apologetics, Bible Studies, philosophy, The Bible

Jephthah, Human Sacrifice, and God: What should we make of Judges 11:29-40?

The story of Jephthah is one of the most difficult stories in the Bible. For those who don’t know it, Jephthah, an Israelite, is about to go to war against Israel’s enemies. He vows that if God grants him victory, he will sacrifice whatever comes from his door to greet him first. He wins the battle, and when he returns, his daughter runs out to meet him. She asks one last wish–that she may mourn her lack of marriage for two months. The story ends explaining that this is the reason Israelites (at the time of the writing of Judges) commemorate Jephthah’s daughter.

Understandably, the narrative raises many questions. I view the image  here, a gorgeous painting by Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini, and it wrenches at my heart. Think of Jephthah’s anguish! The language in the Bible stirs the emotions:

When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the LORD that I cannot break.” (Judges 11:34-35)

The questions, as I noted, are many. Foremost of those which come to mind: “Why would God let this happen?” Another common question about this passage are “Does God allow human sacrifice?”

I’ve written on the passage before, but I think my responses were inadequate. Therefore, I have decided to reexamine this story and see what we can glean from it. Part of these thoughts are due to a conversation I had with an old friend.

Human Sacrifice

First, the question of human sacrifice. Throughout the Bible, God specifically condemns human sacrifice (cf. Leviticus 18:21; Lev. 20:2-5; Deuteronomy 18:10). One point some make is to try to draw the near-sacrifice of Isaac into the mix, but it is contextually clear that God did not intend for Isaac to be sacrificed (see Paul Copan’s excellent work on this story in his Is God a Moral Monster?). Furthermore, it is important to note that the book of Judges is a historical book, and it therefore is not prescribing the actions described therein, any more than other historical texts are prescribing the historical accounts depicted in them (see my “Description is not Prescription”). Yet those passages which are prescriptive all expressly forbid human sacrifice (again, see Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5, Dt. 18:10). Therefore, God forbade human sacrifice, He did not condone it.

Why Not Prevent It?- Context

It is therefore clear that God does not condone human sacrifice. Why, then, does God not intervene in the case of Jepthah and prevent this horrific event from occurring? As a friend noted, it would be quite simple for God to cause one of Jephtah’s servants or, indeed, anything else alive to have come from the door first. Why, then, does God not do this?

There is no simple response to this question. Instead, it is important to note several important points before I offer a possible answer. First, God has given humans free will. The nature of libertarian free will is such that it cannot be undone. Think of it this way: If God were to give us free will only until we tried to do something wrong, and in such cases God intervened and overcame our freedom to cause us to do good, we would not have genuine freedom. We’d really have a kind of pseudo-freedom. As long as we only chose what is good, we would be free, but we could not choose otherwise.

Second, think of what Jepthah had done to begin with. When he vowed that he would sacrifice the first thing to come out to meet him, it seems quite apparent that he had in mind human sacrifice, for a few reasons. It doesn’t seem likely that, for example, a cow walking through his doorway would count as coming to meet him. He specified that his sacrifice would be the first to come meet him. In fact, one might surmise he could have guessed it might be his own daughter–who is more likely to go running out to see him after a battle than his beloved child? There was no shortage of local cultures in the area who offered their children as sacrifices, and indeed the practice had corrupted Israel itself at a few points in history, so Jephthah may have been thinking of such a practice in order to bring about victory.

Third, Jephthah was an outcast. He had been driven from the land before because of his questionable parentage (Judges 11:1-3). The Israelites turned to him only in the time of their dire need, and Jephthah was clearly tempted by their offer to be their leader (Judges 11:4-11). Even given the small amount of context we have for this narrative, we can see that Jephthah desired greatly to be given headship over Israel. It is possible that, in his lust for power, foolishly made a vow to offer one of his household in exchange for the victory.

Fourth, we’ve already seen that it is expressly forbidden to offer human sacrifices. Yet Jephthah makes his vow with full knowledge of the likely consequences.

Finally, Jephthah’s vow offers a dilemma of sorts to a God who acts in history. If God wishes to prevent the human sacrifice, he must cause the defeat of Israel. This would not be just the destruction of Israel, but it would force God to go back on His promise to bring salvation through Israel, which it is impossible for God to do (Numbers 23:19). Not only that, but it would prevent God’s plan of redemption to take place. Yet if God does grant the Israelites victory, He knows that Jephthah will offer a sacrifice of whoever first steps from his house.

Why not prevent it? -Solutions

From these quick thoughts we can see a number of possible answers. First, Jephthah made a vow which he would choose to fulfill in full knowledge that it would almost certainly be a human member of his household whom he would sacrifice. His vow was contingent upon the victory of Israel, whose defeat would have prevented God’s plan of salvation for all humankind. Therefore, Jephthah, by freely making this sinful vow, forced its conclusion. God did not prevent it from occurring because to do so would either destroy free will or prevent the Redemption.

Furthermore, some have argued that Jephthah’s vow to God superseded all else. (I myself made this argument in the original post.) I think this is wrong. God’s eternal moral commands would have superseded the vow. In fact, Jesus Himself commands His followers not to make vows, but rather to let their “yes” be “yes” and their “no” be “no” (Matthew 5:33-37). Jesus actually says that those who believe that a vow to God would supersede all else are wrong–they should not be making the vow in the first place! Thus, Jephthah’s vow was doubly sinful, because it essentially guaranteed a heinous act (human sacrifice) and because he should not have made such a vow to begin with. In fact, it should be noted that if Jephthah had acted in accordance with the Bible, he should have broken the vow! God expressly forbade human sacrifice, and when Jephthah saw that it was his daughter–or had it been any other human–who came to meet him, he should have realized his vow was made foolishly. One could even argue that God did indeed act in such a way as to try to get Jephthah to realize his error. The fact that it was Jephthah’s daughter who greeted him should not have only horrified him but made him realize that his vow was sinful to begin with, and so should not be upheld. Upon the realization that keeping his vow would cause him to break God’s Law, Jephthah should not have said “I must keep this vow” and therefore increase his sin–rather he should have said “I will break this vow, and prevent a horrific sin.” But again, with his freedom, he chose not to.

