The Trust Invested in Us
The Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah. He passed through Gilead and Manasseh, and through Mizpah-Gilead as well, and from there he went on to the Ammonites. Jephthah made a vow to the LORD.
“If you deliver the Ammonites into my power,” he said, “whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites shall belong to the LORD. I shall offer him up as a burnt offering.”
Jephthah then went on to the Ammonites to fight against them, and the LORD delivered them into his power, so that he inflicted a severe defeat on them, from Aroer to the approach of Minnith (twenty cities in all) and as far as Abel-keramim. Thus were the Ammonites brought into subjection by the children of Israel.
When Jephthah returned to his house in Mizpah, it was his daughter who came forth, playing the tambourines and dancing. She was an only child: he had neither son nor daughter besides her.
When he saw her, he rent his garments and said, “Alas, daughter, you have struck me down and brought calamity upon me. For I have made a vow to the LORD and I cannot retract.”
She replied, “Father, you have made a vow to the LORD. Do with me as you have vowed, because the LORD has wrought vengeance for you on your enemies the Ammonites.”
Then she said to her father, “Let me have this favor. Spare me for two months, that I may go off down the mountains to mourn my virginity with my companions.”
“Go,” he replied, and sent her away for two months.
So she departed with her companions and mourned her virginity on the mountains. At the end of the two months she returned to her father, who did to her as he had vowed.
Judges 11: 29-39
The Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah.
Judges 11: 29
There isn’t any advantage at all for you to know scripture if you don’t know how to interpret scripture. In fact, it could be a thousand times worse for you to misinterpret scripture than it would be for you to be ignorant of it. It seems to me that most believers, if they’re even aware of this passage from Judges, have the good sense to ignore it. It wouldn’t be such a bad idea for someone to say to herself, “I can’t make heads or tails out of this one so I’ll just put it completely out of my mind.” In fact, that be an excellent strategy to take!
The problem here isn’t for believers but for unbelievers. There are a lot of people who find sport in the activity of collecting easily misinterpreted Bible stories and parlaying their own misinterpretation of these stories into an excuse to scoff at religion. You can turn to 2 Kings 2, 23-24 for another example. Instead of scoffing at religion, though, they should scoff at the absurd notion that a person can look for a chunk of scripture from anywhere in the Bible and expect to receive God’s special word for them. It doesn’t work that way. Better to think of the Bible as an apothecary. There’s medicine in there that will make you well, but don’t start grabbing things off the shelf. Better to consult a pharmacist.
Studying the Bible while you’re sitting by yourself at home isn’t the best way to encounter the Word of God anyway. I think it’s much more effective, and meaningful, to hear the word proclaimed at mass. It was at mass that I heard the story about Jephthah. It’s such a confusing and disturbing story that I drew comfort from the knowledge that the lector was a woman of faith. I kept wondering when she was going to reach a point where she would stop and say to us, “OK, that’s it, I can’t go on.” Our lector, however, got all the way to the blood curdling final verse, “At the end of the two months she returned to her father, who did to her as he had vowed.”
If the story seems grotesque and heart-breaking to you, you’ve already made the first step toward understanding it. Jephthah’s story is a sobering reminder to all of us that it doesn’t always work out. Not everyone who is called is chosen. Not every seed that falls to the ground bears fruit. At the beginning of the story we learn that God’s blessing has gone forth to Jephthah. That’s the best part of the tale. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if the story had ended there?
Now, wouldn’t it seem that the one who had been touched by God’s grace would be ‘all set’. His should be a happy story. What is God’s grace for if it isn’t to bring us joy? God is all-knowing and all-powerful and His boundless grace is sufficient for every circumstance. We put our trust in Him because He is trustworthy. The God whose Spirit came upon Jephthah is the one to whom I’ve given my trust. I’m not trusting Him so that I can come to grief. I’m trusting Him so that I should have life and joy and so that I should come to know the truth. What is missing?
Something happens even before we learn to trust God, and that something is that God chooses to trust us. God trusted Jephthah. God ‘took a chance’ on Jephthah. How do you imagine God ended up feeling about the chance He took once he got word about what Jephthah had done? God must have blown his top! I can imagine Him saying, “Now that beats all. Now I’ve seen everything! I’m really kicking myself for trusting Jephthah. Instead of getting an ambassador who could witness to Life and to my glory I got a lunatic who murders his own child. I tell you, I’m never doing this again. That’s the last time I’m trusting a human being. Talk about unreliable!”
God’s ways, though, are not our ways. As far as the heavens are above the earth, so far are God’s ways above ours. We know the ‘ways of the world’. We observe these ways in others and we manifest them ourselves. We know how we are when someone has betrayed our trust; but what if we could turn our glance heavenward and observe the ways of God? If we could, we would know that God’s patience wasn’t exhausted by Jephthah. God confidently maintains that trusting Jephthah was worth the risk. God has decided that it’s worth the risk to trust us, as well.
We trust God because He is trustworthy. God trusts us so that we can learn to become trustworthy. Jephthah was called to conversion, and God gave Jephthah grace sufficient to turn from the ways of death and toward the ways of life. Jephthah’s daughter was an instrument of grace as well. She asked for time to mourn her virginity and I’m sure that’s what she told her father she was going to do. You would think that declaration would have gotten Jephthah to repent. She reminded him that by ending her life he would lose any chance of having a legacy. He was literally sawing off all the branches of his family tree. Instead of a tree, he would have a stump. His legacy would be that of a solitary man arrested in grief, and forever bound to a Culture of Death.
Jephthah’s daughter mourned her virginity, but I’m quite sure she prayed for her father’s conversion as well. Jephthah’s path to conversion was assisted by both the Spirit of the Lord and by human prayer. Everything was in place for him to repent his violent ways and to learn the ways of God, the ways of peace. Everything was in place for him to pass from a Culture of Death to a Culture of Life. What went wrong? What could have gone wrong?
God speaks to us when He touches us with His grace, and it’s important for us to hear what He is saying. He doesn’t say, “I’ve fixed things so that you can’t possibly fail”. He doesn’t say, “No matter how badly you mess things up I’ll bail you out.” What God says to us is, “I’m depending on you.” How could conversion be possible if it were any way but that? We are the ones who must repent. We are the ones who have to turn from the ways of death to the ways of life. Each of us must change completely from someone who’s unreliable to someone who is reliable. That is the work of conversion. That is the work that Jephthah left uncompleted.
‘On earth as it is in heaven’. That’s God’s great project. We are the tools God uses to infuse this frail and fragile universe with His infinite glory. Imagine a world free of war and hatred. Imagine a world where children can rely on their parents, where a parent’s every action draws his or her child into the fullness of life. Imagine a world where parents were reliable, where citizens were reliable, where every member of the human family was reliable. That’s what God is imagining! God wanted Jephthah to be converted into a fit tool for bringing heaven’s glory on to earth. God depended on Jephthah, and God depends on us as well.