The Grace of Leviticus 27 for Foolish, Desperate God Bargainers

When I told a member of the church what I was preaching on this week she immediately thought of a scene in a Burt Reynold’s movie from 1978 called “The End”. With the help of Google I discovered that this is kind of a stock illustration for bargaining with God on sermons posted on the Internet.

In the movie Burt Reynolds is a man named Wendell Sonny Lawson in the prime of life whose received news from his doctor that he doesn’t have long to live. He takes the news badly and foolishly, pretty much along the lines of the way he’s lived. The climax of the movie is his attempted suicide by ocean. He’s too chicken to end his life in other ways so he figures he’ll swim out as far as he can, exhausting himself he will die because he won’t be able to swim back.

Before this climax, however, the movie gives us a picture of the shallow, foolish way he’s lived his life. He’s cheated on his wife more than he was faithful to her, he was crooked in business, a bad father, and basically a selfish person.

Upon hearing the news of his disease he went to a Roman Catholic church to make his final confession. We see that while the man believed there was a God in heaven, his assumption was that our relationship with God is something of a moral transaction. God wants us to be good, follow the Ten Commandments, etc. and in return he’ll give us something of what we want. What Reynolds wanted basically was money, sex, and fun.

In the bargaining scene he again tries to bargain with obedience to get more of life. All he wants is for God to make him a better swimmer. He promises God money, morality and faithfulness. The closer he gets to the shore his promised 50% turns to 10% turns to “if you take it” and “you made me sick in the first place” and so forth. The message behind the scene is “when it comes to religion with us it’s like it is with everything else. We’re selfish and in it for ourselves.”

Proto-Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

The religious anthropology in “The End” shows preliminary elements of the contemporary full blown Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism . The God of 1978 enforces things a bit more which Burt Reynolds is assuming with getting a shorter life than the one he felt himself entitled to. God wants something and he wants something. Maybe they can cut a deal that will be a “win-win”, hence the negotiation.

Leviticus 27 and God Cutting Deals

Leviticus 27 is a strange chapter and as many scholars have noted a rather unexpected way to end the book of Leviticus. Most scholars based on reading other ancient documents similar to Leviticus assumed the book should end with chapter 26, the list of blessings and curses.  Surely this is the way to hammer home the importance of obedience and spur pragmatic, practical onto real obedience out of basic, human self-interest. Instead we have this chapter which on first read might seem whole unintelligible to contemporary secularists.

The chapter is essentially God’s price list for how people can get out of a hasty vow made in desperation.

“Did you make God a promise you really couldn’t or didn’t want to keep? For 40 pieces of silver God’s willing to let you off so you can go about your merry way even after God mysteriously got you out of that circumstantial scrape.”

This sounds enormously practical but not terribly theological or “spiritual” in the way people today think “spiritual”.

Jephthah the Deal Maker

Making promises to God as a way of bargaining with him is common across the world and throughout history. It is the origin of the saying “no atheists in foxholes”. The assumption is that when our lives are on the line we get scared and when we get scared we get desperate and even though we never invested much of our life into God we hope to cry out and find any help to save. The patron saint of last minute changes of heart is of course the thief on the cross who beings by joining the crowd in mocking Jesus and then defends him prompting Jesus to declare “today you will be with me in paradise”.

Jacob when running from his brother Esau and meeting God at Bethel declared that he’d tithe to God if God brought him back safe and sound. Hannah at the tabernacle in grief over being childless promised to give her first born son, Samuel, into tabernacle service.

Perhaps the most memorable promise made to God was by Jephthah in the book of Judges.

Because he was the son of a prostitute the legitimate heirs of his father kicked him out. Scraping a living outside of Israel he attracted to him other dispossessed men and probably survived as a brigand and an outlaw. When his tribe was under pressure from Ammon, however, they wanted a man who knew how to break heads and shed blood so they appealed to him. Sore from his banishment he cut a deal with them. Make me your commander and I’ll take care of the Ammonites. In desperation they tribal leaders agreed. This picture is of practical and desperate men doing whatever it takes to survive.

After failed negotiation with the king of Ammon He made a vow to the LORD.