Jephthah’s story is, in fact, just the kind of story typified throughout Judges, and indeed throughout human history–that of God using sinful people to bring about His ends. Samson, another judge, was a violent and lustful man, yet God used him to save the Israelites on a number of occasions. In the Joseph narrative (Genesis 37ff), God used the evil actions of Joseph’s brothers to bring about a great good (Gen. 50:20). Similarly, Jephthah’s greed lead him to make a vow which he should not have kept which condemned at least one human to death.

Jephthah’s free decisions brought about the death of his daughter. That is why the Bible reports this stirring story–it teaches us that our free will has consequences. That is why the painting of Jephthah is so striking–we can relate to the horror of Jephthah’s realization of his own sinfulness. We’ve each committed our own sins and had to deal with the consequences. God is not a divine vending machine who will intervene when we make mistakes, or when we choose horrifying acts. He has already provided us with an objective reality–the discernment to tell what is right from wrong. Not only that, but He has also provided a Savior, His Son Jesus, to rescue us from all evil–even death itself. God has provided an infinite good to all human persons by providing a means for their salvation. Whosoever will be saved shall be saved.

The story also teaches us once more that God works through imperfect people. Although Jephthah was a sinful man with greedy intentions, he was still used by God to bring about a great good–the preservation of Israel, which itself paved the way for God’s redemptive act.

A Final, Philosophical Note

Those who may desire to press the objection still should investigate the philosophical basis of their claim. Presumably, they are arguing that:

P1- God is obligated to prevent evil (or some certain types of evil).

What justifies that claim? If God has given us free will, there are evils God cannot prevent–those which we choose to bring about. Further, what justifies the claim that God must intervene in every situation with x amount of evil? More specifically, why is God obligated to prevent Jephthah’s daughter from being the first to leave the house (again, I think that it was a series of free choices which brought Jephthah to this unfortunate event, and I disagree with those who think that God could just supersede free will whenever necessary, but I’ll grant it for a moment)? Is God obligated to prevent every evil?

I’m sure there are arguments that could be made to try to support the premise that “God is morally obligated to prevent all (or certain types of) evils” but I don’t think they would be more plausible than P2: “God has created free creatures” and P3: “Freedom cannot be limited.” I would accept a more restricted sense of:

P1′- God is morally obligated to prevent all evils which He is able to prevent and which do not provide for some greater good and which, if prevented, do not lead to other evils with similar or greater impact, etc.

Those who would seek to continue objecting that God, in the Jephthah narrative, should have intervened, must defend their restricted sense of P1, while rebutting P2 and P3, and showing that P1 is more plausible than P1′. It therefore seems that philosophically, exegetically, and theologically, the Jephthah narrative, while poignant, does not threaten God’s character. God works through human history to bring about the Redemption, using imperfect, sinful people to bring about an infinite good. Furthermore, God has given us the good of freedom, but we choose too often to abuse it. Jephthah illustrates this misuse in a heart-rending fashion which serves as a definitive reminder to those who read it that they should heed God’s word and use their freedom not for greed or gain but for the furtherance of God’s Kingdom.

SDG.

——

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.

Discussion

38 thoughts on “Jephthah, Human Sacrifice, and God: What should we make of Judges 11:29-40?

  1. JW, you hit on a note that is often ignored when addressing this passage, and one I often wonder about: Why would Jepthah expect an animal to come out of his house to greet him? Although animals were sometimes kept inside and housed with the people, it would not make sense that livestock would come out to greet him. The most you can speculate is that a pet might possibly do so, although pets are rarely mentioned in the Bible. I think you hit the nail on the head when you say that Jepthah had human sacrifice in mind. It was a foolish vow, regardless.

    Some have argued that Jepthah was able to ‘redeem’ his daughter with an animal sacrifice and that she only had to mourn perpetual virginity and not her immanent death. This never seemed write to me as it is really stretching what is actually in the text quite a bit. The skeptic will argue that this is God condoning human sacrifice which is just as much of a stretch of the text if not more.

    Judges can be a difficult book to read and interpret, but we must keep in mind that one of its main purposes is to show how far God’s chosen people had drifted away from him and the law in such a short time.

    Thanks for addressing the difficult passage!

    Posted by Greg West | November 30, 2011, 11:15 AM
    • Thanks for the comment, Greg! I think it is not quite right to think that Jephthah did not sacrifice his daughter. His pride, greed, and wrongful thinking about God means that he almost certainly did sacrifice his daughter. Of course, God never ordered him to do so, and in fact has ordered repeatedly the exact opposite, so Jephthah, acting with his own free will, murdered his child. It’s a horrifying story, but one in which we see themes spread through the Bible. People continually use their freedom for ill. Despite what people like Don seem to think–that God could just intervene whenever He desired and just overcome free will whenever He watned–we see the Bible teaches the opposite: that God has created us with genuine freedom, and that we often mess it up. Hence the need for our Savior.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | November 30, 2011, 12:03 PM
  2. >There is no simple response to this question.

    There are several. God could let Jephthah off the hook, like any loving human would. God doesn’t exist. God is evil, etc. These simple responses are simply unavailable inside Christianity.

    >If God were to give us free will only until we tried to do something wrong, and in such cases God intervened and overcame our freedom to cause us to do good, we would not have genuine freedom.

    We already don’t have the freedom to fly or kill with our thoughts. Under Christiantiy, does that mean we don’t have free will? No, these are simply powers God didn’t create in us. Likewise, it is possible that God could have created us without the power to sacrifice our children without infringing on our free will.

