Slideshow image

To listen to an audio version of this post, visit

Good morning, Covenant Family! I hope and pray that you are engaging with our powerfully relational God during this Holy Week. God who is love longs to have a relationship with you, with us, with his creation through us. And nothing makes that more clear than the events we remember and rehearse this week. Today we will look at an Old Testament story that reminds us of how badly things can go when we miss this truth about God. It reminds us how off-track religion and the pursuit of the divine can take us without love. This is Covenant Weekly for March 26, 2024.

The book of Judges is filled with wonderfully awful and dramatic stories. The book as a whole is about the degradation of both individual lives and of an entire society as they neglect God’s ways and God’s justice. There’s a cycle in the book that begins each time with Israel sinning and things falling apart. When that happens someone comes in as an oppressor over them. Usually, it is some neighbouring nation, but eventually, the oppression comes from within their own people. After dealing with the oppression for some time, the people get fed up enough to call out to God to rescue them and some judge - someone acting on behalf of the people - leads an army to free them from their oppressor. One of those judges was a man named Jephthah.

Jephthah was the illegitimate son of a fairly important man. His mother, though, was a prostitute. Because of his illegitimacy, when his father passed away, his half-brothers chased him off the land he had received from his father and insisted that he wouldn’t have any of the inheritance. So Jephthah flees and ends up living a bit in the wild. But he could handle himself. We read that he was a great warrior and soon after being forced off of his land, he ends up with a band of miscreants following him.

Around this time the neighbouring Ammonites began to attack and pillage Gilead, the area of Israel that Jephthah was originally from. Unable to defend themselves, they turned to this wild warrior and his band to ask for help. He rightly points out that not long before they wanted nothing to do with him, but now when they needed him they were asking for his help. The elders of the people propose to him that if he comes to help them, they will make him the leader of the people of Gilead. Negotiations happen and he agrees. And Jephthah gets formally set up as their chief and leader of their fighters.

So Jephthah and his army prepared to fight against the king of Ammon. Jephthah pursues negotiations, but they are ignored. Then, as he heads into battle Jephthah, pleading for God’s help, makes what is described as a “ vow to Yahweh.” Jephthah says to God, “If you give me victory over the Ammonites, I will give to the Lord whatever comes out of my house to meet me when I return in triumph. I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”

From there, to cut the story short, Jephthah goes into battle and gets the victory. Then, in victory, he comes home and the first thing out of his house as he approaches is his one and only child - his daughter - who runs out celebrating and dancing with joy that her victorious father has come home.

Jephthath is devastated. He tells his daughter that she has ruined him and brought disaster on him because he can’t go back on his oath to the Lord. Remarkably, she tries to comfort her father, negotiates some time away with her friends and then comes home and is sacrificed.

We read this story and are horrified. Perhaps we think things like, “What an idiot Jephthah is to make a vow like that!” Or, “What a brave girl to face her future like that!” Or maybe, “How could God hold Jephthah accountable to his vow when it involved his daughter?!? What kind of God is that?”

I want to suggest that it is right for us to be horrified by this. Much of the book of Judges is about horrifying us. It is about showing us how terribly wrong things can go when we miss out on the heart of God. And for Jephthah, things went horribly wrong.

You see, Jephthah viewed God as a powerful being to negotiate with. One who could provide what was needed as long as they were appeased in some way. His view of Yahweh was the same view that people who worshiped other gods had of their gods - as a fickle being beyond our experience who could be paid off by significant enough sacrifices. And so he offered a sacrifice. But once he got what he wanted - because he viewed God this way - he saw no option but to follow through on his vow. A fickle, powerful, potentially angry God couldn’t have it any other way.

In the meantime, I believe God is weeping. God never asked for the vow. God never asked for Jephthah to follow through on the vow. God never asked for a young woman to die as an appeasement for victory.

This is the power of religious duty. When we think we must do certain things to be okay with God. Or when we insist on following through on unhealthy or even ungodly ways of acting or reacting because we’ve attached Jesus’ name to them. It is easy to get caught up in believing God demands, expects, or longs for certain things that God has never asked for and doesn’t want.

