Category Archives: Character Studies

Jephthah’s Vow (Part 1): What Did Jephthah Do to His Daughter?

Jephthah’s Vow (Part 1): What Did Jephthah Do to His Daughter?

Ehud before the Moabite King Eglon. I opted for a less violent depiction of their encounter!
Ehud before the Moabite King Eglon. I opted for a less violent depiction of their encounter!

The Book of Judges frequently gets a lot of negative press. Stories like the gang rape of a concubine (Judg. 19:25-30), and graphic descriptions of an overweight king having a dagger plunged into his belly (Judg. 3:21-25), or an enemy general having a tent peg driven through his skull (Judg. 4:21; 5:26-27), make many people, understandably, uneasy. Jephthah’s vow concerning his only daughter seems to be another example of the barbarity described in this book (Judg. 11:30-40). But is it? What exactly did Jephthah vow, and what did he do to his daughter? There are two proposed interpretations:

  1. Jephthah offered up his daughter as a whole burnt offering.
  2. Jephthah devoted his daughter to the sanctuary of the Lord as a perpetual virgin, or secluded her away with no hope of marrying and bearing children.

It should be noted at the outset that proponents of both of these views are genuinely seeking to understand and communicate the message of the text. While a majority of commentators opt for proposal number 1 above, there are some who ardently argue for the second proposal. It is suggested that some of the Judges, in particular, Jephthah and Samson, have received a bad rap by recent commentators. I have blogged about an example of this in my article: Samson and the Gaza Prostitute: Did He or Didn’t He?. Scholars such as Gordon P. Hugenberger, Miles Van Pelt, and Rikk Watts, argue for a more positive understanding of Samson, and the role played by the judges in the Book of Judges. One can also find various blogs on the internet defending, what some consider, the questionable actions of Jephthah and Samson (e.g., Miles Van Pelt’s article: What was Samson Doing with a Prostitute in Gaza? at; or David Murray’s article: Jephthah’s Perfect Vow at

I have no illusions of solving the controversy that has raged over this passage for many centuries, but having studied and taught the Book of Judges for a number of years, my desire is to provide a response to those who look more positively on Jephthah’s vow and actions (proposal number 2 above). So the cat is out of the bag! I am among those who understand Jephthah’s vow and actions as comforming to the first proposal. Based on the language and context, I firmly believe that Jephthah did, misguidedly, offer his daughter up as a whole burnt offering. In this post, I will look at what I perceive to be the weaknesses of proposal 2. I will then follow up with another post suggesting the strengths of proposal 1.

Jephthah’s Vow: Weaknesses of Proposal 2

  1. The daughter of Jephthah willingly submitted to her father's vow.
    The daughter of Jephthah willingly submitted to her father’s vow.

    I will begin with what I believe to be one of the greatest weaknesses of the proposal that Jephthah did not offer his daughter as a burnt offering. Ancient testimony is uniform (both rabbinic and church fathers) in understanding that Jephthah did indeed offer his daughter as a burnt sacrifice. It was only in the Middle Ages that an alternative was first suggested by the respected rabbi, David Kimchi (1160-1235 AD). The following lengthy quote is taken from Keil and Delitzsch’s Old Testament commentary on Judges:”With regard to Jephthah’s vow, the view expressed so distinctly by Josephus and the Chaldee was the one which generally prevailed in the earlier times among both Rabbins and fathers of the church, viz., that Jephthah put his daughter to death and burned her upon the altar as a bleeding sacrifice to Jehovah. It was not till the middle ages that Mos. and Dav. Kimchi and certain other Rabbins endeavoured to establish the view, that Jephthah merely dedicated his daughter to the service of the sanctuary of Jehovah in a lifelong virginity” (Keil, C. F., & Delitzsch, F., 1996, Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. 2, p. 280).

