Bible Studies on the Book of Judges Lesson 12: Judges 11–12 An Unfortunate Oath

Judges 11 introduces us to Jephthah. When people find out that I am a college student majoring in theology with a special interest in Old Testament theology, one of the first questions I am asked involves Jephthah. “Did Jephthah really kill his daughter?” is a question I have had to deal with over and over again. I hope this lesson will provide sufficient information on that question and that it will also provide a look into the life of Jephthah, a judge deemed faithful enough to be included in Hebrews 11:32, in a list with David, Samuel, Gideon, and the prophets. Too often the controversy surrounding his daughter eclipses everything else he ever did.

Judges 11:1–3 gives us a brief biography of Jephthah. He was from Gilead, the town being troubled by the Ammonites in Judges 10:17–18. Confusingly, Gilead was also the name of his father. Jephthah is introduced as a “mighty warrior” in verse 1. This is the same phrase that the Angel of the LORD used to describe Gideon back in chapter 6. So, it appears that Jephthah is the perfect candidate for Gilead’s salvation. He was a mighty warrior and a native Gileadite. What kept the elders of Gilead from just asking Jephthah?  The second part of verse 1 adds a problem to Jephthah’s background. Sure, his father was Gilead, but his mother was a prostitute. When Gilead’s legitimate sons were old enough to start worrying about the coming inheritance, they drove Jephthah out of the town. So, Jephthah went off into the land of Tob and gathered a band of “worthless fellows” around him. The NIV calls these men “adventurers,” but that plants pictures of a Robin-Hood-and-his-merry-men type group. The Hebrew here paints a negative picture (the last time this word was used was to describe Abimelech’s followers who helped him slaughter his seventy brothers). These were unsavory men, a “band of freebooting guerillas led by a social outcast” as Dr. Dale Ralph Davis labeled them.

Verse 4 takes us from Jephthah’s past back to where chapter 10 left off. The Ammonites were attacking Israel. The elders of Gilead, seeking a deliverer, came to Jephthah. They were desperate; they were ready to turn to whoever would get the job done. So, they told him, “We know that we threw you out, but now we want you to come and rescue us.”  Jephthah knew that the elders of Gilead were trying to use him (just as the LORD knew Israel was trying to use Him). Their first offer (in verse 6) was only to make him “leader,” a different word denoting lesser rank than they used in 10:18. Jephthah said to them, “You expelled me and rejected me. Given these facts, how on earth can you now come to me when you need help?”  Because of his objection, they increase the stakes and offer him the original title from 10:18, translated “head” in most translations. This is a higher office, a better bargain. This is an act of reconciliation; the elders of Gilead are desperately trying to get Jephthah, the “mighty warrior,” to fight for them, so they are trying to smooth over the past. They are willing to stop at nothing to get a deliverer of their own choosing, and they got a leader just like themselves. Jephthah, as evidenced by his behavior here and later, was a man who was willing to use people to pursue his private agenda. Like the elders, he was an opportunist. He so desperately wanted to be restored and accepted, to be the leader, that he did anything he could to achieve his goals.

But Jephthah was also God’s chosen savior for His people. Perhaps the dialogue between Jephthah and the leaders sounded familiar. Gilead’s entreaty was exactly what Israel had told the LORD in chapter 10; Jephthah’s answer was directly parallel to the LORD’s. The difference came in the responses of the LORD and Jephthah. The LORD refused to be used by the Israelites’ false repentance (basically, bribery). Jephthah opportunistically seized the day (and the offer of kingship) and agreed to be their man (but only after making them swear before the LORD that they would keep their promise). The parallels between Jephthah and the LORD are very interesting, and they also further highlight the fact that Jephthah is going to be God’s chosen tool of salvation. John 15:20 tells us that “a slave is not above his lord; if they persecuted me [Jesus], they will persecute you as well.”  Jephthah, God’s servant, got no better treatment than the LORD Himself did. And what a strange servant of God he turned out to be.