    >Jephthah’s free decisions brought about the death of his daughter.
    >it teaches us that our free will has consequences…If God has given us free will, there are evils God cannot prevent

    This kind of reasoning makes it sound like God had no choice in the matter. Almost anyone could have made a wiser, more merciful decision than God did in allowing the slaughter to proceed. God can and does prevent us from doing many things, yet (under Christianity) we still have free will. Since we have ‘can’t fly’ free will, God could have given us ‘can’t kill kids’ free will.

    >Is God obligated to prevent every evil?

    This isn’t the issue. The issue is whether God could have prevented the daughter’s death. Of course he could have. With any other actor, this would be a non-issue. Lock him up.

    It is reasonable to say that an all-powerful God could accomplish his ends with less suffering than we observe. The only reason to agonize in situations like the Jephthah story is if we are predisposed to exonerating God. Jephthah is vile, too, but pitiable. It seems he is locked in an abusive relationship with a tyrant. He loves his daughter, but loves Power too much. Making deals with powerful but unjust figures is precarious. You may receive favor for a while, but if God is not held to any independent standard of Goodness, he can turn on you at any time. Matthew 7:21-23

    If God is Good by his nature, then to say “God is Good” is merely to say “God is God.” He must be held to some external standard or “Good” has no meaning.

    Posted by donsevers | November 30, 2011, 11:16 AM
    • Don it’s pretty clear you’ve conflated possibilities of free will with physical possibilities. Your example is “We already don’t have the freedom to fly or kill with our thoughts. Under Christiantiy, does that mean we don’t have free will? No, these are simply powers God didn’t create in us. Likewise, it is possible that God could have created us without the power to sacrifice our children without infringing on our free will.”

      Note that the first example–we can’t fly–is very different from the second example–we could be created without being able to kill children.

      In the first example, it is a physical impossibility. We don’t have wings or other body parts which would allow us to fly. However, in the second, it seems that very few physical possibilities would make us incapable of killing our children. We can observe animals on nearly every level of complexity which kill their children. Yet your argument makes it seem as though “flying” is physically on par with “killing children,” which it obviously is not. Your conflation permeates your entire comment, and because it is fallacious, it serves as a defeater for most of your comments.

      Really the only new point you bring is, “It is reasonable to say that an all-powerful God could accomplish his ends with less suffering than we observe. ”

      That’s quite similar to what I’ve presented as a possible agnostic/atheistic argument. Modify P1 to P1~ “God is obligated to bring about his ends with less suffering” and we have your premise.

      But then my P1′ would still serve as a much better substitute for P1~. It, in fact, takes into account those things which your account just assumes without argument. I therefore see no reason to agree with you. Your reasoning is fallacious, and rather than addressing arguments you tend to rant against God. P1′ states”God is morally obligated to prevent all evils which He is able to prevent and which do not provide for some greater good and which, if prevented, do not lead to other evils with similar or greater impact, etc.” P1~ is even compatible with P1′ if one reads it as P1~ as “God is morally obligated to bring about his ends with the least possible suffering.” But then P1′ takes into account the reasons why less suffering may not, in fact, be possible. But as usual, rather than rebutting these, you rely on emotional appeals and conflated terms.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | November 30, 2011, 11:59 AM
      • Furthermore, as I noted in the post (and made more explicit in my update–cf. comment to Maureen), Jephthah’s vow should have been broken based upon what God had already revealed to the Israelites. Human sacrifice was contrary to God’s will, and so Jephthah, when he realized that keeping his vow would force him to sin, should not have redoubled his sins by keeping it, but should not have kept it to begin with.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | November 30, 2011, 12:11 PM
      • Finally, it seems to me that unless we were amoebae which reproduced by splitting and survived on photosynthesis alone, we probably would be capable of killing our children. And if we were amoebae, we would not be capable of the high functioning needed for free will.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | November 30, 2011, 12:17 PM
  3. You make really good points. However, I’ve wondered why Jephthah didn’t just break the vow. It was a stupid, sinful promise that God didn’t even ask or want him to make, anyway. Wouldn’t the moral obligation to obey God’s command against human sacrifice supersede a rash promise?

    Posted by Maureen | November 30, 2011, 11:59 AM
    • I agree Maureen. I meant to hint at that in the original post but I think in my drafting stage I edited that out. I’ll have to update it quickly, here. The point I made is just like yours: Jephthah should, in fact, have broken the vow.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | November 30, 2011, 12:05 PM
      • I updated the post by adding “In fact, it should be noted that if Jephthah had acted in accordance with the Bible, he should have broken the vow! God expressly forbade human sacrifice, and when Jephthah saw that it was his daughter–or had it been any other human–who came to meet him, he should have realized his vow was made foolishly. One could even argue that God did indeed act in such a way as to try to get Jephthah to realize his error. The fact that it was Jephthah’s daughter who greeted him should not have only horrified him but made him realize that his vow was sinful to begin with, and so should not be upheld.”

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | November 30, 2011, 12:09 PM
  4. Please notice that in this conversation, it is the theist who is defending allowing human sacrifice, and it is the atheist who is arguing against it. This is no mere appeal to emotion. It speaks to whether God is Good.

    A google search for ‘suffering children’ yields an excellent appeal to emotion. Don’t try it. It might influence your reasoning.

    The theist and the atheist use inversions of the same argument (adapted from IEP):

    1. There exists an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.

    2. An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.

    3. (Therefore) It is not the case that there exist instances of horrendous evil which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.

    The atheist version goes this way:

    1. There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.

    2. An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.

    3. (Therefore) It is not the case that there exists an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.

    Where we come down on this depends on our inclination to believe in God. If we find God plausible or necessary, then we might adopt the theist version. My own view is that the ‘existence of apparently unnecessary suffering’ is a far more reasonable and conservative starting point than ‘the God of the Bible is true’. Epistemically, it’s a slam dunk, unless you assume what is at issue, that Christianity is true.

