After the lifetime of Joshua and the generation of Israelites who first entered and began to settle in Canaan, a general spiritual ignorance set in which was the source of tragedy after tragedy in Israel: “And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10b).
Apparently during this long period almost all of those who had responsibility to teach others to know and obey the Lord – primarily parents (Dt. 6:4-9, 20-25) and priests (Dt. 17:8-13; Dt. 31:9-13; Mal. 2:7) – abandoned this task. Also, during this period Israel must have largely neglected the great annual feasts which were to unite them as a people in the living knowledge of all that the Lord had done for them (Lev. 23, Dt. 16). When these factors are combined with the fact that during this period Israel abandoned the Lord and went after other gods (Judg. 2:11-13) the results were that the people of Israel were largely ignorant of who God was, of his character and nature, and of his specific will for them as revealed in the Law of Moses. What “knowledge” they did have of the Lord was usually distorted and mixed with pagan ideas drawn form the pagan cults they were involving themselves with.
The story of Jephthah’s tragic vow (Judges 11:29-40) powerfully discloses the great danger of such spiritual ignorance. It is not said of Jephthah, as it is of the other ‘major judges’, that God ‘raised him up.’ Instead, the elders of Gilead (the tribes which settled on the east side of the Jordan River) when to Jephthah to ask him to lead them in fighting back against the Ammonites (Judg. 11:1-11). Because God was “impatient over the misery of Israel” (Judg. 10:16), He chose to work in and through Jephthah to deliver Israel from the hand of the Ammonites. In his message to the king of the Ammonites Jephthah demonstrated some historical knowledge of the Lord’s actions on Israel’s behalf (Judg. 11:12-27). However, when it came to the requirements of the Law as to acceptable forms of worship and vows, Jephthah proved to be entirely ignorant.
In his ignorance Jephthah made this vow to the Lord: “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” (Judg. 11:30). This rash promise betrays that Jephthah knew nothing about worshiping the Lord according to the Lord’s own word.
• Not just any sacrifice of any animal which happened to be around, or which happened to come out of one’s doors, would be acceptable to the Lord. In the Law there were specific regulations about acceptable sacrifices – which animals could be offered (for many could not be), and the expected condition of those animals (they were to be the first and best, not the last and worst) – see Lev. 1-7; Lev. 22:17-33; Dt. 17:1. Jephthah could not have known what kind or condition of animal would come out of his house and thus his vow to offer whatever he first laid eyes on was not pious but ignorant and irresponsible.
• Further, the Law forbade the people of Israel from building their own altars and offering their own sacrifices, for all sacrifices were to be officiated by the priests and offered at the place where the Tent of Meeting was located (Lev. 3:2, Lev. 17:1-9; Dt. 12:1-14). The purpose of these laws was to prevent the Israelites from individualizing the worship of the Lord into their own little family religions, and also to prevent them from wandering off into idol worship. So, Jephthah was not authorized to offer any kind of sacrifice whatsoever to the Lord at his home. His “vow” was a vow to do something which violated Israel’s covenant with the Lord.
As it turned out, Jephthah’s vow did not merely involve him in the unlawful sacrifice of an unclean or unworthy animal. Something far worse happened. For, when Jephthah returned home, who should have been the first to greet him from his house but his daughter, his only child? (Judg. 11:34). Incredibly, both Jephthah and his daughter thought him bound by piety to offer her as a burnt offering to the Lord (v. 35-36). However, if Jephthah had known the law of the Lord, he would have known that the Lord detested child sacrifice and strictly forbade the Israelites from practicing it (Lev. 20:1-5, Dt. 18:9-14).
However, Jephthah was woefully unaware of this and thus, after giving his daughter a two-month reprieve, he “did with her according to his vow that he had made” (Judg. 11:39). If Jephthah had known that such an action was an ‘abomination’ to the Lord, he would have spared his daughter’s life and repented of making such a foolhardy promise to the Lord (whose commitment to giving the Ammonites over to Jephthah did not depend on Jephthah performing wild acts of ritual).
Such are the grave dangers of spiritual ignorance. As Dallas Willard has written, “Failure to know what God is really like and what his law requires destroys the soul, ruins society, and leaves people to eternal ruin.” When we do not know the Lord as the Lord has revealed himself to us in his word, we put ourselves at risk of worshiping the Lord according to our own imaginings, and this will invariably lead us into doing all manner of things “in the Lord’s name” which the Lord has never commanded. Or, conversely, spiritual ignorance can put us in the position of leaving undone those things our Lord actually wants us to do.
The good news is, there is no reason for us to be bound to spiritual ignorance. We have the riches of God’s word available at our fingertips. All we need to do is take advantage of this great gift by reading and studying the Bible personally and with others, and to be consistently plugged into the preaching and teaching of the church. Let us not settle for spiritual ignorance. Let us not repeat the tragic mistakes of Jephthah. Instead, let us say with the Psalmist: “I have tried my best to find you – don’t let me wander from your commands. I have hidden your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Blessed are you, O Lord; teach me your principles. I have recited aloud all the laws you have given us. I have rejoiced in your decrees as much as in riches. I will study your commandments and reflect on your ways. I will delight in your principles and not forget your word” (Ps. 119:10-16, NLT).