Why Keeping Your Word May Be Life and Death: Promises, Human Sacrifice, and Becoming a Liar


Image by Michael Macfeat

“Shaun, can you please wash your plate? I don’t know how many times we have talked about this.”

“Yeah baby, lemme finish this show real quick. Better yet, I will do it before I go to bed. Leave it in the sink, so I can let it soak.”

Bedtime rolls around, and I groggily walk past the sink. “NOOOOO! Stupid plate. Ahhhh, no worries. Amanda stayed up late. I will do it in the morning before she wakes up.”

In my head I know I will never wash that plate.

Amanda knew it the moment I said I would do it before I go to bed. She, in her loving and trustful way, let me have an opportunity to keep my word.

Fail. Shaun. Fail.

As my parents can attest, I have always held a strong dislike for broccoli, cauliflower, fish, and washing dishes. That has carried over in my marriage as well. Yet, it appears that one major bad habit I have acquired over six years is saying “yes dear” out of instinct, instead of out of commitment.

At this point I am positive the Holy Spirit is convicting me. One resounding boom I have heard in my head is “let your yes be yes, and your no be no.” It seems to be a lesson God wants me to get, because no matter where I seem to turn, I am confronted with my unreliability.

In fact, the other day I decided to start reading Judges. (It had been a while). As I was reading in chapter 11, I stumbled upon Jephthah the Gileadite, a man who I had never really noticed before. The Bible says he was a “mighty warrior, but he was the son of a prostitute.” All good action novels seem to start like that, so I prepared myself for a wild adventure of this guy slaying people with his belt made out of donkey teeth, or something crazy that only seems to happen in the Old Testament. However, what started as a spicy novel quickly turned into something much deeper.

Jephthah, originally banished from his people because he was a brother of another mother, was called on by Israel to lead them and fight the Ammonites—a violent people group that were trying to take back land the God gave Israel. After receiving his authority from the people, like a good diplomat, he tried verbal sparring first; unfortunately to no avail. So he went out to confront the Ammonites with the sword. However, right before he goes to battle, Jephthah makes an innocent vow before the Lord and says, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” (Judges 11:30-31)

As I was reading the verses I thought one thing: “yup, you just sentenced one of your kids to death.” In fact, I had this inner need to want to yell at him, as I was reading, “No fool, WHAT ARE YOU THINKING?” And just like my gut told me, sure enough, Jephthah’s one and only daughter ran out the door dancing and rejoicing because her daddy was home.

My heart sunk. I couldn’t imagine the decision that Jephthah was going to have to make: God or his baby girl.

However, I still had a small glimmer of hope because I remembered Abraham and Isaac. God is good right? So maybe God will spare the girl. Then, I was cut to the core in a way that only God can do it. Centuries later, Jephthah’s unnamed daughter is still teaching people like me a valuable lesson.

She, with such a faithful little heart, said to her father, “My father, you have opened your mouth to the Lord; do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has avenged you on your enemies, on the Ammonites.” Faithfully after she mourned her virginity with her friends for two months, she was killed by the hand of her father.

Wow. Tough, tough verses to deal with on many different levels.

However, for me, this situation illuminated Jesus’ teachings on oaths in a very deep way.

‘Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”


How seriously do I take my word to God, or my word to my wife? If I can’t even keep my personal commitments to myself for my spiritual and physical health, how do I expect to honor the people around me? I can’t even count how many times I have told someone I would do something, and didn’t follow through.

What turns the knife in my gut a little deeper is when I think about how many commitments I have made to the Lord, and I seemingly forgot them as soon as they left my mouth. I know that God doesn’t hold them over my head and whisper “sinner” to me. Yet, at a certain point I need to understand the God gave the commandment to Moses to give to the heads of all the tribes of Israel (Numbers 30:1-2). Jesus counts the commandment so important that He expounds on it. Say “yes” and mean it, or say “no” and don’t do it. Oh, and if you don’t do it though you said yes, you are representing the “evil one.”

God wasn’t just saying this for us to stop giving broken oaths. He was saying that a man literally sacrificed his child, in response to the commandment of God.

Knowing that we are free from the law, how much more serious should I be in response to God? Can I turn what was once law and religion into something reflecting His Grace and Love? Can I be that sacrificial?