    Posted by donsevers | November 30, 2011, 12:17 PM
    • Don, I clearly am not defending allowing sacrifice. I’m saying that Jephthah chose to sacrifice his daughter, despite God’s explicit commands to the contrary. Your argument must assume that God will overcome free will and that free will is still genuinely free if God intervenes each time you define He should. This isn’t a serious philosophical argument, it’s just a bunch of assumptions strung together. As I noted in P1′, my argument doesn’t rest solely upon greater good or bringing about worse evil, rather it also depends upon the nature of freedom itself. So your atheistic version of the argument has failed in its first premise. It doesn’t take seriously the notion of free will.

      Certainly, if God decided to create us with limited freedom or no free will at all, then we should expect God to overcome such evils as the holocaust or the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter. This is the reason I reject Calvinism. It seems morally abhorrent. But God did create us with genuine free will, and so we can do with that freedom what we will. You continually fail to take free will seriously, as has come up in several past discussions on this topic. And, as I’ve noted before, you’ve already conceded elsewhere that my arguments show that God may not be able to prevent the evils which occur. So I continue to wonder why you use this as an argument, unless you’ve changed your mind.

      Again, the atheistic version of the argument, and, I believe, most probabilistic problems of evil, do not take into account genuine freedom. I believe the primary reason for this is because on materialistic atheism, there is no free will–so why take it seriously? That would, of course, get us into a whole different tangent, but I think that is the psychological problem here as well. Atheists tend to assume that God would overcome free will all the time, and that it would still meet the requirements of libertarian freedom. Perhaps the reason is because atheist themselves don’t often consistently believe in free will. As a theist who does believe in libertarian freedom, I must charge that those who try to argue against this position take it into account. You haven’t, which is why your arguments continue to miss the mark.

      Furthermore, I notice you dropped your “God could have made us differently” argument. Yet that argument was central to your rebuttal. You placed it foremost in your ideas about how God could have prevented this evil–by making us in such a way that we would not sacrifice children. Yet I rebutted this, and you dropped it. It seems to me, therefore, that your case is even more weak because not only do you fail to account for free will, but you also have lost your primary argument to try to take free will into account.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | November 30, 2011, 12:29 PM
      • >“If God is omnipotent, he could reduce the suffering we see, at least a little.” You’ve failed to defend this latter claim

        It follows from the definition of ‘omnipotence’.

        >no theistic scenario can take suffering into account.

        Yea, I’m not familiar with every theodicy (no one is), but I think I’m prepared to make this version of such a claim:

        No theistic scenario that posits an omnibenevolent, omnipotent God can account for the suffering we see. This follows from the definition of omnipotence: the ability to do anything that can be done. Unless God is a locked-in prisoner in a universe that could be no other way, he ‘could’ reduce suffering. An omnipotent God could accomplish any end via any means, so suffering would never be necessary for him. The only reason it would be necessary would be to meet one of his own goals, which he could presumably change. Omnipotence destroys any chance of an alibi for God.

        One apparent way out is to say that ‘omnibenevolent’ meets God’s standards and not ours. But if God only meets his own standard of goodness, and not an external one, then ‘goodness’ means nothing. Humans become like cattle, where being served for dinner is ‘good’. If using human beings as a means to an end, particularly when it is not necessary, is not evil, then evil has no meaning.

        >Regarding intercessory prayer, once more you fail to take into account the tools of theism.

        I made a very specific claim: “If this world is the best God can do, then intercessory prayer is dead.” This follows from the definition of ‘best’. If this world is the best he can do, then he can do no better. Because he is perfect, he can not reduce the perfection of the world, so there is no possible request for change that he could grant. This is straight out of Leibniz. His resolution was to say that God can’t do anything differently in this, actual world; but he still has free will himself because he can make changes in other, non-actual worlds.

        >Yet the only argument you leveled against the free will defense was quickly defeated, and you dropped it.

        I didn’t drop it. I simply didn’t respond to your point. When you don’t respond point by point, I don’t assume you have conceded anything. There are a lot of points being discussed here. My impression is that you are the Galloping Apologist, unable to let ideas cook. You must claim victory in 500 words or less. It’s funny. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m not talking with you. I’m hoping to reach your pew-sitting atheists. As a foundationalist, you are invulverable. Like all apologists, you seem to have chosen your conclusions in advance and then reason backward toward them. So, I feel no need to respond to your claims. I still sometimes do it if I think it is interesting.

        Having said that, I appreciate apologists like you. Everyone deserves a good defense attorney, and you guys provide that for God. It helps us because when the verdict is reached, it won’t be thrown out for lack of defense.

        Posted by donsevers | November 30, 2011, 4:29 PM
      • You wrote, “It [the claim that God could reduce suffering] follows from the definition of ‘omnipotence’.”

        It doesn’t follow if one counters by saying it is logically impossible.

        You wrote, “An omnipotent God could accomplish any end via any means, so suffering would never be necessary for him. ”

        I’ve explicitly denied this elsewhere. God, as omnipotent, is unable to bring about logical impossibilities. Things like the free will defense specifically show that there could be logical impossibilities in prevent certain evils.

        You wrote, “This follows from the definition of ‘best’. If this world is the best he can do, then he can do no better.”

        I didn’t respond to this as fully as I could have. I don’t think that this is the “best possible world” as I think such a concept is incoherent. Simply put, there is no “best possible world.”.

        You wrote, “Like all apologists, you seem to have chosen your conclusions in advance and then reason backward toward them. So, I feel no need to respond to your claims. I still sometimes do it if I think it is interesting.

