Jephthah Keeps His Vow to Jehovah
A VICTORIOUS warrior returns home after freeing his nation of oppression. His daughter runs out to meet him, dancing jubilantly and playing a tambourine. At the sight of her, instead of rejoicing, he rips apart his garments. Why? Does he not share her joy at his safe return? What battle has he won? Who is he?
The man is Jephthah, one of the judges of ancient Israel. But to answer the other questions and to see the account’s relevance for us, we need to consider the background of this unusual reunion.
A Crisis in Israel
Jephthah lives in a time of crisis. His fellow Israelites have forsaken pure worship and are serving the gods of Sidon, Moab, Ammon, and Philistia. Jehovah therefore abandons his people to the Ammonites and the Philistines, who oppress them for 18 years. The residents of Gilead, east of the Jordan River, are especially distressed.* Finally, the Israelites come to their senses, repentantly seek Jehovah’s help, begin serving him, and remove the foreign gods from their midst.
The Ammonites pitch camp in Gilead, and the Israelites gather to meet them. But Israel lacks a commander. (Judges 10:17, 18) Meanwhile, Jephthah is having problems of his own. His greedy half brothers have driven him away in order to steal his inheritance. So Jephthah moves to Tob, a region east of Gilead and exposed to Israel’s enemies. “Idle men,” likely those who were put out of work by the oppressors or who rebelled against servitude to them, gather to Jephthah. They “go out with him,” perhaps meaning that they accompany Jephthah as he conducts raids against hostile neighbors. Likely because of Jephthah’s prowess as a fighter, the Scriptures call him “a mighty, valiant man.” (Judges 11:1-3) Who, then, will lead Israel against the Ammonites?
“Come and Serve as Our Commander”
The older men of Gilead urge Jephthah: “Do come and serve as our commander.” If they expect him to jump at the chance to return to his own land, they are mistaken. “Was it not you that hated me so that you drove me out of my father’s house?” he responds. “Why is it that you have come to me now just when you are in distress?” How unjust that they should first reject Jephthah and then come to him for help!
On one condition alone will Jephthah take the lead in Gilead. ‘If Jehovah abandons Ammon to me,’ he declares, ‘I shall become your head!’ Victory would give evidence of God’s backing, but Jephthah also aims to make sure that divine rule will not be forsaken as soon as the crisis has passed.
Dealings With Ammon
Jephthah tries to negotiate with the Ammonites. He sends messengers to their king to discover the reason for Ammonite aggression. The reply contains a charge: When the Israelites came out of Egypt, they occupied Ammonite territory, and it should be returned.
With his thorough grasp of Israel’s history, Jephthah ably refutes Ammonite claims. He tells them that the Israelites did not molest Ammon, Moab, or Edom when they left Egypt; nor did Ammon possess the disputed land at the time of Israel’s Exodus. The Amorites then held it, but God gave their king, Sihon, into Israel’s hand. Moreover, the Israelites had lived in that area for 300 years. Why are the Ammonites claiming it only now?
Jephthah also focuses on an issue central to Israel’s woes: Who is the true God? Jehovah or the gods of the land that Israel has occupied? If Chemosh had any power at all, would he not wield it to retain his people’s land? This is a contest between false religion, championed by the Ammonites, and true worship. So Jephthah logically concludes: “Let Jehovah the Judge judge today between the sons of Israel and the sons of Ammon.”
The king of Ammon does not listen to Jephthah’s uncompromising message. “Jehovah’s spirit now [comes] upon Jephthah, and he [proceeds] to pass through Gilead and Manasseh,” likely summoning able-bodied men for a fight.
Ardently desiring divine direction, Jephthah vows to God: “If you without fail give the sons of Ammon into my hand, it must also occur that the one coming out, who comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, must also become Jehovah’s, and I must offer that one up as a burnt offering.” In response, God blesses Jephthah by enabling him to strike 20 Ammonite cities with a “great slaughter,” thus subduing Israel’s foes.
