They Should Have Known: Jephthah, Southern Baptists, and Sacrificing the Vulnerable

Early this year I started penning an article on Jephthah, but I had so much going on that I found it difficult to quiet my mind for writing. Things have settled down a bit now, though, so here goes nothing.

You may recall the narrative. Jephthah was that incomprehensible character who so misunderstood God’s word and his ways that he sacrificed his daughter to fulfill a vow. It’s one of those Bible horror stories that I hate so much, yet somehow feel compelled to decipher. Even when I try, I can’t escape my inner need to comprehend what went wrong and what we can do to avoid falling into the same trap.

But to do that, we first need to figure out exactly what that trap is. I mean, our natural reaction to Jephthah is that no way, not on your life or even your death, would we or could we ever make the same mistake. 

Child sacrifice? Are you kidding?

And then, when a decades-long mishandling of reports of sexual abuse by the Southern Baptist Convention hit the news outlets in May, I wondered if there was some connection between the two. What was going on inside Jephthah, and what is it that he should have known that would have altered the outcome? And what was going on inside the SBC, and what is it that they should have known that would have changed everything?

When we look at the SBC scandal, it’s not so much that we find sin in an institution populated by human beings since, as Jesus reminded us, these things will come (Matt. 18:7). Rather, it’s the way the abuse was denied and covered up for decades, the way victims were stonewalled and intimidated and accused of wrongdoing themselves, the way the perpetrators of over 700 cases of abuse were moved around and protected at the same time their names were placed on a secret list the Executive Committee claimed could not and did not exist.

It’s the fact that the leaders of the convention were convinced that clamping down was what they had to do, that they had no option, that these accusations might simply be the hysterical imaginations of “professional victims,” or even a satanic plot to distract the SBC from its mission.

Whatever you say

Still, for my purposes here, does all this SBC nightmare relate in any way to what Jephthah did to his daughter? 


Living during one of the most depraved times in Israel’s history, Jephthah is the consummate anti-hero, the unlikely and unexpected individual God raises up to accomplish his purposes. Son of a prostitute, Jephthah was driven out of the family circle by the legitimate sons. Without land or inheritance, Jephthah had to make his way in the world by his wits, eventually becoming known as an effective military leader. Later, when the Israelites were suffering under the Ammonites, they appealed to Jephthah for help. 

Here’s how he responded:

“Didn’t you hate me and drive me from my father’s house? Why do you come to me now, when you’re in trouble?” (Judg. 11:7)

It’s pretty clear that Jephthah had never gotten over his banishment, that he was still deeply wounded and bitter. Why should he help the people who kicked him to the curb, who treated him like dirt?

Which is a pretty good question. Yeah, why should he? But Gilead was in a bad way and desperately needed this outcast-outlaw, so the top-guns decided to take things to the next level and offer Jephthah a hefty enticement.

The elders of Gilead said to him, “Nevertheless, we are turning to you now; come with us to fight the Ammonites, and you will be head over all of us who live in Gilead.” (Judg. 11:8)

You will be head. Wow. Now that’s worth pausing and thinking about. 

Dangling vindication and acceptance before his very eyes, these men were promising Jephthah actualization of the significance he had always longed for. It was an amazing offer, beyond belief. Would these Gileadites truly follow through once the victory was won? Or would they reverse gears, claiming they never said such a thing? 

So, to make extra certain his victory would secure his leadership, Jephthah asked: 

“Suppose you take me back to fight the Ammonites and the Lord gives them to me – will I really be your head?” The elders of Gilead replied, “The Lord is our witness; we will certainly do as you say.” (Judg. 11:9-10)

The deep rejection Jephthah had suffered inflated the dream of becoming leader to an unmanageable size, setting him up to do the unthinkable. Obsessed by the possibility of his future glory, Jephthah was willing to do whatever it took to ensure the success of his mission.

Including bribing God.

Jephthah made a rash vow, promising to sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house upon his return, if God would but grant him victory. The vow was very specific, very clear, very horrid: the sacrifice would be a burnt offering. And Jephthah knew very well that the first creature exiting his dwelling might not be an animal. 

Yet that was the point. In an environment influenced by pagan rites that viewed human sacrifice as the ultimate act of devotion,[1] Jephthah was willing to take that risk of risks as long as he got the victory he required. He didn’t promise human sacrifice outright, but if that’s the way it fell out, so be it.

And, as J. Clinton McCann notes, “Undoubtedly, the text reflects the arrangements of a patriarchal culture in which women were subordinate, marginalized, and manipulated. And it also reflects the typical reality that the marginalized have little choice but to comply.”[2]

Here’s the catch: Jephthah was wrong to make the vow and wrong to keep it.[3]

Disastrously, his only child, a daughter, emerged from the house, dancing to the sound of timbrels. Jephthah was devastated yet believed he must fulfill his promise.[4] So, after allowing two months for his daughter and her friends to mourn the fact that she would never marry, Jephthah “did to her as he had vowed” (Judg. 11:39).

While some commentators have sought to lessen the horror of Jephthah’s act by claiming that “he presented her at the local shrine as a perpetual spiritual sacrifice,” they “ignore the plain meaning of olah and overestimate Jephthah’s spirituality.”[5] Arguments that the sacrifice was symbolic rather than literal arise from wishful thinking and our revulsion at the heinousness of the act. There is nothing in the wording of the text to indicate a figurative interpretation. 

