Idiot Promises: Trying to Negotiate with the Almighty

Image courtesy of adamr /
Image courtesy of adamr /

Help me out here – finish this expression: “Those who do not learn from history…”

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it? It means that the wise person sees what others have done and decides not to go the same route or make the same mistakes. The person who can look back and learn from the past has a better chance of making better decisions tomorrow. And if you don’t learn from the past, you will keep making the same mistakes over and over and over again!

There are times that we have seen our political and military leaders behaving this way ~ not learning from the mistakes of others, trying the same thing other people tried but expecting different outcomes. Back in the 1950’s the French had a little problem with a country in Southeast Asia called Vietnam. They could not get the locals in line and they could not overcome the native guerillas. 10 years later America goes marching in thinking we can do better. We did not really learn from the French mistakes. We made some of the exact same mistakes – mistakes that cost people their lives. It was complete idiocy.

There are also personal moments of idiocy. God gave me a wife to help keep track of all of the moments I act like an idiot. If we don’t learn from what happened in the past then we’re going to be doing the same stupid things people before us did. If we don’t learn from the past then we’re going to making the same bad choices we’ve always made.

In the OT you have the law, you have the prophets, you have wisdom and poetry writing, and then you have books like Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Esther, Kings, and Chronicles. These books are usually referred to as the histories. Part of what the histories are there for is to provide an example of how to and how not to live. This is especially true in the book of Judges. In Judges, everything in Israel turns on its commitment to Yahweh and living life according to Yahweh’s ethics.

Yahweh’s ethics? What the heck are those? That phrase refers to living life the way God wants his people to live. Are you worshiping God only, or are there other things influencing your spirituality? Are you taking care of people who need assistance; the widows, the orphans, showing hospitality to strangers or to the poor? You see, part of being one of God’s people is a directive to look outside ourselves and to take care of others. Finally, participating in a Yahwistic ethic means asking, “Are you maintaining a high standard of personal integrity?”

By the times of the judges, Israel has been failing miserably at right living! The book of Judges is a sad book that highlights the decline of the nation because they have turned their backs on their true king – Yahweh. The end of Judges (17:6) sums up perfectly the state of decline:

In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes.

Look at Jephthah. He’s an interesting guy, who has had the deck stacked against him from the very start. Have you ever felt that people or life (or even God) has something against you and that you can’t get a leg up no matter what you do? Have you been in a situation that doesn’t go your way and, even though it’s not your fault, there’s nothing you can do?

Jephthah is the firstborn son of a childless man. The only problem is that his mother was a prostitute. So later on, when his father has other sons from his legitimate wife, the legitimate sons give Jephthah the boot, telling him, “No half-breed is going to share in our inheritance. You’re not a full part of this family. Get out of here!” That’s painful stuff, being rejected by family, forced to live as an outsider. But what man rejects, God can use!

So Jephthah bolts; he heads for the hills. God has a funny way of preparing Jephthah for use, though. While he is away, he harley-davidson-1241583_1920draws all sorts of worthless scallywags to him and they become land pirates. They raid other towns and form a band of pirates and thieves. It like Sons of Anarchy: Bible Edition.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…Israel has turned away from God and served everything else under the sun except God. Isn’t that the way we are? We also go through cycles of drawing close to God. Then we slip and go through a period of drifting away. We have our own sin cycles, and we need to recognize when we’re in one so we can call out to God and say, “Hey, I need your help!” This time, though, God looks at the Israelites and says, “Okay, have it your way. I’m done with you.” And the Philistines and Ammonites invade and rule in Israel for almost 2 decades.

The people finally have enough and say, “God, we made a mistake. We should never have left you! We have sinned against you.” And God says, “When other people attacked you, didn’t I rescue you? Haven’t I always come to your aid? Haven’t I always been there for you? But you turn away from me and ignore me. You act as though I haven’t been here for you. So go ask your other gods to rescue you now. Let them get you out of the mess you’re in.” And Israel says again, “We have sinned. Do with us what you think fit, just rescue us today!” And take a look at 10:16

He couldn’t stand their griping any more.

We so often have an image of God as a loving father who is patient and quick to welcome us back with open arms. Well, that is one aspect of God’s character. But it is not the only aspect. God gets frustrated and angry when believers continually do dumb things when they should know better!

Those of you who have kids or spent any time with kids, has their behavior ever aggravated you? Angered you? Frustrated you? Do you love your kids any less when they behave like that? No, but that doesn’t take away the aggravation. This is the image we see of God in this story. The idiotic behavior of believers makes God say, “You know what…? Deal with it. I am not going to do this right now.” This really isn’t something new. People doing stupid things and turning away from God when they KNOW what they should be doing seems to get on God’s nerves.

The same thing happened in Exodus 33:3. This is right after the “Golden Calf Incident of ’76.” Oh, yeah, remember that? God’s people have grown inpatient waiting for God and Moses so they make their own sacred cow. This is right when God is about to send Israel into the Promised Land. God has enough and says this: “Go on to the land where milk and honey flow. I shall not go with you myself—you are a headstrong people—or I might exterminate you on the way.”