  2. The argument I consider the strongest for proposal 2 suggests that the Hebrew conjunction (waw) can be translated as “or” rather than “and” in Jephthah’s vow. Here then are the 2 possible ways of translating Jephthah’s vow in Judges 11:31: a. “Whatever comes out of my house to meet me…shall surely be the Lord’s and I will offer it up as a burnt offering”; or, b.  “Whatever comes out of my house to meet me…shall surely be the Lord’s or I will offer it up as a burnt offering.” The biggest problem with accepting the translation “or” instead of “and” is related to the previous argument above. No one in the ancient world (who arguably knew ancient Hebrew better than we do) understood Jephthah to be saying “or.” Furthermore, Trent Butler points out that Jephthah’s vow has 2 presuppositions: 1) God will give Ammon into Jephthah’s hand; and 2) Jephthah will return in peace. Butler then comments, “To the two presuppositions are attached two promises: whatever comes from Jephthah’s house to meet him will be given ‘to Yahweh,’ and such gift will be given by means of a burnt offering” (Trent C. Butler, Judges, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 8, p. 287). Therefore, the translation “and” makes more linguistic sense as it shows how the 2 promises made by Jephthah fit the 2 presuppositions he requests from the Lord.
  3. Those who advocate proposal 2 note that when Jephthah’s daughter asks for 2 months, it is in regard to weeping for her virginity (Judg. 11:37), not weeping because she will be put to death. This argument, however, overlooks the fact that one of the greatest tragedies in the ancient world was not death itself, but the inability to have chidren, and even more so, the extinction of the family line. Thus mourning her virginity is an understandable response. Furthermore, long ago Matthew Henry had one of the greatest rebuttals for this argument when he stated, “Besides, had she only been confined to a single life, she needed not to have desired these two months to bewail it in: she had her whole life before her to do that, if she saw cause” (quoted in Dale Ralph Davis, Judges: Such a Great Salvation, p. 147).
  4. It is sometimes argued that Jephthah had the Spirit and therefore he would not have made such an ungodly vow. This statement is clearly incorrect, as many people who have the Spirit continue to commit sin. The Spirit does not automatically make us perfect people, nor does the Spirit take our free will away from us. Examples of this include Gideon, who in spite of being filled with the Spirit, did not trust God but asked for further confirmation (Judg. 6:34-40); Samson, who received the Spirit on numerous occasions, but frequently ignored his Nazirite vow (Judg. 14-16); Saul, who received the Spirit (1 Sam. 10:10) but continually disobeyed the Lord (1 Sam. 13:13; 15:11) until God finally removed His Spirit (1 Sam. 16:14); and David who committed adultery and murder, but pleaded with the Lord not to remove His Spirit (Ps. 51:11). Those of us who are Christians could also testify to the fact that, although we have the Holy Spirit, we are capable of doing terrible things.
  5. This view also argues that people (men and women) could be devoted to the Lord and serve at the sanctuary. Exodus 38:8 mentions women serving at the sanctuary, as does 1 Samuel 2:22, and the young Samuel is an example of someone who was dedicated to God’s service through the pronouncement of a vow (1 Sam. 1:11). The problem with this assertion is that none of these passages state that virginity was a part of this service. Samuel certainly did not remain celebate all of his life (see 1 Sam. 8:1-3), and the women mentioned in 1 Samuel 2:22 were far from paragons of virtue! Leviticus 27:1-8 is also mentioned as an example of vows concerning people, but as Dale Ralph Davis points out, this passage “has nothing to do with serving at the sanctuary” (Judges: Such a Great Salavation, p. 146), and I would add, it says nothing about celibacy either.
  6. Because Jepthah is mentioned in a positive light in both 1 Samuel 12:11 and Hebrews 11:32, it is therefore argued that he could not possibly have committed such a despicable sin. In my opinion (you’re free to disagree), I believe that this is what motivates and underlies the proposal that Jephthah did not offer up his daughter as a burnt offering. Out of a desire to either defend Jephthah, the Scripture, or both, a misguided attempt is made to explain away the clear meaning of the text. There seems to be a certain amount of embarassment that the Bible would record such an incident, and that a person of faith could be capable of such a thing. Although unintentional, this view presents the unrealistic argument that people of faith can’t make serious mistakes. I have addressed this to a certain extent in argument 4 above regarding the Spirit, but I will expound on it a bit further here. Abraham is also lauded for his faith in Hebrews 11, but this does not mean he is without serious sin. Genesis records 2 occasions when Abraham puts his wife Sarah, as well as God’s promise, in serious jeopardy by lying about her to foreign dignitaries (Gen. 12:10-20; chapter 20). Lot is an excellent example of one who is called righteous in the New Testament (2 Pet. 2:7-8), but an examination of his character in Genesis leaves only a little room for this evaluation. Finally, I have already cited David (see #4 above), a man after God’s own heart, and yet guilty of adultery and murder. Considering these examples (and many others which could be added), to speak of Jephthah’s faith in Hebrews 11, no more acquits him of committing a terrible sin, than it does anyone else. In fact, Judges 12:1-7 demonstrates that Jephthah is capable of the worst kind of sin. Which is worse, to offer one’s daughter as a burnt offering or to slaughter 42,000 fellow-Israelites (from Ephraim)? Clearly, both acts are alarming, but Judges 12 is evidence that “godly” Jephthah is capable of great sin.

In my opinion, every argument employed to explain away Jephthah’s vow as a pious, or at worst, slightly misguided vow, falls apart upon closer examination. In the next post, I will look at the reasons why we should understand the story to clearly teach that Jephthah sacrificed his daughter as a burnt offering. I will not only argue that this is the correct interpretation, but that to substitute an incorrect interpretation (i.e., the one we have been scrutinizing here), does damage to the inspired message of the Book of Judges–a message desperately needed in the age in which we live.

Amasa and His “Blood Brothers” in 2 Samuel

Amasa and His “Blood Brothers” in 2 Samuel

Joab murdered his own cousin Amasa in order to hold on to his position as commander
Joab murdered his own cousin Amasa in order to hold on to his position as commander

One of the interesting, but admittedly gruesome, features of 2 Samuel concerns the stabbing of 4 different men in the stomach. The stories are tied together by this (un)common theme. The first two killings occur between rival houses for the throne–i.e. members of Saul’s and David’s house killing one another. The first incident involves Abner of the house of Saul killing Asahel, the nephew of David (2 Sam. 2:18-23). For a more indepth treatment of this incident see my post entitled: “Asahel: Running into Trouble.” The second incident involves Joab and his brother Abishai of the house of David (and brothers of Asahel) killing Abner of the house of Saul (2 Sam. 3:26-27). The first killing happens during a time of battle, and in spite of Abner’s pleadings for Asahel to stop pursuing him. The second killing is more treacherous as Joab lures the unsuspecting Abner into a trap and murders him. Although these killings are both tragic because they involve rival houses during a time of hostility, they are, to some extent, understandable.

Ish-bosheth's own captains murdered him while he slept.
Ish-bosheth’s own captains murdered him while he slept.

The second set of killings, however, are more shocking. They are “in-house” killings. Ish-bosheth is stabbed by fellow Benjamites, captains of his own army (2 Sam. 4). Amasa, another nephew of David, is brutally dispatched by Joab, who is not only a nephew of David, but a cousin of Amasa (2 Sam. 20:8-13). Thus there is a steady progression of brutality and violence as we read through the story in 2 Samuel tracing this theme of 4 men who “get it” in the belly. The writer seems to linger a little longer over the death of Amasa. It is the last in this gory chain of stabbings and provides a climax in several ways. First, Joab’s killing of a fellow cousin through the deception of a kiss, and the callous treatment of Asahel as he lies “wallowing in his blood in the middle of the highway” (2 Sam. 20:12), presents the most tragic and gruesome scene of any of the 4 accounts. Second this scene intentionally recalls the other 3 accounts. In my book, Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel, my concluding thoughts on Amasa’s character study provides a summary of the similarities and differences between these accounts and some of the lessons to be learned from them. That conclusion is reproduced below.

