died a natural death, he received an epitaph in the Bible that is accorded to the best of heroes. Years later the prophet Samuel encouraged the Israelites with examples of great heroes of the past. He included Jephthah. In the New Testament, over a thousand years later, in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, where heroes are remembered and lauded for their great faith, there is Jephthah, honored with the rest. Hebrews 11:32-34
And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephtha, of David and Samuel and the prophets--who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.
Even in the New Testament, Jephthah is praised. His daughter is forgotten. Unfaith becomes faith. Cowardice becomes courage. The call of sacrifice is satisfied by sacrificing someone else.
The call of sacrifice is still with us today. The story of Jephthah and his daughter is disturbingly contemporary, repeated often.Leaders of today's nations and tribes are just as willing as Jephtha to sacrifice daughters and sons, to sacrifice them on the altars of war. Most of today's victims, like Jephthah's daughter, are willing to make the sacrifice. Servicemen and women courageously offer their lives. And the rest of us are perfectly willing, like Jephthah, to let them make our sacrifice. Congress will give them a three-minute standing ovation, but I don't hear too many Congressmen offering to change places, or many of us, for that matter. We're perfectly willing to let sons and daughters sacrifice their lives so we can continue to live in the style to which we have become accustomed.
The call of sacrifice is a powerful call, strong within the heart of humans. Jesus heard the call of sacrifice, heard it call strongly and powerfully. The difference, however, is that Jesus sacrificed his own life, not someone else's.
(Invitation to Christian Commitment): What do we do? Feel guilty? Feel responsible? Yes, we are all responsible for creating and sustaining war, a world where the altars of war continue to claim sacrificial victims. I call us to commit ourselves to pray for peace, work for peace, end this war, and create a world without war. One important way this is accomplished is to preach, teach, and live the gospel of Jesus Christ through the ministry of this church.
© 1991 Douglas I. Norris