As a Lenten practice during this season, clergy and leaders in the church from youth to elders will be sharing their devotions.
Scripture: Judges 9-12
Key verses: (11:30-31) “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.”
Reflection: The recurring pattern of faithful and unfaithful judges and people continues in the book of Judges. Power plays, murder, political intrigue and family dysfunction plague the Israelites when they are foolish or unfaithful. Today, I am highlighting Jephthah, a man with a questionable background, who had been rejected by his country, but then enlisted to fight for Israel when they were in desperate need of an experienced military leader to defeat the Ammonites. Jephthah negotiated a deal to become the commander over them if he led them to victory. They agreed and Jephthah tried to negotiate for peace with the Ammonites. A peace that they didn’t accept, so they went to war with one another. It says in this passage that Jephthah was filled with the spirit of the LORD and in his spiritual zeal he made a vow to the LORD. Jephthah vowed to sacrifice whoever was first to come out of his house when he came home victorious. This was a careless and deadly vow. He had to have known this, but it appears he wasn’t thinking. Jephthah said “whoever comes out” not the first “thing” that comes out. Some commentators suggest that he expected a goat or other animal to be the first out the door, but he had to know that it could be a person. Perhaps he figured that it would be a servant or someone who didn’t matter in his eyes. We will never know. What we do know is that his only child, an unnamed daughter, was the first out the door to celebrate his victory. She would be the sacrifice. There are two opposing theological convictions here in the story. On the one hand, the Ammonites who were defeated, worshipped the God Molech who required child sacrifice. On the other hand, this was abhorrent to Israel, even though we have the story of Abraham and Isaac reminding us that first born children belonged to the LORD. In any case, Jephthah blamed his daughter for his misguided vow! This story is further evidence of the deterioration of Israel during the time of the judges. Women become more and more marginalized, unnamed and devalued as time goes on and the community strayed further and further from God.
In light of the terrible consequences of Jephthah’s vow, I wonder what kind of foolish promises we have made when we were full of enthusiasm and bargaining for God’s favor. There are always consequences to our choices. How many times have we gone our own way and made a terrible mistake that hurt us or someone else? Did we blame the other person for our failure or did we take responsibility? As someone said to me recently: “God doesn’t save us from every mistake. We have the freedom to fail.” As heartbreaking as this can be, the hope is that we learn lessons from our mistakes. Most likely none of us have made as grave a mistake as Jephthah, but the lesson of his foolishness can give us pause to reflect on our decisions. Have we been foolish? How have our decisions/vows hurt another person? Will we learn from our mistakes so that we will make different choices and decisions? Lent can be a time to humble ourselves before God, set down our prideful ambitions and discover what is truly important. It is a time when we can invite God to lead us toward transformation in order that we might become a better reflection of God’s love, acceptance, forgiveness and justice. What opportunities for growth is God offering to you today? What mistakes do you need forgiveness for?
Prayer: O LORD, give us eyes to see and ears to hear as we learn what it means to follow you. Forgive us for the times we are foolish and fail to take responsibility for our actions. Help us to learn from our mistakes, amend our ways and rely more on your saving grace. We hope for the transformation that only you can bring about. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Author: Deborah Conner
[Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved].