"Jephthah returns home"
The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, Chapters 5, 6, and 7 is a long and wonderful discourse given by Jesus directly to the Jewish people. There is much wisdom, instruction, caution, and blessing. Whenever I get to the section on Oaths though, I always am reminded of the account of Jephthah:
Matthew 33-37 33. "Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.' 34. But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; 35. or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37. Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
Jephthah was a judge in Israel during the 300 years or so between the conquest of Canaan by Joshua to the establishment of a monarchy by Samuel. There were around a dozen judges and Jephthah is positioned between Gideon and Samson. His story is intriguing and tragic and bible scholars have been debating its outcome since it was written. Expect no closure.
Judges 10:13-16 13. But you have forsaken me and served other gods, so I will no longer save you. 14. Go and cry out to the gods you have chosen. Let them save you when you are in trouble!" 15. But the Israelites said to the LORD , "We have sinned. Do with us whatever you think best, but please rescue us now." 16. Then they got rid of the foreign gods among them and served the LORD . And he could bear Israel's misery no longer.
Judges 11:29-33 29. Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah. He crossed Gilead and Manasseh, passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from there he advanced against the Ammonites. 30. And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD : "If you give the Ammonites into my hands, 31. whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD 's, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering."
32. Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the LORD gave them into his hands. 33. He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon.
Judges 11:34-40 34. When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of tambourines! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. 35. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, "Oh! My daughter! You have made me miserable and wretched, because I have made a vow to the LORD that I cannot break."
36. "My father," she replied, "you have given your word to the LORD . Do to me just as you promised, now that the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites. 37. But grant me this one request," she said. "Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry."
38. "You may go," he said. And he let her go for two months. She and the girls went into the hills and wept because she would never marry. 39. After the two months, she returned to her father and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin.
From this comes the Israelite custom 40. that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.
Judges 8:1 1. Now the Ephraimites asked Gideon, "Why have you treated us like this? Why didn't you call us when you went to fight Midian?" And they criticized him sharply.
Did he or didn't he? With this narrative, it seems as if an Israelite has performed a human sacrifice to God. A sacrifice God will find "detestable":
Deuteronomy 12:31 31. You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.
If you Google this question, you will find lengthy and deep commentaries arguing both ways. People have been debating this incident for centuries without consensus. I choose to think he didn't sacrifice his daughter's life, but compelled her to a dedicated service to God. However, the arguments generally follow this pattern:
The Book of Judges is full of violence and political intrigue. Samuel is usually attributed as author, but there may have been contributions by Nathan or Gad during David's reign. It was a brutal time and it is fully possible the burnt offering was just what it seems, a human sacrifice. Perhaps quibbling over the shocking nature of Jephthah's oath and its outcome is not the point at all, but a lesson in ethics. Jesus would know and James reiterated:
James 5:12 12. Above all, my brothers, do not swear--not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your "Yes" be yes, and your "No," no, or you will be condemned.