Judges 11:29–33 (NET)

29 The Lord’s spirit empowered Jephthah. He passed through Gilead and Manasseh and went to Mizpah in Gilead. From there he approached the Ammonites.30 Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, saying, “If you really do hand the Ammonites over to me, 31 then whoever is the first to come through the doors of my house to meet me when I return safely from fighting the Ammonites—he will belong to the Lord and I will offer him up as a burnt sacrifice.” 32 Jephthah approached the Ammonites to fight with them, and the Lord handed them over to him. 33 He defeated them from Aroer all the way to Minnith—twenty cities in all, even as far as Abel Keramim! He wiped them out! The Israelites humiliated the Ammonites.

Disaster followed his vow.

Judges 11:34–40 (NET)

34 When Jephthah came home to Mizpah, there was his daughter hurrying out to meet him, dancing to the rhythm of tambourines. She was his only child; except for her he had no son or daughter. 35 When he saw her, he ripped his clothes and said, “Oh no! My daughter! You have completely ruined me! You have brought me disaster! I made an oath to the Lord, and I cannot break it.”36 She said to him, “My father, since you made an oath to the Lord, do to me as you promised. After all, the Lord vindicated you before your enemies, the Ammonites.” 37 She then said to her father, “Please grant me this one wish. For two months allow me to walk through the hills with my friends and mourn my virginity.”38 He said, “You may go.” He permitted her to leave for two months. She went with her friends and mourned her virginity as she walked through the hills.39 After two months she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. She died a virgin. Her tragic death gave rise to a custom in Israel.40 Every year Israelite women commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite for four days.

This is a famous story and there are a lot of elements to it.

  • The story has parallels in other literature, most notably Agamemnon having to sacrifice his daughter having made a foolish vow of his own.
  • The book of Judges is about Israel’s failures to fulfill their vows to God. Many of the stories are negative examples.
  • Jephthah was acting like a pagan, more like the Ammonites and Moabites and holds true to form in this story.
  • As the Old Testament often does the hero of the story here is actually his daughter. She is shown to be faithful while he is faithless.
  • A reading of Leviticus 27 could have rescued the girl, but Jephthah (and Israel) are mired in the common religious assumptions of their neighbors, not the law of God.

Jephthah vs. Wendell vs. Full blown Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

How might we compare Jephthah and Wendell? The human heart is like this, but clearly Jephthah in his brutal, ancient, common religiosity is far more fearful of failing to fulfill a vow than Wendell. Wendell isn’t dry before he’s bailing on his vow.

If we fast forward to today the thought of making such a vow seems silly. God doesn’t cut deals, he just keeps giving good things. Our deep current assumptions about God and his absence (he was plenty silent to Jephthah too) makes Leviticus 27 more than obsolete. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in fact completely reverses the assumption of debt and would blame God for spoiling the whole dramatic oath taking experience.

That path that we have traveled was best summed up in H. Richard Niebuhr’s most famous quote:  “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

  • Jephthah’s vow was godless, hideous and foolish yet he took God serious enough to fulfill it even for all the wrong reasons.
  • Wendell upon the beach forgets his vow and blames God. It says less about God than it says about Wendell.
  • Contemporary Moralistic Therapeutic Deists might want to make a vow to enjoy the dramatic religious moment but then be offended if an actual God would hear it and take us serious enough to actually imagine we should fulfill it. To the degree that they believe in God they will play passive aggressive games like they would their friends in order to try to get God to come sniveling back to them. “Won’t you love me now and pay me some attention and affection?!”

Competing Religious Messages

Voices on the contemporary religious landscape will make different noises facing these observations.

On the conservative religious side you’ll hear demands to take God more seriously. Galatians 6:7 comes to mind. “Do not be deceived. God is not mocked. A man reaps what he sows.”

On the more skeptical side you’ll hear something about outdated paganism, imagining that God is involved in day to day affairs, etc. What he wants us to be is good, nice, fair, etc. Wendell kind of splits the difference.

The conservative religious voice would be happy finishing Leviticus in chapter 26 with the list of blessings and curses. The skeptical voice wouldn’t know what to do with much of the book at all. The fact that specific prices are declared for men, women and children, seemingly valued on the amount of production that one might be able to get out of them moves us back into the land of ancient offense. How dare God put prices on what is priceless, namely people. Doesn’t this hearken back to slavery?

What do the prices in Leviticus 27 really mean? 

Reading the book Debt: The First 5000 Years has changed some of my feelings about what these kinds of transactions meant in the ancient world. In places where people lived in a fairly money free way (they grew and exchanged for a lot of what they needed to live) money was used mostly for religious or social transactions.