Needless to say, the sink was empty last night, and I slept a lot more soundly. I am going to pray that this continues.

Is there any situation in which you think we should not keep our word? What about Jephthah? Do you think God was pissed or pleased?

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  • I get the dramatic need to follow through with our word. But I don’t think God was pleased with Jephthah. god is not one who demands human sacrifice—at least only of his son. I understand that our sin deserves death. But if God demanded and was pleased at seeing our blood run down a sacrificial alter, than Christianity is no worse than ancient barbaric religions. Even the Romans and Greeks would have found this crazy and barbaric. Even God, while testing Abraham, did not really want Isaac killed. I, for one, think God shook his head when Jephthah killed his daughter. 

    And while we most certainly need to be careful of what we promise to God and take it seriously, we are also under some incredible grace and mercy—as you said above. 

    Thanks for the thoughtful words! 

  • I think I’ll have to side with @jonathandkeck:disqus on this one. When we look at the era of Judges we see a nation that, for the most part, did whatever they wanted and the Judges that were chosen were far from role models. On top of that, child sacrifice was repeatedly given as an example for why the other nations were such an evil people. It was certainly not something that God wanted for Himself.

    “When the LORD your God annihilates the nations before you, which you are entering to take possession of, and you drive them out and live in their land, be careful not to be ensnared by their ways after they have been destroyed before you. Do not inquire about their gods, asking, ‘How did these nations worship their gods? I’ll also do the same.’ You must not do the same to the LORD your God, because they practice for their gods every detestable thing the LORD hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods. You must be careful to do everything I command you; do not add anything to it or take anything away from it” (Deuteronomy 12:29-32)

  • Very, very true.  Great verses that you put there.  That is one of the things that was so difficult to me because it reflects how little he thought about what he was saying; at least in my opinion.  What makes it even worse is that some translators replace “whatever” with “whoever” in verse 31.  As if he knew it would be a person… what was he thinking?

     Another reason why it is such a tough verse for me is because if you read at the beginning of chapter 11, it is basically a presentation of how God elevates Jephthah despite how he looks to his family and peers.  God chooses him to led his people in victory.  Yet, I don’t think Jephthah really got that.To me it is not just the fact that he did such a horrendous vow, it was the lack of faith that he had when it came to believing that God would give him the victory.  Yet, how many times have I done the same thing?  How many times have I not even thought about what I said, and I just said it.  How many times have I given my word for someone to trust me, and I am really feeding them a line?  How many times have I said “God if you do this_______, I will do this ___________?I imagine that we are all guilty of this at certain points in our path.To me it not just about what I need to follow through with; it is also about what commitments am I making in the first place.  Am I trusting God or am I trusting myself?

    Thanks for your words Eric!

  • To further what you say, I can imagine God shaking his “head” as soon as he heard the vow come out of Jephthah’s mouth.  It made me really think and evaluate what I say, and why I say it.  
    Praise Him that we can boast in His grace!

  • Mike Lardi

    The OT is a page-turner simply for these sort of “scare-your-panties-off” episodes. A heart-stopping read (both the LORD’s and your own :)

    thank you for sharing/expounding, Shaun.

  • Yes indeed…this topic makes me squirm. Strange how I can be so committed to something in one moment and then minutes/hours/days later completely forget (perhaps selectively forget) the promise. Albeit, it’d be awesome if my wife had a similarly goldfish-like memory and attention span (joking). As for Jephthah, I thought the same thing after reading about him…”IDIOT!”…much like you can do with many Biblical characters (hindsight is always 20/20). But like you point out, it’s so easy for stuff to just fall outta the old jowls…especially for Saint Bernards (the prefix of their name is so pretentious). Sorry, I love Saint Bernards…like to have one someday. <> I know we fall under grace, and I like the idea of being “born again, and again, and again…”. How we keep needing to fall back at the cross. I think if people read a passage about our lives, they’d say similar things that we felt towards Jephthah. If anything, this story makes me realize just how intimately we need God in every moment (I say just as many stupid things when I’m excited as I do when I’m pissed). I also think Saint Bernards say some crazy stuff when they’re chillin’ on the stoop.

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