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Jephthah’s Culturally Shaped Theology Bore the Fruit of Death (Judges 11)

Updated: Nov 28, 2021

The story of Jephthah is a strange and sad story about a man who wanted to be accepted and respected so much that he was willing to sacrifice his own daughter to YHWH to assure his victory and respect. Jephthah was the son of a prostitute and as such had no chance of social significance in Israel. He thought like his culture thought; that by offering a costly sacrifice of his only daughter YHWH would be motivated to aid him in his task of fighting the Ammonites, and becoming powerful and influential (Judges 11). That’s messed up.

How does a person get to that point?

  1. His understanding of God was shaped by his culture, not God’s word. We’re kidding ourselves if we think that our culture has not shaped our view of God. If you don’t think that your culture has an influence on your theology you are basically saying of all the people who have ever lived, of all the cultures that have ever existed, you alone have been able to objectively figure out who God is without allowing your culture to shape or twist your view. To some extent, we are all a product of our culture and we must ask the hard questions about how our culture shapes our understanding of God, and influences our interpretation of scripture.

  2. His desires were selfish not sacrificial. He was willing to use others for his own ends, not spend himself for the ends of others. Paul points us to Jesus when he writes; “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4).

  3. He didn’t know the true character of God and his grace. He seemed to think that God needed to be manipulated just like the many other gods of his culture. He did not know that God had already laid out in a straight forward way how to gain God’s protection and blessing: simply follow His Covenant – not by killing your own family members.

Here's the central question: Does our culture shape our theology or does our theology shape our culture?

When something bad happens do you ever think that it happened because God was upset with you or paying you back for something you did wrong? But God does not "pay us back" for our sins. Psalm 103:10 says, "He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities." That's good news! When bad things happen, it could be that God is disciplining us (see Hebrews 12:5-11), or it could be the message of condemnation from our performance based culture.

Jephthah’s misunderstandings raise some key questions for us to consider.

  1. How would your life be different if your understanding of God was shaped more by his word than by your culture? Here’s one example: We live in a performance culture. We are praised for performing well, and we suffer for not performing well. If you want to tip the scales away from a culture shaped performance-oriented understanding of God, there’s no other way than to read his word and spend time with Him.

  2. Where are your desires taking you today? Are you already having thoughts of using others to get ahead? How might you be able to set aside your own interests today and elevate the interests of others ahead of your own? BTW, that kind of self-sacrifice will hurt. Dying to self always does. But through that self-sacrifice you share a tiny bit of the sufferings of Jesus who can use that to provide a mini-resurrection of hope in ways you can never imagine.

  3. Are you understanding God’s true gracious character? How have you been responding when things in your life go sideways? Don’t confuse his appropriate discipline with inappropriate retributive thoughts that he’s angry and looking for ways to hurt you because you did something wrong.

If we really understood God’s character of love and grace – we’d run as fast as we could to him. Just like Peter when he saw Jesus on the shore and jumped out of the boat to get to Jesus as fast as he could.

Forgiveness lies in the person and work of Jesus, whom we know through the revealed truth of His Word.


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