Jephthah’s Daughter: a Heroine of Sacrifice and Faith

This is the second of two blogs on the story of Jephthah and his daughter found in Judges 11.  This was preached at Fellowship Christian Reformed Church on February 18th, 2018.

Judges 11: 34-40

34 Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing. She was his only child; he had no son or daughter except her. 35 When he saw her, he tore his clothes, and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.” 36 She said to him, “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.” 37 And she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: Grant me two months, so that I may go and wander[b] on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, my companions and I.” 38 “Go,” he said and sent her away for two months. So she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity on the mountains. 39 At the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to the vow he had made. She had never slept with a man. So there arose an Israelite custom that 40 for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.

Romans 3: 21-31

21 But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ[a] for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.

27 Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. 31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.

As a Mennonite, I have never understood the idea of Lent.  As a Mennonite, I have always thought I lived in a state of deprivation already.  I carry a little bit of that with me today.  In fact, my spouse might say that if I should give up anything for Lent, it would be my sense of deprivation.  So I find myself opening the season of Lent at Fellowship with an ironic standpoint.  The things I have to give up to focus on our Lord’s suffering are not so much the things I have in my hands, or the things I put in my stomach, or the clothes I wear, or the words that come out of my mouth.  Instead they are the attitudes which privilege myself, the ideas which lead me to moments of selfishness.  That being said, let me begin….

A little girl was sitting on her Grandmother’s knee as she read her a bedtime story. From time to time the little girl took her eyes off the book and reached up to stroke her Grandmother’s wrinkled cheeks. Then she stroked her own cheek. Finally she asked, “Grandma, did God make you?”  “Yes,” Grandma replied, “God made me.” Then the little girl asked, “Did God make me?” “Yes,” her Grandmother replied, “God did make you.” (PAUSE) The little girl said, “He’s getting better at it, isn’t he?”

I had an interesting moment on Thursday when I was teaching.  In a conversation about racism, I was posed with the statement, “We are better now than we were in the twentieth century.?” It was said by Jeremy, a male teenage student, testing out whether I would agree.  Skeptically uttered as both a statement and a question, I couldn’t have encapsulated our current predicament more succinctly if I had tried. It was like he was laying out the current academic orthodoxy, and questioning it at the same time.  The fact that it came from Jeremy, a boy constantly bullied in school, with multiple psychiatric diagnoses, including Aspergers, Tourette Syndrome, and OCD, seemed all the more pertinent.  This outsider boy has, to me, asked the central question of a generation.

For us latent modernists, and our dual beliefs in reason and progress, this question poses THE challenge!  And we are going to solve that challenge here today…… ummm Naw.  Rather, I’d like us to focus on Jephthah’s daughter, a woman who actually sacrificed herself out of faith to her father and to the Lord.  I’d like us to be aware of how this event actually challenges us, the children of a context which has begotten a pride that our way of living and relating, framed in the language of human rights, is supposedly better than previous generations.  I’d like us to understand how the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter mirrors the crucifixion of God’s Son.

Further, the story of Jephthah’s daughter also tells a story that so many women in history can relate with: a nameless woman gives up herself in an act of faith and sacrifice, and in so doing, brings about redemption and healing to a broken and sick situation.  Today, we will focus on how the act of Jephthah’s daughter can help us reconsider what we may need to give up for Lent in order to work out God’s salvation story in our own lives.

Let’s review the story: Jephthah, in order to secure a victory over the Ammonites, vows the first thing to come out of his house to the Lord, which, regretfully, is his only daughter.  There is some debate about whether the daughter becomes a burnt offering, or is devoted to the religious service of the Lord, thus requiring the shame of not marrying or bearing any children.  In either case, the sacrifice is the the total giving of her life to the Lord, and it is clear from scripture that she voluntarily, despite her father’s doubt, gives herself to the Lord.

This conflicts with so much of what we believe about God, and what we do with horrible stories of suffering in the Old Testament that clearly have God as a central character to them. In fact, one rather known academic and faithful Christian in Edmonton to declare, “I hate the book of Judges.” I think it would suit our liberal selves, and our “forgiving” character as Christians, if the Bible stated that indeed God allowed Jephthah out of his vow.  However, it doesn’t state that, and doesn’t offer us some miraculous cure for the situation.  Indeed, it seems that Jephthah’s daughter is indeed sacrificed, whether as a burnt offering or as servant, so much that not merely Jephthah has his lineage broken, but that the life of this young woman is lost.  Definitely, the local custom of 4 days a year that women lamented Jephthah’s daughter indicates the complete “loss” of her.  There is no sugar-coating.  It is bitter, and complete.  The lament about stories like this being included in Scripture treats it as if this story is somehow very distant from us, and we wish it wouldn’t be a part of our sacred book, which is treated as sacred, and often as inerrant.  It’s presence often conflicts with our moral sensibilities.  Doesn’t God hate human sacrifice?  There is no mention of her having deserved this, or even that she was at true liberty to, alternatively reject her father’s vow.  How can we understand this to be in relationship to a benevolent and all-powerful God?

But isn’t her story all-too-familiar?  Don’t we know at least one woman in our lives who has sacrificed to her own harm, even her own life, to heal and repair a sick and broken situation – perhaps there are even women in the congregation that may say, “Know a woman? I am that woman.”

