Jephthah: Faithful Hero
Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 4 August 2009; Revised 14 December 2021
Scripture: Unless otherwise indicated Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (1995 Updated edition). Click here for Abbreviations of Bible Versions.
Sources: Bibliographic data for works cited may be found at the end of the article. References to the Talmud are from the Soncino Babylonian Talmud (1948); found at Halakhah.com.
Syntax: Unless otherwise noted the meaning of Hebrew words is from The New Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, Oxford University Press, 1907. Reprinted by Associated Publishers and Authors, Inc., 1981.
Terminology: To emphasize the Hebraic nature of Scripture I use the terms Tanakh (Old Testament), Besekh (New Testament), Yeshua (Jesus) and Messiah (Christ).
The book of Judges is one of the most neglected for Bible study and yet one of the most fascinating books in the Bible. The book covers about 350 years and only a small amount of that time is recorded. Most of the stories are cursory at best and only a few stories are told with much detail. The overall theme seems to be that a theocratic people need a righteous king. Jewish tradition assigned authorship of the book to Samuel (Heb. Sh'mu'el), the last judge-deliverer of Israel before the first king, and that reasonable assumption will be followed for the sake of this article.
As a historical retrospective Samuel recounts in Judges 2:10-23 a repetitive cycle of abandonment of worshipping ADONAI in favor of Ba'al and Ashtaroth, oppression by various pagan powers, then deliverance by a judge followed by a period of peace, and after the death of the judge the cycle starting again. Twelve judges are identified in the book of Judges: Othniel, 3:9-11; Ehud, 3:15-30; Shamgar, 3:31; Deborah, 4:1-10; Gideon, 6:11−8:32; Tola, 10:1-2; Jair, 10:3-5; Jephthah, 11:1−12:7; Ibzan, 12:8-10; Elon, 12:11-12; Abdon, 12:13-15; and Samson, 13:1−16:31. Two other judges preceded the monarchy: Eli, the priest at Shiloh (1Sam 4:18) and Samuel (1Sam 7:15).
The Hebrew word shaphat (Jdg 2:16) means one who judges or governs. The judges received a divine call to office with the mission to deliver from oppressors, to act as a ruler, to decide controversies, to enforce judicial decisions, and to act as God's agent. The various judges performed these responsibilities in various degrees. Not all deliverers performed judicial functions, none of the judges ruled all of the tribes and not all are credited with great deeds.
Prostitute's Son, 11:1-3
In Chapter Eleven Samuel introduces Jephthah (Heb. Yiftach), born in the land of Gilead to a man named Gilead (Heb. Gil'ad), a grandson of Manasseh, son of Joseph (cf. Josh 17:1; 1Chr 7:14). The land of Gilead was a fertile area about 60 miles long by 20 miles wide in an area that overlapped territory allocated to the tribe of Manasseh and the tribe of Gad east of the Jordan and bisected by the Jabbok River.
In summary fashion Samuel informs the reader that Jephthah was a valiant warrior, but his mother was a harlot. The contradistinction emphasizes both his social success and his social humiliation. Bible versions give the impression that Jephthah was illegitimate, but doesn't explain how Gilead gained custody. However, the Hebrew text of Judges 11:1 could be translated:
"And Jephthah the Gileadite had been a mighty man of valor, and he [is] son of a wife, a harlot; and Gilead begat Jephthah, and the [second] wife of Gilead bore to him sons, and that wife's sons grow up and cast out Jephthah, and say to him, You do not inherit in the house of our father; for son of another woman [or wife] [are] you." (YLT)
Gilead apparently took a woman as a wife who had been a harlot, much as Hosea would centuries later. Jephthah is born and then his father takes another wife, a virgin, by the customary means of contracting marriage with parents. Regardless of the accident of birth the first-born son Jephthah would have been entitled to inheritance and clan leadership rights.
