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Monday, 27 January 2014

Epiphany I 2014: Jepthah's Vow

This image is "Jephtha's Rash Vow", by James Gundee & M. Jones, London. Published January 20, 1807. 

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. So Jephthah passed over unto the children of Ammon to fight against them; and the Lord delivered them into his hands. And he smote them from Aroer, even till thou come to Minnith, even twenty cities, and unto the plain of the vineyards, with a very great slaughter. Thus the children of Ammon were subdued before the children of Israel. And Jephthah came to Mizpeh unto his house, and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances: and she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter. And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he rent his clothes, and said, Alas, my daughter! thou hast brought me very low, and thou art one of them that trouble me: for I have opened my mouth unto the Lord, and I cannot go back. And she said unto him, My father, if thou hast opened thy mouth unto the Lord, do to me according to that which hath proceeded out of thy mouth; forasmuch as the Lord hath taken vengeance for thee of thine enemies, even of the children of Ammon. And she said unto her father, Let this thing be done for me: let me alone two months, that I may go up and down upon the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my fellows. And he said, Go. And he sent her away for two months: and she went with her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains. And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she knew no man. (Judges 11:30-40)
"I have given my word to the Lord, and I cannot go back on it"


Difficult passage. Does God want human sacrifice? 
If not, does God demand sinful vows be fulfilled anyway? 
No and no. Law of Moses forbade human sacrifice. While the Old Testament warns against rash vows, Jesus seems to condemn all vows  Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. (Matthew. 5:33-37). While this was probably not literal (e.g., St Paul performs a vow in Acts and uses oaths in his Epistles), it shows that vows can be worse than rash, they can be wholly evil. The Church teaches that vows to sin are to be broken, though it might mean the vower is punished. (Tolkien and Feanor's Vow: "lesser evil in the breaking" argues one of his sons.)

Indeed, this passage may not imply he sacrificed her in this way. Wording allows for a consecration away from ordinary use, so she could never marry or bear children. "Burnt sacrifice" = olah = "ascending" literally, and can be metaphorical. But "and" in 11:31
could be "or" anyway in the Hebrew. 
Thus:      "shall surely be the Lord’s, AND I will offer it up as a burnt-offering".  
could be "shall surely be the Lord's OR I will offer it up as a burnt-offering".
 
In either case, what are the lessons?
1. Biblical interpretation is not always straightforward. Often to understand a passage it needs the rest of the Scripture, as well as the Church's wisdom, including scholarship.

2. Simple practical advice: Shut up.
"He that keepeth his mouth keepeth his life: but he that openeth wide his lips shall have destruction." Proverbs. 13:3 etc. Many words can result in much error and pain. Pause and reflect, do not mistake a degree of passion for a degree of certainty. 

Note, Epiphany celebrates God revealing truth about Jesus with signs but few words: Star leading Magi and Christ's Baptism. Even God can be terse: "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased".

Yes, God loves words too, hence the Bible. But much of our desire to comment and criticise is not about appropriately quoting Scripture. There is a time to speak and a time to keep silent as Ecclesiastes teaches. The latter is meant to be much longer.

3. Make the words you do say have impact by letting the rest of your life be an epiphany, a showing forth, of the light of Christ.

Join St Hilda's Parish of the Anglican Catholic Church for Mass / Communion at St Marys Campus in Victoria Street Maitland NSW Australia on Sunday 2nd February at 11am.

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