Probably everyone who’s ever been to Sunday School is familiar with the story of Abraham and the sacrifice of his son, Isaac.
Matchbook-cover version: To test Abraham’s faith, God ordered Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his long-promised son, born to him and his wife Sarah when they were aged 100 and 90, respectively. He was their only son. Abraham loaded them up, and as he prepared to slay his son on the altar, an angel came to him and stopped him.

Did you know there’s another case of human sacrifice to God in the Old Testament, and the Bible is a whole lot less forthcoming on whether the burnt offering actually happened?

I ran across this while reading the book of Judges (specifically, in chapter 11:29-40) a few weeks ago. Jephthah, a little-known judge (at least in most of the circles I run around in–the Bible is full of people whose mention was very brief; I’ll bet two years ago you had no idea at all who Jabez was either) vowed to God that if He granted him victory over the Ammonites, he’d sacrifice the first thing that met him upon his homecoming as a burnt offering.

Well, the first, um, thing to meet him just happened to be his daughter and only child, which raises a lot of really disturbing questions, especially because this time around there’s no record of an angel coming down to stop him.

It’s hard to fault the logic in this analysis, which I will simply link to, rather than regurgitating.

People tend to zero in on the horrific prospect of a man sacrificing his daughter. I’d like to go a little deeper than that. As the piece I just linked to stated, J.’s education was hardly exemplary. Burnt offerings weren’t used for thanksgiving. Sacrifice was for the benefit of the person doing the sacrificing; it’s hard to see how God derived any pleasure from it. What sacrifice was, literally, was a pointer back to Genesis 15, where God made His covenant with Abraham (then Abram). The Genesis account doesn’t go into the sociological details of this, but Abram taking a bunch of animals and lining them up next to a ditch was essentially a contract. Abram was overcome with dread because he knew that he couldn’t hold up his end of the bargain. In these contracts, the two parties would walk through the blood, the implication being that if either of them didn’t hold up his end of the bargain, his blood would be the next blood to flow through that ditch. Well, in the Genesis 15 account, you see the familiar pillar of cloud going through the ditch, but God never ordered Abram into the ditch.

So God was saying, “If I don’t keep up My end of the bargain, My blood will flow. If you don’t keep up your end of the bargain, My blood will flow.”

The children of Israel didn’t know exactly how God would deliver them from their sins, but that sacrifice was a reminder that God was going to take care of it; their job was to repent.

Essentially, sacrifice was the predecessor to Holy Communion. Both point to the cross, it’s just that one pointed forward and the other back. Useful (indeed, mandatory) for repentance, but misplaced when used for praise, don’t you think?

J. missed another detail too: Burnt offering had to be male. So his daughter didn’t qualify.

J. never should have made that vow in the first place. God was gracious to grant J. the victory, but what we all need to remember is that we have nothing to offer God other than ourselves. God has no use for my prize steers (which is a good thing, since I don’t have any). God desires to do things in us and through us, but more than that, God just wants a relationship with us. He wants us to talk to Him, and He wants us to listen to Him (He gave us a really big book full of his stuff, for starters).

No one gains anything from bargaining with God. Not us, and certainly not God, who already has everything (and if He did lack anything for some reason, He could just create it).

Now, if Jephthah had known these things, he never would have made that vow. Jephthah’s parents failed him, by not educating him properly. The price of that ignorance didn’t just stop after one generation either. It cost him his relationship with his daughter.

And I think that’s the greatest lesson we can learn from the story of Jephthah and his daughter. Jephthah mourned for the loss of his relationship with his daughter and her offspring, and Jephthah mourned for the husband and children she would never have. But God mourns even more bitterly for His broken relationships with us.