Judge Jephthah and His Vow
JEPHTHAH was both a general and a judge. He lived in the latter part of the period when judges ruled ancient Israel. Because of a vow he made that involved the course of his daughter’s life, he and his daughter have become a favorite subject of authors, poets and composers. Upward of 300 poems, dramas and novels have been based on him and his daughter from the sixteenth century right to the present decade. And so have more than 170 musical compositions, among which are 100 oratorios including one by Handel.
As with so many other Biblical subjects, there is a wide difference of opinion as to Judge Jephthah and his vow and what happened to his daughter. The correct understanding will prove both enlightening and faith-strengthening.
Jephthah lived at a time when the Israelites had again fallen away from the pure worship of Jehovah God and he had permitted their enemies, this time the Ammonites, to oppress them for eighteen years. Like Judge Gideon, Jephthah was known to be “a mighty, valiant man.” His father had the honorable name of Gilead, but his mother had been a harlot. Apparently Gilead had married this harlot when she became pregnant and thus made her his lawful wife. Otherwise Jephthah would have been an illegitimate son, and as such would not have been permitted to enter the congregation of Israel, not to say anything about his becoming a judge.—Judg. 11:1; Deut. 23:2.
Gilead, Jephthah’s father, also had another wife by whom he had a number of sons. These took it upon themselves to drive out Jephthah, doubtless after their father’s death, and most likely so as to keep Jephthah from getting the firstborn’s double inheritance. But their excuse was, “You are the son of another woman.”—Judg. 11:2.
“So Jephthah ran away because of his brothers and took up dwelling in the land of Tob,” which lay beyond the territory of Israel. There a number of “idle” men joined themselves to him, even as years later many “men in distress” joined themselves to David after he had fled King Saul’s wrath.—Judg. 11:3; 1 Sam. 22:2.
It seems that just shortly before this the Ammonites again invaded the land of Gilead, it being the fertile region on the east side of the Jordan River. The princes and people of Gilead had proclaimed: “Who is the man that will take the lead in fighting against the sons of Ammon? Let him become the head of all the inhabitants of Gilead.” (Judg. 10:18) Apparently no one was available or volunteered. However, when the Ammonites began to attack the Israelites, the situation became desperate and so “the older men of Gilead immediately went to take Jephthah out of the land of Tob,” saying to him: “Do come and serve as our commander, and let us fight against the sons of Ammon.” When Jephthah demurred because of the way they had treated him, they promised to make him their head.—Judg. 11:4-8.
JEPHTHAH BECOMES HEAD
Jephthah’s reply revealed a fine trait of his, his ‘taking notice of Jehovah in all his ways.’ (Prov. 3:6) Thus he replied: “If . . . Jehovah does abandon [the enemy] to me, I, for my part, shall become your head!” He was not counting on victory apart from Jehovah. The men of Gilead had made no mention of Jehovah in their previous statements, but when they saw how Jephthah was oriented, always taking Jehovah into consideration, they responded: “Let Jehovah prove to be the listener between us if the way we shall do is not according to your word.” Agreeing, Jephthah returned with them and then “proceeded to speak all his words before Jehovah in Mizpah.”—Judg. 11:9-11.
Though Jephthah was “a mighty, valiant man,” he was not spoiling for a fight. Rather, he first tried to negotiate a peaceable settlement. He sent word to the king of Ammon asking why he had come to fight against Israel. The king of Ammon replied that this land had originally belonged to them and that Israel had taken it when coming out of Egypt.—Judg. 11:12, 13.
Fully familiar with the history of his people, Jephthah reminded the king of Ammon that the Israelites had taken this land from the Amorites (not the Ammonites), and that they did this only because the Amorites began to attack the Israelites, and that Jehovah had given his people the victory and this land. For 300 years now, Israel had this land, and just as the king of Ammon would want to possess the land that his god Chemosh gave to him so Israel will possess the land that Jehovah gave to them. Again bringing Jehovah into the picture, Jephthah continued: “As for me, I have not sinned against you, but you are dealing wrong with me by fighting against me. Let Jehovah the Judge judge today between the sons of Israel and the sons of Ammon.”—Judg. 11:14-28.
Since Jephthah took notice of Jehovah in all his ways, it was but to be expected that Jehovah would put his spirit upon him, and so we read: “Jehovah’s spirit now came upon Jephthah,” upon which he passed through the territory of Gilead and Manasseh recruiting his army, at the same time sending a call to the Ephraimites for help. Again Jephthah shows that he is one who ‘takes notice of Jehovah in all his ways,’ for he now “made a vow to Jehovah and said: ‘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.’”—Judg. 11:29-31.
After making this vow, Jephthah and his forces fought against the Ammonites “and Jehovah proceeded to give them into his hand.” He made a clean sweep of the pagan invaders, taking twenty cities and destroying the foe “with a very great slaughter. Thus the sons of Ammon were subdued.”—Judg. 11:32, 33.
But Jephthah’s fighting was not yet over. His victory aroused the envy of the proud and powerful tribe of Ephraim, even as Gideon’s victory previously had done. Its men now threatened to burn Jephthah’s house over his head because they charged he had not called on them for help. But they were lying, even as Jephthah reminded them, and then he again gave Jehovah the credit for the victory: “When I got to see that you were no savior, then I determined to put my soul in my own palm and go over against the sons of Ammon. At that Jehovah gave them into my hand. So why have you come up against me this day to fight against me?”—Judg. 12:1-3.