        So now we have an ad hominem to sum it up. It really doesn’t help that I recently posted on this very issue, urging apologists to take the opposite stance. Nor does it hold water because I have changed my position on a number of things based upon evidence (I was once a Young Earth Creationist and a complementarian, to use to examples). The charge you level against me is simply false, and it honestly shows a level of indignity which I had previously thought beneath you.

        I appreciate our discussions, but in all honesty, I can’t believe you brought up the tired “You’re an apologist, you can’t face the truth” bit. Really? Again, I’ve specifically shown that I’m ready and willing to change my position on a number of topics (two cases in which I wasn’t just willing to change but did, in fact, change my position were outlined above). I think it speaks how poor the arguments are that you’ve been offering (in conjunction with the fact you’ve already granted elsewhere that they don’t work) that you’ve now resorted to this kind of attack. It’s easy to say “You’re an apologist, I don’t have to take you seriously.” It’s hard to deal with actual arguments. You’ve failed the latter, so resorted to the former.

        Finally, one last note on your primary, previous argument. Your argument that “If God is omnipotent, he could reduce the suffering we see, at least a little” has an important and hidden premise. The premise is that God has not, in fact, already prevented evils. I assert that there is no way to demonstrate that God has not actually already prevented untold amounts of evils. Take the holocaust. It was a horrifying event, but it could have been much worse. The Jews could have been entirely wiped out. They were not. Atheists, arguing for the problem of evil, ask why God didn’t spare more. Yet it seems to me the theist can note an opposite point: an enormous amount of evil which could have happened, did not, in fact, happen. The argument that “If God is omnipotent, he could reduce the suffering we see, at least a little” relies upon a lack of knowledge. It appeals to the emotions: couldn’t God have saved just one more person? But it fails to take into account those God does save. It seems to me that it is perfectly plausible to argue that God has indeed prevented any number of horrors, but that atheists focus only upon those which do occur in order to make their argument.

        Thus, this hidden premise, when brought to the light, shows the weakness of the argument. Not only does it import notions of necessity, not only does it fail to take seriously the nature of freedom, but it also fails to account for the evils which God has, in fact, prevented.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | December 1, 2011, 1:27 AM
      • >Things like the free will defense specifically show that there could be logical impossibilities in prevent certain evils.

        But not all evils. Reducing much suffering entails no logical impossibilities. Theists play wack-a-mole with this problem, but can’t eliminate it.

        >I assert that there is no way to demonstrate that God has not actually already prevented untold amounts of evils.

        Sure. But if this is the case, then this is the best, possible world. God is then locked in.

        This discussion seems to boil down to whether we are predisposed to trust God.

        Suppose you’re a banker. A guy wants a home loan and says, “You can’t prove I don’t have sufficient income to qualify”. You reply, “True, but we don’t operate that way. Loaning money is a very important matter that involves many people and risk. If you don’t provide proof, we won’t say anything about your income, but we won’t loan you the money.”

        I’m a conservative thinker. I think devoting myself to a god is very important matter. Until better reasons are given for the suffering I see, at minimum, I am not going to conclude that God is Good. I don’t have to conclude he is evil, although omnipotence strongly suggests that. I’m just going to withhold my allegiance.

        If I was dating someone and googling her name turned up as much dirt as googling ‘god and the problem of evil’ does, I would have to put off making her the stepmother of my children until we cleared some things up.

        Posted by donsevers | December 1, 2011, 9:54 AM
      • Don, explain how your reasoning works here: “…if this [that God has prevented evils] is the case, then this is the best, possible world. God is then locked in.”

        I have already explicitly denied that there is a best possible world. You seem to be arguing that theism must assert that this is the best possible world. I don’t see how that follows in any way, because the best possible world is incoherent. The thrust of this line of argument is therefore based upon a fallacious assertion.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | December 2, 2011, 1:24 PM
    • But Don, conversely you are assuming that the “existence of apparently unnecessary suffering” is true, which cannot be confirmed. To argue for this position would force you to make an appeal to emotion, which you condemned at the top of your post.

      For you to be able to establish suffering as “unnecessary,” you have to provide a concrete rule for doing so; namely, you would have to 1) explain what suffering is considered “necessary” and 2) explain the difference between “necessary” and “unnecessary” suffering. To do both, it establishes the need for a moral lawgiver, as the Moral Argument tirelessly argues.

      So epistemically, there is no slam dunk, and the weight of the evidence in both arguments favors the theist. So it’s far more reasonable to assume God, given that His existence is the premise of one argument and the ultimate conclusion in the other.

      Posted by sabepashubbo | November 30, 2011, 12:34 PM
      • If God is omnipotent, he could reduce the suffering we see, at least a little.

        To say otherwise, you’d have to show that every last iota of suffering is necessary. That God couldn’t reduce the death toll in Japan by 1. That he couldn’t reduce the incidence of pediatric brainstem tumors by 1. This is Leibniz’s best of all possible worlds. But let’s suppose you succeed:

        If this world is the best God can do, then intercessory prayer is dead. God’s hands are tied. Any change would be a deviation from perfection, which is not in his nature.

        Further, God is locked in by his own perfection. He’s along for the ride in this machine, which is a nightmare for most people, and which was the only universe he could have created.

        https://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=10150242294559005

        Posted by donsevers | November 30, 2011, 12:51 PM
      • You’ve made a positive claim: “If God is omnipotent, he could reduce the suffering we see, at least a little.”

        To defend this positive claim, your only statement is: “To say otherwise, you’d have to show that every last iota of suffering is necessary. ”

        You’ve failed to defend this latter claim. In fact, your argument for your first claim is merely to throw off the burden of proof. Rather than defending claims, you–as I’ve demonstrated in previous discourses with you–merely throw out unproven assertions and demand that those who disagree show you’re wrong.

