This morning I was reading through Judges. I recently started reading in Genesis and have hoped to read all the way through to Revelation in this manner, so now I find myself in this book.
I was reading the story of Jephthah in Judges 11:29-40,
And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” (Judges 11:30, English Standard Version)
I know we could go into a whole theological treaty about the value of words and so on in that culture, and if he really sacrificed her or just consecrated her life to the Lord, since the text doesn’t actually clearly mention that he killed her or had her killed (see verse 39, for why I reach that conclusion).
What struck me is that even though Jephthah had the Spirit of God on him, it doesn’t mean what he did (the vow) was inspired by God! At least I’d hope in the Lord that no Christian living with the Holy Spirit in them or who actually has a relationship with Christ would read this passage thinking Jephthah did the right thing!
But you may be thinking, Steve, it says in verse 29 that
Then the Spirit of the LORD was upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh and passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites.
And I’d point out to you that the Spirit of the Lord enabled him to do what He asked of the Lord, but does not have any bearing on the vow made. Check out how this apologetics website puts it:
As we can see from these passages, what action or saying is inspired by the Spirit of the Lord is detailed immediately after it is said who the Spirit came upon. Therefore, if the Spirit of the Lord inspired Jephthah to do anything at all, it was to go traveling around recruiting his army and go to war with the Ammonites. The fact that the vow is reported separately indicates that it was not something done under the Spirit of the Lord at all.1
My definition of religion being the man-made actions, the legalisms and things we ourselves come up with and assume God will be pleased with leads me to say, yet again, religion kills. The reason I say that in this context of our passage is because later on in the New Testament Jesus has told us:
But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil. (Matthew 5:34-37, ESV, emphasis mine)
Oftentimes in our immaturity and/or insecurity, we think we need to tack on a formula of “Lord, if you do this for me, I’ll do this in return” when God never requires this of us. In fact, an e-mail from an author I’ve been in touch with reminded me that along with this Scripture, oath taking like this is from evil.
It’s made all the more obvious by this passage; the fruit of it was ultimately that a daughter was killed in order for the oath to be kept.
Jesus Christ and the Spirit of grace brings life, and life more abundantly.
The devil is behind the spirit of religion. God is not the author of such wickedness that would kill a family member in order to fulfill the self-made vow. As Dave Edwards and myself discuss in a yet to be posted podcast (edit: the episode, Keeping Ourselves From Idols), the devil knows how to use well-intending motives and twist them with additions onto the Scriptures, and convince us we’re doing the right thing. But we’re spreading death, not life. We’re adding TO and not obeying the straightforward Gospel as it is.
“All said and done, my friends, it will be an ill day for us if what most humans mean by “religion” ever vanishes from the Earth. It can still send us the truly delicious sins. The fine flower of unholiness can grow only in the close neighborhood of the Holy. Nowhere do we tempt so successfully as on the very step of the altar.”2
I quote this brief quote from Screwtape Proposes a Toast (the sequel/follow-up that C.S. Lewis wrote to The Screwtape Letters) because in the Screwtape books, the characters, devils, were attempting to get “The Patient”, a Christian, to backslide away from the faith. It’s been years since I’ve read it, so I have to read reviews to remind myself the exact content, but, in it the older devil instructs the junior tempter not to focus on trying to get the target to fall into outright rebellion because that won’t work. Instead he tells him to try just getting him to pervert and corrupt the actual Gospel so the believer will think he’s doing the right thing.
In the movie Inception, the main characters are hired to go into the dream world or subconscious of a business competitor that hires these guys to implant an idea in the former’s head. The intention of planting the idea, ‘inception’, is that this man will think he’s doing the right thing. But actually, through his machinations — which were planted in his subconscious by the main characters — will cause his dying father’s business to actually fall apart from the inside.
While the characters are sitting around discussing how they’ll do this, one of them points out that they need to exploit and manipulate the victim’s desire to please his demanding father because, as one character says something like “it’s easier to manipulate a positive emotional response than it is to manipulate a rebellious one” or something like that.
In Stevie B language, it’s a lot easier to commit sin thinking we’re doing the right thing, than to be tempted to outright rebel against God. That is where such oaths originate, and they are just as insidious as blatant evil with horns and a pitchfork.
This is the same spirit that challenged Eve in the Garden of Eden suggesting that she would not die if she ate the fruit, but seeing that it was good is what motivated her to partake of it for “the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Gen 3:6). It was in a misguided attempt to follow God her own way, with the help of suggestions from the evil one, who had NO interest of hers in mind other than destruction, for “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10).3 When Jesus Christ is in the Author of your “yes”, it will not result in destroyed relationships — at least by you for the sake of keeping an oath. Jephthah’s misguided vow no doubt was rooted in good intentions, but as the old adage goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
The spirit of religion usually spreads death and destruction like this, and we’re told to just let our yes be yes and our “no” be “no”, for there can be destructive and even tragic consequences from anything else. Whenever we put such oaths and structures ahead of relationships, it inevitably will result in the loss of the relationship every time.
Dear friends, let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no”. Anything more is evil.