Text of Terror

The good people at Crafton Heights dove back into the book of Judges on Sunday January 12.  The texts for this message[1] were from Judges 11 (quoted below) and Matthew 7:15-23.  

How often do you find yourself in a situation where the words that you use do not accurately reflect the message that you are sending?  There are many times in our culture where I find that what we say is different than what we mean.

For instance, when someone begins a comment about someone by saying, “I love him to death”, you know that she is about to get really, really nasty.  “Ben?  I love him to death, you know that.  But that man is about as dumb as bag full of hammers.”  And when the comments are prefaced by “Bless his heart”, the result is the same.  “Dave?  Bless his heart, he is about the most boring person God ever put on this earth.”

Another place I see this phenomenon is when a friend of mine begins by saying, “Look, not to be racist, but…”  Because whenever I hear him say that, I know that I’m about to be subject to one of the most obviously racially-motivated speeches I’ve heard in a long time.  As if saying “I love him to death” or “bless his heart” or “not to be racist” gives me a pass to go ahead and be cruel or racist because you know that whatever I say is meant in love, no matter how mean it may be.

This morning we are going to take a look at a man whose spiritual-sounding speech hid a dangerous heart. We are returning to our study of the book of Judges – one of the most difficult parts of the Bible.  I’ll remind you that this book describes a specific time in the life of God’s people – they had just been freed from life in slavery in Egypt.  For generations, they had been oppressed and beaten down and subject to all manner of injustice, including infanticide.  They were released from that and led to “The Promised Land”, where they were told to search for and seek God’s best.  Like a number of Biblical scholars[2], I am suggesting that the story of Judges is the story of a people who are being invited to choose between two systems of living: a system of repression and violence and death, or a system of grace and forgiveness and life.  You’ll remember that one of the key verses in Judges is repeated several times: that “in those days there was no King in Israel, and everyone did as he pleased”.  In the first few months of our study I mentioned that it seems to be getting darker and colder as we go more deeply in.  That will get worse.

This morning, we meet Jephthah, a man from Gilead, who is above all else (at least when we meet him), a thug.

Jephthah was a strong soldier from Gilead. His father was named Gilead, and his mother was a prostitute. Gilead’s wife had several sons. When they grew up, they forced Jephthah to leave his home, saying to him, “You will not get any of our father’s property, because you are the son of another woman.” So Jephthah ran away from his brothers and lived in the land of Tob. There some worthless men began to follow him. (11:1-3, NCV)

It just so happens that the people of Israel are getting pushed around again, this time by the Ammonites.  And the leaders of Israel decide that maybe they need to go and find a thug to help them out.

After a time the Ammonites fought against Israel. When the Ammonites made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to Jephthah to bring him back from Tob. They said to him, “Come and lead our army so we can fight the Ammonites.”

But Jephthah said to them, “Didn’t you hate me? You forced me to leave my father’s house. Why are you coming to me now that you are in trouble?”

The elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “It is because of those troubles that we come to you now. Please come with us and fight against the Ammonites. You will be the ruler over everyone who lives in Gilead.”

Then Jephthah answered, “If you take me back to Gilead to fight the Ammonites and the Lord helps me win, I will be your ruler.”

The elders of Gilead said to him, “The Lord is listening to everything we are saying. We promise to do all that you tell us to do.” So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him their leader and commander of their army. Jephthah repeated all of his words in front of the Lord at Mizpah. (11:4-11 NCV)

Like left-handed Ehud or the Kenite Jael or the cowering Gideon, Jephthah is essentially an outsider – someone who is on the fringe of the society who is called upon to help restore order and peace.  And he has a promising start, in some regards.  Judges 11:12-29 reveals that in addition to being a gangster, Jephthah is a skilled negotiator and a student of history.  He even appears to have some theological depth.

