by Francis Schmidt
(Guatemala City, Guatemala)
(1st person narrative, to be delivered dressed up as a Bible character.)
A while ago, I started off with the question: which is better -- to have lots of knowledge of God and little faith or lots of faith and little knowledge? Well, in my case I didn't know much about God's Word, but what little I knew about God, I believed. And the God I believed in took a broken, angry young man and forged me into a leader of His people.
That's the good news. But there's a part of the story that I didn't tell you, and that part of the story has to do with some mistakes I made because I didn't know the Scriptures.
I told you how I stood upon the crest of that incline and saw the enemy's vastly superior numbers and made the decision to split my army up. What I didn't tell you was that, as I made the decision to run that risk, I made a vow. I vowed to God that if He gave me victory, I would sacrifice the first thing that came out of my door when I went home.
I'm sure right now what's going through your mind is, "Jephtha, man, what in the world were you thinking? What else could possibly come out your front door to greet you but a member of your family?"
It was in the middle of a battle, and as I faced a desperate situation in the heat of the moment, I fell back on a common custom of the nations all around. The pagan nations believed that they had to convince their gods to help them by giving a human sacrifice. Seeing the gravity of our situation, where fate of the battle hung by thread, I thought God needed to be convinced in the same way.
I didn't think through exactly who that person might be. In fact, in the elation and the celebrations that followed our spectacular victory, I forgot about it -- even as I headed home, I had forgotten about it. It wasn't until I arrived at my house and the front door flew open that I suddenly remembered what I had vowed. And the one who ran out to greet me was my beloved teenage daughter!
It was as if a sword pierced my heart. She was my only child! She was the daughter I delighted in! And now, she would be torn out of my life. I would never see her married. She would never have children to continue my family line. After granting her a few months to mourn the years she would not live and the family she would never raise, I fulfilled that horrible vow.
If I just had known the Scriptures, I would have known that God's Law absolutely forbade human sacrifice. If I just had known the Scriptures, I would have known that in the heat of battle, I didn't have to bribe God as if He were reluctant to help me. I could have prayed to Him and He would have answered with the same result.
And the worst part is, even after I made the vow, if I had known the Scriptures I would have known that her death was not necessary. Leviticus 27 says when someone has dedicated someone else to the Lord, they can pay money to the Lord to redeem the life of that person.
But I didn't know? I just didn't know.
My daughter didn't have to die. It was my ignorance of the Scriptures that killed her.
Something else that happened after the battle that shows the price of not knowing God's Word. Ephraim was the tribe in the area west of Gilead, just across the Jordan River from us. A large armed group from Ephraim came to me with a complaint: "Why didn't you call us to fight the Ammonites?" They mixed the complaint with a threat: "We're going to burn your house down with you in it!"
I later found out that two generations before, the Ephraimites threw the same complaint to Gideon after his battle with the Ishmaelites. Seems like among God's people there are always some who are nowhere to be found before the battle, but come out to criticize and complain after the battle.
Gideon, who knew a lot more of God's ways than I did, saw the foolishness of fighting over petty issues and of getting distracted from the job God had assigned. He used soft words and diplomacy to avoid an unnecessary conflict.
Well, I wasn't Gideon. Stung by the tone they used with me, I answered in the same tone. I said, "Well, I DID call you to the battle and you didn't come. Look, I took my life in my hands to fight that battle! How dare you threaten me?"
That just made them madder and began to hurl insults at us and our tribe. Finally I had enough. I ordered my men to attack.
Those Ephraimites could talk big, but they were no match for my battle hardened troops. We beat the fool out of them. And when they turned tail and went running westward back toward their territory, we ran ahead and took the crossing of the Jordan. Every time some of them came to cross, we asked them to pronounce the Hebrew word for "flood."
You see, they had this funny accent and they couldn't say it right. They would say "Sibboleth" instead of "Shibboleth." That's how we identified the Ephraimites at the crossing of the Jordan and we ended up killing 42,000 of them.
Ironically, two generations before, it was the Ephraimites, allied with Gideon, who took the fords of the Jordan and killed the Ishmaelites as they tried to cross. But here we were, two generations later, fighting each other instead of fighting the enemies of God. In Gideon's judgeship, it was the Ishmaelites who were killed at the fords; in my judgeship, it was God's people. I was treating God's people like they were God's enemies.
I know those Ephraimites were arrogant and mouthy. Maybe they needed to be taken down a peg or two. But looking back on it, I shouldn't have attacked them, and I sure shouldn't have tried to exterminate them. They were obnoxious. They were foolish. But they were God's people.
You know, conflicts show how much good theology we have in our heart. That's because conflicts show what we really think about God. Conflicts show whether we have a big God, or whether we have a big ego and big problems.
Don't get me wrong. There are some things of principle worth fighting for. But 95% the things we believers fight about are power struggles, personality differences, and hurt pride. My handling of that conflict shows how ignorant I was of God and His perspective. If I had known the Scriptures better, I would have handled that differently.
Coming back to that question that I started out with -- which is better, good theology or strong faith? I think we'd all agree that if we had to choose between the two, faith is more important. Years after my time, the Holy Spirit inspired someone to write "without faith it is impossible to please God." So when God sees simple, genuine faith in someone like me, He overlooks ignorance of Scriptures and theology.
But there's another side to this coin: God overlooks ignorance, but ignorance will end up doing great damage. When God's people are ignorant of what God is like and what His will is, it is only a question of time before they hurt themselves and others. When we have faith, but don't know the Scriptures, in a crisis we fall back on what our culture does, and we make a mess of things.
It worries me that some churches brag about being weak in theology. "Oh, we don?t make a big deal about theology," some churches say. "We just want people to have an experience with God."
It worries me that many of those who use the mass media preach a gospel of prosperity: they say that God's main job is to make you rich, happy, and healthy. All you need, they say, is to have enough faith. That kind of thinking is going to hurt somebody.
It worries me that with all the tools available in your society to study the Scriptures, so few believers bother to do so. Why, there are more tools available today to study the Bible than there has been in all of history. The truth is, I never had a copy of the Scriptures, but Christian households today have stacks of Bibles, but hardly anybody reads them.
It worries me that so many churches in places like Central America are being led by men who have no training in the Scriptures or in theology.
Lots of faith or lots of knowledge of the Scriptures? My life shows that we need both. Great faith with great theology will be a great blessing to you and to others. Let's be strong in BOTH!
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