And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them, and the Lord gave them into his hand. And he struck them from Aroer to the neighborhood of Minnith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel-keramim, with a great blow. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel. Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter. And as soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.” (Judges 11:30-35 ESV)
This poses an ethical dilemma: does he keep his vow or let his daughter live? Today we would not blink an eye and say, “let his daughter live!” In the days of the ancients, however, he did not hesitate to fulfill his vow even though it is clear from the text that his daughter was precious to him. It goes to show how important the keeping of a vow is and how far our own culture has fallen in this regard. We are called not to reflect the values of culture but the values of God. We are called to be counter cultural in this regard. We make vows when we get married and when we join a church. Sadly, these vows are little reverenced.
If a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth. (Numbers 30:2 ESV)
“If you make a vow to the Lord your God, you shall not delay fulfilling it, for the Lord your God will surely require it of you, and you will be guilty of sin. (Deuteronomy 23:21 ESV)
When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. (Ecclesiastes 5:4, 5 ESV)
Why is it so important to keep your vow? Let me ask a question to answer it. Why is it so important for God to keep his vows, I.e. promises? Where would we be if God treated his vows as we do?
We must keep our vows because God keeps his and we are his image bearers, restored by the work of Jesus as God kept his vow to save us.
Back to Jephthah; the lesson from him is not to vow lightly or rashly. We are to count the cost, and seek the Lord before we commit. Jephthah should never have made that vow and would not have had he not been influenced by the Canaanite religion which included human sacrifice. It is hard to imagine Jephthah not knowing that it would be a person that came out of his house. Perhaps he expected a servant. Why did God allow such a thing? There is an interesting passage in Judges 10 about God saying no to helping them and instead telling them to go get help from the gods they’ve chosen. It seems Jephthah’s vow reflects those gods and thus is a judgment from the Lord upon them.