Jephthah and Sinful Vows - Part 2

Question

Just wanted to ask/challenge you a bit about your take on Jephthah and sinful vows in general that you posted on the third millennium site. So, you're saying that if a person thinks a vow to God that they should rob a bank, kill their neighbor (who is a fellow Christian with children), worship Mother Earth instead, cheat on their spouse, molest children, etc, that they should do it because they vowed? Do you really think that God, who COMMANDED that we do the opposite of all of these things prefer us to sin because of a vow--clearly to our own horrific folly? Doesn't sound at all like Christ's grace to me. Instead, it sounds like a weird judge saying, "Uh oh, you said/ thought something in error, so now you're going to have to go through with it." It's true that breaking a vow is a sin, but I believe that my faithful, LOVING God would much prefer a broken vow and a repentant heart than a broken soul. Furthermore, what sort of testimony would that be if a Christian said to their neighbor, "sorry bud, spoke out of turn and now I'm going to have to kill you because I promised God"?

Also, re Jephtha - if God wanted all rash/stupid/sinful vows upheld, why would he give even Old Testament methods to break them (Leviticus 27, Leviticus 5:4-13)?

I'm only writing because I think your take is a dangerous one. Wouldn't a rule that said any vow requires people to uphold it just be fodder for murderers, thieves, sexual deviants and the like to say, "well, I made a vow to God"?

Answer

Thanks for writing! I appreciate your perspective. It's one shared by many Christians.

To clarify, please understand that the question of Jephthah relates to vows, and not to thoughts and statements. A vow is a promise. Thoughts and statements, even statements of intention, aren't promises unless they include intentional promisory language. In Jephthah's case, he made a solemn, promisory bargain with God. God upheld his end of the bargain, so Jephthah was obligated to uphold his end as well. This is similar to what happened in Joshua 9 with the Gibeonites. The covenant (which is a form of promise/vow) made with the Gibeonites unintentionally violated the commands God had given the Israelites. Nevertheless, the Israelites were required to honor the covenant with the Gibeonites. Also, both these rash vows included God, either as a party (Judges 11:30-31) or a witness (Joshua 9:18). That made both these vows far more important than other sorts of promises.

In both these passages, Scripture indicates that (1) the vows were made carelessly/stupidly, (2) the vows led to unforeseen and unintended consequences, and (3) the people who made the vows were still obligated to keep them. Both Judges 11 and Joshua 9 indicate that, in these cases, breaking the vows would have been more sinful than keeping them. Further, we have no scriptural examples to the contrary. That said, both Jephthah and the Israelites were subsequently accountable to God both for: (1) having made rash vows; (2) having sinned against him by not doing the things the vows excluded (redeeming children rather than sacrificing them, and killing all the inhabitants of Canaan); and (3) doing sinful things in the fulfillment of the vow itself.

With regard to making vows to do things that are known to be sinful when the vow is made, that's a matter these passages don't address. (Other passages suggest that situation would be even more sinful in all respects; cf. Lev 5:4-5; Acts 23:12ff.) These passages also don't address situations in which God isn't a party or a witness to the vow. However, passages like James 5:12 suggest that all types of vows potentially have dangerous consequences, and therefore making vows should be avoided when possible.

With regard to God allowing the breaking of vows, neither Lev. 5:4-13 nor Lev. 27 contain examples or teachings suggesting that vows may be broken without sinning. Both passages indicate that vows are binding and that breaking them entails sin (cf. Num. 30; Jas 5:12). And Lev. 5 says that an offering is to be made for making a rash vow, not for breaking one.

I don't believe I said anywhere that God wanted all rash vows upheld. I certainly don't believe that. In fact, the Law specifically provided that fathers and husbands could nullify rash vows made by children and wives (Num. 30). Nevertheless, vows are clearly important to God and binding on us. That's why Scripture exhorts us to be careful with our words (Matt 12:36-37), and to avoid making vows (Matt 5:34-37; Jas 5:12).

Related Topics:

Jephthah and Sinful Vows

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.