Sunday, August 6, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "The Sacrifice: Jephthah's Daughter"

Judges 11:34-40 

When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. 35 When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break.” 36 “My father,” she replied, “you have given your word to the Lord. Do to me just as you promised, now that the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites. 37 But grant me this one request,” she said. “Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.” 38 “You may go,” he said. And he let her go for two months. She and her friends went into the hills and wept because she would never marry. 39 After the two months, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin. From this comes the Israelite tradition 40 that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite. (Common English Bible)

“The Sacrifice: Jephthah’s Daughter,” Judges 11:34-40

“Heroes, not Kings: The Days of Israel’s Judges,” Week Five

I remember seeing the retired general standing behind the podium speaking to a packed audience at my undergraduate alma mater. I was sitting too far away to see him well aside from his shock of white hair and moustache, but his voice was still clear as he recounted to us the humanitarian horrors that he had witnessed—and fought to prevent—during the Rwandan Genocide of the mid-1990s, after we had said “never again” to the genocides of the Ottoman Empire and Nazi Germany and Pol Pot’s Cambodia but apparently still didn’t mean it when we said it.

Romeo Dallaire, as a general in both the Canadian army and the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, was deployed to facilitate peace between the warring Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, but when the Hutus began a genocide of the Tutsis, so much of his effort was dedicating to protecting the Tutsis from eradication, and it is estimated that his leadership and actions saved the lives of at least 30,000 people.

Dallaire’s life as a soldier and peacekeeper left him with post-traumatic stress disorder, and in 2000—the same year he retired from the military—he attempted suicide by drug overdose. He was left in a coma, but thankfully survived. Now, in addition to lecturing and serving in the Canadian government, he heads up efforts in Africa to end humanitarian abuses like the exploitation of children as soldiers—a sacrifice of our youth so blatantly morally bankrupt that it is to our eternal discredit that such practices continue, not just in Africa but also in Syria, as you may remember that we noted a couple of weeks ago in the sermon about Deborah.

Yet continue they do, and in truth, our tendency to sacrifice our children to the very worst versions of ourselves has long been a part of humanity’s story, including going all the way back over 3,100 years in history to the role of Jephthah as judge of Israel, and the fate of his tragic heroine daughter.

This is a new sermon series for the season of summer, and it reflects in part my desire to proffer a balanced spiritual diet of sorts in my preaching. We have just spent two full months in the New Testament for Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost, so it’s high time to slip into some Hebrew Bible Scripture, and for me there are few stories more compelling anywhere—not just in Scripture—than the stories of Israel’s judges.

The term “judge” is a bit of a misnomer to us now in the Biblical sense. In our government, judges are the black-robed guardians of justice who sit from on high and issue opinions and decrees that interpret the law in such a way as to protect and uphold the United States Constitution. My dad quite enjoys his gig doing exactly that as a judge on the Court of Appeals of the state of Kansas.

But “judge” in the Hebrew Bible sense refers to a very different sort of role: that of a unifying figure who arises as a result of popular acclamation to unite the otherwise disparate twelve tribes of Israel temporarily into one nation to face down an external threat (typically, a neighboring nation of people), and who may serve as judge for life, but who does not necessarily have an automatic heir and thus is unable to turn their rule as judge into a dynasty of kings. Hence, the title of this sermon series: “Heroes, not Kings.”

We began this series with the story of the left-handed assassin Ehud, and we continued the series with the female judge Deborah and her aide-de-camp Barak. Then we got to hear from one of the most complicated figures in the book of Judges—Gideon—and last week, we arrived at a judge who, unlike the first three, does not end up with any sort of good press from the Bible: Abimelech. We now come to a judge who, like his predecessors, is a successful military leader, but whose impetuousness with what matters most to him—his family—prevents him from being the true protagonist of this story: Jephthah.

The true protagonist, instead, is Jephthah’s daughter, who tragically acquiesces to being sacrificed to uphold his father’s bargain that he clearly thought would have involved an animal, not a human. Whether that sacrifice actually involved killing his daughter—like Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac in Genesis—has been up for debate, even though Jephthah’s bargain earlier in the chapter pretty clearly specifies a burnt offering.