And then something wonderful happens in verse 29:

Then the Spirit of the Lord entered Jephthah. Jephthah passed through Gilead and Manasseh and the city of Mizpah in Gilead to the land of the Ammonites. (11:29 NCV)

That is good! When the Spirit of the Lord comes on the one that you’re counting on to lead you, that’s a blessing.  But almost as quickly as this good thing happens, something terrible occurs in response:

Jephthah made a promise to the Lord, saying, “If you will hand over the Ammonites to me, I will give you as a burnt offering the first thing that comes out of my house to meet me when I return from the victory. It will be the Lord’s.” (11:30-31 NCV)

Oh no!  I’ve indicated that one of Jephthah’s strengths was that he was a skilled negotiator and diplomat.  Here, though, he makes the mistake of trusting too much in himself and doubting the Lord.  When the Spirit came on him, he could have, he should have known that God was going to give him the victory.  But instead of trusting in God, Jephthah wants to cut a deal with God.  He wants to tie God’s hands in this instance, and to somehow make sure that he earns the victory that he seeks.  “IF you do this, God, THEN I will do that… We are equals, right?  We are negotiating an agreement.” Do you see that Jephthah is seeking to manipulate the Almighty?  And do you see that the Lord does not make any response to this offer of Jephthah’s?

And we do this, don’t we?  We try to get on God’s good side in one way or another.  The other day I was telling my niece Amy that when I was a kid, I started drinking, not because I liked beer, but because I liked Marcia and I liked Joe, and they seemed to like me better when I drank.  So I drank.  And then I got it into my head that God would like me better if I didn’t drink. So I stopped drinking, because I wanted to make God like me more.

It took me a long, long time to learn that God already loved me like crazy, and that there was no way I was going to negotiate a better deal with him than the one he was freely giving me.   God is not interested in keeping score or negotiating packages.  God is intent on giving it away. I’m awfully glad I learned that!

Back to Jephthah.  After he makes this offer to which God does not respond, he leads the armies against the Ammonites.  Even though he is operating with a mindset of fear, control, and doubt, he is able to whip the oppressing army.

Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the Lord handed them over to him. In a great defeat Jephthah struck them down from the city of Aroer to the area of Minnith, and twenty cities as far as the city of Abel Keramim. So the Ammonites were defeated by the Israelites. (11:32-33 NCV)

All right!  We are heading in the right direction.  Time to go home and celebrate, right, Jephthah?

When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, his daughter was the first one to come out to meet him, playing a tambourine and dancing. She was his only child; he had no other sons or daughters. When Jephthah saw his daughter, he tore his clothes to show his sorrow. He said, “My daughter! You have made me so sad because I made a promise to the Lord, and I cannot break it!”

Then his daughter said, “Father, you made a promise to the Lord. So do to me just what you promised, because the Lord helped you defeat your enemies, the Ammonites.” She also said, “But let me do one thing. Let me be alone for two months to go to the mountains. Since I will never marry, let me and my friends go and cry together.”

Jephthah said, “Go.” So he sent her away for two months. She and her friends stayed in the mountains and cried for her because she would never marry. After two months she returned to her father, and Jephthah did to her what he had promised. Jephthah’s daughter never had a husband.

From this came a custom in Israel that every year the young women of Israel would go out for four days to remember the daughter of Jephthah from Gilead. (11:34-40 NCV)

Jephthah's Vow: The Return, Edwin Long (1885-86)

Jephthah’s Vow: The Return, Edwin Long (1885-86)

If Jephthah were as keen a student of history as he supposed he was, he would have known that since the days of Exodus, the way that we celebrated victory in our house was for the women to come out “with tambourines and dancing” (Exodus 15:20, see also I Samuel 18:6 and Psalm 149).  He has no right to be surprised when his daughter, who is evidently the leading female in his house, comes out to celebrate this victory.

But did you see what he did?  He blamed her!  “You have made me so sad…It’s YOUR fault!”  Jephthah tears his clothes and starts to cry about what he’s going to lose because of what his daughter did.  Seriously?

Do you see that Jephthah, his daughter, and the entire community behave as if what Jephthah has said is what matters the most here?  This is a sign of the fact that the community is getting further and further from God’s gracious intentions for life in the Land of Promise. God’s gift of a daughter?  Secondary.  God’s promise to deliver Israel?  Doesn’t count.  Jephthah has to be seen as the upright, proper person.  He has to be seen as the one who keeps up his end of the bargain he made with God – no matter that God never signed off on the deal.  The worst thing is not that Jephthah would murder his own daughter.  The worst thing in Jephthah’s world, apparently, is that he would be seen as going back on his word.