After Jephthah dealt with the elders and secured his position as leader, he dealt with the king of the Ammonites. He sent messengers to the Ammonites, asking why they had come into Israel’s land to bother them. The king sent back messengers, saying, “It was ours first, so we are just taking it back!”  Israel had taken the land away from Ammon when they first came from Egypt, back under the command of Joshua. But Jephthah did not back down. He replied by sending the king of Ammon a history lesson. Jephthah briefly recounted the events of Numbers 20–24 and Deuteronomy 3 in his letter to prove that the land was Israel’s because God had given it to them.

Jephthah replied, “The God of Israel dispossessed all of these people—He  was more powerful than the gods of Moab, the Amorites, and any other Canaanite gods you can think of. So who are you to dare to come against Him?  Are you better than they were?”  This is amazing!  Jephthah seems to be surprisingly well-versed in the Scriptures and in his knowledge of what God has done!  Jephthah rose to the occasion and defended the LORD. He even went so far as to make a dig at Chemosh, the god of the Ammonites, in verse 24. This certainly raises our hopes that maybe Jephthah will be a good judge after all. The essence of Jephthah’s letter is in verse 27. He called on the LORD as his trump card, saying “Let the LORD be the judge between us.”  Keep in mind that the LORD had not yet committed to do anything for Israel. In fact, the last time we heard from Him, He was out of patience with Israel. The Ammonite king ignored Jephthah’s message.

Jephthah’s letter encourages us to look to God and what He has done in history. Jephthah used the historic faithfulness of God to argue his point with the Ammonite king. We, too, can and should trust God on the basis of His past history (there are other reasons to trust Him too, of course). We can look back at God’s sovereign hand over events in our own lives and see that He is a caring and gracious God who has led us through many trials and tribulations. If He has been faithful in the past, He will be faithful again. You may have lived through some difficult times, but see how He has led you through and used those troubles to refine you and for your ultimate good. Look to His faithfulness in history, how He was with His servants in the Bible. God’s Word leaves no room to question the faithfulness of God. He will forever remain faithful to His covenant.

Jephthah’s story is still looking good when we reach verse 29. The Spirit of the LORD came upon him, and he headed out towards the Ammonites to make battle. The next logical step is verse 32, when Jephthah attacked the Ammonites. But there are these two verses (30 and 31) that just appear here. We would not miss them story-wise if they were not there; they are a detour. But in these two verses, Jephthah ruins everything. He knew what God had done in Israel’s past; He knew God’s Word, but He did not know God. He viewed God as powerful, yes, but he thought God could be bought.

Jephthah was a mercenary, and he assumed that the LORD was, too. He thought that he knew how to guarantee God’s help, so he made his foolish vow. What a foolish vow it was!  “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace shall be the LORD’s and I will offer him up for a burnt offering.”  Almost all the English translations say “whatever comes out” and “I will offer it up,” dumbing down what the Bible actually says (the NASB’s addition of an “or,” “it shall be the LORD’s or I will offer it up as a burnt offering” is an addition to the text meant to avoid the ethical dilemma). The Hebrew says “whoever” and “him.”  Although the case can be made that this could refer to an animal, the phrase “coming out of the doors to meet me” seems to imply a purposeful, human action. And this is what we would logically expect, is it not?  Cows and goats do not come out to meet us. Sheep do not run out and rush to welcome us home. Jephthah was clearly thinking of a human sacrifice here. These are the depths to which Israelite religion had plummeted. Jephthah thought that a human sacrifice would not only be appropriate, but pleasing to the LORD.

With our modern sensibilities, we are reluctant to think that of Jephthah. He could not have been planning on sacrificing a human, could he?  Maybe he thought that a cow or something would come out and that is what he meant. We just do not want to think that of Jephthah. We do not want to tag Jephthah as a deliberate murderer. And anyway, the narrator does not tell us that his vow was explicitly wrong. But that is not a valid point. Old Testament narrators do not explicitly condemn every evil action. Did our narrator in Judges condemn Gideon and his ephod?  Did he condemn Jair and his many wives?  These things should be obviously wrong, so it should not surprise us that the narrator does not go out of his way to condemn it. He assumed that we would know it was wrong to make vows to sacrifice human beings.

