It can be important to remember that not every person and deed in the Bible is meant to be emulated as a model for us. Oftentimes the Scriptures are just recording the facts; the misdeeds and sinfulness of humans in need a savior. This is frequently true in the Old Testament where today we see Jephthah vowing to do an evil thing. There is a lot wrong with what Jephthah did.
First of all, human sacrifice was loved by the false gods surrounding and often infecting Israel, but it was absolutely forbidden under the Law of the Lord. Jephthah was disobeying that Law. He vowed to do something evil for the Lord, which is a self-contradiction. Finally, why did Jephthah promise to sacrifice the first person he saw—why did he not offer himself for the sacrifice?
Perhaps it was easy for Jephthah to vow a human sacrifice when he thought it would only cost him a stranger or one of his servants. But to offer his firstborn, or he himself, that was beyond his imagination. In this context, let us ponder and grapple with this strange mystery at the center of our faith:
Jesus Christ, God’s only and unique Son, allowed Himself to be sacrificed by sinners for His Father’s victory; for the salvation of God’s people.
What makes this divine sacrifice so different from Jephthah’s? Why is the one glorious and the other abominable?
Jephthah’s sacrifice was pointless and unnecessary, it was not needed to save God’s people. God fully planned to lead Israel to victory over the Ammonites even before, and without, Jephthah’s evil vow. On the other hand, the divine self-offering was necessary to save God’s people. (For His part, Jesus’ total self-offering, even to the point to death, was not a “necessary evil,” but a necessary good.) Theologians speculate and debate about whether our redemption could have come about under different circumstances, but Jesus spoke more than once during His life of the necessity that He go up to Jerusalem, to suffer and die, for our salvation.
Another importance difference is that Jephthah intentionally killed his innocent daughter (which is the definition of murder) by his own hand. The Father did not murder His Son, nor did the Son commit suicide. Jesus was killed by sinners. The Father and Son permitted this, endured this, and made of this the perfect sacrifice for the salvation of the world.
We can imagine these words of the psalm as coming from Christ, but not as coming from Jephthah:
“Sacrifice or oblation you wished not,
but ears open to obedience you gave me.
Burnt offerings and sin-offerings you sought not;
then I said, ‘Behold, I come.’”
While Jephthah transgressed the Law by his sacrifice, Jesus uniquely and perfectly fulfilled it, at great personal cost to Himself. Christ is the model we should emmulate.