We see this concerning the entire sacrificial system through the words of the prophet Micah. There is a group of people coming back to the land of Israel after being exiled and they are trying to figure out how to reestablish themselves as a nation in connection with Yahweh. And one of the things they want to do is get back to the sacrifices. The prophet describes their discussions this way. They are asking, “What can we bring to Yahweh? What kind of offerings should we give him? Should we bow before God with offerings of yearling calves? Should we offer him thousands of rams and ten thousand rivers of olive oil?”

Those are all things the Old Testament law asked for but in huge amounts. He is using hyperbole to highlight the futility of sacrifices. Then he takes the hyperbole even further by putting words in their mouth that oppose the sacrificial law. He has them asking, “Should we sacrifice our firstborn children to pay for our sins?”

This is something God clearly spoke against in the law, but when approaching God as one who demands sacrifice it is easy to go beyond to try to make sure he’s appeased. After this, the prophet gives God’s response to all of these sacrifice ideas.

He says, “No, O people, Yahweh has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”
God is a relational God who comes to us with love, not with demands. He invites us into life with him.

A few years ago I had an experience that reminded me of how easy it is to feel obligated to God because of expectations we set up ourselves. I have learned the value of spending time in silence with God. Not only pursuing God in prayer for something. Not only pursuing God through scripture to learn something. But simply being with God. But being with God in silence does not come easily to me. So one summer five or six years ago, I set out to spend some time in solitude with God each morning. I would take my Bible and a journal and go for a walk and then sit with God in a secluded place. One thing I set out to do was gradually increase the amount of time I sat in silence with God. Two minutes. Four minutes. Five minutes. It was easier some days than others to not have my mind wander, but this silence became a place and practice of delight for me.

Sometimes, as I sat, I would sense the Spirit of God saying something to me and in my mind, in the silence, I would enter into a kind of dialogue with God. And at times, this led me toward very beautiful and powerful places that aligned with the heart of Jesus, but that I had never imagined before. I am convinced that God was using the sacred imagination to speak to me.

So one day, as I went on my walk, I was excited to really commit to this time of silence that day. I was eager enough that as I was walking I committed before God to sit for fifteen minutes of silence. Fifteen minutes of just being with God. I walked for a while and got to my resting place and sat down to settle in for this time. And I couldn’t get more than one minute of silence without being completely distracted. By this time, I’d learned that God isn’t upset by our mind wandering. It is just another opportunity to come back into connection with God. So I recentred and reentered the silence - for about 40 seconds. Time and time again, I recentred and my mind wandered. And rather than getting easier each time, my mind wandered more and more quickly. I started getting so frustrated.

Then, in my mind, almost through my frustration, I caught a glimpse of an image of God (not a clear picture of God, but some vague idea of God). But as I caught this glimpse, God was laughing at me. I was indignant and in my heart, I asked what was so funny. God said, “You are.” That didn’t make me happy. I got defensive. “How am I so funny? I’m here to be with you! I’m trying so hard to do this fifteen minutes of silence with you and all you can do is laugh at me?” In response, I felt the voice of God clearly but gently say (with a bit of a chuckle), “I never asked you to do fifteen minutes of silence.”

I stumbled back with a response, “But it is good to just be with you. It is helpful. So more should be more helpful.” And again I heard, “I never asked for you to do this. This was your idea. I’m happy to listen or to go with you where your mind wanders if that’s better for you today.”

I had taken something helpful and really good and turned it into an expectation - one that came from me and not from God. And then I’d taken that expectation and made it, for that day at least, a guilt-and-frustration-inducing commitment. At that point, God was still present with me, but not in the way that I was trying to force.

Even when pursuing a relational connection with God rooted in love, I easily got off track and turned it into something else. Thankfully, God’s patience is greater than our frustrating stubbornness to turn this relationship into expectations. And God met me there in love - a love Jephthah missed out on and cost him his daughter.

As you continue through this Holy Week, I pray that God will meet you with love at those places of guilt, expectation, or frustration that have been set up around you by religion or family or your own genuine pursuit of God. May God peek through those and may you follow God’s face into the resurrection life that God longs for you to enjoy through Christ and by the power of the Spirit.

Leave a comment

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

We reserve the right to remove any comments deemed inappropriate.