"When a man hath two wives, the one loved and the other hated, and they have borne to him sons (the loved one and the hated one), and the first-born son hath been to the hated one; then it hath been, in the day of his causing his sons to inherit that which he hath, he is not able to declare first-born the son of the loved one, in the face of the son of the hated one--the first-born. 17 But the first-born, son of the hated one, he doth acknowledge, to give to him a double portion of all that is found with him, for he [is] the beginning of his strength; to him [is] the right of the first-born." (Deut 21:15-17 YLT)
Unfortunately, when Jephthah reached adulthood his brothers forced him into exile to circumvent the law and to avoid being subservient to a harlot's son. For an unknown period of time Jephthah lived in Tob, a district near the border of Syria, about 50 miles east-northeast of the land of his birth. There he gathered a group of discontented men much as David did when he fled Saul (1Sam 22:2). The idiom "they went out with him" refers to "warlike and predatory expeditions" (Keil 274). Through such raids Jephthah honed his warrior skills and perhaps gained a reputation; otherwise, the elders of Gilead would not have come for him when war with the Ammonites threatened.
People's Choice, 11:4-11
Samuel then recounts the appeal of Gileadite leaders for Jephthah to return home. The Ammonites had started the fracas by raiding Israelite territory and had some success. The story of the Ammonite incursion actually begins in Chapter Ten and there the reader learns that the enemy had crossed the Jordan in order to fight against Judah, Benjamin and Ephraim (Jdg 10:9).
Faced with this threat the people of Israel repented of their idolatry and cried out for a deliverer. The Ammonites inexplicably retreated back across the Jordan but camped in Gilead. Key Israelite leaders then gathered at Mizpah to seek the Lord's favor and His choice of a champion. Mizpah is a name given to six different locations in the Tanakh, and verse 29 specifies that it is the Mizpah of Gilead, the site of the sacred mound erected by Jacob as a witness of the covenant between him and Laban (Gen 31:49). It had become an important meeting place for the eastern tribes.
It seems strange that in all of Israel there was no warrior of sufficient stature and capability to organize a successful counter-offensive. However, such is the testimony of God's Word that the Lord repeatedly takes someone little esteemed and transforms him into a mighty instrument for His glory.
Before accepting the commission to make war on the Ammonites Jephthah raised the issue of the injustice done him. In fact, he laid responsibility at the feet of the elders who had the legal authority to protect his inheritance and did nothing. Jephthah's version of the story, which the elders don't rebut, is that they actively aided and abetted in depriving him of his rights. Now they have the gall to ask him for help?!
At heart Jephthah was a patriot and he wanted to help, but he also wanted compensation. He drove a hard bargain, demanding that if he was successful they would name him "head" (Heb. rosh) over Gilead. A rosh may be a chief over a family, a place, a city, or a nation. It is striking that he did not ask to be named a prince or a king. He simply wanted what should have been his as the firstborn of his family. One can see that in their agreement to his terms God performed justice for him. The elders not only named him rosh, but also qatsin or chief, making him commander of all the Gileadite forces.
Peacemaking Diplomat, 11:12-28
Samuel's story then takes a surprising turn. Jephthah sent messengers to the Ammonite camp seeking a peaceful solution. None of the other judge-deliverers in the past had acted in a conciliatory manner toward the enemies of Israel. Jephthah was used to attacking enemy territory and yet he decided to be a peacemaker. Perhaps he acted on orders of the Israelite tribal leaders who hoped to avoid war or perhaps he was aware of the injunction God gave to Moses:
"When you come opposite the sons of Ammon, do not harass them nor provoke them, for I will not give you any of the land of the sons of Ammon as a possession, because I have given it to the sons of Lot as a possession." (Deut 2:19)
The Torah command offered the hope that if the Israelites left the Ammonites alone there would be peace between them. Unfortunately, the Ammonites rejected Jephthah's overture and responded by accusing the Israelites of stealing Ammonite land. Jephthah's lengthy reply succinctly points out that the land to which they laid claim had originally belonged to the Amorites and had been given by the Lord to the Israelites when the Amorites attacked them during their trek to the promised land from Egypt. Jephthah essentially repeated the narrative of Numbers 21:21-25. It is now 300 years later and the Ammonite failure to press their claim earlier rendered their present hostile actions unconscionable.
An important element in Jephthah's entreaty reveals his knowledge of Torah and the distinction between holiness and sin. He said to the Ammonites in verse 27: "I therefore have not sinned against you, but you are doing me wrong by making war against me." The word "sinned" (Heb. hata) essentially means to miss the mark defined by Torah. The verb "doing wrong" (Heb. ra) may refer to moral evil or temporal harm. In this case both meanings were probably intended.