I began this chapter by beginning to propose an answer: by making a distinction between commercial economies and what I call “human economies”— that is, those where money acts primarily as a social currency, to create, maintain, or sever relations between people rather than to purchase things. As Rospabé so cogently demonstrated, it is the peculiar quality of such social currencies that they are never quite equivalent to people. If anything, they are a constant reminder that human beings can never be equivalent to anything— even, ultimately, to one another. This is the profound truth of the blood-feud. No one can ever really forgive the man who killed his brother because every brother is unique. Nothing could substitute— not even some other man given the same name and status as your brother, or a concubine who will bear a son who will be named after your brother, or a ghost-wife who will bear a child pledged to someday avenge his death.

In a human economy, each person is unique, and of incomparable value, because each is a unique nexus of relations with others. A woman may be a daughter, sister, lover, rival, companion, mother, age-mate, and mentor to many different people in different ways. Each relation is unique , even in a society in which they are sustained through the constant giving back and forth of generic objects such as raffia cloth or bundles of copper wire. In one sense, those objects make one who one is— a fact illustrated by the way the objects used as social currencies are so often things otherwise used to clothe or decorate the human body, that help make one who one is in the eyes of others. Still, just as our clothes don’t really make us who we are, a relationship kept alive by the giving and taking of raffia is always something more than that.  This means that the raffia, in turn, is always something less. This is why I think Rospabé was right to emphasize the fact that in such economies, money can never substitute for a person: money is a way of acknowledging that very fact, that debt cannot be paid.

Graeber, David (2011-07-12). Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Kindle Locations 3162-3177). Melville House. Kindle Edition.

If Graeber is right about human economies, then what does Leviticus 27 mean? Why is it here at the end of the book of Leviticus, where most of the religious scholars think it doesn’t belong or should be some appendix of laws that didn’t fit elsewhere?

The Big Climax

Mary Douglas, an anthropologist wrote a book on the book of Leviticus, and her assertion was that in fact Leviticus 27, together with 25 and 26 sum up the book by bringing us into the Holy of Holies. She sees 25 and 27 as framing 26 to conclude the book. Here we see the heart of God’s justice she declares.

In chapter 25 we saw the progression of debt between people. People got themselves into debt with one another, and as they devolved the circumstances became increasingly grim. God reaches down with the year of Jubilee to rescue the pauper and return him home.

In chapter 26 we see the blessings and curses. Even the curses, however, are told in a way that mirrors a progression. Just as in chapter 25 greed or mismanagement reduces us to paupers, in 26 our rebellion and its consequences reduces us to slaves of other empires. In the end, however, all the misfortune and curses are designed to bring us back, to open us up to rescue, to bring us back to God.

Now in 27 we see ourselves not in debt to each other but in debt to God. WE have run up the tab, like Wendell swimming in the ocean. Jephthah, an outcast and brigand approaches God as would an Ammonite, a Moabite and a strong man. He needs a different God from the Ammonites to challenge them so reach out to Yahweh and cut a deal.

Graeber notes throughout his book that these kinds of transactions always imply a certain status. Wendell imagines that he as a business man can look God in the eye and cut a deal. Jephthah imagines that he as a brigand can look God in the eye and cut a deal. Wendell doesn’t fear God enough to follow thrown. Jephthah fears God but doesn’t know him and so slaughters his daughter.

Leviticus 27 says “there can be a substitute”.

If Wendell reads Leviticus 27 he’ll pull out his checkbook. He wouldn’t need to negotiate because God gives the prices. Wendell, however, doesn’t understand a human economy, only a consumer economy. Do the prices in Leviticus 27 really mean that mere money can redeem us?

Jephthah knows the ancient world better. He knows that nothing can substitute for his daughter, but he doesn’t know God well enough to know that the God of his ancestors had in fact already made a way, an accommodation for a substitute for his precious daughter.

Most Biblical scholars by virtue of the language of Judges believe that the shape of the text informs us that Jephthah assumed an animal would some to great him first. Any of us with a dog knows that animals usually have better senses and will respond. He was imaging that God’s blessing could be purchased with an animal. Nothing in his environment would disavow him of such a belief, but then his daughter comes to him dancing, and his heart is broken.

A Daughter, Silver, and a Son

If Graeber is right that this money is supposed to communicate ironically that the debt can never be paid, then Leviticus 27 is functionally not unlike the entire sacrificial system. Chapter 27 also notes that one animal cannot ever be substituted for another.

