It appears that today’s OT reading in the Novus Ordo is the sorry tale of Jephtha the Gileadite. It is a strange choice as Fr Bede Rowe implies on his blog. However, as all scripture can be used to instruct and is inspired by God [2Tim 3:16], here is my attempt to extract some wisdom from the narrative. I am very against the idea that since this is unpleasant and in the OT, it can be glossed over with a “phew, thank goodness we don’t live like that anymore”. In many ways, the more society forgets the sovereignty of Christ, the more we are living in the time of the Judges and the refrain throughout that book is “in those days the was no king in Israel”, and it always precludes something dreadful happening because people take matters into their own hands.
My theory is that often the naturally good men of this world are Jephthas; they are despised (he was the son of a harlot and denied father’s inheritance), they are noble (he was a mighty warrior), they trust God and know their faith and are reasonable when treating the enemy (see Judges 11:12-28 where he send messages to the king of the Ammonites explaining the legitimate right of Israel to the land), and their hearts are broken.
The Spirit of the Lord inspires him to decide to fight the Ammonites and then he makes his terrible vow, that if God grants him victory, then he will sacrifice to the Lord, the first from his house who comes to meet him when he returns victorious. And as we know this is his only child, his daughter. She calmly accepts her fate but asks to go into the hills to bewail her virginity for a while before he kills her. Then poor old Jephtha acts as Judge over Israel for six years and has to deal with infighting amongst the children of Israel, he really must have wondered if it was all worth it. I see him as a good man but a broken man (as Millais’ depiction shows with astonishing clarity- see below). Jephtha is no fool.
What about that vow? Did God inspire him to make it? I’d argue that vows are freely offered to God, they come from within the creature to glorify God, but they have to rise up in a soul who is broken, the vow is meant to strengthen the bond between the Creator and the creature to make the creature more at one with God. I’d argue that vows may or may not be flawed (this one is certainly flawed) but that they must be executed*. This vow was not a direct inspiration from God, its price is too high, after all God spared Isaac from Abraham’s knife, God does not want holocaust. And here sorry old Jephtha knows that he has to do that which fate and his ego have conspired together to give the Lord. The story must have been a great inspiration to David as the psalms over and over again say how the Lord does not want sacrifice and holocaust, but that He wants our humility and our love. Poor Jephtha, I really do think he was just a victim of his own pride and a pride that wasn’t in itself seriously sinful.
And then then there is the shocking irony; those Ammonites that he fought and was victorious over were known to offer child sacrifices to their god, Moloch. And here is Jephtha sacrificing his own daughter to the Lord, the God if Israel. It is enough to make you weep. But there is a lesson in this, that sin causes the destruction of the innocent. Does Jephtha’s daughter prefigure Christ? Do we not see here that ultimately victory is extracted at a terrible price.
And what of Jephtha’s daughter herself? She bewails her virginity as all good daughters of Israel would do. They would see their ultimate fulfilment as giving birth to the Messiah, so dying a virgin is not a good thing for them. But the Messiah was truly born of a virgin. The virgin state is something that is exalted in the New Testament. The virgin state was precious under the old dispensation but only as a precursor to marriage. In these last times virginity itself is prized. But that doesn’t mean that the mourning has stopped. We should weep for the state of the world that we actually need consecrated virgins. There would be no need for consecrated virgins if there was no sin, and sin should make us weep. So now unlike Jephtha’s daughter who had no choice, we can freely give ourselves to God as virgins and there is no further need for the annual remembrance of her fate that the daughters of Israel used to enact. And isn’t she righteous? If she had wanted to experience to pleasure of sexual intercourse, there was nothing stopping her from doing so, her sin could have gone unnoticed by the world. What was stopping her was chastity and continence and those are fruits of the Spirit of the Lord.
Jephtha and his daughter are two heroic and tragic figures in the Old Testament, but how many these days come close to them in their ardent righteousness and love of the Lord?
* Any vow we make is in imitation of the covenant God makes with His people. God never breaks His covenant, so we ought not to break our vows. That is why making a vow is such a serious matter and ought not to be attempted lightly. I suppose we only learn what frustratingly hard work we must be for God through sticking to a vow, and that ought to make us love Him so much more and ought to humble us in the knowledge that we can do nothing good without Him.