        In order for your argument to work (and again, you’ve elsewhere granted it doesn’t), you’d have to show how no theistic scenario can take suffering into account. In doing so, you’d have to prove that they are contradictory–for your statement is an extremely strong claim. Your claim rests not just upon possibility, but ontology. Therefore, every single theodicy must be false. This includes the range from free will defense to greater good theodicies to multiple world theodicies to the “trinitarian warfare” theodicy of Greg Boyd to those who argue that God’s goodness to individual creatures overcomes the evils of the world, etc, etc. Yet the only argument you leveled against the free will defense was quickly defeated, and you dropped it. Thus, you’ve resorted to once more making assertions without any type of argument, conjoined with the demand that those who disagree with you must show you’re wrong.

        I think that any one of these theodicies could take suffering into account–but conjoined they provide powerful evidence that theism has, at its disposal, the tools with which to explain evil. Unlike empiricism, which cannot hold to the existence of real evil (something you’ve elsewhere admitted), theism acknowledges the reality of evil and seeks to explain it. Therefore, theism has a greater explanatory value than empiricism.

        Regarding intercessory prayer, once more you fail to take into account the tools of theism. The Christianity you attack is nothing but a straw man, created in a simple image in order to be torn down. Throughout the Bible, we have stories which show that God works through the free choices of creatures to bring about His will, prophecies, and prayers. Similarly, those who pray for the healing of others may have their prayers answered through the acting of doctors as free agents, who themselves rely upon the scientists who made the discoveries in nature which revealed cures for various ills, and that nature itself is made rational and understandable by God in such a way that the whole process can occur.

        In conclusion, I sum up: Once more you’ve merely issued a bald statement without any type of evidence, and then demanded that those who disagree with you prove you wrong. That’s logically fallacious. Second, your only attempt earlier in this discussion to defend your position was refuted, and you promptly dropped it. Third, you fail to take into account the weight of multiple possible theodicies, and in so doing create a straw man of theism. Fourth, your arguments are only ever leveled against one type of theodicy. You argue either against the free will defense or against the greater good theodicy (and never against other possibilities). This again demonstrates the failure on your part to take the opposition seriously. Fifth, as I’ve outlined briefly above, your own position cannot take seriously the reality of evil. This puts you in an the uncomfortable position of raging against a God you don’t believe in for allowing such horrific evils, while simultaneously denying that there is such a thing as actual evil. I quote your own words, “I’ll grant that ‘evil’ doesn’t exist under atheism.” Again, theism is able to take evil seriously. On your atheistic account, you literally have to modify it to suffering, and then you have no reason to think that suffering is wrong, because there is no evil. This position is incoherent. I think these 5 points alone undermine your position significantly.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | November 30, 2011, 2:36 PM
      • If God is omnipotent, he could reduce the suffering we see, at least a little.

        But the question is not of power. The question that must be asked is not, “Could He?”; the question is “Should He?” And the burden of proof is not on me, friend. We’re talking about the initial premise to the atheistic argument, which includes the idea of “unnecessary suffering.” The atheist therefore has the burden to show both pieces of the evidence that I outlined previously. The burden is only on the theist if the theist makes the claim that all suffering is necessary. That hasn’t been stated here. The only thing stated here is that all suffering is permitted.

        So nice try, but please argue for your own premise and not against one that hasn’t even been stated here. Burden of proof is on you. Have fun.

        Posted by sabepashubbo | November 30, 2011, 2:27 PM
      • Thanks for the insightful comment! This is basically what I was trying to draw out in a much more concise form.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | November 30, 2011, 2:38 PM
      • >The only thing stated here is that all suffering is permitted.

        In this case, the theist is claiming that “it was necessary for God to permit Jephthah’s daughter to be slaughtered”. It seems that permitting suffering would never be necessary for an omnipotent being, either, unless it is causally required a la Leibniz. If it is not impossible, then God ‘could’ reduce step in. An omnipotent being could reach any end via any possible means.

        Does preventing a slaughter violate our free will? No. When the police prevent a murder, they don’t remove the person’s free will. They intervene in a particular instance. Likewise, God could intervene to prevent horrors without removing free will. [I’m not granting free will. I’m arguing on Christianity, which assumes libertarian free will.]

        Besides, humans just don’t value free will that much. When we can prevent a murder, we do it. If God values free will so much that he abides cruelty, then he doesn’t meet our human standard of ‘Good’.

        JW says my ‘can’t fly’ free will is a disanalogy. Free will has never meant the ability to do things that are physically impossible. But this fails to appreciate what ‘omnipotence’ means. God also set up what is physically possible. There is no reason he couldn’t have made it physically impossible, say, for drunken stepfathers to beat kids to death. Then free will wouldn’t enter into it at all.

        Now, ‘should’ God permit suffering? This comes down to God’s nature. If he is held to an independent standard of Good, then all we have to do is evaluate whether allowing suffering (when it is not necessary) is good under that standard. This is why Yahweh is so embarrassing to theists. He doesn’t meet common standards of Goodness.

        If we don’t hold God to an independent standard of Good, then ‘Good’ has no meaning. God simply follows his own rules. Even Satan does that.

        Posted by donsevers | November 30, 2011, 3:05 PM
      • Don, what a shameful reply! You still injected necessity into the theistic argument when necessity isn’t even being argued here! The real issue is still that you have yet to define “unnecessary” and “necessary” suffering. This is the premise of your atheistic argument, and you have yet to defend it! Come on, man. At least take ownership of your argument and explain its reasoning before you go on the offensive.

        Furthermore, the amount of value placed on free will doesn’t determine its need or effectiveness. Free will isn’t something you purchase off the shelf at Wal-Mart.

        Also, the “other better world” argument continues to fail, and though J.W. has made it clear to you, it’s a pretty obvious statement that bears repeating. Trying to determine what God could and couldn’t do in a different world using examples in this world is pretty much meaningless. A different world would have all sorts of different standards in such a way that anything that is possible in this world could just as easily be impossible in a different world, so using our reality as a baseline for some “better possible world” is really just a sham and ploy with no real meat behind it.