Clearly God gets frustrated by human behavior, and every once in a while he has to say, “I’m out. I won’t be part of this.” On the surface God’s behavior can seem harsh, even indecisive. I’m here, I’m not. I’m here, I’m not. But I don’t think God is being too harsh. I think he’s being realistic. Often times we won’t get in gear until we risk losing something dear and important to us. You know what I’m talking about. You know there are areas of your life that you refuse to change and will never change until you’re faced with a big enough consequence. And then see how fast you can change! This was the Israelites. God said, “I don’t want to deal with this – how many times do I need to come to your rescue?” So they toss out all of the idols and vow to serve God only – then comes the hunt for the savior/warrior.

And someone says, “Hey remember our half-brother we told to take a hike? He’s become a pretty successful commander leading raids. He’d probably be a good choice to lead our people into a fight against the Ammonites!” And they go and they ask Jephthah, “Jeph, please come be our military commander!” You’ve seen how nice people are when they want something from you? But don’t go pointing fingers too quickly. We’re all like that sometimes.

We’re always nice to people when we want something from them – we treat God the same way!

When you need something from God, what kind of reacquainting dance do you do? “Hey, God, I know it’s been a while, but if you could see fit to help out….”

Jephthah’s own family treats him this way calls them on it. “Aren’t you the guys who hated me and kicked me out? Why come to me when you are in trouble?” And they say, “But we are in trouble, that’s why we come to you now. Look, come fight for us. Be our military commander and also be the leader of the tribe.” You see, they’re getting desperate. They need help so they keep offering more and more in an attempt to win Jephthah over. And Jephthah says, “Lemme get this straight. I’ll come fight for you, AND you’ll restore my position within the tribe? I’ll be the head honcho?” And they say, “Yup, that’s what we’re asking.” So they shake hands and it’s a done deal.

Every scene of the story so far is an exercise in negotiation. The Israelites try to negotiate with God. The tribe leaders negotiate with Jephthah. Now it’s Jephthah’s turn as he takes the lead as commander of the clan. He tries to negotiate with the king of the Ammonites. He sends a message saying, “Friend! There should be no trouble between us. In fact, there should be peace. How about you go your way with what your god has given you, and we’ll go our way with what Yahweh has given us?” But the king of the Ammonites doesn’t pay any attention to the message. And the spirit of the Lord comes upon Jephthah as he prepares for battle, but the man cannot stop negotiating. He once again tries negotiating with God.

“If you give me victory over the Ammonites, then the first person to meet me from the door of my house when I return from battle will belong to Yahweh, and I will offer him up as a burnt offering.” He’s trying to bribe God! “God, give this to me and in return I’ll give you….” How many times have we seen this in movies or television. It’s become a joke to the secular world. Someone is on hard times and turns to God saying, “If you get me out of this I promise I’ll…” but help arrives in the middle or at the end of the prayer and they quickly turn to heaven and say, “Um…never mind.” Why do we think we can bribe God?

Can God be bought off? There is no price high ENOUGH to buy off my God. That’s good news for us, because when God says, “I’ll never leave you, I’ll never abandon you” it means that no enemy could get between God and us. It means no one can say, “God, if you turn your back on Tom, then I promise that I’ll give you such-and-such.”

God can’t be bought by you or anyone else.

Jephthah should have known that. But he thinks he needs to give God an appropriate offering for a personal victory, and his personal victory ends up as a very personal loss, for when he returns home victorious, the first person out of the door to greet him is his daughter, his only child. And he is torn up because he think that his vow to God requires him to sacrifice his child on the altar. It shows how little he REALLY knows God. His daughter also thinks that he is bound, and she attempts to protect her father’s honor. “Father, let me go mourn for two months, then do to me what you have promised God you would do.” And when she returns from mourning with her friends, he did with her as he had vowed. She had never married.

Think about this for a second. She is his only child. What is the significance of pointing out that she was a virgin and had never married? By making a stupid vow, by thinking he could buy off God, he ended up exterminating his own bloodline. Where is the honor in this? There is no honor here. Human sacrifice is a characteristic of foreign, pagan worship, not Yahweh worship. Israel has gone through cycles of turning away from God and turning towards other gods.

Have you ever noticed that when your start spending time around new friends that your vocabulary changes? You start using words and phrases that you’ve never used before. When we spend time away from God, we pick up habits and practices that are not characteristic of someone who is a true worshipper of God. For the Israelites, human sacrifice is not a characteristic of worshipping Yahweh. It is a pagan act of worship.

The story shows that Jephthah, Israel’s leader, sacrifices like a foreigner, even though the sacrifice of his daughter is offered to Yahweh. Israel’s return to God is incomplete, it isn’t total, because they are still acting like foreigners and attributing their behavior as worship to God.

We keep doing the same things we always do yet expect things to change because we are “worshiping God.” That’s insanity. That’s idiocy. It’s time to break with the old way of doing things and turn whole-heartedly towards God and his ways. This means in the way we sacrifice or worship. This means in the way we treat God and others. This means in our family relationships. This means at our jobs and with our friends.

It’s time to stop doing things the way we’ve always done them or doing things the way outsiders do them and start doing things the way God wants us to do them. Don’t act like outsiders act and think that you are a true worshiper of God! If we don’t do things differently, nothing will change. We will never go deeper. So take a minute. Pause before the Lord. Ask God to show you what you have allowed to remain in your life as a foreigner that does not fit the picture of a true worshipper of God.

Are we willing to focus on God alone and let everything else fall by the wayside?

Will we give up negotiating with God and simply life the life he wants us to live?

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