We were born with freedom to choose: a God-given freedom to cast our lot with life, on the one hand, or death, on the other. Even our small choices lead, inevitably, in one direction or the other. The story in the book of Judges of Jephthah, the judge whose rash vow led him to sacrifice his daughter, stands as a chilling reminder that freedom to choose what to do does not make us free to choose consequences—and that choosing both ways is no answer.
Judges is flanked by two books—Joshua and Ruth—that highlight this truth and bring hope. As Joshua prepared to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land, he reminded them: the Lord has freed you from slavery and has given you this new land. Will you continue to serve pagan gods? Or will you cast them out and serve the Lord? You can’t do both: “So choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15)
Moses had said it even more starkly in his day: before you are life and death, good and evil, he told them. Choose life! Follow the Lord and his commands, and you’ll live and find blessing! (See Deuteronomy 30:11-19)
The tragedy of those early years in the Promised Land is that although the children of Israel choose God and pledge their lives to follow him, they worship the Canaanite gods as well. In the process, they become less and less like children of their Father and more and more like the pagans whose ways they prefer.
Jephthah fails to choose
Jephthah provides a case study of the effects of trying to do both. On one hand, he makes a vow to God and trusts him to deliver them from their enemies. On the other hand, the substance of his vow—human sacrifice—is a Canaanite practice. We watch, horrified, as Jephthah “thanks” God for victory by sacrificing his daughter: it is radically against the good laws God gave them. The narrative lets the tragic outcome speak for itself: when you fail to cast out evil and choose the good, you lose the things most precious to you. Choose death and you will get it.
From the time of Jephthah, Judges spirals into chaos as Israel continues to choose to have it both ways: God when they need him, pagan gods when they want them. Read the end of the book, particularly chapters 19–21. This time when “every man did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6, 21:25), instead of choosing the way laid out for them by God, shows the horrifying consequence of their choice. God, we cry at the book’s end; how can these be your people?
Ruth chooses God
And then we turn the page — and meet Ruth.
Famine hits the Promised Land and a family flees to Moab. It says a lot about the time of the Judges, that enemy territory could be a haven! A decade later, the men of the family have died and Naomi is left with two foreign daughters-in-law. Hearing there is once again food at home, she determines to return alone. But Ruth clings to her. Don’t ask me to forsake you! she pleads. Wherever you go, I’ll go. Wherever you live, I’ll live. Your people and your God will be mine.
In effect: I choose you! I choose your land, your home, your God.
Ruth’s choice brings blessing
This Moabite woman knows better than most of Israel, what it means to choose rightly. She chooses God and does not look back. Ruth enters the Promised Land at the start of the barley harvest and then harvests all the riches God promised those who follow him and walk in his ways. She marries into Israel and from her line comes the great king David and, ultimately, the Messiah.
It’s time to choose
We live in an age like that of the Judges, when many pay lip service to the Christian faith or cling just to the parts that suit them—all the while playing up to the gods of our time; to “politically correct” ideals and values and ways of life.
We want the approval of both God and the world, to go to heaven when the time comes but to live as though we’re in heaven while on earth, whatever that takes. It’s tempting to choose both and think we can determine the outcome. But can we?
Read Judges and Ruth, and learn from those who’ve gone before us. Put Joshua’s words where you can see them:
“Choose this day whom you will serve, whether … the gods of [those] in whose land you dwell; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15)
Will you choose like Ruth … or like Jephthah, straddle the line?
© 2021 Sarah Christmyer
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Read more about Ruth and how she put her choice into practice in this blog post: Always Look Out For Number One (Who’s Number One?) — or in my book: Becoming Women of the Word: How to Answer God’s Call with Purpose and Joy! The book tells why you can always trust God, even when the future’s uncertain, when you feel inadequate, when you’re alone, or your world’s falling apart. Becoming Women of the Word explores the lives of women in the Bible and today to discover how they followed God in tough times. Read it and learn how you, too, can answer God’s call in your life “with purpose and joy.” (Download the contents and a sample chapter free.)
Linda Roe says
This is exactly what I needed to hear. I am so upset about all the evil in this world and just perplexed by what is going on. I choose God and scripture study is exactly what I need. Thank you.
Linda Shenk says
Thank you for explaining what Jepthah did and why. This passage didn’t make sense to me since God does not want human sacrifice.
Toni Lovingood says
We so often want to sit on the fence. Be liked and accepted by everyone. When we don’t make a decision and take a stand, in reality we did make a decision. Sadly, no decision is a decision. Apathy is not something strong women in the Bible displayed.