Jephthah asserted that neither he nor his people whom he represented had broken any of God's commands concerning the Ammonites. However, there was plenty of evidence that the Ammonites had violated Torah. He could accuse the Ammonites of such evil because by "sojourning" in Israelite territory they became subject to Torah commands (cf. Ex 12:49; Num 15:16). Of course, the Ammonites had no interest in knowing the God of Israel or His Torah and rejected Jephthah's peace initiative - "the king of the sons of Ammon disregarded the message which Jephthah sent him" (Jdg 11:28).
Pious Deliverer, 11:29-33
Jephthah was not only the people's choice, but God's choice as indicated in Samuel's very next comment that "the Spirit of ADONAI came upon Jephthah" (11:29). In Scripture God is always choosy about whom He empowers with the Ruach HaKodesh, the Holy Wind of God. Having been spiritually equipped Jephthah travels through the eastern tribal territories assembling his army and then makes a final stop at Mizpah, his family seat (11:2, 34). There Jephthah made his famous vow to the God of Israel.
"30 Then Jephthah vowed a vow to ADONAI and said, "If You will indeed give the children of Ammon into my hand, 31 then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return safely from the children of Ammon, it will be ADONAI's, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering." (11:30-31 TLV)
Criticism of Jephthah's vow and the assumption that he literally "sacrificed" his daughter is as old as the Talmud. I prefer to call such an act murder because that's all it could be; for commentators to speak of such wickedness as a "sacrifice" is much too charitable. Talmudic Rabbis regarded Jephthah at best ignorant of Torah or at worst a fool incapable of distinguishing between a proper and an improper vow (JVL). They emphasized that as a voluntary vow it was completely unnecessary. Some modern interpreters, such as Bruce, Ridall and Stern, consider his vow "rash." Of course, these negative opinions are really based on their assumption of how Jephthah treated his daughter.
Jephthah's story does drive home the point that great care should be exercised when making vows. God treats all voluntary vows with exacting accountability, especially contingency vows that promise a certain action in exchange for a divine favor. As the Torah says,
22  "When you make a vow to ADONAI your God, you are not to delay to make good on it—for ADONAI your God will certainly require it of you, and you would have sin on you. 23  But if you refrain from making a vow, you would not have sin on you. 24  Whatever comes out of your lips you are to take care to do, since you have vowed to ADONAI your God a freewill offering that you have promised with your mouth." (Deut 23:22-24 TLV)
Jephthah was not the first nor the last in biblical history to make a contingency vow of consecration to ADONAI, and yet the others have not received the criticism leveled at Jephthah. Jacob vowed that if God would take care of him, then he would erect a place of worship dedicated to God and give back a tenth of all that God would give him (Gen 28:20-22). Interestingly, God held Jacob to his vow (Gen 31:13). It should be noted that in surrendering the tenth, Jacob did not sacrifice any of his sons.
Another person who vowed sacrificially was Hannah. She promised ADONAI that if He would enable her to conceive a son, she would give him to ADONAI all the days of his life (1Sam 1:11). She fulfilled her vow and surrendered her firstborn to the mercy of God, considering the unfortunate surrogate parent Samuel grew up with. Then, there was Absalom (2Sam 15:8) and an unnamed Psalmist (Ps 116:14-18) who made vows dedicating themselves in the service of God. David, too, paid vows to ADONAI, but offers no information on their nature (Ps 22:5; 61:8).
The location of the vow's fulfillment reveals Jephthah's intention to show his devotion to God by a complete sacrifice of what belonged to him. The word "house" could refer to his principal dwelling, his estate or to his household. As the chief of his family his estate may well have been occupied by some or all of his brothers and their families, other relatives, as well as many servants. No mention is made of his own wife, but the reader learns that Jephthah had a daughter, his only child. The "doors" (Heb. delet) also means "gates" and the mention could refer to the gates of a wall surrounding the house or property.
The syntax of the vow in Judges 11:31 must be carefully considered. The verb "whatever comes out" is masculine and the phrase "I will offer it up" is literally "I will sacrifice him," which is supported by the LXX translation. The phrase "whatever comes out…to meet me" is generally applied to men in other passages where it occurs (e.g., Num 23:3; 1Sam 25:34). While Jephthah likely contemplated the possibility of the one coming out being a man, the vow's terms are general enough to include a animal. However, the one who came from the house was a female human, and therefore by literal interpretation one would think she would not be included in the scope of his vow.
