Jephthah, a military leader, pledged that if God gave him victory, he would sacrifice as a burnt offering the first thing to come out of his house when he returned home. The Ammonites, a neighboring nation to Israel, had invaded. Jephthah’s half-brothers had driven him into exile years earlier after their (and his) father die. Jephthah then distinguished himself as a master in asymmetric war; the mighty warrior led a group of adventurers in guerrilla combat. Ammon’s invasion exposed Israel’s lack of military leadership. So the regional elders of Jephthah’s region sought him out to remedy the leadership deficit. After bartering a promise of recognition as their leader in exchange for his leading them into war, Jephthah launched his attack In an enigmatic expression, Judges 11:11 says that “he repeated all his words before the Lord at Mizpah.” I infer that the warrior “called for fire” to God before entering the fray.
Jephthah attempts to negotiate with the enemy and notes the Lord’s giving of the land to Israel in the process. He reveals his perception of the Lord as a national god when he asks the Ammonites “Will you not take what your god Chemosh gives you?” (11:24). While some might perceive this as evidence of an early stage in the evolution of Israel’s perception of God, I would counter that even today many followers of God have imperfect ideas about God and Christ.
Jephthah’s next prayer/and vow discloses the bargaining concept employed earlier in the Bible by Jacob. The warrior judge prays, “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph the Ammonites will be the Lord’s and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering” (11:30-31). Just what Jephthah envisioned when he prayed these words remains a mystery. However, I believe that the text makes it clear that he did not think that his only child, his daughter, would come dancing out of the house when he returned. That is what happened after Jephthah’s decisive military victory. Scholars debate whether Israelite Jephthah actually sacrificed his daughter. Her request for a reprieve of two months to mourn with her friends suggests that he would. We have already seen that Jephthah’s concept of God was not entirely orthodox.
Jephthah’s dramatic prayer of bargain carried implications that he had not imagined. The saying, “be careful what you ask for” certainly applied to Jephthah. He would have benefited from the then unwritten and unspoken words of Ecclesiastes 5:2, “Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.” Ecclesiastes 5 continues on to detail why it would be a mistake to make a vow to God and not fulfill it. Our focus as we contemplate Jephthah’s prayer is his bargaining with God. We learn from Jephthah’s horror when he learns the implications of what he had promised that we should identify our targets carefully when we call for fire in prayer, especially when we ask God to choose a specific course of action. Just as soldiers must take care to give correct locations for their proposed targets, so we too should pray with specificity and with care as to what we desire.