This is one of the strangest and most troubling stories in the Bible. Not surprisingly, it is not one on which you are likely to hear many sermons. Before we get into the story itself, though, let’s set the stage a bit. This story comes during a time in Israel’s history known as the time of the Judges. Israel has settled the promised land, but has done so in a way that leaves the twelve tribes somewhat far-flung and disconnected. There is no charismatic leader like Moses or Joshua. There is no central authority at all. There is also no central religious authority, and no universally accepted scriptures. Jerusalem will not come to prominence until King David, and the Temple will not be built until the time of King Solomon.
This means that each tribe governs itself and worships in the way that seems best to them. Only during times of great crisis do the tribes ever work together for a common goal – usually the defeat of a common enemy. During such times, a leader would emerge – known as a Judge – but then would fade from the scene once the crisis was over.
Jephthah was such a leader. From the tribe of Gilead, Jephthah was sought out because of his military skills and the fact that he had his own army. As we read, he defeated the Ammonites, but in the process made a rash and unnecessary vow to the Lord – unnecessary because the text says that the Spirit of the Lord was already upon him… usually a sign that victory is guaranteed. Nevertheless, he vows to offer as a burnt offering the first thing he sees upon his return home. Much to his horror, the first thing he sees is his young daughter coming out to meet him and celebrating his victory.
Here is a depiction of that meeting. You can see the horror on Jephthah’s face as he tries to turn his head, but he has already seen what he has seen.
Again, in this picture, he does not turn his head, but his hand is raised as if to ward off what he has seen… and again you see the look of shock on his face. His daughter is depicted as much older than she probably was. In all likelihood, she was no more than 10 or 11.
Jephthah feels there is nothing he can do, and his daughter knows there is nothing she can do. She accepts her fate and asks only for two months to “mourn her virginity” with her friends. Here is a depiction of her with her friends… and finally, a depiction of the sacrifice itself.
Now, many scholars feel that this sacrifice was not a literal human sacrifice. For one thing, human sacrifice was expressly forbidden in Israel. They feel that the sacrifice was more symbolic – meaning that she was offered to the Lord’s service. This was not unheard of… in fact every first-born child was considered to belong to the Lord. This, though, would still be a family tragedy, for she would lead a celibate life, and Jephthah’s line would end with her.
That interpretation certainly makes the story more palatable, but others point out that the vow was expressly to make a burnt offering – kind of hard to ignore that. Also, during this time, with no central religious authority or generally accepted religious practices, some tribes tended to borrow practices from the surrounding culture. If the story means to depict an actual human sacrifice as the result of a vow made to the Lord, it becomes a most troubling story indeed.
And the question becomes: Why is this story in the Bible? Is it there simply to report what happened? Does it intend to teach a lesson, such as the danger of making deals with God? Or is it there for some other reason?
I think the ending suggests a possible answer: “From this comes the Israelite custom that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite” (Judges 11:39c-40). Whatever happened with Jephthah and his daughter, we all know that life can be, and often is, terribly unfair. And I can think of no circumstance that is more unfair and more horrific than the death of a child. What can any of us do in the face of such an abomination? We can blame God, of course. We can demand to know why. But none of that really helps. What does help, and what is sometimes the best we can do, is to remember.
Here in Washington, we understand the value of remembering. We remember the great…
and we remember the tragic….
We remember the heroic…
and we remember those who sacrificed everything….
We even remember the unknown.
And we remember those we loved and who loved us.
This is the grave of a young boy who was part of our church family for all of his short life. Thomas Blair Belaga. There are the dates of birth and death: June 20, 1988 and June 18, 1993. As you can see, he died two day short of his 5th birthday. Below that is written: “You moved among us like a song.”
Many of you remember Tommy quite well. Others never knew him, but the name may be familiar to you. That’s probably because you’ve seen it here: on the plaque in the north entrance.
The cross and flame on the side of the building was given in his memory.
This is Tommy, or Thomas, as his mother calls him. Look at that smile. Tommy was born without a pulmonary artery. You just can’t live without a pulmonary artery. If you look closely, you can see the scar on his chest, from a number of surgeries that tried to save his life. But I want you to notice his slippers – yellow and black stripes, like a bumble bee. His mother used to call him her little bumble bee, because bumble bees aren’t supposed to be able to fly, but they do. It was originally thought that he would only live a few weeks, but he lived for five years.
Here’s Tommy with his older brother Derek… typical brothers here. Derek is now 22 and an accomplished cellist at Indiana University.
And here are the three boys: Tommy on the right, Derek in the center, and the youngest, Patrick – now 17 – on the left.
I told you he died two days before his fifth birthday, but he got to celebrate it anyway. He was going to Boston for yet another surgery, so they celebrated early.
Tommy was a musician, too. At the last recital he played, he and a 16 year old, who went on to play professionally, were the only two who received a standing ovation.
Tommy also sang in our Cherub Choir. On the plaque here it says, “An angel has passed among us.” One of the memories his mother treasures is of a time when the Cherub Choir was supposed to sing in the service. The choir gathered in the front, but there was no Tommy. It turned out Tommy had some trouble getting into his white robe. Just then, he came running down the center aisle, robe flapping behind him and waving his arms, saying: “Look mommy, I’m an angel!”
This picture was taken the day Tommy died. As you can see, he’s in the hospital. The surgery everyone hoped would save him didn’t. And so, Tommy really did become an angel.
Let me tell you one more memory Tommy’s mother treasures. In March before Tommy died in June, a good friend and neighbor suddenly died of a heart attack. The kids all loved this man, and their mother, Debbie, had to tell them about what had happened to him. Derek and Patrick were very sad and crying. Who wouldn’t? A good friend had been suddenly taken from them. Tommy, though, had a different reaction. He got excited. He exclaimed, “You mean he went to visit God?” Tommy was not sad, he was energized. He was jumping up and down, and just delighted.
Those who knew him are quick to say that, indeed, Tommy was an angel; that Tommy was sent to his family and to Andrew Chapel by God. How could we not be grateful for such a gift?
I don’t know what really happened to Jephthah’s daughter. Did she die, or did she simply go to a life of celibacy? But I know what happened to Tommy. And I think the story of Jephthah’s daughter is in the Bible to make us ask the same questions the death of any child makes us ask: Why? How could this be? Where is God? I think the story is in the Bible to make us angry, and to make us feel helpless. And ultimately, I think this story is in the Bible to make us realize that, sometimes, the best we can do is to remember. And in remembering, help us to see that there really is healing; and that in remembering, what we end up feeling is enormous gratitude.