Do you ever make rash vows with God? The Lord knows I have. Particularly when I was a child. In desperation, I would look skyward and say, “God if you do X for me, I will do Y for you.” I wasn’t even sure I believed there was a God. But it seems intrinsic to human nature to use such bargaining chips with God like magical talismans for compelling God to bring us good fortune.
Young Martin Luther even made such a vow in the midst of a terrible lightening storm when he feared for his life: “St. Anne help me! I will become a monk.” And he did! Jephthah the judge, unfortunately, is more vague: “whatever comes out from the doors of my house … I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” Perhaps he implies an animal, but when he returns home from victory over the Ammonites “his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child” (Judg. 11:34b).
Exactly what happens at this point is unclear. Does Jephthah literally burn her alive? Or does he take a more metaphorical interpretation and “sacrifice” her to lifelong celibacy, bearing no children and ending Jephthah’s lineage? More importantly, if she is literally burned alive, is God pleased with this human sacrifice?
I do not know the answer to my first two rhetorical questions. Even Biblical scholars scratch their head over what Jephthah “did with her according to his vow that he had made” (Judg. 11:39). But if Jephthah literally kills his only daughter, we are safe to say that this offering had no effect on God other than to displease him.
First of all, according to Levitical law, God considers rash oaths a sin (Lev. 5:4-5). Furthermore, Leviticus goes on to explain human sacrifices to the pagan god Molech were an abomination (Lev. 18:21, 20:2), and in Deuteronomy we learn that the Lord doesn’t want human sacrifices in his name either: “You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.”
This should be no surprise to us, and it should be no surprise to the Israelite Jephthah since long before him, his ancestor Abraham took his son Isaac up a hill as a sacrifice, and God intervened at the last minute, saying “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him.” God provided an alternate offering of a ram caught in the thicket. Thus Abraham called the place “The Lord will provide” (Gen. 20:12, 14).
The Lord provided then, and he would provide many years later with another virgin and another son. His plan all along for the world’s rescue was to find another daughter of Israel who would not weep for her virginity but submit in humility to bear God’s only son. This son was the genuine ram caught in the thicket. No other burnt offering could please God such as that of his only begotten. And Jesus Christ’s death on the cross was no mere human sacrifice nor was it divine child abuse as some misguided theologians have deemed it. To have such a view of the crucifixion would be to tease apart the Godhead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in a way that it may not be parsed. Rather, God sacrificed God’s own self because no offspring of Jephthah would cut it.
Here’s an audio link to Love and Mercy’s Virgin Mary Had One Son…