By The Rev. A. Katherine Grieb, Ph.D.
By now the literary structure of Judges is clear: minor characters like Tola and Jair the Gileadite (at the beginning of chapter 10) and Izban of Bethlehem, Elon the Zebulunite, and Abdon son of Hillel (at the end of chapter 12), serve as judges of Israel without major incident. But after the repeated refrain, “the Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (see 10:6, 13:1), we hear how God gave the people into the hands of a foreign power – the Ammonites in Judges 10-11 – and for awhile Israel was cruelly oppressed until God raised up someone to deliver them. Here it is Jephthah, a son of Gilead who was driven out by Gilead’s other sons, a good thing for him, since they were all slaughtered by Abimelech (9:5).
Now, in the time of Israel’s danger at the hands of the Ammonites, the elders of Gilead are eager to patch things up with Jephthah: they promise that if he rescues them from the Ammonites, he will rule over them. In chapter 11, we have a lengthy account of the diplomatic arguments Jephthah attempts with the Ammonites, but when diplomacy fails, Jephthah prepares for war. The narrator tells us that the Spirit of the Lord fell on Jephthah as he traveled towards the battle. We are also told that Jephthah made a vow – a vow so foolish that it has prompted generations of Jewish and Christian sages to wonder whether he should have broken it. He vowed that if God gave the Ammonites into his hand, he would sacrifice whatever or whoever first greeted him upon his return home. God gave him the victory and returning home, his little daughter, his only child, came dancing out to greet him. We hear how she prepares for death and is duly sacrificed to fulfill his foolish vow. We are also told that every year afterwards the daughters of Israel mourned her.
Psalm 76 praises the God of Israel who puts an end to war and dwells in Jerusalem, the city of peace. The “human wrath” that serves only to praise God in verse 10 may refer to Israel’s enemies, but it is unlikely that the sentence, “make vows to the LORD your God and perform them,” (verse 11) refers to vows like Jephthah’s, because God is described as the One who rises up in judgment “to save all the oppressed from the earth” (verse 9), which surely includes young children like Jephthah’s daughter.
In John 10, Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd who watches over the sheep and protects them from wolves and thieves. Unlike the hired hand who does not care and runs away, the good shepherd lays his life down for his sheep. He knows them all and calls them by name. We are reminded of this passage later in John 20 when Jesus calls Mary Magdalene by name. It is only then that she recognizes the risen Lord and greets him joyfully.
When, if ever, is it right to break a vow made to God or to others in the presence of God? (this question arises even for vows that were not made foolishly, such as marriage vows or vows taken by those in religious orders.) What is your first memory of Jesus the Good Shepherd? How has he called you by your name? In what ways has God shepherded you through difficulties or dangers?
Dear Lord, watch over us now as you have watched over us in the past. Keep us safe from all harm and bring us safely to places of rest and refreshment. Watch especially over the children of the world, who are so often sacrificed to human greed, ambition, and violence. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr. A. Katherine Grieb has taught New Testament at Virginia Theological Seminary since 1994.