When Air married me in 2004 (almost 14 years ago), she already knew what she was getting into.  She knew there would be the life of adventure that accompanied marrying a foreigner, an English teacher, and a Christian.  While I could outline many times that she has sacrificed of herself out of faithfulness to me and to our children, I want to mention only the following gift: she left her country with its assuredness of having a meaningful vocation for her in order to bring our children to Canada to be educated.  While it has been tremendous for our kids, there is always the loss that she has experienced as “the other side of the coin.”  Not only did she turn away from the public recognition she would have had living as an educated, and talented woman in Thailand, but she also separated herself from communities in which regular contact would be an incomparable source of joy and meaning.  

I can barely even empathize with that experience. While I never asked her to make such a sacrifice, I am amazed however about why she did it.  I believe she did it because she wanted not only the best for her children, but also out of a faithful relationship to God and to our family.  This sacrificial attitude has been the source of salvation for our family, and without it, our life together, here in this place, would simply not be possible.

Jephthah’s daughter, too, makes an even greater sacrifice, and it is also reflected in the gift of Jesus to us in his death.  In faithfulness and love, these two have followed their Father’s impetus to death.  Jesus and Jephthah’s daughter, not shrinking from death, are sacrificed in acts of faithfulness.

The sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter reminds us that indeed, we are surrounded by living sacrifices that make the world as we know it possible, and the relationship with God we have as a community as meaningful as it is. And these living sacrifices are often the women that are in our lives, the partners, sisters, mothers, daughters, friends, and leaders that are in our midst.

The reason I want us to live in faithfulness to these women is to re-awaken in us the realization that indeed a heroine of faith like Jephthah’s daughter makes it possible to even think of Jephthah as highly as we do. The reason I invite us to be aware of this backbone of faith and sacrifice is to indeed question the faith in our techniques for acknowledging others.  Is the faithfulness that God honours a faithfulness to a charter of rights?  Or is it a faithfulness to other people?  Is our relationship with a marginalized minority the faithfulness that God wants, or is it an embodied relationship to our sister, our daughter, our neighbour, our landlord and our tenant?  Is our relationship with “people-kind”? Or is it with other human beings?

The suggestion today is more of an “in-all-of-us” awareness that without such sacrifice, as lived out by both Jephthah’s daughter and by Jesus, the-road-to-salvation as a gift does not even make sense.  We are often foolish like Jephthah who offered an unnecessary vow to God who didn’t need to be bribed.  We are placed in moments of grief through our own doing.  Our earthly lives are often then redeemed by women, and by sacrifice.

So, on this first Sunday of Lent, I ask, what is it that we need to “give up” in order to follow the path of salvation? What is it that keeps us from experiencing the saving God?  And how is it that we can “renounce” certain reified and deified idols in our lives so as to focus on the suffering Lord who is certainly where our attention must be directed now.

Jeremy’s skeptical question is certainly right on the mark.  Are we indeed better than previous generations with our treatment of others?  Aren’t we indeed better because we are supposedly less ageist, less racist, less homophobic, less sexist, less misogynist?  You can probably guess that I share Jeremy’s skepticism.  I think there is biblical reason to find the confidence in our age and our time to be rather misplaced. Our scripture in Romans certainly gives us a clue:

Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded.  Why? Because of faith.  Boasting is not excluded because of our observance of law, but because of the practice of faithfulness. This statement by Paul in Romans 3, echoing the real-life examples of Jephthah’s daughter, Rahab, and the many women among us and preceding us, leads us to reconsider some of the ways we have established that indeed lead us to justify ourselves rather than love each other, or focus on the coming faithful act of suffering commemorated on Good Friday.  

If we are to be reconciled to the Incarnate Christ at the insufferable cross, could we give up for lent the idea that laws can atone us?  Could we not focus on relational reconciliation, a reconciliation that never separates divine healing from human relational healing?  Let’s pray to be forgiven by God as we forgive others, that always loves God AND neighbour, and that never asks the question, “who is my neighbour?” to contract the scope of love? Since God came to us in Christ, as neighbour to all, shouldn’t God move us to become peacemakers of Christ to all?  The practical way to inhabit the kingdom of God is to live in peace.  

Could we give up the predominance of the metaphor of God as judge of all so that God’s relation to creation is no longer seen primarily in terms of legal prosecution?  Could not a focus on community bring to the foreground love as a primary essence of God’s being?  The effective way to manifest God’s kingdom is not through judgment, but rather through hospitality.

Could we give up the idea that to be elected means to be exclusively elected so that elite people are offered privileges?  Instead, could not our “election” mean being blessed to be a blessing, being healed to bring healing, being taught to teach, being chosen to serve? If we are to care for the poor, we may have to become poor ourselves.

Could we also stop imagining grace as being an irresistible mechanistic force, and instead be inspired by grace to freely extend that grace to others in an overflow of good works? Being saved by grace is not simply an idea.

Could we be persevering saints who give up the idea of grim endurance?  Could we not, instead, have unquenchable hope, confident that God will never fail to fulfill a promise, and be passionate to join God in expressing saving love for our world until every promise comes true?

For this Lenten season then, let us let go of our inclinations to isolation, to judgment, to self-aggrandizing, to despair, and to violence.  Let us embrace in all faithfulness the sacrificial backbone of our joyous existence, and in-so-doing, breathe the air of God’s kingdom, tasting the rich and overflowing flavour of life with each other, absorbing the outpouring of abundant hope, and transmitting the grace of our salvation.

Amen.

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