Judges is a historical account of one of the most tragic periods in Israel’s history. It’s a tragedy that reads like a Coen brothers’ movie, like Inside Llewyn Davis or A Serious Man, demonstrating a consistent, unmitigated downward spiral. Even the quick glimmers of hope propel people into deeper and darker circumstances.
Judges 11 is no exception to that sort of downward progression into darkness, lawlessness, and brutality. It is not so much a handbook of how things should be, but rather a lesson in how terribly dark things become when God’s people abandon His guidance.
Jephthah came from humble and painful beginnings. The son of a prostitute, he was driven from his tribe by his half brothers (Judges 11:1). Had the Law of the Lord been faithfully taught in Israel in those days, and had the Israelites chosen to faithfully follow it, Jephthah would’ve had a much different framework for his decisions.
Leviticus chapters 18 and 20—which significantly predate the Judges period and should have informed Israel’s conduct and culture during that time—unequivocally condemn child and human sacrifice. In fact, while many of Israel’s neighbors practiced child sacrifice, the punishment for such an act in Israel was death (Leviticus 20:2).
Readers typically have a variety of reactions to Jephthah’s decision to fulfill his rash oath. Some believe that his decision to keep his word was honorable; others find it barbaric and evil. Frankly, it seems like the inciting problem was that he made such a foolish oath to begin with. The oath that Jephthah saw as piety, we can see now as utter folly.
In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers a clear and helpful teaching on how we should make oaths, promises, and vows:
“Again, you have heard that it was said to our ancestors,
‘You must not break your oath, but you must keep your oaths to the Lord.’ But I tell you, don’t take an oath at all: either by heaven, because it is God’s throne; or by the earth, because it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great King” (Matthew 5:33-35).
He goes on to give a bit of rationale for this teaching, saying, “‘Do not swear by your head, because you cannot make a single hair white or black’” (Matthew 5:36).
Though Jesus did not mention Jephthah’s actions directly, it’s reasonable to think that many of His Jewish listeners would’ve been very familiar with the story. While it would’ve been easy for them to see the foolishness apparent in Judges 11, Jesus helps them see the ways that this sort of hasty and faulty thinking has seeped into their own lives. His loving, compassionate, and wise counsel to His listeners also extends to us now: Our “yes” should mean “yes,” and our “no” should mean “no.” “Anything more than this is from the evil one” (Matthew 5:37).
Our speech is an action. What you say and how you fulfill it is indicative of who you are and Whose you are. Jesus, in His lovingkindness, wants to remind us that we do not and cannot control or know all the hairs on our own head. When we make rash pronouncements and yoke ourselves to unpredictable variables rather than the eternally consistent God, we back ourselves into a corner. The real foolishness of swearing upon “your mother’s life” or “your wife’s honor” or even, as many do, “to God,” is that while you may be earnest, you do not control the future—not even a little bit.
Letting your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no” frees you from the uncontrollable uncertainty of tomorrow. It also strengthens the weight of your simple words in making commitments. Swearing “to XYZ” might seem like a stronger binding, but the real strength lies in simple and wise straight-shooting answers, rooted in a life anchored to Christ.
Written by Andrew Stoddard