Conclusion: Amasa and His “Blood Brothers”

family portraitsOne cannot read the account of Amasa’s death without recalling the violent deaths of other men in 2 Samuel. As Polzin notes, “2 Samuel makes it clear that Joab’s smiting of Amasa in the belly looks backward to the murders of Ishbosheth in 4:6, Abner in 3:27, and Asahel in 2:23. Moreover, these instances of ‘smiting in the belly’ occur only here in 2 Samuel, and always in the context of an explicit reference to ‘brother.’ ” These similarities invite the reader to compare and contrast the four different stories.

Parallels between the deaths of Abner and Amasa are especially noteworthy. They both share the same murderer: Joab. In both cases Joab deceived the men he murdered by catching them off guard and striking them in the stomach (3:27; 20:10). Both were commanders over their respective armies, who fought and lost a civil war against David (2 Sam. 2:12–17; 17:25). Joab perceived the reconciliation of both men to David as a threat, and both were killed in an atmosphere of “peace” (3:21–23; 20:9). Joab’s murder of these men threatened to disrupt the tenuous unity recently forged in both situations. Finally, David himself drew a parallel between these two murders, advising Solomon to deal with Joab accordingly (1 Kings 2:5–6).

These similarities provide the backdrop for the contrast between the two deaths. Although the narrative makes it clear that Joab was wrong in murdering Abner, at least the author provided him with some motivation: Abner’s killing of Joab’s brother Asahel (3:30). No such explanation is provided for the murder of Amasa; indeed, none can be. The silence of the text convicts Joab. Perhaps the text’s silence also suggests that Joab had reached such a hard-hearted state in his killing of others that he no longer felt the need to justify his actions.

Amasa and Joab were cousins. Both were sons of David's sisters.
Amasa and Joab were cousins. Both were sons of David’s sisters.

A final contrast that highlights the heinous nature of Amasa’s murder is that he was a blood relative of Joab from the house of David, whereas Abner belonged to the rival house of Saul. The murder of Amasa sounds a climactic note in 2 Samuel on the consequences of the abuse of power. Joab’s unrestrained lust for power begins with killing his fellow-countryman (Abner) and ends with killing his own kinsman (Amasa).

Besides the act of “smiting in the belly,” a number of other similarities also connect Amasa’s death with Asahel’s. Both stories center on Gibeon (2:12; 20:8). Each story speaks of “pursuing” an enemy, and in each case the battle ends by Joab blowing the trumpet (2:28; 20:23). The root ʾaḥar (“after”) occurs frequently (11 times) in the account of Amasa’s death, as it does in the story of Asahel. Furthermore, in both accounts the author vividly relates the gruesome nature of the death and comments that those who came upon the scene “stood still” (2:23; 20:12).

The difference between Asahel’s death and Amasa’s highlights again the brutality of Joab’s action. Since Asahel and Abner are on opposite sides in the battle, it is not surprising that one would kill the other. Amasa and Joab, however, are on the same side. Abner warns Asahel twice (2:21–22) before delivering the deadly blow, whereas Joab lulls Amasa into a false sense of security, and then kills him without warning (20:9–10).

The similarities of Amasa with Abner and Asahel also suggest certain character traits that they share. Both Abner and Amasa are caught unaware and “die as a fool” (3:33). Asahel’s inexperience contrasts with Amasa’s experience, but both prove to be naive in their own way.

Sadly, there is not much of a positive nature that can be said of Amasa. He was the nephew that betrayed his uncle the king. He was the general who lost a war, and the ineffective commander of David’s troops who could not fulfill his commission. In the end he dies the death of a fool, his body disgraced by being dumped in a field, ultimately forgotten by his men, and by the narrator as the story continues without him. Amasa, as commander of the army (both David’s and Absalom’s), has all the outward trappings of success, but his life is a dismal failure. His cruel death evokes sympathy, but his betrayal of the Lord’s anointed appears to reap consequences that go beyond the civil war. His under-achieving seems to be related to his lack of true perception (he did not recognize the Lord’s anointed or the sword in Joab’s hand). As such, he becomes a warning to all who might “dress for success” and look the part, but inwardly lack the real quality of greatness: a quality that comes only by aligning oneself with the Lord and His purposes.

Samson and the Gaza Prostitute: Did He or Didn’t He?

Samson and the Gaza Prostitute: Did He or Didn’t He?

Although this is a picture of Samson and Delilah, let's pretend it's Samson and the Gaza Prostitute since such pictures are hard to find!
Although this is a picture of Samson and Delilah, let’s pretend it’s Samson and the Gaza Prostitute since such pictures are hard to find!

Samson’s visit to the prostitute in Gaza has usually been considered as one example, among many, of his misadventures. Recently, several scholars have questioned this interpretation, suggesting that Samson has been misunderstood. How should the brief episode between Samson and the Gaza Prostitute be read? Is Samson a “good guy” whose intentions at the prostitute’s house have been misrepresented, or is this story just another example of his “bad boy” behavior?

Before beginning, I want to acknowledge my indebtedness to two of my colleagues for introducing me to this debate. They have both written about it on their blogs. Lindsay Kennedy has summarized an article written by Gordon P. Hugenberger entitled, “Samson and the Harlot at Gaza (Judges 16:1-3)” contained in the volume From Creation to New Creation. You can read his post at “Why Samson May Have Not Visited a Prostitute” at Spencer Robinson has joined in the conversation by noting what Rikk Watts has to say on this topic. You can read his post at “Was Samson a Good Judge?” at Besides Hugenberger and Watts, Miles Van Pelt has also joined the discussion with his post “What was Samson Doing with a Prostitute in Gaza?” at Having read Hugenberger’s article and Van Pelt’s post, my purpose is to lay out their arguments for Samson as a “good guy.” However, while many of us would like to believe that Samson’s visit to the prostitute at Gaza has some “redeeming social value,” in the second part of this post I will attempt to explain why I disagree with Hugenberger’s  and Van Pelt’s arguments. Although I’m using the “good guy/bad guy” vocabulary, I must caution that neither I, nor any scholar I am familiar with, thinks that Samson is all bad or all good. Like all of us, he is a mixture of both.

