There was a man, the story went, who wanted to be a leader of his people. He was from a humble background and had known much rejection, but now he had an opportunity. If he could pull off a victory, he would be praised and appointed to lead. He made a promise about what he would do if he was successful, and when he won, he kept his promise.
That promise was to sacrifice the first thing or person to meet him when he arrived home safely and victorious as a burnt offering to God, and the first to run out to meet him was his daughter, his only child.
The man’s name was Jephthah, and the story is in the book of Judges in the Hebrew Bible. Scholars debate what the text means and whether Jephthah actually killed his daughter to fulfill his vow, or instead dedicated her to serve God and never marry or have children, much like a nun. But I was taught a “plain reading” of the text, and according to that reading, Jephthah – heartbroken – kept his vow and killed his child as a sacrifice to God.
That way of reading the text is consistent within the book of Judges. One generation removed from their own slavery in Egypt, the Israelites have conquered the land God led them to and began using the former inhabitants as their own slaves.
As the generation who won those victories die off, the people forget. They go back to old ways and worshiping other gods, straying from the God who was teaching them that child sacrifice and the burdens of divine bargains were not what he was about. Raiders terrorize the people, and they are desperate to protect themselves and their own.
The “judges,” leaders who periodically appear throughout this time to defeat the raiders, are all flawed according to the understanding of the time. Some, like Samson, Gideon, and Jephthah, are morally flawed, and some bear flaws or curses of nature: Deborah is a woman, and Ehud is left-handed.
The moral of Jephthah’s story as I was taught it was to be careful what you promise God (and others), because such promises must be kept.
That’s not a bad lesson – avoiding rash promises is a good thing to do in any context. But the idea that bad promises to God or anyone else must be kept, regardless of the cost? That is a horrible lesson. I always found it deeply troubling that the same God who stopped Israel’s patriarch Abraham from sacrificing his son, Isaac, would consider it more important that Jephthah keep his promise even if it cost his daughter’s life.
I don’t believe that understanding does reflect who God is. I believe it reflects just how much his people miss or forget who God really is. The God of Israel is not a God who values the keeping of bad promises – to himself or anyone else. As Jesus shows us, the God of Israel is one who is willing to take guilt upon himself for the sake of loving others.
I’ve remembered this story a lot as I’ve listened to Republican lawmakers talk about why they want to repeal the Affordable Care Act – “Obamacare.” For so many, it just comes down to “because we promised we would.” Keeping that promise is more important than the lives and well-being of the most vulnerable among us. The principle trumps real people.
And I’ve realized, that’s just what I was taught (alongside many other voters), through Jephthah’s story and in so many other ways. We got God so deeply, tragically wrong. We believed in loving our neighbors, but we believed certain principles must guide and define that love regardless of the consequences to that neighbor (or ourselves). We were willing to die for those principles, but like Jephthah, we were also too willing to let others die for them. We just want that promise kept, regardless of the consequences.
Like Israel, those descendants of Isaac whose very existence was predicated on God refusing a child sacrifice, we so readily respond to fear and chaos and evil by embracing leaders who will make those sacrifices for the sake of principle. Principles are so much more straightforward than the messiness of loving people, of considering the needs of the most vulnerable before our own.
Some promises are better broken. Rash promises, surely. But even promises made thoughtfully and with the best of intentions can end up having devastating, unforeseen consequences. Those promises are best abandoned, but sometimes we want to cling to the principle we are convinced will work, despite all evidence to the contrary.
A wise and very humane person once said, “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is.” The principles that work in theory can betray us in practice, and it’s what happens in practice that really matters. Following God, loving others, is always harder and messier than following principles. Than just keeping promises.