Peace be with you.
I was invited to write a column for the Bellevue Herald Leader of a spiritual or theological nature. I will admit that, as my background is in Christian theology, that will likely be my focus. I would, nonetheless, hope that a person from another faith tradition or even no faith would be able to find something profitable in these columns, either by finding out what others believe or by finding a connection with what you believe.
This morning, I reflected upon chapter 11 of the Old Testament book of Judges about a man named Jephthah (pronounced jeff-thuh).
This is probably not an incredibly well-known story of the Bible and definitely not a well known figure. However, the more I reflected on what happened, the more worth I found in this passage.
The story starts when we hear that Jephthah was the firstborn son of Gilead and that he was born of a prostitute and so considered “illegitimate”.
Gilead would go on to have children with his wife and, when these so-called “legitimate children” found out Jephthah was born of a prostitute, they force him to move somewhere else so he can’t make a claim to Gilead’s property should he die. Jephthah was known to be a great fighter, nonetheless, so when there was trouble between his half-siblings and some other folks, they asked Jephthah for help. Jephthah made the demand that he will only come to help if he was in charge and his half-siblings were so afraid of the armies of the other folks that they agreed to this.
So, Jephthah led an army and began defeating the Amorites such that he knew God was with him. In Scripture, it says the Spirit of the Lord was upon him. However, in verses 30-31 it says that Jephthah made a vow to the Lord that, if he was successful at defeating these foes of his family, he would kill the first person that he saw when he returned to his house.
Why would he make this vow to the Lord? God didn’t demand it.
It seems to me that, perhaps, Jephthah felt he would defeat the enemies of his family and then go back and kill the first family member that tries to congratulate him. They made the mess. It’s only fitting that one of his brothers or sisters or one of their children should suffer for kicking him out of their family and then having to call upon him to clean up their mess. However, when he returns home, it is his own daughter who comes running out to greet him. His only child, in fact. And, in one of the most heartbreaking sentences of Sacred Scripture, verse 39a says “At the end of the two months she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed.”
Now, you may be tempted to make some comment about how the God of the Old Testament is mean and the God of the New Testament is nice. But I would point out that God nowhere asked for or expected this vow and doesn’t seem to force Jephthah to carry out the vow he made. Indeed, when Abraham was called upon to sacrifice his son Isaac, God stopped that sacrifice because he didn’t want to see human sacrifice.
I think the story of Jephthah should be a caution that, just because God is on our side doesn’t mean he isn’t on the side of others, even those that are against us.
And, if we think that, by doing God’s will, we are also assuring ourselves of God’s favor, we are mistaken. If we think that, by going to church or spending time each day in prayer or helping with a parish activity, we are assured that bad things won’t happen to us and that those people who don’t do any of these activities deserve the bad things that happen to them, we should think again.
God isn’t in charge of the bad things that happen, that’s the job of human beings inspired by the evil one. When we wish bad things on others, we not only defy the will of God and do the will of the evil one, it always seems to come back and hurt us in the end.