Jephthah’s daughter in that story makes the same point. Notice her quality. She knows the cost of her father’s foolishness and the seriousness of God and in essentially volunteers herself. She is an image of Christ.

Is her father a fool? Yes. Does her father only know God’s justice in the hard world of blood and violence? Yes. He does not know God’s mercy. He has not traveled the book of Leviticus to the Holy of Holies and has seen that God has made a way for foolish religious and irreligious people.

Jesus comes and illuminates the father, both in his teaching and his death.

Jesus on Vows and the Character of the Father

Religious conservatives clearly hear Jesus say “don’t take God lightly”. Jephthah gets that, Wendell doesn’t.

Jesus isn’t found with the skeptics by saying “God doesn’t hear, or isn’t there.” If that would have been the case there would have been no point to the garden of Gethsemane nor the cross. Jesus could have simply joined John the Baptist by being a moral scourge for the betterment of society.

At the same time Jesus goes beyond Jephthah by talking about the character of the Father.

Luke 11:9–13 (NET)

9 “So I tell you: Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 What father among you, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?13 If you then, although you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Jesus steps in to redeem. Just as the daughter steps into redeem her foolish father, and the silver redeems the foolish vow makers of Leviticus 27, so Jesus steps into redeem foolish sinners. He doesn’t do it because we’ve negotiated, he does so because we need him to.


Wendell and Jephthah expose us. When times are good and our challenges are manageable we are selfish individual operators trying to get what we want from the cards we’ve been dealt. When we get over our heads, however, we start to look for help wherever we may find it. We approach God not so much from who he is but usually mirroring ourselves.

  • Jephthah imagines that God is a brigand who can be turned to become a mercenary who will rough up the Ammonites for a price, but the price must be paid or God, like a brigand, will turn on him for payment. As Graeber notes again and again, violence and debt are deeply connected.
  • Wendell is religious enough so God behind his misfortune, but imagines that God is a business man who can have his price, and then in the end be cheated the way Wendell cheats others. He, unlike Jephthah doesn’t appreciate God’s justice or power.
  • Contemporary Moralistic, Therapeutic Deists are hardly able to even start the conversation. They are too often simply mired in their self-pity to even try to reach out to God. They just want to get passive aggressive on him.


In Jephthah’s daughter we the sacrificial revelation of a God who redeems foolish, ignorant, hurtful sinners. In the silver of Leviticus 27 we see the provision that could have saved Jephthah his daughter. In Jesus we see it all. We see God saying that we have a debt that we cannot repay. God himself redeems us, owns us and restores us.

Gratitude, the Heart of the Vow

What we don’t want to do in all of this is gut the economy. A healthy relational economy sees debts and liabilities between actors within it. There is a place for expressing what cannot be objectified in objects. This was in fact the purpose behind money in Graeber’s human economies. The traditional bride pride in fact has been replaced by the engagement ring. It is now a way of purchasing someone, but a way of expressing value and commitment. These tokens of exchange in fact expose the fact that these tokens speak of what cannot be objectified in terms of substitute people, livestock, property or precious metals. What happens then is a gratitude economy. Tokens can be given, promises made and fulfilled, no longer out of fear but still with great seriousness, but the seriousness of joy.

What if Jephthah had simply offered an animal sacrifice in thanks to God for the victory he gave over the Ammonites? He might of in fact became a true judge of the people and lead them into righteousness.

What if Wendell instead of trying to bargain for his miserable, pitiful life instead realized that the time he had been given had been a gift that he had used foolishly and to devote himself to the well-being of the wife he cheated on, the daughter he ignored, the business associates he swindled? This would of course have required that Wendell had looked upon his life in a completely different way, not as a game to win by cheating God and other players, but a gift given out of joy and for the joy and flourishing of others.

Jesus comes to us and invites us into his life. One of trusting the Father even when our prospects are grim. This takes God seriously not just in his justice but also in his mercy.

Gratitude reverses the logic of the vow as seen in Wendell, Jephthah and Jacob. We are no longer fearful bargainers but now see ourselves from the perspective of God at Bethel who did not offer Jacob some conditional business offer but simply told him that he would bless him.

If this is your new situation how will you now live? It need not be out of fearful striving, but now out of joyful thanksgiving.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in On the way to Sunday's sermon and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Grace of Leviticus 27 for Foolish, Desperate God Bargainers

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