For Jephthah to use the specific terminology of "burnt offering" (Heb. olah), he must have known about the many Torah regulations concerning such offerings and detailed in various parts of Exodus through Deuteronomy. Burnt sacrifices were to be exclusively male animals (Lev 1:3), specifically a bull, sheep or ram when offered by someone of means (Lev 1:5-10). The offering would have to be approved by the high priest and slain on the altar at the Tabernacle. Sacrifice of a human being was absolutely forbidden (Lev 18:21; Deut 18:10). A burnt offering was a voluntary and special act of worship, whether for atonement, a specific expression of devotion or entire consecration to God.
The medieval Jewish commentators Rabbi David Kimchi (b. 1160) and Rabbi Levi Gershon (b. 1288), writing in opposition to the early Sages insisted that the two clauses of the vow should be treated as distinct promises based on observing the well known grammatical rule that the connective particle Vav (&), while usually conjunctive, is often used as a disjunctive and can mean "or," when there is a second proposition. The text of the vow would then be translated as follows:
"30 And Jephthah made a vow to ADONAI and said, "If indeed You will deliver the sons of Ammon into my hand, 31 then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, he shall belong to ADONAI, or I will offer him up as a burnt offering." (Jdg 11:30-31 BR)
Bullinger points to many passages in the Tanakh where just such a translation is given in modern versions (e.g. Gen 41:44, Ex 20:4; 21:15-18; Num 16:14; 22:26; and Deut 3:24). Clarke, Edersheim and Morris likewise support the disjunctive clause viewpoint. Kimchi and Gershon also pointed out that it is never said of an animal burnt-offering, that it "shall be ADONAI's," for the simple reason that as a burnt-offering, it is such. But the expression is used when human beings are consecrated to ADONAI, as in the case of the firstborn among Israel and of Levi (Num 3:12-13).
It is simply incomprehensible that Jephthah would have deliberately made a vow in which he planned human sacrifice. Jephthah apparently trusted in the providence of God to oversee the matter since the offering was for Him. In his comment on verse 31 Morris suggests "whatever first came forth would be dedicated to the Lord. If a person came out (Jephthah was probably thinking of a servant), he or she would be dedicated to God's service at the Tabernacle, as Samuel would later be (1Sam 1:11). If an animal came out, it would be offered as a burnt offering. Jephthah apparently kept small flocks of clean animals in his "house" (enclosed area where he lived), and fully expected it to be one of these."
Of course, we don't know what would have happened if he had not vowed. In fact, the vow appears to have great importance in the victory against the Ammonites. Jephthah had prefaced his vow with the condition, "If You will indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hand" (v. 31), and the record goes on to affirm, "ADONAI gave them into his hand" (v. 32). There seems to be a causal link between these two statements, and God would not have granted victory and deliverance if Jephthah had truly intended human sacrifice. The approval of the omniscient God is manifested in a very great victory that netted twenty captured cities (v. 33).
Pitiable Father, 11:34-40
The next part of the story is the focus of considerable discussion about the fate of Jephthah's daughter. Some scholars take no definitive position with respect to Jephthah's actions toward his daughter (Brown, Bruce, NIBD and Stuneck), but others believe that Jephthah took his daughter's life (Barclay, Green, Harrison, Henry, Rashi, Ridall, and Stern). However, a number of scholars (Archer, Clarke, Edersheim, Keil, Morris, Wesley and Young) dissent from this interpretation and I find their reasons quite compelling.
No sooner does Jephthah return home than the reader learns with sickening realization that the daughter is the first one to greet him. Her celebratory mood quickly transforms his countenance into genuine anguish. He never expected that the dearest thing to him in all the world should be the very cause of so much pain. By the grace of God Jephthah's daughter demonstrated the character of her father with a maturity found in so few Bible characters. She reminded her father that his vow to the Lord must take precedence over her own wishes. Perhaps she accepted the law of the firstborn as applying to her life: "Sanctify to Me every firstborn, the first offspring of every womb among the sons of Israel, both of man and beast; it belongs to Me." (Ex 13:2). She loved her father so much that she surrendered her life's expectations rather than risking that God would punish her father for failing to carry out his vow.