Samson and the Gaza Prostitute: The Argument for a Positive Interpretation

from creationThe following list is a summary of Hugenberger’s arguments regarding a positive reading of the Samson story as a whole, as well as the story of Samson and the Gaza prostitute:

1.”The biblical text nowhere states why Samson went down to Gaza” (p. 63) and, therefore, the reader should not be influenced by speculations that he was lonely or had an “irrepressible libido.”

2. The expression “he came to her,” is ambiguous and, “In the vast majority of cases the expression refers to one entering into the company of another without any sexual implication” (p. 64).

3. 16:1-3 “offers no hint of moral rebuke,” and the feat of removing the doors, doorposts, and bar from the city gates implies, “if anything, divine approbation” (p. 65).

4. The progammatic text of Judges 2:6-23 suggests a “positive view of the judges” (p. 67). Hugenberger argues that, “many of the texts assumed to offer incontrivertible proof of egregious moral failure or infidelity toward God on the part of the judges are often susceptible to less negative interpretations” (p. 67).

Gordon Hugenberger, pictured above, along with Miles Van Pelt and others, argues for a positive interpretation of the Samson and the Gaza prostitute story.
Gordon Hugenberger, pictured above, along with Miles Van Pelt and others, argues for a positive interpretation of the Samson and the Gaza prostitute story.

6&7. Hugenberger’s two main proofs that the Samson and the Gaza prostitute episode should be read positively are based on the parallels between Judges 16:1-3 and Joshua 2, and the contrasts between Judges 16:1-3 and Judges 18. For a more detailed look at the comparisons between these stories, click the link to Kennedy’s post above.

7. Hugenberger also questions why God hears Samson’s prayers after the Delilah episode if he is the bad character that some paint him to be.

Van Pelt shares some similarities with Hugenberger’s arguments for a more positive interpretation of the Samson and Gaza prostitute story. He adds that Samson may have visited a prostitute to mask his true intent. He also notes that the similarities between Judges 16:1-3 and Joshua 2 may be “the author’s way of preparing us for the eventual destruction of that town.” He questions what the author’s point would be in recording that Samson had a one night stand and argues that “Samson goes to Gaza to do what Israel was failing to do.”

Samson and the Gaza Prostitute: The Argument for a Negative Interpretation

In this section I will respond to the arguments cited above made by Hugenberger and Van Pelt and demonstrate why, despite their reasonings, I continue to view the episode in Judges 16:1-3 negatively. The numbers in parenthesis below correspond to the arguments laid out above.

(1) I am in agreement with Hugenberger’s statement that the biblical text does not state why Samson went to Gaza. This is not an argument for a positive or negative interpretation, however. It is simply an assertion that we should remain open-minded as we approach the text.

(2) It is true that the expression “he came in(to) her” is used in various ways in the Hebrew Scriptures and that in a majority of cases it does not have any reference to sexual activity. However, when this expression is accompanied by other sexual references in the text it is certainly suggestive of sexual intimacy. Hugenberger notes that this phrase occurs 15 other times in Judges and, with the possible exception of Judges 15:1, it never refers to sexual intimacy. He also states, “a majority of modern English translations and commentaries do not favor this option” for 15:1. This is a bit of a “straw man” however. If I were to argue that “came (in)to” in a majority of cases throughout the Hebrew Bible does not refer to sexual intimacy (which is true, as noted above), therefore, it probably doesn’t refer to sexual intimacy in Genesis 38:16, I would be wrong. Just because a word doesn’t mean something in a majority of cases, does not rule out that it could carry that meaning in a context that specifically suggests such a meaning. For example, “came (in)to” has the regular meaning of approaching in the context of the Angel of the Lord “coming to” Manoah’s wife (Judg. 13:6, 9, 10). That is its natural meaning and there is nothing in the context to suggest otherwise. However, throw in the word “prostitute,” or other sexually charged words, and “came (in)to” quite naturally carries a sexual connotation. Whether Samson did or didn’t engage in sexual activity with the prostitute may be debated, but the atmosphere of the text is certainly sexually charged by the language used. We will return to this phrase when discussing Joshua 2 below, but for now I note that Hugenberger’s argument regarding “the usual meaning based on number of occurrences makes the less usual meaning doubtful,” as erroneous.

Samson carries the gates of Gaza - Judges 16 3 - Henri Motte The Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons, vol. 3. edited by Charles F. Horne and Julius A. Bewer. 1908
Samson carries the gates of Gaza – Judges 16 3 – Henri Motte
The Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons, vol. 3. edited by Charles F. Horne and Julius A. Bewer. 1908

(3) I agree, as Hugenberger points out, that this episode “offers no hint of moral rebuke.” But this doesn’t mean that we should automatically conclude that it demonstrates “if anything, divine approbation.” One of the characteristics of Hebrew narrative is to tell the story and leave the judgment up to the reader’s perception. For example, there is no moral rebuke for Abram’s action in taking Hagar and conceiving through her (Gen. 16). In fact, God protects Hagar and the child and commands them to return to Abram and Sarai after they had been driven away. Yet every reader knows that Abram’s actions are wrong. Closer to home in the Book of Judges, we could cite numerous examples. Whether one thinks Jephthah offered his daughter as a sacrifice, or simply doomed her to perpetual virginity, it can not be argued that his vow was anything except foolish. However, no moral censure is recorded and God still gives Jephthah victory. To argue that God blesses Jephthah with victory and that this demonstrates “if anything, divine approbation” of his vow, is clearly nonsensical.