The Ephraimites, having crossed the Jordan to war with Jephthah, left him no choice but to fight with them, with the result that he and his men roundly defeated the Ephraimites, slaying 42,000. Thereafter Jephthah served Israel as judge for six years, after which he died and was buried in Mizpah.—Judg. 12:4-7.
When Jephthah earlier had returned victoriously from battle with the sons of Ammon to his home in Mizpah, who should be the first to meet him from his own house but his daughter, “with tambourine playing and dancing!” She was absolutely his only child, we are told. When her father caught sight of her he exclaimed: “Alas, my daughter! You have indeed made me bend down . . . I have opened my mouth to Jehovah, and I am unable to turn back.”—Judg. 11:34, 35.
Dutifully, his daughter replied: “My father, if you have opened your mouth to Jehovah, do to me according to what has gone forth from your mouth, since Jehovah has executed acts of vengeance for you upon your enemies.” How much like her father she was! All she asked was a two-month period to mourn her virginity on the mountains with her girl companions, which he granted her and after which Jephthah carried out his vow regarding her.—Judg. 11:36-39.
What about this vow? Why did Jephthah make it? What did he mean by it, and did he literally offer up his daughter as a burnt sacrifice? It will help to answer these questions by first answering another, Just what kind of man was Jephthah?
Many critics speak of Jephthah’s vow as rash, impious, foolish, ill-considered, and invariably these also hold that he literally offered up his daughter as a burnt offering upon an altar. They are also prone to portray Jephthah as an uncouth and ignorant man. But in all this they are greatly mistaken, as we shall see.
In the first place, let it be noted that Jephthah is given honorable mention among other champions of faith by both the prophet Samuel and the writer of the book of Hebrews. Had he been an ignorant, rough man that carried out a foolish vow he certainly would not have been mentioned with these others.—1 Sam. 12:11; Heb. 11:32.
Moreover, we have seen how he kept taking notice of Jehovah. This quality helps us to understand why he made this vow. Why? No doubt because he had such a great desire that Jehovah’s cause be victorious that he was willing to sacrifice anything for it, be what it may. Jehovah certainly was very real to him! Besides, do we not read that ‘Jehovah’s spirit came upon Jephthah’ shortly before he made this vow? It is therefore reasonable to conclude that what Jephthah vowed was entirely in harmony with God’s holy spirit.
It, therefore, does not seem reasonable to conclude that Jephthah intended to offer up literally whoever came out to meet him as a burnt offering. Such a course would go against God’s law about the sanctity of human life and would be the only instance in the whole Bible where a human was actually sacrificed by another person who had God’s approval. Rather, it seems reasonable to conclude that what Jephthah intended, and what he did, was that whoever came out to meet him was to be dedicated to God’s service and that he used the expression “burnt offering” merely as a figure of speech.—Gen. 9:6.
He could not have thought that some animal would come out to meet him, as some claim, for he said that “the one coming out . . . of the doors of my house to meet me” he would offer up, and the Israelites did not keep lower animals in their houses—not even dogs, which some people today keep as pets! So he must have had in mind either a servant or a relative and that it might even be his only child, his beloved daughter. But regardless of the cost, he was willing to pay it if Jehovah would only grant him the victory!
Further, far from Jephthah’s being an uncouth and ignorant man, we can see from his dealings with the Ammonites and the Ephraimites that he was a reasonable man, not impetuous, but one who approached a difficult situation calmly. More than that, he showed that he was very familiar with Israel’s history and therefore must also have been familiar with God’s commands forbidding the offering up of one’s offspring as burnt offerings: “There should not be found in you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire.”—Deut. 18:10; Jer. 7:31.
Then again, the very submissive attitude of his daughter speaks eloquently in favor of Jephthah. She did not think the vow foolish nor did she censure her father for making it. However, had she been facing certain death, would she have wanted to mourn merely her virginity? Thus we also note that, after the record states that her father carried out his vow regarding her, it says: “As for her, she never had relations with a man.” Would that have been the outstanding thing about her if she had been the only human that had ever been actually sacrificed as a burnt offering on an altar by one of God’s servants? That comment does not seem to make sense unless we understand that she kept on living, but as a virgin.—Judg. 11:39.
Also there is the statement: “It came to be a regulation in Israel: From year to year the daughters of Israel would go to give commendation to the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite, four days in the year.”a Could these give her commendation if she were dead? Besides, there is nothing said about this regulation elsewhere in the Scriptures. Why not? No doubt because it only lasted as long as she was alive, after which it ceased.—Judg. 11:39, 40.
This correct understanding of the matter puts Jephthah in the right light and is consistent with the rest of the record about him. It also fits the facts that pertain to God’s people in our day, of which it was a prophetic pattern, for it is part of all the things written for our instruction.—1 Cor. 10:11.
Yes, even as with so many other ancient events recorded in the Bible, we find parallels in our day. As was Jephthah, so God’s organization, as represented on earth by the dedicated and anointed footstep followers of Jesus, is a mature fighter for God’s cause, these serving as the “faithful and discreet slave.” (Matt. 24:45-47) As Jephthah devoted his choicest possession to God’s service, so these have a daughter class, as it were, the “great crowd” of “other sheep” whom they have devoted to Jehovah’s service, wanting no reward for themselves but only that these serve Jehovah even as they themselves are doing.—Rev. 7:9; John 10:16.
Here, then, is the lesson of Jephthah and his vow for all servants of Jehovah God today: Take notice of Jehovah in all your ways, put the triumph of his causes above everything else, pay what you have vowed and devote to Jehovah and his cause what fruits you may receive from his service.
a Translations that read “lament” here, such as AV, RS, err, for the Hebrew word is tanah, meaning “to praise.”