In the days of the judges, the heathens regularly sacrificed their children and other humans to their gods in times of great distress. It was a common practice. This became a real temptation to the Israelites. They were sure that they would get results if they sacrificed some humans. There are laws in Leviticus against human sacrifice. Why are laws made?  Laws are made because people are tempted to do evil things or are already doing it. There would not have been a law against human sacrifice if it was not a real temptation in the ancient Near East. The first verses of chapter 10 say that Israel was going out and worshipping the gods of other nations. In that context, it is not surprising that Jephthah would make such a vow. Chemosh, that god whom Jephthah lambasted earlier, was well known for human sacrifices. Now Jephthah is treating the LORD like Chemosh. Jephthah proved that he cares for no one but himself. In his letter, he said he was resting his case on the divine Judge, but now he is acting as if he can slip the judge a little something under the table.

An objection to this theory of Jephthah’s vow being explicitly about human sacrifice is found in verse 29. Many people point to the phrase “the Spirit of the LORD was upon Jephthah” and point out that no one under the working of the Holy Spirit would ever make such a vow. That is true. But nowhere is it clear that the Holy Spirit was upon Jephthah when he made that vow. The Spirit of the LORD was on him leading him to battle with the Ammonites. This would link it to verse 32, where it says “The LORD gave the Ammonites into his hand.”

The battle turned out well. Jephthah got what he wanted. He returned home, and who came out to greet him but his daughter, his only child. Not a servant, as Jephthah would have expected, but his daughter. Now Jephthah, ruler of Gilead, would be barren and alone. As soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and yelled at her. “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me.”  What did Jephthah see as most important?  It seems he was not most concerned about his daughter’s life, but about his own reputation and self. He mourned for himself, not his own daughter!  

Do not feel sorry for Jephthah!  Jephthah, who earlier seemed to know so much about God, seems to know nothing about the law of God. Not only does the law say to not sacrifice your children, but it also provides a way out. Leviticus 27 gives rules for this very situation—if you vow inappropriately (as Jephthah did, vowing contrary to the law of God), there were certain ways you could rectify the situation without having to keep your vow. So, Jephthah had three options. First, he could just not keep his vow. He could have broken his promise to the LORD and kept his daughter alive. Jephthah was honest enough not to do this. Second, he could have followed the rules of Leviticus 27 and redeemed his daughter. Jephthah did not know the law of God well enough to do this. So, the third option was all he had left to do. He had to kill his daughter, as he had vowed.

His daughter understood what was going to happen to her, so she asked permission to go off with some friends and mourn “for her virginity” for two months. This is understandable. A young girl was told that she is going to have to be killed “before her time,” so she went off with some friends for a tearful and emotional farewell. Some have taken this passage as an excuse to let Jephthah off the hook as a child-murderer. They say that since she was mourning “for her virginity,” that could mean that Jephthah was just telling her to “get thee to a nunnery,” as Shakespeare would say. In other words, Jephthah dedicated his daughter to the LORD to live as a celibate for the rest of her life. Davis points out that dedicating someone to the LORD did not mean that they had to be celibate. To say that that was the intent of Jephthah’s vow is to read too much into the text.

Matthew Henry also raises some interesting questions with this interpretation as well. He asks, if she was confined to a single life, why would she need two months to mourn and say goodbye to her friends if she had the rest of her life to mourn for it and to spend with her friends?  And why would the Israelite women go off and mourn her four days every year if she was just an old maid who could not marry?

So we are left with the sad fact that Jephthah murdered his daughter. We are so repulsed by this action. How could he?  The same way that everyone else in his culture did. This was not an isolated incident. Israel had fallen into horrible depravity. Jephthah idolized success and ended up sacrificing his child. Some of us do that, too (only in miniature, though, not really killing them, I hope). We idolize our jobs and never spend time with our children, letting them grow up in a home where money is more important than they are. Instead of being a mother or a father, we become “mini-Jephthahs.”

