Jephthah, man of action.
Judges 11: 1-11 & 34-40.
We have been looking at the Book of Judges.
We have not been reading these stories through romanticized eyes; seeing these leaders as heroes that come to the fore and rescue Israel, but as leaders who were very flawed; especially the men.
And if that is true of well known judges like Samson and Gideon, how much more is it true of Jephthah.
I think the lesson I would take most from this sad story is that life is messy.
We should just accept that, life can be messy.
But just because life is messy doesn't mean that we need to keep it that way.
We can decide what we do with that messiness.
That may not be very profound but the truth is that all we need to do is look at the news any night of the week to see that the world is still very messy.
Pretending that it isn’t messy doesn’t make it nice and neat.
But we can then decide what we do in that messiness.
Let’s look at the situation as maybe it was.
There is a young man called Gilead. He sleeps with a prostitute and she gets pregnant. We don’t know anything about either of the couple.
We don’t know what age Gilead was; maybe he was really young and foolish or older and arrogant.
We don’t know anything about the prostitute; maybe she was a widow who had no family to look after her so this was the only way for her to survive in a male dominated world where she could find no employment.
We know things get messy. She gets pregnant.
What is worse, I suspect the woman dies in childbirth.
The reason I say that is that if the woman had lived I bet Gilead would have questioned the parentage. Questioned it enough that the mother would be expected to bring up the child alone.
The fact that the child isn’t left with the mother implies that the mother isn’t there.
Initially he decides to do the right thing and take responsibility for the boy. He brings him into his home.
Gilead might be married, or maybe he marries after that.
But we do know his wife has a few children after that and the dynamics of the family are not good.
Eventually Jephthah is cast out the home and left to fend for himself where he found the toughest group of people and hung around with them because that is how he felt safe.
It gets messier when Israel is threatened by the Ammonites. They look around for a tough leader and they realise the toughest guy they know is Jephthah. He insists that he will lead them but only if they agree for him to be their leader.
The Israelites are desperate so they agree.
As it turns out Jephthah is a good war leader and he feels that God is with him.
Maybe for the first time in his life Jephthah has a purpose.
Maybe for the first time Jephthah is respected.
But then it gets really dark, really messy.
Jephthah makes a promise that he will sacrifice the first person he sees come out of his house when he returns home.
To us that seems a really stupid thing to do. He had no extended family, only a wife and child. So it was bound to be one of those that would need to be sacrificed.
How did he think that was ever going to work out well?
Did he think his cause was hopeless and that he would die in battle so he wouldn't need to fulfil the deal?
Did he think his men thought that their cause was hopeless and this promise was to show them how committed he was to the battle?
From what I could gather this was not an uncommon practice in those times for leaders and especially for kings.
Often when countries were being threatened the King would offer up one of his own children to whatever god he worshiped; the idea being that the greater the sacrifice, the greater the chance that the god would answer the prayer of salvation.
What gets me was that none of these leaders ever thought of offering themselves as a sacrifice.
If his men thought the situation was desperate then Jephthah may have believed he was being truly kingly by offering his greatest sacrifice to God.
Anyway I think we can all agree that this isn't a pleasant story.
I think we can all agree that Jephthah isn’t an example that we should follow.
But that doesn't mean that there aren’t lessons to be learnt.
The first lesson we could learn is to ask ourselves, when do we get God involved in our life?
When you get home read this passage again. Today we didn't have a chance to read it all, but in the quietness of your home read all of chapter 11. As you read it try to work out when the people asked God to be involved.
God isn’t asked to be involved by Gilead when he has all these family problems.
God isn't asked to be involved by the brothers when they chase Jephthah out the house.
God isn’t asked to be involved by Jephthah when he gets involved with his gang.
God isn’t asked to be involved by the Israelites when they ask Jephthah to be leader.
The first time God is mentioned is when Jephthah is telling the king of Ammon that he is not giving up the land because God has given it to the Israelites.
The first time God is believed to be involved is when Jephthah is fighting the Ammonites for the first time and they win unexpectedly, so they put that down to God inspiring them.
There is probably a gap of about 30 odd years between the birth of Jephthah and Jephthah feeling God is helping him. That’s a long time to do things without God.
That’s if God was asked at all about his opinion on any of it.
Personally, I am not too sure if at any time God was actually asked to be involved.
Maybe things would have turned out differently if God had been involved a bit earlier.
Which brings us onto my second point. The one thing that God brings to our lives is a ‘What if?’
God gives us possibilities that things can be different.
What if Jephthah hadn’t been treated differently when he was a child?
It is possible.
He could have been looked upon as a child to be loved instead of a mistake to be ignored and rejected.
We know this because there are so many blended families now-a-days.
My own family is a blended family.
I have children and step-children.
My children who are biological and my children who are non-biological are all treated the same way.
If any of them come to me for money I say NO.
Then they go to their mum and she says YES to all of them.
I am fortunate that actually they all get on really well.
If Gilead and his wife had brought up their children differently, maybe things would have turned out differently for Jephthah and his daughter.
What if Jephthah had decided not to make such a vow? What if he had decided that if his men needed proof of his commitment he would promise to sacrifice all the possessions that he owned, or decided that he would have dedicated his life to be a priest and worship God for the rest of his life?
Or what if had decided that God didn't want him to fulfil that vow, as God had shown with Abraham when he wanted to sacrifice his son Isaac?
The truth is that God gives us the What if’s...
God gives us other options.
We are not predestined to follow our emotions or be victims of our weaknesses.
We are not predestined to fall to our temptations or to give in to our prejudices.
The world is full of famous folk and the not-famous who used God’s strength to defy the way the world is and make a difference.
Charles Colson was sent to prison for masterminding dirty tricks that lead to the Watergate scandal. While others that went to prison tried to justify what they did, Charles Colson thought,
‘What if this is the right place for me to be?’
‘What if I was wrong?’
‘What if I could change?’
And with God’s strength he did change. He created the Prisons Fellowship that changed the lived of millions of prisoners.
It is very clear that we are meant to read this story to Jephthah and say, ‘This is not the way it should be.’
But it is one thing looking at our life and say, ‘This is not the way our life should be.’
It is another believing that it can be different.
And this is where the hope is.
We have a God.
A God that doesn’t demand the greatest sacrifice from us,
a God instead that is willing to give the greatest sacrifice for us.
It is this God that can give us the power to look at our lives and say,
‘What if it could be different?’
‘What if I could be different?’
And with God’s strength,
with God’s power,
with us letting God into our life to be involved...
then things can change.