Look at what we have: a Judge of Israel who sounds like a worshiper of YHWH, who uses the right vocabulary, who asks for the blessing, and is even touched by the Spirit of God.

idol-molochBut this Judge of Israel behaves like a worshiper of the Canaanite God Molech.  Molech was one of the gods worshiped by the Canaanites and the Ammonites.  Molech is thought to be a “sun god” or a “fire god”, and the chief means of worshiping and appeasing his anger was to present live children to be passed through the flames in an act of sacrifice.

Jephthah talks about honor and gratitude, all right, but as he does so he is ignoring the specific commandments of Deuteronomy and Leviticus against human sacrifice.  In Leviticus 20, in particular, God says to Moses

Say to the people of Israel, Any man of the people of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn in Israel, who gives any of his children to Molech shall be put to death; the people of the land shall stone him with stones. (Lev. 20:2, RSV)

The Flight of Molech, William Blake (1809)

The Flight of Molech, William Blake (1809)

So Jephthah talks like a man of faith, but acts like an idol-worshiper.  Can you see why I titled this message “Text of Terror”?  Because this is a terrible – a terror-full – story!  The so-called “hero” is a man who is regarded as just, wise, and honorable for sounding like a religious person when in actuality he does the unthinkable and acts like a pagan!

That kind of a clash between what seems to be and what I want people to think was terrible 3000 years ago when this gangster threw his only child into the flames.

It was terrible 900 years ago when the leader of the Church of Jesus Christ said that it was the duty of Christians to go over to Jerusalem and massacre thousands of Jews and Moslems in the name of the Prince of Peace.

It was terrible 150 years ago when church leaders in the United States of America quoted the Bible in an effort to justify the chattel slavery and despicable treatment of Africans who had been brought to these shores.

In fact, I am here to suggest that it is terror-full whenever God’s people become so acclimated to some aspect of their culture that we can’t see how we have become that which we ought to resist.  Walk into the Christian bookstore this afternoon (it’s ok, you can go today – they’re evidently not troubled by the commandment inviting people to give their workers rest on the Sabbath…) and look in the finance section.  I’m not going to name any names, but I will guarantee you that you can find at least fifteen books by fifteen different Christian leaders who are all assuring you that God promises to make you rich and happy.

The Worship of Mammon, by Evelyn de Morgan (1909)

The Worship of Mammon, by Evelyn de Morgan (1909)

Folks, that’s not God.  That’s Mammon.  Jesus was homeless.  Most of his followers died broke and in prison.  If being rich and happy is a sign of faithful living, those guys were miserable failures.

But we live in a culture that worships money and security and fame and beauty – and so we look for ways to make it sound like the God we worship offers money and security and fame and beauty so that we can go ahead and chase those things while we continue to speak the language of faith.

This is a terror-full story.  I cannot explain it.  I cannot whitewash it.  I can only sit with it and the questions that it brings to me.

When Pastor Timothy Keller wrote about the story of Jephthah, he asked two very difficult questions.  Where are your blind spots?  How deeply are we affected by our culture?  It’s pretty easy for Pastor Dave, sitting in the study 3000 years after the fact, to point the finger at how scary the story of Jephthah is.  Where are we tempted to neglect the core values of the gospel in order to behave like the world around us?  How do we stay centered on the God who is, rather than the God that we imagine?  If we are intent on discovering an answer to that question, the only way that I can see is to join with other believers regularly and sit humbly with the Bible – to ask God to show us who God is, rather than to continue to worship the god that we wished liked us a little better.

And secondly, In what ways would I live differently – more radically, more restfully – if I really believed that God was completely committed to me?  If I really believed that God already loved me, and was already committed to my welfare?[3]

Friends, let us beware using our faith as a negotiating tool or as a weapon.  It is a gift.  You know – or you need to know – that you do not deserve what you have been given in the love of God the Father, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.  You don’t.  I don’t.  Get over that, and accept it for what it is – a gift.  Receive that gift with humility and gratitude.  And then let us live in such a way that will allow others to see that love, that grace, and that fellowship as real in their own lives, too.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.


[1] The title of this message is inspired by Phyllis Trible’s 1984 book Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives.  I have never read that book, but the title has struck me.

[2] J. Clinton McCann, for one, makes this point very well in his Interpretation Commentary on the Book of Judges (John Knox Press, 2002).

[3]  Timothy Keller, Judges for You (The Good Book Company, 2013) p. 120-121.

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