When he told her about the vow the daughter’s response was to grieve that she would never marry (11:37). The author adds an important fact (the weight of which is missed by us in our day) in verse 39, “And she was a virgin.” While it is possible that a people group could value a virgin and marriage more than life itself, I don’t think that was the case in Israel. Life was given by God’s breath and was a precious gift. So why did the daughter grieve the loss of marriage more than the loss of life? Perhaps there are a few cultural givens which ancient readers already knew and that we need to learn and apply here.
Leviticus 27:1-8 provided a way for anyone to redeem with cash who had been promised to the LORD. Prices were actually set, and if a situation was unique, the priest was empowered to set the price. Knowing that human sacrifice was detestable to the LORD, that a redemption practice and price was established as a way to avoid actual human sacrifice, that Hannah’s vow resulted in Samuel serving the priests for life (1 Samuel 1:11), and that Jephthah’s daughter’s primary concern was that she would never marry, it is reasonable to assume that when her father “did to her as he had vowed.” He devoted her in service to the LORD for the rest of her life. This was a sacrifice to be sure (especially since she had not yet borne children), but one that better aligns with what we know about Old Testament belief and practice.
As for the other stories, I recommend we view them as examples of how badly things were deteriorating in Israel during this time. Samson, the Nazirite, was an undisciplined man with an interest in foreign women. He broke God’s law by what he touched (a dead lion carcass) and was reckless in his actions. As you think of Samson and remember the endless escalation of revenge, think about how the Cities of Refuge were God’s way to stop the cycle of revenge and ponder how that same endless cycle continues in the Middle East today. Only Jesus, the Prince of Peace, can break this cycle. (Is this cycle playing out in your life right now? How can Jesus step in to bring peace?)
Finally, when you wrestle with the horrors of chapters 19-21 consider them as extreme examples of how bad things had become and what happens when every person does what is right in his or her own eyes.
All this makes me wonder. What is my culture doing today that is against God’s intent? Which of my views seem right to me now but in reality are opposed to what God desires for His people? What views do you hold that may “feel” right but are actually wrong? Scripture admonishes us to examine ourselves and to ask God to show us the hidden faults that we cannot yet discern. I have a hunch that the mistakes of the Judges continue in our own country and even in our own lives today. The good news then was that when the people humbled themselves, repented and called out to God, He stepped in to help. The good news today is that the good news has not changed.
Search us, O God, and know our hearts. Test us and know our anxious thoughts. Reveal to us any offensive way in us and lead us in the way everlasting.