This is a difficult chapter. Most of our modern translations don’t capture the full understanding of Jephthah’s promise to sacrifice the first thing through the doorway upon his return, which turned out to be his only child, a daughter. Commentators are divided on whether such a vow might have been fulfilled by dedicating her to service for the Lord at the Tabernacle (supported by passages like Leviticus 27:2-4, Exodus 38:8, and 1 Samuel 2:22). The fact that she asked to have time to mourn the fact that she would never marry seems to suggest dedication rather than burnt offering. One would presume you would mourn your impending, gruesome death, not the fact that you would die a virgin. There are other reasons to suspect that his vow was not fulfilled with a human sacrifice including that he is listed among the heroes of the faith, and certainly committing such an act that is clearly against God’s law, regardless of any foolish vow made, would have disqualified him from such a list.
Setting aside the lack of clarity on the outcome for his daughter, the vow illustrates several problems we face even today. First, we try to manipulate God. “If you will (fill in the blank), then I’ll . . . .” The fallacies in such an approach to God are obvious. It assumes that we have any power to “make” God do something! It suggests that God needs or wants something from us, as if we have anything worthy of offering to Him! It implies that God does not want what is best for us, but must be coerced into acting on our behalf through a vow from us!
Even worse that making such a foolish and thoughtless vow in the first place is the notion that, having made it, we must fulfill it. If we recognize that we have promised to do something that is sinful, our sin is not absolved by the fact that we are fulfilling a vow. In fact, our sin is compounded when we go from vowing to commit sin, to actually fulfilling a sinful vow. I know, I know, you and I don’t generally vow to offer a burnt sacrifice if God gives us what we want. But we do make rash commitments: “I’ll never forgive them as long as I live.” “I’ll get even if it’s the last thing I do.” “Lord, if you’ll give me this one thing I really want, I’ll . . . .”
God loves us so much that He has already given us everything we need for life and godliness. We don’t need to manipulate Him or make rash promises. He knows what we want before we ask, but even more, He knows what we need and what is in our best interests. Sometimes that is to bless us with what we want and even much more than we can imagine. Sometimes that is to bless us with need that drives us closer to Him and unmasks our self-sufficiency to reveal our desperation for Him.