Some traditional Jewish sources say that Jephthah was giving his daughter over to a life of service to God, and so she wouldn’t have been able to have children or a husband. Additionally, Levitical law explicitly prohibits the practice of child sacrifice, which is referred to in Leviticus 20 as Molech worship, and is in fact, according to the book, a capital crime. It would not be an unreasonable interpretation, if Jephthah indeed offered his daughter as a burnt sacrifice, to conclude that Leviticus actually demands Jephthah’s own execution for it, so why Jephthah would risk that is unusual.

Regardless, Jephthah is, like his daughter, a tragic figure—he tears his clothes in grief when he realizes that it is she he has promised to sacrifice—but he is no hero here. He accepts no blame, no culpability. He binds her to her fate because he cannot take back a promise made to God.

Jephthah makes the critical, heartbreaking, and utterly bloodless mistake of seeing God purely as a legal figure, when, even so early in Scripture, God has been free with divine mercy. Cain was spared after murdering his brother Abel. Aaron and Miriam were spared after inciting a mutiny against Moses. And the Israelites themselves were (mostly) spared after persuading Aaron into fashioning for them that golden calf and then worshiping it.

Yet Jephthah does not even think to throw himself upon the mercy of God. It just does not occur to him in this story. His daughter may acquiesce and repeat his reasons back to him, but he does not frame this as though either he or she has any say in the matter.

And honestly, I’ve heard that sort of framing before from older generations to younger generations. I hear it all the time, sometimes in the form of manifestly unhelpful advice. “That’s not how the world works.” Okay, but isn’t the point of the church to change the world? “We haven’t ever done it this way.” Okay, that’s not a reason for not trying it a different way, though.

Can you see the inflexibility of Jephthah, faced with the prospect of not just admitting his mistake but interceding with God on behalf of his daughter, to try to save her from his own short-sightedness, in the inflexibility and even dismissiveness with which we sometimes treat one another?

The ways in which we sacrifice our younger generations are profound, and in stories like Jephthah’s, or like what General Dallaire saw in Africa—and is now trying to prevent in Africa—may seem extreme, but they are still prevalent. Even conservative estimates place the number of children trafficked within the United States at the hundreds of thousands, and if you don’t think it is a concern here in southwest Washington, I am here to tell you that it absolutely is.

These ways in which we fail our youth and sacrifice them to our own worst impulses are, at their core, a form of latter-day Molech worship.

Offering our future generations to Molech may have been banned in Scripture, but it didn’t keep Jephthah from believing that is somehow what God required of him, it hasn’t kept criminals and warlords from around the world believing in it either, and it hasn’t kept us from pushing away youth from our own doorstep when it has graced us with its presence. And so we, like Jephthah, end up sacrificing our young ones to Molech after convincing ourselves that we are doing so in the name of God.

When we do and say things to make the young families who visit us, even join us and long to become active in the mission of the church with us, feel unwanted, unwelcome, and uncomfortable, we too are saying, like Jephthah, that it is better to give up the next generation than to come to grips with our own impulses to focus on ourselves, as Jephthah does in focusing on the ill-advised bargain he struck.

Jephthah is not the moral example in this story.

His daughter is.

Or, at least, she is the closest there is to one.

Even though she, like many other female Biblical figures, is utterly nameless, her only identifier being her kinship with a man who would sacrifice her, she is the closest we have to a hero here.

Far better for us as Christians to embody the selflessness and vulnerability of the daughter whose name we do not even know than to embody the self-centeredness of Jephthah, who puts his own standing before God before that of his daughter.

And far better for us as the church to mourn what we may lose in that selflessness and vulnerability, than to try to push away others from that which was never entirely ours to begin with.

The body of Christ stands poised to move into the future. And our children are watching.

In what manner will we choose to rise to meet their gaze? And in what way will we determine to ensure that another person might experience God in the same manner that we too have experienced the mercy of God that Jephthah so desperately needs, but cannot bring himself to ask for?

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
August 6, 2017

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