Last month we examined Eli’s failure to correct his sons Hophni and Phinehas. Eli’s negative example is a stark reminder to modern fathers of the importance of providing loving and faithful discipline to children.
Another common problem with some fathers is a lack of knowledge of God and of the Scriptures. Such fathers have abdicated their role as spiritual leader in the home. So they do not spend time equipping themselves with the biblical knowledge and spiritual disciplines needed to faithfully fulfil their role.
When fathers fail to do this, it is often their children who suffer most. For example, fathers can fail to discipline because they are ignorant of what the Lord requires. And it can be even more damaging to their children when through ignorance they make foolish and ungodly decisions over the affairs of their household.
This is exactly what happened to Jephthah’s daughter. Jephthah was a brutish man with a checkered past. He is introduced in Scripture as a ‘son of a prostitute’ (Judges 11:1). Because he was born from his father’s union with a Canaanite prostitute his half-brothers never accepted him and he was eventually banished from Israel.
But Jephthah had one thing going for him – he was a mighty warrior. At this time in Israel’s history, the nation was in desperate need of a military leader to help defend them against the Ammonites. Jephthah seemed the ideal man for the job and his half-brothers recruited him to come back to Israel and lead them into battle.
After failing to negotiate peace with the Ammonites, Jephthah turned his attention to victory in war. In an effort to assure this, he made this foolish and rash vow to God: ‘If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering’ (vv. 30-31).
Jephthah proved victorious in battle and as he returned home from victory his daughter ran out of his house to congratulate him. When Jephthah saw his daughter, he remembered his vow and tore his clothes in lamentation. Eventually, he carried out his abominable vow.
The account of Jephthah’s daughter is one of the most troubling portions of Scripture. She did nothing to deserve her fate, but was the victim of a spiritually ignorant father.
Jephthah’s ignorance is displayed in several ways. We see it in the mere fact that he made such a foolish and abominable vow. A godly man would not attempt to bribe God as if he were a pagan idol.
We also see it in that he actually fulfilled his vow. If Jephthah had studied God’s Word he would have known that God abhors human sacrifice, and particularly the practice of sacrificing children (Deuteronomy 12:31). Finally, we see it in his failure to pray to God about his resulting dilemma and perhaps offer himself as a sacrificial substitute for his daughter.
The most important thing for modern fathers to glean from this history is that it is our own children who suffer most when fathers are spiritually ignorant. Jephthah’s daughter lost her life in the spring of her youth, because her father failed to know God.
While modern fathers are unlikely to make a horrific mistake identical to Jephthah’s, biblical and spiritual illiteracy can still lead to us placing our children in situations that are fraught with serious harm.
For example, many fathers fail to diligently oversee and guard their children’s associations and friendships, because they don’t imagine these could present any risk. But Scripture is replete with warnings about the seriousness of this matter.
Consider Proverbs 13:20: ‘He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm’ (cf. Proverbs 22:24-25; 24:21-22; and 1 Corinthians 15:33). A father unaware of such biblical admonitions may expose his children to morally devastating situations. Jephthah’s daughter suffered, above all, because of her father’s folly.
Jephthah reminds us of the following axiom – if we are to raise our children in the training and instruction of the Lord, we fathers need to be trained and instructed first! Let the gruesomeness of his failure yet serve a good purpose, by spurring you on to be a father spiritually equipped to make wise decisions and train your children in the ways of the Lord!
Anthony Selvaggio, JD, MDiv is visiting professor at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA, and a teaching elder in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America.