When Jephthah returns from battle, who meets him but his beloved daughter, his only child! “When he caught sight of her,” says the account, “he began to rip his garments and to say: ‘Alas, my daughter! You have indeed made me bend down, and you yourself have become the one I was ostracizing. And I
Is Jephthah really going to sacrifice his daughter? No. That cannot be what he has in mind. Jehovah detests literal human sacrifice, one of the wicked practices of the Canaanites. (Leviticus 18:21; Deuteronomy 12:31) Not only was God’s spirit acting upon Jephthah when he made his vow but Jehovah also blessed his endeavors. The Scriptures speak well of Jephthah for his faith and for the role he played in connection with the divine purpose. (1 Samuel 12:11; Hebrews 11:32-34) So a human sacrifice
Jephthah evidently meant that he would devote the one whom he met to the exclusive service of God. The Mosaic Law provided for the vowing of souls to Jehovah. For instance, women served at the sanctuary, perhaps drawing water. (Exodus 38:8; 1 Samuel 2:22) Little is known about such service or even whether it was usually permanent. Jephthah apparently had such special devotion in mind when making his vow, and it seems that his promise implied permanent service.
Both Jephthah’s daughter and later the boy Samuel cooperated so as to fulfill the vows of their godly parents. (1 Samuel 1:11) As a loyal worshipper of Jehovah, Jephthah’s daughter herself was just as convinced as her father that his vow should be carried out. The sacrifice was great, for it meant that she would never get married. She wept over her virginity because every Israelite desired to have children in order to preserve the family name and inheritance. For Jephthah, fulfilling the vow meant losing the company of his beloved only child.
This faithful maiden’s life was not wasted. Full-time service at Jehovah’s house was an excellent, satisfying, and commendable way for her to honor God. Thus, “from year to year the daughters of Israel would go to give commendation to the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.” (Judges 11:40) And surely he rejoiced in her service to Jehovah.
Many among God’s people today choose a life of full-time service as pioneers, missionaries, traveling ministers, or members of Bethel families. This may mean not seeing family members as often as one might like. Yet, all involved can rejoice in such sacred service rendered to Jehovah.
Rebellion Against Divine Guidance
Looking back on Jephthah’s day, we see that many Israelites reject Jehovah’s direction. Despite evidence of divine blessing on Jephthah, the Ephraimites quarrel with him. They want to know why he did not call them to the battle. They even intend to burn Jephthah’s house ‘over him’!
Jephthah says that he did call the Ephraimites, but they did not respond. In any case, God won the battle. Are they now upset because the Gileadites did not consult them when selecting Jephthah as commander? Actually, Ephraim’s objection denotes rebellion against Jehovah, and there is no alternative but to fight them. In the ensuing battle, the Ephraimites are routed. Being unable to say the test word “Shibboleth” correctly, fleeing men of Ephraim are easily identified. In all, 42,000 Ephraimites perish in the conflict.
What a sad time in Israel’s history! Battles won by Judges Othniel, Ehud, Barak, and Gideon brought peace. This time peace is not mentioned. The account merely concludes: “Jephthah continued to judge Israel for six years, after which [he] died and was buried in his city in Gilead.”
What can we learn from all of this? That although Jephthah’s life was full of struggles, he was faithful to God. This valiant man mentioned Jehovah when he spoke to the older men of Gilead, to the Ammonites, to his daughter, and to the Ephraimites and, of course, when he made his vow. (Judges 11:9, 23, 27, 30, 31, 35; 12:3) God blessed Jephthah for his devotion, using him and his daughter to promote pure worship. In a time when others abandoned divine standards, Jephthah clung to them. Like Jephthah, will you always obey Jehovah?
The Ammonites were capable of great cruelty. Not even 60 years later, they threatened to bore out the right eye of each of the inhabitants of a Gileadite city they terrorized. The prophet Amos spoke of a time when they slit open the pregnant women of Gilead.