(4) There is certainly truth to the contention that Judges 2:6-23 puts the judges in a more positive light than the rest of Israel. However, this does not mean that the judges are shining examples of virtue. The judges exercise faith and they are God’s instruments to deliver his people, but the evidence shows that they were very human and were affected by the environment they were a part of. Most, if not all, commentators will give high marks to the first few judges–Othniel, Ehud, and Barak & Deborah. Even here some raise their eyebrows at Ehud’s methods and Barak’s unwillingness to go to battle without Deborah; but, largely, these judges are positive role models. While there are good qualities in all of the judges, there does seem to be a turning point for the worse with Gideon and those who follow after him in the book. In spite of the good that Gideon accomplishes, are we really expected to cheer him for torturing and slaughtering fellow-Israelites (Judg. 8:13-17), or creating a golden ephod that leads Israel back into idolatry? (Judg. 8:27). We have already noticed the problem of Jephthah’s vow; should we also congratulate him for his civil war against the Ephraimites where he is said to slaughter 42,000? (Judg. 12:1-6). The point is, although the judges are capable of great good, they are also capable of great evil, and this includes Samson.

Is Joshua's sending of the spies in Joshua 2 positive or negative?
Is Joshua’s sending of the spies in Joshua 2 a positive or negative story?

(5&6) Hugenberger, as well as Van Pelt, are quite correct to notice the similarities of Judges 16:1-3 with Joshua 2 and Judges 18. However, how one interprets the relationship between these passages is up for debate. Both Hugenberger and Van Pelt see Joshua 2 comparing favorably with Judges 16, and thus presenting a positive picture of Samson. A number of commentators on Joshua would disagree. For example regarding Joshua 2, J. Gordon Harris states, “Note how the narrator reports that God ordered Joshua to arise and cross the Jordan, but instead Joshua orders spies to go to Jericho and Canaan. By sending spies, Joshua risked the success of the mission” (Joshua, Judges, Ruth, NIBC, p. 27). Robert Polzin is even more direct when he says, “In reponse, Joshua timidly sends out spies to reconnoiter the country, and we are immediately alerted that Joshua may not be as strong and resolute as God and the people had encouraged him to be” (Moses and the Deuteronomist, p. 86). If these commentators are corrrect, the spy story in Joshua 2 is actually a negative comment on the faith of Joshua and the Israelites. The fact of the matter is, it seems that most spy stories in the Hebrew Bible have a negative bent to them (Num. 13; Deut. 1:21-32; Josh. 7:2-5; Judg. 1:22-26.

It is also argued that the sexually charged language of Joshua 2 raises suspicions about the rightness of this mission. Creach states, “Sexual innuendo permeates the story and is a driving force in its plot” (Joshua, Interpretation Commentary, p. 32). Hugenberger argues strenuously that the spies did not engage in sexual promiscuity (pp. 71-73). I agree with him, but this misses the point. The sexually charged language of Joshua 2 is not meant to suggest that the spies had sexual relations with Rahab; it is meant to color the narrative so that the dubious nature of this mission is exposed. In other words, it is one more way that the narrator suggests that Joshua made a mistake in sending out the spies. Based on the assertion that the spies were not guilty of sexual misconduct in Joshua 2, Hugenberger makes a huge leap when he states, “it seems plausible that the same presumption of innocence should obtain for Samson at Gaza” (p. 72). Not only is this a huge jump in the interpretive process, but I would make two observations: 1) Early in his article, Hugenberger states “It is hardly persuasive to build an argument on what an author or editor ‘did not say'” (p. 66). Yet Hugenberger seeks to argue that if the spies didn’t, then Samson didn’t! 2) Hugenberger is also assuming that the spy story of Joshua 2 is positive. If it is negative, however, as noted above, then, using Hugenberger’s logic, the negative qualities of Joshua 2 color the narrative in Judges 16:1-3 making a negative interpretation of Samson’s actions more likely.

There is a further problem with Hugenberger’s application of both Joshua 2 and Judges 18 to the episode in Judges 16:1-3. Because Hugenberger interprets the story in Joshua 2 positively, he sees the similarity in language with Judges 16 as evidence for a positive interpretation of the Samson story. Again, there are two problems: 1) Even if, for the sake of argument, we agree that Joshua 2 is a positive story about the spies, how do we know that the Samson story is not a parody on the spy story of Joshua 2? In other words, in Joshua 2 the spies don’t have sex with Rahab, but in Judges 16 Samson does what the spies didn’t do! It’s all a matter of perspective as to whether the story is a parallel to Joshua 2 or an anti-parallel. 2) If the story in Joshua 2 is a negative story, then the parallel that Hugenberger argues for must be seen as a negative for the Samson and the Gaza prostitute episode. Otherwise, Hugenberger must change his intepretation and say Joshua 2 is an anti-parallel story! My point is this process, although helpful, is also very subjective. The same can be said of the similarities between Judges 16 and 18. Here, Hugenberger sees the story in Judges 18 as a contrast to Judges 16:1-3, whereas, I would argue that it is a parallel. One of the reasons I would argue for it being parallel is that the story in Judges 18 is the second half of a story that begins in chapter 17 with the words “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 17:6). This is a familiar refrain repeated throughout the end of the book (Judg. 21:25). In the Samson narrative (Judg. 13-16), the first words out of his mouth are when he demands his parents to get him the woman from Timnah as a wife for, “she is right in my eyes” (Judg. 14:3). This statement suggests that Samson has a lot in common with the people of Judges 17-21.

In his blindness, Samson was made to see.
In his blindness, Samson was made to see.

