Reflection for Today ▶️ ⏩ ⏹️
Jephthah's daughter, coming to meet her father. Wood engraving after Gustave Dor.
And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the Lord, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands, Then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord's, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.
— Judges 11:30-31
Jephthah makes a bargain with God, with the best of intentions: to ensure victory over the invading people of Ammon. On his return from the battle, victorious, the one that comes forth from Jephthah's door to meet him is his daughter, his only child. In grief he carries out his vow to God, his daughter a willing participant. This story stands in stark contrast to that of Abraham and Isaac.1 In the former story we learn that child sacrifice is abhorrent to God, and is subsequently banned in Mosaic Law. Isaac lives. This latter story is set at a time when God's laws are being flouted every which way, and it seems likely that the people did not even know the practice was disallowed, caught up as they were in the more barbaric traditions, and the Baal worship of the Canaanites. One may even wonder to which god Jephthah made his vow.
As shocking as the outcome was, the one thing we can stand in awe of is that Jephthah was true to his word. He made a bargain with (some) God, and when his condition had been met (death of the Ammonites) he felt duty-bound to meet his promise. How often today do people make vows to God in moments of desperation, and then renege on the promise once the desperation has passed? Too often, I would guess. It is easy to make a promise, so much harder to keep it. As François de La Rochefoucauld noted, "our promises are made in hope and kept in fear".2
Broken promises abound in both literature and reality. Salesmen make us promises of benefits never realised. Marriage vows are torn asunder at the first sign of difficulty. Presidents are elected on promises they subsequently fail to keep—and we barely notice, so accustomed are we to the practice. As barbaric as Jephthah undoubtably was, he at least had integrity, something sorely lacking in modern times, especially when it comes to honouring our side of an agreement. Too often I have said to my children, "not now, I'll do it later" and then not done so, finding one excuse or another to justify my change of plan. Small things, perhaps, but if a moral law is to stand it must apply to all situations. The smallness of my broken promise does not make it less of a sin, and while I commit such breaches I have no right to stand in judgment of those who break their promises to me—including world leaders. The words of Jesus come to mind, Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.3
1 I wrote about this episode in reflection 14, Parent
2 The Maximes of François VI, Duke de La Rochefoucauld, 1665
3 Matthew 7:5