However difficult it may be to accept, “We are clearly meant to understand that Jephthah literally sacrificed his daughter.”[6]

Ultimately, Jephthah slayed this defenseless maiden on the altar he had constructed in his heart, the altar he hoped would take away his feelings of insignificance and pain, the altar of self-interest.

What’s strange is that Jephthah didn’t seem to know the things he should have known. Apparently aware of the teachings of the Mosaic Law regarding the importance of fulfilling your vows (Num. 30), Jephthah appears ignorant of the fact that this same Mosaic Law uncompromisingly condemns child sacrifice (Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5).[7]

Jephthah also seems devastatingly unaware that “if someone unwittingly vows to do something evil, when he realizes he has done wrong he must confess it and bring a suitable animal as a sin offering.”[8]

And if a person was so remarkably dense that they did not comprehend that killing one’s only daughter was wrong, something that never entered Yahweh’s mind (Jer. 32:35), they could fall back on the legal exception of paying the equivalent value in exchange for the person devoted to the Lord.[9] For a teenage girl, this would amount to ten shekels (Lev. 27:5).

Yet perhaps the most obvious thing Jephthah should have known was that he could have taken the hit himself. This was always the case with a vow and the big reason people made haste to fulfill them. If you made a vow, but didn’t follow through, you would bear the consequences, bringing the curse upon yourself.[10]

In other words, Jephthah could have refused to kill his daughter and instead cast himself on Yahweh’s mercy. It would seem that in the worst possible scenario, Yahweh would have struck Jephthah dead.

So, instead of an innocent bystander caught in the web of a grown man’s self-interest, a foolish and needy man would have faced the consequences himself.

And here is where I pause and ponder what the SBC Executive Committee should have known and what they could have done.

The first thing they should have known is simply that there are specks and there are logs (Matt. 7:3-5), that while it’s true we all stand before God as sinners, some sins cause far greater harm than others. 

Have you ever noticed that Jesus never told someone with a speck to take it out before helping another with their log? Yeah, I know this might simply be a case of perspective, that when it’s in your eye, a speck feels like a log. Perhaps the log and speck are the same size, perhaps your sin and my sin are equally bad, perhaps the big idea is to confront myself with a bit of no-punches-pulled truth. 

Which is always a worthwhile endeavor.

On the other hand, maybe there really is a difference between a speck and a log, and maybe Jesus meant that some blind spots are humongous while others are miniscule, and if we have a great, big, honkin’ log in our eye, we have no business picking at someone else’s speck.

So, let’s just say there’s a woman who was repeatedly sexually assaulted by her pastor beginning at age fourteen and then, when pregnant, was required to “repent” before the church. She was not permitted to mention the identity of the father, however. Let’s say she grows up and at some point decides to speak out, and maybe she’s a little angry, or even a lot.

Then, just for argument’s sake, let’s imagine she sins in the process, perhaps by an inability or even unwillingness to love and pray for her enemy, as Jesus commanded. 

Then what if, in some leadership role we inhabit, we are charged with the task of picking out the specks and logs in this scenario. 

Where do we wield the ax? What are the logs and what are the specks? Or are all these attitudes and actions, well, equal? Do sexual abuse and its coverup truly correspond to an imperfect response to horrific mistreatment?

A second thing the SBC leaders should have known is how Jesus’s teaching about causing one of the “least of these” to stumble applies to their decision to cover up the abuse. 

If anyone causes one of these little ones – those who believe in me – to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! (Matt. 18:6-7)

How many victims of abuse, when blamed, shamed, ignored, stonewalled, and vilified, manage to maintain their faith without stumbling or tumbling into disheartened disbelief? How many of these men, women, and children, but mostly women and children, walk into their future with hearts whole and minds free, souls full of trust in God?

And what does Jesus think about all this?

Another thing the Executive Committee should have known is that sometimes it’s necessary to break a vow. I don’t know what their commitment to the SBC looked like, but I do know that in positions like this you hold both a legal and ethical responsibility to protect the organization. 

However, as with Jephthah, there are limits. If greater principles are involved, such as truth or justice or protecting the least of these, the lesser must give way. You refuse to sacrifice the vulnerable on the altar of your duty or your reputation or even your mission.

You let go of self-interest and take the hit yourself.

As former Southern Baptist Russell Moore writes in his scathing rebuke of the conservative leadership that propelled the SBC on the trajectory that resulted in this massive coverup:

We were told they wanted to conserve the old time religion. What they wanted was to conquer their enemies and to make stained-glass windows honoring themselves – no matter who was hurt along the way.

Yes, there’s a price to pay when you take the hit, when you shelter the vulnerable instead of sacrificing them on your all-consuming altar of self-protection. 

Yes, you may be criticized. Yes, you may face legal ramifications. Yes, the mission may suffer.

And yes, you may even face death – death of the position or acceptance or significance you always longed for.

But that’s the price you pay to do what’s right.

Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

[1] “Child sacrifice is thought to be an extreme extension of the idea that the more important the object of sacrifice, the more devout the person giving it is.” Wikipedia, “Child Sacrifice.”

[2] J. Clinton McCann, Judges (Louisville: John Knox, 2002), 83.

[3] Barry G. Webb, The Book of Judges (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 336.

[4] Webb, 335, writes, “Whether or not Jephthah should have kept his vow…he clearly thought he had to.”

[5] Daniel I. Block, Judges, Ruth (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999), 372.

[6] Webb, 333.

[7] Webb, 336.

[8] Webb, 336.

[9] Block, 377.

[10] Block, 377.

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