Matthew Henry in his commentary discounted the opinions of the medieval Jewish commentators and took the position that Jephthah fulfilled the vow literally on the basis of the commandment found in Leviticus 27:28-29 about devoting a man, animal or crops to destruction: "Nevertheless, anything which a man sets apart to the LORD out of all that he has, of man or animal or of the fields of his own property, shall not be sold or redeemed. Anything devoted to destruction is most holy to the LORD. No one who may have been set apart among men shall be ransomed; he shall surely be put to death." Henry's assumption is faulty for a variety of reasons.
(1) It would mean a de facto exemption to the sixth commandment, to wit, that one could murder any family member simply by devoting that person to God;
(2) The Leviticus passage he quotes does not incorporate the terminology of "burnt offerings" as found in other parts of the Torah that regulate such sacrifices;
(3) Jephthah's daughter would not qualify as a devoted thing (Heb. cherem). The ban for utter destruction was for someone who impeded or resisted God's work and therefore considered to be accursed before God, such as the seven pagan tribes (Num 21:2-3; Deut 7:2; 1Sam 15:3) and idolaters (Ex 22:20; Deut 13:12-16). In neither case was the killing carried out by the priests with a religious ceremony;
(4) The requirement for devoting to destruction (Heb. charam) is clearly limited in scope and does not nullify the prohibition against human sacrifice (Lev 18:21; Deut 18:10); and
(5) Jephthah did not use the terminology of cherem/charam in his vow.
Some Talmudic rabbis argued that Jephthah could have redeemed his daughter merely by paying a certain sum to the sacred treasury via the instructions found in Leviticus 27:1-8. If she was under twenty years of age the cost was 10 shekels, if she was over twenty but less than 60, then the cost was 30 shekels. However, Jephthah might reasonably believe that the vow enabled him to secure victory, so attempting to cancel the vow via redemption might risk retribution from God.
While Jephthah's vow allowed for the possibility of a human being coming out of his house, the textual evidence does not decisively support the conclusion that he killed his daughter. Jephthah would have known that human sacrifice violated the Torah and fulfilling his vow in that manner would not be a higher priority than obeying the sixth commandment. If his words to offer an burnt offering are taken literalistically, then the sacrifice would have had to be done at the Tabernacle according to the instructions of Leviticus 1:1-13. He would have had to present his daughter at the doorway of the Tabernacle for the priest's approval, personally kill his daughter inside the court of the sanctuary, and watch as the priests sprinkled her blood around on the altar, then cut up her body and burn her corpse. This kind of horrific scenario is simply ludicrous.
We're supposed to believe that Jephthah was so devoid of natural feeling for his daughter that he remained committed to killing her. Any father who loved his child would seek for a way to spare her life and I can't believe that the Gileadite elders or the Sanhedrin would have sanctioned violating the Torah concerning human sacrifice. Indeed, while there was general laxity in Torah observance during the period of the judges (Jdg 17:6), there is no evidence that any Israelite ever offered human sacrifice prior to the days of King Ahaz (2Chr 28:1-4). However, there are specific elements in the narrative that allude to the daughter's continued life.
First, in verse 37, the daughter asked for sixty days to roam the hills with her maiden companions to "weep because of my virginity." This seems a rather odd thing to do if she anticipated death. Why not stay home and share the lamentation with her family as was (and is) Jewish custom when someone dies? Henry contends that while the daughter cheerfully (sic) accepted the death sentence to fulfill her father's vow, she was grieved with the thought of not being able to provide an heir to inherit her father's property.
Besides, she didn't need 60 days for personal mourning if she was going to live; she would have the rest of her life for mourning the loss of marriage and children. However, Henry seems to ignore the straightforward sense of the daughter's request and her subsequent actions. The daughter betrays no anxiety that she would be killed after her sixty-day sojourn, because she didn't believe her father would kill her.
