Jason Helveston reminds us that the stories that run through the Bible are not nice, righteous lives, but twisted tales of a messed up humanity.
Jephthah was the son of a prostitute. His morally flexible father had a growing family with another woman, his wife. Sooner or later it became impossible to hide his indiscretions; from his wife or his other children. Suffice to say they weren’t impressed. But instead of targeting their father with their discontent they looked square at Jephthah. He was different. His mom was different. The kids born in wedlock and their extend community saw fit to physically excuse Jephthah from their city and their people.
He was even taken out of his father’s will.
Hardened by a devastating childhood, Jephthah found a new family and a new home. He became a bruiser. He built a gang of bruisers just like him. And not the kind of gang I was in growing up. Me and my boys played baseball with a tennis racket and a tennis ball (affectionally dubbed, tenniball) in the driveway just before going swimming or playing video games. When we had disputes someone cried and everyone else went home. You know, real guy stuff. When Jephthah and his boys met trouble they killed somebody. Understandably, their reputation quickly grew.
Perhaps you’ve heard a story like this before. A kid falls through the cracks of the family system and embraces the next best thing. Or so he assumes. Before anyone knows it the kid goes from being a lovable newborn to a mass-murdering thug. The tragedy may not be that surprising. Perhaps it sounds like your story. Perhaps the rest of us have just grown numb. But what is surprising about this story is that it’s recorded in Judges 11. That’s right, in the Old Testament. It’s a story from the Bible.
What’s up with that?
Jephthah was an Israelite. And in the Old Testament another name for the nation of Israel is “the people of God.” (No pressure.) Through their story Israel enjoys God’s care, protection, guidance, love, and provision. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t have some bad days too. In fact when Jephthah left the fold of Israel, another nation attacked the Israelites. These guys were powerful. And they meant business. Things didn’t look good for the people of God. So guess who they called for help? Yup, the bruiser son of a prostitute they previously kicked-off the team.
Life is funny that way. One minute you’re being shoved to the margins of community or faith or family because you’re seen as damaged goods, threatening, and different. And the next minute the same people want you to be their savior. In a similar fashion that’s exactly how God’s people treated God throughout the story of the Old Testament.
Love … reject. Love … reject. Love … reject.
So that’s the lesson, right? I mean that’s the whole point of the Bible, isn’t it?
Read a story.
Learn a lesson.
Follow someone’s life.
Follow their example.
In this case, I guess Judges 11 calls readers to follow the example of Jephthah? Right? I hope not. When Jephthah rolls in to save the day he realizes something. This wasn’t going to be easy. This was a battle, not a bar fight. No one was drinking PBRs by the jug. Nobody cared who you just danced with. This was war. And Old Testament war at that! So naturally, Jephthah prayed. His stellar example seems to continue. However, his prayer was more than a prayer. It was a vow. In fact, he made a deal with God. He told God if he helped him win the battle, then he would make a sacrifice. Not just any sacrifice mind you, he vowed to kill the first thing that came out of his house when he got home.
Now. This isn’t as crazy as it sounds. In those days tons of animals lived inside people’s houses. No big deal, right? Sacrificing an animal in worship to God was a common and even prescribed practice of thanksgiving for God’s people. But unfortunately … people lived in houses too. And when Jephthah–our savior–came back from the battlefield victorious, his daughter, his only child came out of the house celebrating the victory.
Regretfully, Jephthah kept his vow.
What’s our lesson now?
Where’s our example?
Certainly, no sane person would see Jephthah as a beacon of righteousness. But what about others? Jephthah’s story may not be easy to applaud or apply, but what about some of the obvious heroes of the Bible, guys like Moses … Noah … or David. Moses? You mean the guys who killed an Egyptian and ran from the scene of the crime? And Noah? The dude who sprawled out drunk and naked in front of his family? David? Are we talking about the megalomaniac king who slept with one of his soldier’s wives then sent him to the front lines to be killed? Despite what many assume, the Bible is not primarily a collection of stories from which we learn nice, tidy, spiritual lessons. Nor is it comprised chiefly of exemplary characters for us to imitate. Instead what we get is a messy, shocking, broken, authentic, tragic, and embarrassingly honest look directly into the face of humanity. First and foremost when we open the Bible we don’t find God’s people behaving well and therefore pointing the way for God’s people today to behave well also.
Instead we get…love…reject. Love…reject. Love…reject.
It’s more like one story–stuck on repeat. It seems as if the same story is being told over and over and over again. And that’s the beauty of the Bible. That’s the brilliance of this story. Even if you’ve been rejected by those closest to you because you’re dangerous, different, damaged goods, and threatening … even if you have made a ridiculous deal with God … even if you think your life will never be like Moses, Noah, or David … that’s okay. That’s the point. That’s the story. No matter what you do, no matter what family you were born into, no matter what happens, there is always a way back to God.
Photo via Flickr/ Patrick Feller