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Friday, August 5, 2016

Jephthah: Nothing Pious Here (Sunday School)

Judges is a wonderful saga of the (sad) ongoing deterioration of the tribal confederacy in covenant with YHWH.. Jephthah is the penultimate story (the next three judges are mentioned by name but with little narrative) leading to Samson. This long narrative includes features found in previous stories and there is far too much here for us to lay out in a limited setting.The narrative picks up from the "mixed" saga of Gideon/Jerubaal. The previous post explains the problems of Gideon and his struggles to be who he should and do what he should. His offspring by a harlot is a bridge to Jephthah and the fickle Israelites (they forget Gideon, they reject Jephthah only to turn to him in a time of need).

The needs of community differ in times of peace and times of conflict. Jephthah is a mighty warrior. An outsider to his family, the legitimate heirs cast him out. One can easily make sense of the man in the face of his dire circumstances. A strong man, he fights back, and it is probable a lesser man would have perished. He gathers around himself some "worthless" men. The Hebrew word rak (sounds like 'rake' in English) occurs 14x in the Tanak (Jewish Bible) and three times in Judges. It can mean empty, as it does in 7:16 referring to the empty jars carried by the 300. It can also mean vain, idle, worthless as in 9:4 where Abimelech (Gideon's son by a harlot) gathers a similar group of men around himself. From faithful to worthless to alone (Samson), the decline of Israel is on full display.

The corrupt crew are approached by the elders of Gilead (tribe of Manasseh). The corruption of "polite society" is on full display. Reputable folks are willing to lower their standards if the times are pressing. "So I am not good enough to live among you, but fine as a savior," Jephthah implies by his response. Rather than fulfill the role for God's glory, Jephthah negotiates a deal. If victorious he will become chieftain. The deal secure he proceeds, and by "the spirit of God" Jephthah is successful. However, before he leaves he makes a brash oath, promising to make a human sacrifice of the first person out his front door if he returns victorious.

Human sacrifice is the foulest of pagan practices. Here we see the sins of the land bubbling up amongst the Chosen People who are sworn to be holy. In every age it is our challenge to rise above human culture and live as God's People. Yet all of us make Jephthah errors (and a covenant with the devil) in pursuit of our own aims. Jephthah is a reminder of our own "deals" with spiritual forces for lack of trust in God. Many religious practices are motivated by the desire for security. We make promises we should not keep in an effort to control our destiny and secure our "success."

Jephthah learns the cost of his word when his only daughter happily bounds out the door to celebrate her father's victory. His words, "daughter you have brought me very low," seem to place the blame on her. However, for these people who take words seriously, a vow is a vow, so she must die. The young girl, no doubt a model of virtue in her ancient context, accepts her fate on condition that she be allowed to mourn her virginity. In other words, the lost promise of her young life.

Since ancient times some interpreters have posited that the phrasing "she never knew a man" meant that he consecrated her to celibacy (rather than kill her). This is a horrible crime and one hopes he did not follow through on the sacrifice.  At any rate, the tragedy is even more horrible to our contemporary sensibilities. It is a reminder that pious practices are not meant to manipulate our Heavenly Father YHWH, and too often we make a deal with the devil unknowingly. The otherwise unmentioned practice in Israel of lamenting the daughter of Jephthah (another nameless person) reminds us how little we really know about the daily life of this ancient people. We too gather to remember the victims of senseless violence. Our roadside shrines and memorials are the human response to the harsh reality of death. As we ponder the loss of young life, children cut down on the brink of adulthood, we are confronted with the lone remedy: Jesus

It is fitting that the gospel passage, Mark 4:35-41, is the historical//symbolic story of Jesus asleep in the boat during a storm. If Jephthah's daughter is an example of the storms which chill us to the bone, Jesus' question to the apostles' panic is the fundamental question of our life. "Where is your faith?"

'Where' can be read as "where do you put your faith?" it can also simply mean, "do you have any?" It is easy for some to despair in the face of our current presidential options. Were these people, who are apparently viewed as untrustworthy by so many (according to the polls), chosen because we think they can do what we want to get what we want? Is Jephthah lurking, ready to rise to power? Whom do we trust on this earthly pilgrimage in the face of all manner of storms. Do we turn to the mighty warrior Jephthah and his worthless gang, or do we cry out to Jesus? If Jephthah is not pious (godly) perhaps we can choose to be (and are chosen by Him to be). I think of those ancient Gileadites and the worried apostles and see myself. I pray mercy. Save us Jesus! God raises up fallible humans in every age to save His people, but we know there is only One, Jesus the Lord, Who is the True Messiah Savior.

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