I’m not going to sugar-coat this: the truth is that the story we have in our first reading is a horrible story. Why on earth would we worship a God who accept such a vow from Jephthah (or anyone else for that matter), or hold him to it? Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves: first, a bit of context. The footnotes in the New American Bible remind us that this was a fairly common theme in ancient mythology. When the topic of sacrificing children comes up in Scripture, it is usually strongly condemned. Here, the writer simply records the story, probably to explain the tradition that is recorded in the next verse after our reading stops: “It became a custom in Israel for Israelite women to go yearly to mourn the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite for four days of the year.”
Why this comes up at all in the Sacred Liturgy is another matter. Bad enough that this story is in the Bible, must we hear it every second year on this day? Well, all we have to do is wait a minute to hear the Psalmist explain what’s really important:
Sacrifice or oblation you wished not,
but ears open to obedience you gave me.
Burnt offerings or sin-offerings you sought not;
then said I, “Behold I come.”
So let’s let the horrible story remind us that the Psalmist directs us how to really pray and really live. Leave behind the crazy sacrifices and unholy vows, and instead give ourselves completely to the Lord, and obey his commands.