In the heat of battle Jephthah asked God to help him win a battle against his enemies, the Ammonites. As a thank you gift, Jephthah promised to sacrifice the first person who came out the door to welcome him after the battle.
Huge debates arise over whether Jephthah meant a literal burnt offering on an altar or something less costly. Some speculate that Jephthah expected a mere servant or perhaps a household animal to come out of the door. We’ll never know the answer to that question.
However, we do know that the situation did not work out the way he wanted or expected; it was Jephthah’s daughter that threw open the door and ran out to greet him. You can almost hear him saying, “No, no. Go back in the house.”
Whatever Jephthah was vowing was bad news for his innocent daughter. We know that she either died as a result of the vow or spent her life as a virgin, never able to fulfill a woman’s chief goal in life – to be fruitful by bearing children. To a woman of that time, either alternative was personally crushing.
A 21st century contract signer would begin looking for the escape clause at this point. “That’s not what I meant,” he would say. “You can’t hold me to that agreement; it’s barbaric.” But in Jephthah’s day contracts did not have an escape clause.
An ancient would have regarded words as irretrievable. Once uttered, ancient words took on a life of their own, much like a feather pillow broken open in a high wind. So Jephthah felt bound by his words. And so did his daughter.
She went away with some friends to grieve her perpetual virginity. There was no “Dad I refuse to give up my life because of your stupid vow; that’s your problem, not mine.” She also viewed the vow as binding.
The Psalmist said that God welcomes into his presence the one who stands by his oath even if it means personal inconvenience or hurt, Psalm 15:4.
In Western logic, an oath or promise is only binding if it is convenient or beneficial to the one making it. This is certainly not a way to build integrity and character into a nation. That is probably why Jephthah kept his promise.
Jephthah makes me ask, “Do I keep my promises?”