Justice Law Hammer

Jephthah – Israel’s Judge and His Vow

Summary on Jephthah

Meaning of Jephthah

According to Easton’s Bible Dictionary, the meaning of Jephthah is whom God sets free, or the breaker through.

History

He was a “mighty man of valor” similar to Gideon. He delivered Israel from the oppression of the Ammonites (Judges 11:1-33) and judged Israel six years Judges 11:1. The Bible described him as “a wild, daring, Gilead mountaineer, a sort of warrior Elijah.” After forty-five years of comparative quiet Israel again apostatized, and in “process of time the children of Ammon made war against Israel” Judges 11:1.

Judges of Israel Map from the ESV Global Study Bible highlighting Jephthah
Judges of Israel Map from the ESV Global Study Bible

In their distress, the elders of Gilead went to fetch Jephthah out of the land of Tob, to which he had fled when driven out wrongfully by his brothers from his father’s inheritance, and the people made him their head and captain. They appointed Jephthah as their leader without seeking God’s approval. The “elders of Gilead” in their extremity summoned him to their aid, and he at once undertook the conduct of the war against Ammon. Twice he sent an embassy to the king of Ammon but in vain. War was inevitable. The people obeyed his summons, and “the spirit of the Lord came upon him.” Before engaging in war he vowed that if successful he would offer as a “burnt-offering” whatever would come out of the door of his house first to meet him on his return. The defeat of the Ammonites was complete.

‘And he struck them from Aroer to the neighborhood of Minnith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel-keramim, with a great blow. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel. ‘

Judges 11:33

Civil War

The men of Ephraim felt insulted in not having been called by Jephthah to go with him to war against Ammon. This led to a war between the men of Gilead and Ephraim Judges 12:4, in which many of the Ephraimites perished.

Jephthah’s Vow

Before going into battle with the Ammon­ites, Jeph­thah made a foolish vow: that if he were victorious, he would sacrifice to the Lord the first thing to emerge from his house upon his return.

‘And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord ’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” ‘

Judges 11:30-31

After a crushing defeat of the Ammonites, Jephthah returned to his own house, and the first to welcome him was his own daughter. This was a terrible blow to the victor and in his despair.

‘And as soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord , and I cannot take back my vow.” ‘

Judges 11:35

With singular nobleness of spirit, his daughter answered, ” do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth.” She only asked two months to bewail her maidenhood with her companions upon the mountains. She utters no reproach against her father’s rashness and is content to yield her life since her father has returned a conqueror.

Did Jephthah Sacrifice His Daughter?

According to the ESV Global Study Bible, the wording of Jephthah’s vow would indicate that he intended to offer some animal as a burnt offering. However, the grammar also allows for “whoever”, in which case Jephthah would have intended to offer a human sacrifice all along. If so, what surprised him was not that he had to sacrifice a person, but that it was his daughter. Human sacrifice was strictly forbidden in Israel (Lev. 18:21; 20:2; Deut. 12:31; Ezek. 20:30–31). Yet, Jephthah’s foolishness drove him to make such a vow (see note on Judg. 11:39).

‘And at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow that he had made. She had never known a man, and it became a custom in Israel ‘

Judges 11:39

Most likely this means Jephthah literally sacrificed his daughter as a burnt offering. Another interpretation is that Jephthah dedicated his daughter to permanent virginity, as a figurative sacrifice. This would be a tragedy for her, as she would bear no children, and also for Jephthah, whose family line would come to an end. Some support for this comes from Jephthah’s speech in Judges 11:12–28, which shows enough knowledge of Israel’s history to imply that he might have stopped short of literally sacrificing his own child.

Jephthah Mentioned in the Great Hall of Faith

It’s incredible to see how the Bible mentioned Jephthah in Hebrews 11’s great hall of faith. It shows God’s grace despite man’s failures.

And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—

Hebrews 11:32

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