        Now, ‘should’ God permit suffering? This comes down to God’s nature. If he is held to an independent standard of Good, then all we have to do is evaluate whether allowing suffering (when it is not necessary) is good under that standard. This is why Yahweh is so embarrassing to theists. He doesn’t meet common standards of Goodness.

        And yet this is the problem of atheists. Atheists claim that Yahweh fails to meet the standard of good without any ontological basis for there even being a “good.” This is the claim of the Moral Argument, that morality is grounded in God. I don’t need to repeat it; it’s already been discussed at length multiple times here and everywhere else. But to say Yahweh doesn’t meet common standards of goodness when those standards haven’t been defined is a lazy response, and I am sincerely disappointed in your bringing it here.

        Once again, DEFEND YOUR OWN PREMISES FIRST, then you can come and attack mine. Until you do that, your arguments are baseless and meaningless.

        Posted by sabepashubbo | November 30, 2011, 3:54 PM
      • >Atheists claim that Yahweh fails to meet the standard of good without any ontological basis for there even being a “good.

        I am arguing on Christianity.

        Posted by donsevers | December 1, 2011, 10:08 AM
      • >You still injected necessity into the theistic argument when necessity isn’t even being argued here!

        Yes it is. You said: >The only thing stated here is that all suffering is permitted.

        If suffering is permitted, we can still ask if it was necessary for God to ‘permit’ it. Necessity is always at play in moral issues. If something is necessary, then we normally don’t hold people, including God, accountable for it. If it could have been otherwise due to a personal choice, then moral accountability enters the picture.

        I am not injecting necessity. It is inherent in the issue.

        >The real issue is still that you have yet to define “unnecessary” and “necessary” suffering.

        I didn’t think I had to in a philosophy discussion. I am using ‘necessary’ to mean ‘not contingent’. If God had a choice in the outcome of Jephthah’s daughter’s slaughter, then he is a moral agent in the system.

        Posted by donsevers | December 1, 2011, 10:13 AM
      • Fair enough. But you’re still arguing what you perceive common standards of goodness are on Christianity. Therein lies the inherent bias and conflict–that you deem yourself the standard by which something can be judged to be good, even on Christianity.

        The problem with your argument is that if you argue on Christianity, then the notion that God is good is a premise, not a conclusion. Goodness is defined by God, so to say God doesn’t meet standards of goodness is to say that God doesn’t meet God, which is logically invalid. So your argument fails on Christianity anyway.

        So now that I’ve answered that objection, would you please be so kind as to explain the difference between “unnecessary” and “necessary” suffering as listed in atheist’s argument premise #1? That is still at play. I will assume that if you fail to answer that objection in your next response to me, that you concede that your argument is flawed and invalid, and are therefore giving up that argument as unreasonable, and that all of the “pew-sitting atheists” should reject your position as umerited. Your call.

        Posted by sabepashubbo | December 1, 2011, 11:10 AM
      • Ok, thanks for defining “necessary” and “unnecessary.” Now explain you can distinguish a particular instance of suffering from another and group this suffering into “necessary” and “unnecessary.” That is the next piece of the argument you need to satisfy. Otherwise it could just as easily be all necessary (thereby defeating your argument) or all unnecessary (thereby forcing hard determinism, which goes against having the ability to “choose” to even believe in hard determinism–a self-defeating proposition). So please explain these groupings, as this is the second piece to your burden of proof.

        Posted by sabepashubbo | December 1, 2011, 12:28 PM
  5. Interesting stuff, J.W. I myself have been perplexed by this story, and have written on it too. The way I got to the story was a little bit different, though, so I’m curious as to your take on this question:

    If the vow was purely sinful in nature, and this is really all we know about Jephthah’s story from the Bible, then why is he mentioned in the hall of faith in Hebrews 11? Why not Shamgar, Gideon or another one of the judges? We believe every word of the Bible to be inspired by God, so why would the author of Hebrews include such a man as Jephthah as a pillar of faith if he was driven purely by greed and desire for power?

    I’m asking this because I honestly don’t know. I postured a guess in my own writing, but the Bible is ambiguous on the matter. I suppose it’s because we don’t need to know, but wondering if you could offer any insight. Thanks!

    Posted by sabepashubbo | November 30, 2011, 12:24 PM
    • I believe he’s listed as a man of faith because he saved the nation of Israel, which would have been wiped out had he not acted. Just as God used Joseph’s brothers to bring about good through the evil they intended, Jephthah saved Israel despite his possible motivations. One could also existentially argue that his faith should be praised because of how much he honored God. He seemed to truly believe the vow could not be broken, because it was made to God. He was, unfortunately, mistaken. Further, he could be listed because he was willing to go back and save the people who had already rejected him. I think it is the case that he was acting with at least some lust for power, as noted in Judges 11:4-11, but he was also willing to lead the people of God to victory over enemies who would surely have killed them.

      In Hebrews 11 it seems clear that the reasons for listing the names is not all the same. The author points to a number of reasons for saying these people are faithful. They demonstrate their faith in differing ways. Some of these definitely apply to Jephthah: “who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies” (11:34), but others do not “who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames,” (11:33); “Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection” (11:35); etc. So there are a number of reasons Jephthah could be listed there. I think it is pretty clearly because he “became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies.” Without Jephthah, Israel may have been doomed.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | November 30, 2011, 12:35 PM
  6. Look, JW, you’re a committed, careful thinker. But to a nonbeliever, many apologists look like crabs in a burrow. They will come out, sometimes a fair distance, but they always have to end the conversation back in their burrow.