(7) I also believe that Hugenberger’s and Van Pelt’s argument for a positive Samson overlooks an important motif in the story. The author is clear that Samson has a “seeing” problem. As just noted, Samson has an eye for the ladies and the first words he utters include, “I have seen a woman” (Judg. 14:2), “Get her for me because she is right in my eyes” (Judg. 14:3). This “seeing” problem is what leads Samson to the house of the Gaza prostitute. Judges 16:1 begins, “Now Samson went to Gaza and saw a harlot there, and went in to her” (NKJV). Ironically, Samson’s eye problem is cured when he is blinded by the Philistines. It is only when he is blind, that he truly begins to see (as the hymn says!). While blind, Samson seeks the Lord and prays for strength to avenge himself for his two eyes (Judg. 16:28). It is Samson’s dependence on the Lord that renews his strength, not his upright character (as Hugenberger suggests) in relation to the prostitute or anyone else. An important mistake made by Van Pelt, along these lines, is that he argues that Samson went to the prostitute’s house so that he would not be detected, and so that he might mask his true intent. This is wrong on two counts: 1) As Hugenberger notes, the house of a prostitute did not guarantee masking your intentions–both Samson and the spies are found out by the people in the city (so much for masking one’s intent!). 2) Hugenberger also notes that Samson’s original destination in Gaza was not the prostitute’s house. This is made clear in 16:1 when it says that Samson only went to the prostitute’s house after he “saw” her. As Barry Webb states, “What the text clearly implies, however, is that he did not go to Gaza with the express intention of visiting a prostitute” (Judges, NICOT, p. 393). Thus, Van Pelt’s supposition that Samson went to the prostitute’s house  to spy out the town (like the spies of Joshua 2) is incorrect. Although Hugenberger’s comments help to undermine Van Pelt’s supposition, he comes to the same conclusion that Samson’s visit to the prostitute, like the spies of Jericho, is an “appropriate step that would enable the divinely approved work of dispossession to begin” (p. 79). From an authorial perspective of the Book of Judges, I can see how the biblical author’s parallels to Jericho might suggest this, but from a historical or practical viewpoint, I find it hard to understand how visiting the house of a prostitute announces the dispossession of a city! Again, from a literary point of view I can understand how Samson’s visit to a prostitute would recall the story of Joshua 2, and thus prepare the reader for Gaza’s destruction. However, to suggest that this was Samson’s motive, not only rings hollow to me, it doesn’t fit reality.

Finally, the Conclusion!

To make a long post, longer, let me conclude by saying that Hugenberger’s article and Van Pelt’s post are well worth reading. Not only should one read it for him/herself to judge whether I have represented them fairly, but also one should read it because, like Samson himself, there is good as well as bad in them (ha!). I also want to say that I greatly look forward to Hugenberger’s forthcoming commentary on Judges in the Apollos series (Judges Commentary in the Apollos series). I’m confident that, not only will this commentary be full of insight, but it will also give Hugenberger more space to develop and defend his thesis about Samson and the rest of the judges. Meanwhile, I remain convinced that the overall structure of Judges consists of a downward spiral where the spiritual life of the people of Israel and the judges themselves continues to deteriorate to the end of the book. For an excellent treatment and defense of this thesis see the commentaries by Daniel Block in the NAC series and Barry Webb in the NICOT (see link above). Since this topic seems to be a lively debate at the moment, I would welcome all comments that any readers might want to share. After all, it is in the give and take of exchanging our understanding of a biblical passage that we sharpen each other and strive to get at the real meaning of the text.

Jeremiah, descendant of Eli Prophesies Hope for the Future

Jeremiah, descendant of Eli Prophesies Hope for the Future

jer 29Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope,” is one of the most popular Bible verses among evangelicals. In its original context, God, through Jeremiah, is speaking hope to the wayward citizens of Judah who had been taken captive to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar (Jer. 29:1). This word of hope which resonates with so many today, may have been born out of Jeremiah’s own personal family history and experience. It appears that Jeremiah’s own family history was acquainted with rejection, while his own call confirms that God does not give up on those who were once rejected. What do we know about Jeremiah’s family history and how does this rejection/acceptance theology play out in his own life?

The evidence suggests that Jeremiah was a descendant of Eli.
The evidence suggests that Jeremiah was a descendant of Eli.

Jeremiah 1:1 introduces Jeremiah as “the son of Hilkiah of the priests who were in Anathoth.” This brief statement has convinced many scholars that Jeremiah was a descendant of Eli, the high priest whose story is recorded in 1 Samuel 1-4. There are a number of good reasons for such a connection. Abiathar, a descendant of Eli, was one of the high priests during the reigns of David and Solomon (2 Sam. 20:25). Shortly before Solomon’s accession to the throne, Abiathar joined a coup headed by David’s son Adonijah (1 Kgs. 1:7). As a result Solomon, deposed Abiathar from the high priesthood and sent him packing to the town of Anathoth where Abiathar owned land (1 Kgs. 2:26-27). Since Anathoth was a small village (only about 3 miles northeast of Jerusalem), it is unlikely that there would have been more than one priestly family living there. Thus, the fact that Jeremiah is from a priestly family from the town of Anathoth makes it very likely that he was a descendant of Abiathar, and thus also a descendant of Eli. During the priesthood of Eli, God had warned him that the priesthood would be taken from his family and given to another (1 Sam. 2:27-36). That prophesy was fulfilled during the high priesthood of Abiathar (1 Kgs. 2:27, 35). Therefore it seems that Jeremiah’s family history was a legacy of failure and rejection.

When Eli heard the news of the ark's capture, he fell backwards off of his chair and died (1 Sam. 4:18). These stories about Shiloh's destruction were probably a part of Jeremiah's family history.
When Eli heard the news of the ark’s capture, he fell backwards off of his chair and died (1 Sam. 4:18). These stories about Shiloh’s destruction were probably a part of Jeremiah’s family history.

There are other hints from the Book of Jeremiah that strengthen his ties to the priestly family of Eli and Abiathar. Jeremiah is the only prophet to speak about the destruction of God’s sanctuary in Shiloh during the days of Eli (Jer. 7:12-14; 26:6; 1 Sam. 4). This may well suggest a vivid family memory that was passed down from generation to generation. Since Shiloh was a part of the northern tribes, some suggest that this might explain Jeremiah’s concern for Israel. Regarding Jeremiah’s connection to Abiathar and the sanctuary at Shiloh, Thompson writes, “Such an ancestry would explain Jeremiah’s deep feeling for Israel’s ancient traditions, his special interest in Shiloh and its fate, his genuine concern for the people of Northern Israel, and his affinity with Hosea, the great prophet to the people of Northern Israel in the eighth century B.C.” (Thompson, NICOT, p. 140). Jeremiah is also the only prophet to mention Samuel. In Jeremiah 15:1 the Lord tells Jeremiah that “Even if Moses and Samuel stood before Me, My mind would not be favourable toward this people.” Samuel, of course, had a very special relationship with the family of Eli (1 Sam. 1:24-28; 2:11, 18-20; chapter 3).