We are so horrified by the fact that Jephthah sacrificed his own daughter. We do not want to believe it of him. But David, “the man after God’s own heart,” committed adultery and murdered the husband. Gideon, “Jerubbaal, the scourge of Baal,” built an idol and led Israel astray. Peter, one of the most loved disciples, denied Christ three times. And yet men like these appear in Hebrews 11 as men of faith. We must get over the Sunday school mentality, that Bible characters are meant to be perfect role models. They were just as depraved as we are. They all needed Christ just as much as we do.

Jesus, like Jephthah, was born out of wedlock and was hated by His own countrymen. He was in truth the Son of God, the ultimate Deliverer, of whom Jephthah was only a poor type. Jesus never said a rash word or made a foolish promise, rather He fulfilled every promise of God that was ever made—He is God with us, the very incarnation of God in all of His covenant love and faithfulness. And Jesus Himself was the ultimate sacrifice, laying down His life for us on the cross. And His sacrifice was in full accordance with the Law of God, fulfilling everything on our behalf.

The sad story of Jephthah is not yet over. In Judges 12, he has to deal with the men of Ephraim. The men of Ephraim did the same thing to Jephthah as they did to Gideon in Judges 8. Gideon and Jephthah had called them for aid. They refused to come. Then, after the victory had been won, they came and complained that they were not included. Now the men of Ephraim have a threat. They wanted to burn Jephthah’s house with him in it. Notice the irony here. Jephthah had already burnt his household, his only daughter, as a burnt offering. Notice the difference in how Gideon and Jephthah reacted to the men of Ephraim. Gideon resolved the crisis with smooth speech. Jephthah dealt with the same situation by letting civil war break out. He initiated civil war.

Jephthah was still the same. He was obsessed with keeping his authority and power, obsessed enough to lead the nation of Israel into civil war. He treated the men of Ephraim just as he treated the men of Ammon. He gave them a little speech, touting the name of the LORD. But by this point in the story, we realize that this was all talk, not really true. The description of the bloody civil war is very similar to the brief description of Jephthah’s battle with the Ammonites in 11:32–33. They both involve capturing and holding a river.
After slaughtering 42,000 men of Ephraim, his own fellow Israelites, Jephthah went on to judge Israel for six years. And then he died. There was no rest after he died. Jephthah had come to an end. Then come three more minor judges. It is interesting to note that Ibzan, the judge who came right after Jephthah, had thirty sons and thirty daughters, and Jair, the judge who came right before Jephthah, had thirty sons, as if to highlight the fact that Jephthah had only one child, and that child, he killed. All three of these minor judges died. And none of them led to any rest. Over and over we hear “and he died.”  This raises the question of who will judge next?  Israel is in such disarray. Something needs to happen. The next judge, with a miraculous birth and an appearance of the Angel of the LORD, seems to be a spring of hope. But what Israel, and we, really need is the ultimate deliverer, the Messiah who lives forever. He has broken the power of death and is the true Prince of Peace.    

Mr. James Oord is a Christian Thought major and a Junior at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania.

Lesson 12: Points to Ponder

1.  Give examples of how God has shown His faithfulness in Scriptures. In the church. In your life.
2.  Why do you suppose God would call someone as unlikely as
    Jephthah to be the judge over Israel at this time in their history? Why do you think he is included in the heroes of faith
    (Hebrews 11)?
3.  Do you think Jephthah was trying to bribe God with a human sacrifice? Why or why not? Are there times when we have tried to     make deals with God?
4.  Ignorant of the Word of God, Jephthah offered up his daughter as a sacrifice. What does this say about his view of God? What             does it tell us about the necessity to know God’s Word?
5.  In what ways do we “sacrifice” our children for the sake of financial gain or success?
6.  When Saul made a foolish oath in 1 Samuel 14, the Israelites intervened. Why do you suppose the Israelites did not intervene         in this case?
7.  The Ephraimites seemed once again more. Was Jephthah’s anger and vengeance against them justified? Give examples where             Christians have an Ephraimite-like spirit in that they enjoy the benefits of Christ’s victory but refuse to take upon themselves             their God-given responsibilities.

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