Second, in verse 39 Samuel tells the reader that "she had no relations with a man" (lit. "she knew no man"), after saying that Jephthah fulfilled his vow. It's not without reason that verse 39 does not say, "and he killed her," or "and he offered her up as a burnt offering." After all, Samuel wasn't squeamish about recording the story of the Levite who cut up his dead concubine and sent the pieces to all the tribes (Jdg 19:29). Why not relate the gory details of the filicide of Jephthah's daughter? The answer is obvious. Samuel would not invent a story that did not happen.
The final clause mentioning the continued virginity of the daughter would be a non sequitur if she were dead. The fact that she knew no man proceeded from the vow being fulfilled, not from her being killed. Thus, as Keil suggests, Jephthah made her a spiritual burnt offering, in life-long chastity. Kimchi and Gershon believed that Jephthah only kept his daughter in seclusion, but other commentators have suggested that she served at the Tabernacle as other women who devoted themselves to the Lord (Ex 38:8; 1Sam 2:22; Luke 2:36-37).
Third, verse 40 says that "the daughters of Israel went yearly to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year." The verb "commemorate" can mean to lament as rendered in the KJV, but it also carries the idea of talking with and recounting a story in order to honor someone. Rabbi B.D. Klein, editor of the Nazir tractate in the Soncino Babylonian Talmud comments that the expression 'four days in the year' refers to Jephthah's daughter being visited by Israelite maidens at equal intervals of three months (fn 11, Nazir 5a). Whether the visitation took place at the Tabernacle or in Gilead, the point is that if she wasn't alive the maidens could have lamented at home.
One final note on this section. Unlike Jephthah who made a vow, Abraham received a divine command to offer Isaac as an olah, a burnt offering (Gen 22:2). The Genesis narrative reveals nothing of Abraham's feelings, yet he purposely set out to obey God since he "considered that God is able to raise people even from the dead" (Heb 11:19). God then rescued Isaac from the sacrificial knife. Later, God informed Israel through Moses that human sacrifice was absolutely forbidden. So why would the same God who saves Isaac and hates such a heinous crime fail to halt Jephthah, his Spirit-anointed servant, from killing his daughter? Maybe because she didn't need rescuing.
Powerful Defender, 12:1-6
Chapter Twelve shifts the story away from the family melodrama to a confrontation with Ephraimite leaders. For a number of commentators Jephthah is again faulted, this time for the conflict that resulted in 42,000 Ephraimite deaths. Yet the narrative clearly lays the blame at the feet of the Ephraimites who in their jealousy whined that Jephthah had not called for their help. Jephthah wasn't the first deliverer to contend with Ephraimite jealousy. When Gideon defeated the Midianites with three hundred Benjamites, the Ephraimites complained bitterly, "What is this thing you have done to us, not calling us when you went to fight against Midian?" (Jdg 8:1).
Ephraimite feeling of superiority probably had its roots in Jacob giving Ephraim preference over Joseph's firstborn son Manasseh (Gen 48:14-20). Ephraimite tribal numbers far exceeded Manasseh, but it is significant that only one of the judge-deliverers came from Ephraim (Abdon, Jdg 12:13-15). The tribe of Ephraim did not take a leading role in any of the deliverances from pagan oppressors, even though they may have assisted Ehud, a Benjamite, along with other Israelite tribes to rout the Moabites (Jdg 3:27, note "sons of Israel”).
Ephraim apparently believed that the Gileadites, not to mention the half tribe of Manasseh, had no right to independent existence, let alone independent action and, insult of all insults, to have a Gileadite serving as the judge-deliverer for Israel. Ephraim had not been able to dislodge the Canaanites (Jdg 1:29), so Gideon and Jephthah were supposed to place confidence in Ephraimite military skill?
The Ephraimites knew of the threat because the Ammonites had crossed the Jordan. Ephraimite leaders must have participated in the conference at Mizpah to discuss Israel's response and seek a general to lead that response. They could have sent men without being asked and therefore strengthen relations with their neighbors. Of course, the truth is that Jephthah did call on Ephraim for help, but no aid was sent.
In an effort to demonstrate their dominance, the Ephraimites conspired to murder Jephthah and his household and sent 42,000 men (perhaps more) to commit the crime. Jephthah tried to reason with them as he did the Ammonites, but again his sound arguments fell on deaf ears. Unfortunately, Ephraimite arrogance pressed on with an unnecessary civil war, but could not pass the test in the field against the Gileadites. After a crushing defeat Ephraimite survivors fled toward home, but many were killed at the fords of the Jordan when they couldn't give the right password (Jdg 12:5-6).