Jeremiah's own family history mirrors the words that God spoke to him through his visit to the potter's house.
Jeremiah’s own family history mirrors the words that God spoke to him through his visit to the potter’s house.

In spite of this family history of failure and rejection, Jeremiah was a specially chosen mouthpiece for God. The call of Jeremiah to the prophetic ministry begins in Jeremiah 1:4 with these words: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; Before you were born I sanctified you; I ordained you a prophet to the nations.” In many ways, Jeremiah’s family history made him the perfect individual to speak about God’s ability to transform former failures into new beginnings. On one occasion when Jeremiah visited a potter’s house, he was given the following message: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter. . . .The instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, to pull down, and to destroy it, if that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it” (Jer. 18:6-10). The message continues with a warning that when God speaks about building and planting a kingdom, if that kingdom does evil, He will relent concerning the good He said He would do. Although the nation of Judah did not respond positively to Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry, and God eventually sent them into exile, Jeremiah was led to proclaim words of hope, such as the words in Jeremiah 29:11. Perhaps Jeremiah’s most famous utterance of hope, however, was the proclamation that God would make a new covenant with His people (Jer. 31:31-34). One way in which Jeremiah was commanded by God to act out this hope for the future was by buying his uncle’s field in none other than the town of Anathoth (Jer. 32:7-15). This real estate transaction took place while Jeremiah was in prison and while the Babylonian army was besieging the city of Jerusalem! Even in the face of judgment, God holds out hope for people from a rejected family or nation. No one knew this better than Jeremiah.

Family, or personal failure, does not disqualify you from God's grace.
Family, or personal failure, does not disqualify you from God’s grace.

Do your family’s failures haunt you? Does the past seem to have an ironclad hold on you? Take heart in the example and message of Jeremiah, a man from a family with a legacy of failure, who rose above it by God’s grace. Jeremiah 18:7-8 sends the clear message that God does not hold the failures of the past against anyone who has a repentant heart. Even the judgment of the exile, could not hold back God’s desire to begin again. In the midst of that judgment, God was already promising His people a new start by announcing a new covenant. His spokesperson was from a rejected house with a legacy of family failure. It was Jeremiah, descendant of Eli, whom God called to proclaim words of hope for the future.

My Musings About Going to Church

My Musings About Going to Church

What comes to our mind when we speak of "going to church?"
What comes to our mind when we speak of “going to church?”

When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, a popular slogan was coined which said, “Jesus ‘Yes,’ the Church, ‘No.'” This statement spoke of what some saw as the irrelevancy of the church. Some people were relating to what they learned of Jesus, but they were turned off by what was referred to as the “institutional church.” For some, the church conjured up images of monotonous rituals with no relevancy to daily life, cold, unfeeling, and hypocrital people, lavish buildings, and money-hungry preachers. There was much in this negative portrayal of the church that had a basis in reality, and certainly needed to be addressed. While some have sought to address these and other issues facing the church, new issues continue to arise and some continue to reject the church or the need for going to church.

What Do We Mean By “Going to Church?”

How would you identify the church in this picture? Is it the building or the people?
How would you identify the church in this picture? Is it the building or the people?

The statement “going to church” is, in certain ways, a misnomer. It is an expression that has developed over the centuries meaning the building where people meet. Of course, biblically, it refers to the body of believers for whom Christ died–those who are “called out” and saved by the blood of Christ. While many Christians understand this difference, our use of the phrase “going to church” waters down the true meaning of “church.” I wonder if Christians revived the biblical meaning of church if we would be as quick to dispense with the church. When I determine that, “I’m not going to church anymore,” it can have a very impersonal ring to it. By it I may mean, “I don’t need an institution or building to worship God in,” which is true enough. But if I understand “church” to mean “the family of God,” “the people  for whom Christ died,” “the body of Christ,” etc., then my statement takes on a different meaning. Is it true that I don’t need the family of God, or that it’s alright for me to separate myself from fellow believers for whom Christ died? It’s much easier to disassociate myself from a building or institution, but do I have the right to disassociate myself from worshipping with fellow believers?

God’s People Have Always Worshipped as a Community

moodyFrom the day of Pentecost onward, believers in Jesus have gathered together to worship. “They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42, NKJV). The early believers did this quite naturally because it was their heritage as the people of God to meet together to worship God. Whether meeting at the tabernacle, the temple, or later in synagogues, the people of God had always gathered together to worship, celebrate, fellowship, and learn of God. While the Scripture focuses on individuals who displayed great faith in God in their own personal lives, the context of their story is always the community of God’s people. In other words, the Bible never entertains a solitary believer who is not a part of the community of God’s people. My point here is not to denigrate home bible studies; after all, the early church usually met in homes. But I do have a concern with those who intentionally isolate (and insulate) themselves from the church body by “doing church” at home in the form of listening to Cds, or the radio or TV (I am not speaking of the elderly or those who are physically incapable). My concern is also with “drive-in” churches or similar arrangements where it is not necessary to fellowship or interact with the body of Christ.

When a Christian's attitude is, "It's all about me," we can dispense with going to church.
When a Christian’s attitude is, “It’s all about me,” we can dispense with going to church.

