Only in the Twilight Zone of biblical times could one become a "hero of faith" by killing his daughter in order to keep a foolish oath. In our last trek through the Twilight Zone, we saw that vows were serious business in those days. None of the Israelite fathers, for example, felt free to give their daughters in marriage to the 600 males who had survived the massacre of the Benjamites, because "the men of Israel had sworn an oath at Mizpah, saying, `None of us shall give his daughter to Benjamin as a wife'" (Judges ). In the law of Moses, it was written, "When you make a vow to Yahweh your God, you shall not delay to pay it; for Yahweh your God will surely require it of you, and it would be sin to you. ... That which has gone from your lips you shall keep and perform, for you voluntarily vowed to Yahweh your God what you have promised with your mouth" (Deut. ,23).
Faithfulness to one's word is certainly an admirable trait, but in the Twilight Zone of biblical times loyalty was sometimes carried to extremes. In the case of the Benjamite massacre, for example, even when the Israelites realized they had sworn an oath in haste that would result in the extinction of one of their tribes, they felt duty bound to honor their vow. So, as we noticed on our last journey, they had to rationalize their way out of the problem by letting the Benjamites abduct Israelite women so that they could have brides who had not been "given" to them. Thus, the problem was solved, while at least the letter of the oath had been respected.
The most extreme example of oath-keeping recorded in the Bible is the case of Jephthah, an Israelite judge whose ill-conceived oath led him to sacrifice his only child as a burnt offering to Yahweh. The story is recorded in Judges -40. During a territorial dispute with the Ammonites, Jephthah made a vow to Yahweh prior to battle: "If You will indeed deliver the people of Ammon into my hands, then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the People of Ammon, shall surely be Yahweh's, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering" (vs:30-31). Needless to say, with Yahweh on his side, Jephthah defeated the Ammonites "with a very great slaughter" (v:33). Of course, it just couldn't have been a Yahwistic victory without a "very great slaughter."
On his return home, however, Jephthah was greeted at his house by his daughter who came out to meet him "with timbrels and dancing" (v:34). When Jephthah saw her, he tore his clothes and cried out in anguish, "Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low! You are among those who trouble me! For I have given my word to Yahweh, and I cannot go back on it" (v:36). Well, pardon me for not having a lot of sympathy for Jephthah, but didn't this guy realize when he made his oath that something like this could easily happen? True, archaeological evidence indicates that Israelites had quarters for livestock in their houses, but I would think that even a nincompoop would have known that his daughter or wife could be the first to come out the door when he returned home.
So surely Jephthah reconsidered and said, "Well, let's face it; I made a stupid oath, and there's no way I can fulfill it." If this is what you're thinking, then think again, and try to remember that these are stories from the Twilight Zone of biblical times. As noted above, Jephthah wailed to his daughter, "I have given my word to Yahweh, and I cannot go back on it." Well, then, surely the daughter said, "Forget it, Pop; I'm not going to fry for some crazy oath you swore." No, no, no, a hundred times no. This is the Twilight Zone we're talking about. Remember? When Jephthah's daughter heard his plaint, she said, "My father, if you have given your word to Yahweh, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, because Yahweh has avenged you of your enemies, the people of Ammon." Gee, and some of us have trouble just getting our daughters to respect curfews and other simple rules.
To make a long story short, Jephthah's daughter asked her father to wait two months so that she could "wander on the mountains and bewail [her] virginity" (v:37). Permission was granted (so this guy Jephthah was really a decent fellow), "and it was so at the end of two months that she returned to her father, and he carried out his vow with her which he had vowed" (v:39). So great was Jephthah's deed in the Twilight-Zone minds of biblical writers that he was listed as a hero of faith in Hebrews , along with such notables as Abraham, Noah, Enoch, Joseph, Sampson, Samuel, and David.
Now, as shocking as this story is to modern readers, its whole purpose was to depict Jephthah as a man who deemed service to God more important than everything else, even close family relationships. If that seems hard for you to grasp, you just don't realize that killing one's daughter and sacrificing her as a burnt offering to Yahweh wouldn't have been the least bit shocking to Twilight-Zone minds. After all, these were people who considered Abraham a great example of faith because he had been willing to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice to Yahweh (Gen. -14). They thought this way because they lived in times when sacrificing children and babies to the gods was routinely done (see 2 Kings ; ; Psalm 106:37-38; Deut. 32:17). What better way, then, to depict Jephthah's great faith than to present him as a man who considered his vow to Yahweh more important than love for his daughter?
Well, fortunately, we are more civilized now, and people no longer have such barbaric ideas. Is that what you're thinking? Then stop for just a moment and think about how many sermons will be preached next Sunday about the great love that God showed for humanity by letting his son be nailed to a piece of wood to die an agonizing death for the "sins" of the world. Sometimes Twilight-Zone thinking trickles down to these more civilized times.