Some commentators are offended by the Ephraimite death toll and the sly password requirement, but we should not assume that the Gileadites came through the brief war unscathed. Their casualties could have been high as well. In ancient times war was total war. There was no substitute for complete victory, a lesson that is still being learned in Israel today.
The truth is that many Christians are not comfortable with the God of Israel who exacts a high death toll for the sake of justice. God killed large numbers of people for their violent or rebellious sins, including Korah and his 250 followers (Num 16:2, 31-35), all the firstborn of Egypt for Pharaoh's rebellion (Ex 11); the populations of Sodom and Gomorrah for their wickedness (Gen 18:20; 19:24-25) and 14,700 Israelites in one plague for grumbling (Num 16:41-49). Even more significant were the unnamed millions put to death when God destroyed the entire world of Noah (Gen 6:11-13).
Praiseworthy Hero, 12:7
The story of Jephthah ends with the comment that he judged Israel six years, the shortest term of office for the judges. Given the definition of shaphat Samuel's brief eulogy of faithful service speaks volumes. According to the Masoretic text Jephthah was buried in the "cities of Gilead," although the Hebrew construction could mean "among the cities," simply denoting the region. Rashi asserted that based on the Hebrew text Jephthah was punished for his foolish vow with boils and dismemberment, so his limbs were buried in the various cities.
However, the LXX has simply "he was entombed in his city Gilead" (ABP). Ridall notes that some copies of the LXX say that he was buried "in his city, Mizpah of Gilead" (163). We should consider that the LXX was prepared before the first century and is considerably older than the Masoretic text, which likely reflects a revision. Even so Rashi clearly read into the Hebrew text what isn't there, which suited his own prejudicial opinion of Jephthah.
Judged by the standards of the world Jephthah was a worthless son of a whore who deprived his daughter of happiness and caused unnecessary killing. He didn't leave a legacy of sons to carry on his name and leadership of Gilead. His impact might also be viewed as worthless considering how quickly Israel fell into idolatry after his death. What could Samuel have been thinking to preserve the story of such a man?
That question is easily answered in two passages from later times that honor Jephthah and demonstrate that God had a different perspective.
"Then ADONAI sent Jerubbaal, Bedan, Jephthah and Samuel, and delivered you from the hand of your enemies on every side, so that you might live securely." (1Sam 12:11 TLV)
"And what more shall I say? For time would fail me telling about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, both David and Samuel, and the prophets, who through faithfulness conquered kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edges of the sword, were strengthened from weakness, became mighty in war, put to flight the armies of foreigners." (Heb 11:32-34 BR)
Biblical authors held a high opinion of Jephthah as a man of faith and piety, a brave hero who did not seek fame or glory, but was empowered by the Holy Spirit and sent by God to do great deeds for the sake of Israel. He is a man worthy of emulation. Of all the judges of that turbulent time Jephthah "bore a cross" like no other. Rejected by his own family and assailed by fellow Israelites, he could have easily turned away from God. The record shows that at heart Jephthah was a man of peace, first, and a warrior, second. Yet, most important of all he was willing to consecrate his all for the sake of his God and his people. His daughter found no fault in him; why should we?
Yeshua called his disciples to deny self and to take up a cross daily (Luke 9:23). No one would suppose that we should take his words literalistically, as some commentators do with Jephthah's words, but the challenge still remains. The apostle Paul also appealed to disciples to "present your bodies a sacrifice--living, sanctified, acceptable to God" (Rom 12:1). How many disciples of our Lord are prepared to surrender their lives, their fortunes and even their children as implied in Yeshua's exhortation? An attitude of surrender to God is essential for spiritual victory. We need more warriors with the mettle of Jephthah to stand against the spiritual warfare engulfing our world and pressuring the people of God on every side.
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Archer: Gleason Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. Moody Bible Institute, 2007.
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JVL: Jephthah, Jewish Virtual Library, American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, 2008. Accessed 19 December 2014.
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Ridall: R. Clyde Ridall, "Judges and Ruth," Beacon Bible Commentary, Vol. 2. Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1965.
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Young: Edward J. Young, An Introduction to the Old Testament. William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1964.
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