Our Western World, and this is especially true of America, has promoted the value of Individualism. Americans are especially proud of “pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps,” or singing “I Did It My Way.” However, this focus on the individual alone is contrary to biblical values which, not only focus on the significance of community, but the interdependence of God’s people on one another. Try reading Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 11-14 with an individualistic mindset. Statements such as, “But now indeed there are many members, yet one body” (1 Cor. 12:20); “And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually” (1 Cor. 12:26-27), become nonsensical. Our individualistic spirit might consider the writer of Hebrews exhortation “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another and so much the more as you see the Day approaching,” (Heb. 10:24-25) as being a bit melodramatic. “C’mon, I can do this Christian thing on my own. I don’t need others to stir me up to love and good works. I don’t need others to encourage my walk with the Lord. I don’t need others to help me keep a correct perspective on doctrine and belief.” Seriously? I doubt any one would word it this way, but in practice this is what it boils down to. Not only does “forsaking the assembly” of believers rob me of many good things that God intends for me, it also prevents God from using my gifts for the benefit of the body.

Going to Church: The Example of Elkanah (1 Samuel 1-2)

1 Samuel 1-2 pictures Elkanah as a godly man who consistently takes his family to worship God in Shiloh.
1 Samuel 1-2 pictures Elkanah as a godly man who consistently takes his family to worship God in Shiloh.

While the New Testament is filled with good reasons for “going to church,” my inspiration for faithfulness in worshipping God with His people comes from an unusual place. It’s through the example of Elkanah (Samuel’s father) in 1 Samuel 1-2, that God spoke to me the most clearly about “going to church.” While Elkanah is far from a perfect man, one of the things stressed in 1 Samuel 1-2 is his commitment to worship God with his family at the place where God had commanded. Elkanah’s commitment to worship God at Shiloh (where the tabernacle was in those days) is emphasized 4 times in the first two chapters of 1 Samuel (1 Sam. 1:3, 7, 21; 2:19-20). This may not seem remarkable at first glance, but the writer notes a number of obstacles that Elkanah faces which makes his commitment all the more remarkable. The first obstacle is the corrupt priesthood of Eli and his sons. The first statement of Elkanah’s commitment to worship God is found in 1 Samuel 1:3, which also notes that the sons of Eli are the priests at Shiloh. 1 Samuel 2:12-17 reveals the wickedness of these men and how they steal the sacrificial offerings of the people. Next we learn that there is rivalry and bitterness between Elkanah’s two wives, Hannah and Peninnah. We are specifically told that this rivalry rears its ugly head each year when the family is making its pilgrimage to Shiloh to worship the Lord (1 Sam. 1:6-7). Corrupt leadership alone would seem a good enough reason for Elkanah to dispense with the yearly visits to Shiloh. Add to that the dysfunction of his own family, and Elkanah has multiple reasons not to make the yearly trek to Shiloh. The devil has always been good at discouraging people from worshipping God due to our own hypocrisy or the hypocrisy of others. He whispers, “Why do you want to go church? There’s no one there but a bunch of hypocrites!” Or, “Who do you think you are to take your family to church when it is in such a mess?” Or, “Look at the problems that develop everytime you try to go to church. It’s too much trouble, why don’t you just stay home?” These ploys have proven very effective over the centuries and the devil has, apparently, seen no need to change his strategy.

Elkanah and Micah: Going to Church vs. Homemade Religion

Instead of "going to church" Micah opted for his own brand of homemade religion in Judges 17.
Instead of “going to church” Micah opted for his own brand of homemade religion in Judges 17.

Elkanah’s example is particularly powerful when contrasted with a story found in Judges 17. In fact, I believe Elkanah is deliberately contrasted with Micah and the Levite in Judges 17. In the Hebrew Bible the Book of Judges immediately preceeds the Books of Samuel (Ruth is found among “the Writings” in the Hebrew division of the Bible). Both stories begin with the story of certain men who are living in “the mountains of Ephraim” (Judg. 17:1; 1 Sam. 1). Both stories deal with corrupt priests and corrupt worship (Judg. 17:4-13; 1 Sam. 2:12-17). Finally, both stories include levites. Judges 17 clearly speaks about a Levite who comes to dwell with Micah in the mountains of Ephraim (Judg. 17:6-10). The author of 1 Samuel never tells us that Elkanah is a Levite. However, this may have been obvious to the readers of his day based on the genealogy given in 1 Samuel 1:1 (Elkanah is also called “an Ephrathite,” but levites lived throughout the tribes of Israel). The writer of Chronicles clarifies Elkanah’s lineage as being from the levitical family known as the Kohathites (1 Chron. 6:33-35). The point of the contrast between Micah and Elkanah suggests that, even though Elkanah may seem to have many “legitimate” reasons to start his own homemade religion, he refuses to do what Micah and the Levite had done. In spite of all the obstacles, Elkanah remains faithful to the command to worship God in the place God had chosen (Deut. 12:5-8). Elkanah’s example of faithfulness in worship, in spite of many difficult obstacles, stands as a testimony to modern believers who often forsake “going to church” (i.e., worshipping God with fellow believers) for less trivial reasons (I got my feelings hurt; I don’t like the pastor; I don’t like the music; etc.). In fact, Micah’s homemade religion suggests the dangers inherent in forsaking the worship of God with His people in favor of a “I’ll do what is right in my own eyes, thank you very much” spirituality.

Purchase at Amazon USA / UK, or get the ebook from westbow
Purchase at Amazon USA / UK, or get the ebook from westbow

Does the modern Church have problems? Do I really need to answer that? The Church, and the people of God of all ages, have always had problems. That’s precisely why we need the Lord and each other! God knows that and so He has created a community, a family, which He has purchased with His own blood (Acts 20:28). We forsake that blood-bought community at our own peril. No, the Church is not perfect, and as has often been said, if it were and we attended it, we would ruin its perfection! However, it is God’s gift to us, and we honor God and the sacrifice of Christ when we participate in it and assemble together to worship our God and Savior.

This article was inspired by the research in my book–Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel. Please check it out at or at Amazon USA / UK. Available in hardback, softcover, or e-book.