    One of my philosophy of religion professors puts it this way:

    “My particular beef is with the way in which this stuff, which looks to me more like philosophical theology, is taken as philosophy of religion. Philosophy of religion, for me, is committed to the objective investigation (description, comparison, evaluation) of religious reason-giving in the religions of the world, not in defending the religious reason-giving of one’s own religion. ”

    I’m interested in this kind of philosophy of religion. I’m less interested in theology and apologetics. If a good idea is found in religion, I want to evaluate it. But I don’t want to defend an idea merely because it is found in a religion, much less the one I happen to belong to. That’s not philosophy. That’s defending bias.

    Posted by donsevers | December 1, 2011, 10:02 AM
    • I’m not sure where you’re going with this string of thought. Again, unless you’re attacking my own character and saying that I am defending bias, then this whole comment was pointless. As has been the case in the past, you’re not taking into account the whole of Christian theism. A whole series of evidences has led me to defend the reliability of the Bible and against the problem of evil.

      It seems to me your point is either, as I noted, an ad hominem which is grossly misplaced to begin with, or it’s a random side note about others who are not evidentially inclined, and is therefore irrelevant.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | December 2, 2011, 1:20 PM
  7. >I will assume that if you fail to answer that objection in your next response to me, that you concede that your argument is flawed and invalid,

    Easy there. You know as well as our readers that any number of things could prevent me from replying. I could have a stroke, lose interest, etc.

    >please be so kind as to explain the difference between “unnecessary” and “necessary” suffering

    I know you’re sharp, so I think I’m misunderstanding you. ‘Necessary’ means what it means in philosophy, ‘not contingent’. It means even God couldn’t prevent it. It means inevitable.

    If we say that Jephthah’s daughters death by her father’s hand was inevitable, this reduces God’s power. Since there is nothing logically contradictory about preventing her death, if God is unable to prevent it, then her death is somehow unavoidable, as in Leibniz’s pre-established harmony, or even hard determinism. I’m not claiming those things, but something like them follows if we say God could not have prevented her death.

    I’m not hearing you guys claim that sort of thing. It seems you want to say that God ‘could’ have prevented her death (he has the power), but that preventing her death would interfere with free will or prevent a greater good, like the salvation of Israel.

    It seems that omnipotence would give God so many options that he could have all that and still prevent her death without any logical contradictions.

    More than 60,000 children have died of starvation since we started this discussion. It is reasonable to say that an omnipotent God could have made that number 59,999 by getting one more kid adopted to a developed nation or something. God is ingenious. It is unreasonable to say that the suffering we see is already at the minimum God could achieve.

    Perhaps you could say this: “The suffering we see ‘could’ already be at the minimum God could achieve.”

    If this is enough for you to commit to a God, then go for it. I’m more conservative in granting my allegiances. With this much doubt about his Goodness, it looks positively promiscuous to throw oneself at God’s feet.

    Do we know that God is good because it is a premise in Christianity? This is a good point, but it is not the only conclusion. I see it as a contradiction within Christianity which undermines it. At minimum, it casts enough doubt that I, as a careful thinker, will refrain from buying into it until better answers are given.

    Posted by donsevers | December 1, 2011, 11:46 AM
  8. Good response. Well-reasoned. I’m not really sure some of the objectors in the comment thread actually read your post.

    Posted by Dan | October 22, 2012, 10:47 AM
  9. I just read the story of Jephthah’s victory and his daughter’s subsequent sacrifice. I then was curious for some comments. I really enjoyed your post; thought provoking. Your defense of God’s character is intelligent indeed. I did have just one criticism, and forgive me if this is already covered in the lengthy comment section above. Regarding the extrapolation of the victory being a necessity to bringing about the redemption, God allows Israel to be defeated many times throughout history. I fail to see the justification in claiming this particular victory was indispensably crucial to God’s plan for redeeming the world.
    Perhaps just a minor point, and you may well have an answer to my criticism. Apart from it though, I found your argument to be pretty solid.

    Posted by Drew | April 7, 2013, 1:21 AM
    • I think you raise a very valid point. One thing I would notice is that the reason I feel fairly confident in the assertion that the victory was ‘necessary’ (though I’m not sure that is the right word) is because of the cycle found throughout Judges where the people rebel, get oppressed [defeat], call for help, and are delivered [Jephthah’s victory] followed by a period of peace. This happens time and time again throughout Judges and is one of the keys for understanding the book. In context, the story seems to come into the period where oppression is already happening, and so that part of the cycle calls for the deliverance.

      But perhaps cycles can be undone. It seems to me that there really is no reason, as you perhaps hint at, to say this victory is necessary to bring the redemption. However, it is still part of God’s covenant relationship. At this point, the people are calling for help, thus appealing to the absolute covenant between God and his people.

      This may be the weak point of my response, but I do not think my response turns upon it. I could effectively delete that portion of the argument and still, I think, have it work.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | April 7, 2013, 12:15 PM
      • All that you say makes sense. Unnecessary and far reaching extrapolations often do not help an otherwise sound argument, and that is how it struck me. So both of your points above are likely correct. Your argument does not hinge on it. At the same time, regardless of the “necessity” of the victory, it was God’s plan to deliver Israel at that moment from that enemy through that man. He wasn’t the first nor last of God’s chosen instruments to later do questionable things. As you point out, it is not God’s goal everyday to prevent any and all evil from happening. We have free will and evil is permitted to occur; but God has a plan. The story is a great one preserved for us though. It is an excellent quandry for the philosopher to ponder; “should I keep my incredibly stupid oath to God”? As human sacrifice was not uncommon, and Jephthah was on the outskirts of Hebrew society, he may not have known God’s stance on the practice. Nonetheless, he likely did not make rash oaths after that incidence.
        Thanks so much for taking the time to respond to me so quickly. Some of those Old Testiment stories are downright confusing. Having a philosophical forum such as this to kick ideas around makes it kind of fun.

        take care,

        drew

        Posted by drew | April 7, 2013, 1:21 PM

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