Abimelech was the son of a concubine, Jephthah is the son of a harlot. The spiritual state in Israel has become so low that such a man becomes the instrument of God’s deliverance. With this God puts the stamp of His judgment on their spiritual state. Because of their condition he can’t use people of higher descent. With Jephthah we see no appearance of the LORD, as with Gideon. It is the need that Jephthah brings to the stage, by order of the elders of Gilead, who have no other choice.
Jephthah shows us something of the reformation, when God wanted to give faith and strength to people who were not always spiritual, but who turned out to be suitable instruments for him to liberate his people. The battle takes place on the wilderness side of the Jordan, not in the land itself. This kind of struggle also characterized the reformation. There was a lot of struggle to make the truth of Scripture known to the faithful, while also striving to make these truths a reality in society: God’s honor in all areas of life.
What was forgotten is that the church is a heavenly people. That people is not left by God on earth to participate in the reign, but to be a testimony of a glorified Lord in heaven, Who will soon return to establish His kingdom of righteousness and peace.
There are two sides to Jephthah’s life. We see a man who bears a grudge because of his brothers’ treatment, and we see a man who knows the Word, is clothed with the Spirit, and defeats the enemy. His negative character traits occasionally come to the fore, as with every one of us. How and what someone has been before his conversion, often brings effort to not give in to it. Despite all the things in which Jephthah gives the wrong example, we must keep in mind that God writes him down among the heroes of faith (Heb 11:32).
1 - 3 Jephthah
1 Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a valiant warrior, but he was the son of a harlot. And Gilead was the father of Jephthah. 2 Gilead’s wife bore him sons; and when his wife’s sons grew up, they drove Jephthah out and said to him, “You shall not have an inheritance in our father’s house, for you are the son of another woman.” 3 So Jephthah fled from his brothers and lived in the land of Tob; and worthless fellows gathered themselves about Jephthah, and they went out with him.
The name Jephthah means ‘he who opens’. This points us to God, Who opens, reveals, spiritual truths and also opens the heart in which these spiritual truths get their place. Jephthah is the instrument God uses for this. Where God’s Word has been closed by the Ammonites, who as we have seen represent the intellectual religion or rationalism, there must be someone who opens the Word again.
Jephthah comes from Gilead, that is from Manasseh. He is a child born of fornication, but he is the instrument chosen by God to fight against an enemy also born of fornication. First his quality is mentioned: he is a combative hero. So Gideon is also mentioned in the first words God speaks to him (Jdg 6:12). Then his origin is mentioned: he is the son of a harlot. Jephthah can’t help being the son of a harlot. That is because of the sin of his father. This gave him an unhappy childhood, which at the same time formed him for the service for which God could later use him.
God often uses people who are not in esteem with others. Rejection is perhaps the most painful experience a person can live through in his life. But anyone who learns to deal with it in fellowship with God, becomes more and more like the Lord Jesus and thus becomes an instrument that God can use.
The Lord Jesus was the great Rejected when He was on earth and He is still for the world. Jephthah is rejected by his brothers, just as the Lord Jesus was rejected by His brothers. He is also despised for His humble birth. The people have said of Him: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary? (Mk 6:3). There is even an allusion that He was born of fornication (Jn 8:41).
The true reason that Jephthah is cast out is the greed of his brothers. If he would share in the inheritance, they would get a smaller share of it. Greed, also for fame and honor, is still a reason why someone is rejected today. Religious leaders have rejected the Lord Jesus and religious leaders still reject anyone who, by preaching the truth, endangers their position of prominence. What applies to religious leaders applies to everyone. We want to get rid of someone who tells us the truth of God, by which we have to give up something, when we are not prepared to do so.
Jephthah does not revolt. He could have used his strength to beat back. After all, he was a combatant hero, wasn’t he? But he flees and seeks refuge in Tob, which means ‘goodness’, where we could think of the goodness of the LORD. There he is further prepared for the service God will call him to. Such a preparation as a result of rejection can also be found with Moses and David. In Tob all kinds of men come to Jephthah who also don’t have a home. The same we read in the history of David (1Sam 22:1-2). Through their connection with Jephthah, these men also become combatant heroes.
4 - 7 Jephthah Is Asked to Be Chief
4 It came about after a while that the sons of Ammon fought against Israel. 5 When the sons of Ammon fought against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to get Jephthah from the land of Tob; 6 and they said to Jephthah, “Come and be our chief that we may fight against the sons of Ammon.” 7 Then Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “Did you not hate me and drive me from my father’s house? So why have you come to me now when you are in trouble?”
The opening verses of this chapter form a kind of line in between. They tell us something about Jephthah. Verse 4 connects to the last of the previous chapter (Jdg 10:17-18). After the preparatory actions the battle burns loose. The Ammonites go to war against Israel. The elders of Gilead face a big problem and that is that there is still no one who can lead them in the fight against the Ammonites. They see only one possibility left and that is to ask Jephthah.
Forced by circumstances, they are willing to acknowledge the man they hated and rejected because of his despised origin, now as their leader because of his qualities. So it is also with faith in the Lord Jesus as the only Savior. Only when a person no longer sees any outcome in his distress does he resort to Him. Need leads someone to call upon Him.
Before answering their request, Jephthah reminds them of how unjustly he had been treated by them. It looks a bit like what Joseph does with his brothers. The brothers sold him to Egypt. God controls everything in such a way that Joseph becomes viceroy there. When the brothers, forced by hunger, come to Joseph later, Joseph deals hard with them. He wants to make the brothers understand that they have done wrong, so that they will confess it and he can forgive them (Genesis 42-45).
Yet there is a difference between Jephthah and Joseph. Joseph accepted everything from the hand of God, but with Jephthah this does not seem to be the case. He accuses them of ill-treatment. All these years he has not forgotten what they have done to him and throws it to them.
We too can sometimes find it difficult to forgive and forget a bad treatment we have experienced. It comes up again, sometimes years later, under certain circumstances. An example. Someone is told that he is no longer needed for certain services. It can be anything, but let’s assume that it is a sexton service in the church. Another one applies to take over. The sexton may feel put aside. When an appeal is made to him again later, it is difficult not to think back to what happened in the past.
Another example is that we are passed over for a certain service, even though we think that we have quite some capacities for that. However, another is preferred. If, for example, that other person moves and we are invited to replace the first choice, the thought may easily arise that we will not let them play with us and that they will also now have to look for someone else. Being second choice is often difficult to accept.
8 - 11 Jephthah Is Made Head and Chief
8 The elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “For this reason we have now returned to you, that you may go with us and fight with the sons of Ammon and become head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.” 9 So Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “If you take me back to fight against the sons of Ammon and the LORD gives them up to me, will I become your head?” 10 The elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “The LORD is witness between us; surely we will do as you have said.” 11 Then Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and chief over them; and Jephthah spoke all his words before the LORD at Mizpah.
The negotiations on Jephthah’s position have not yet ended when he has expressed his grievances about the past. The elders of Gilead continue their efforts to persuade Jephthah to become their leader. In the introduction to this book it was noted that we can see in the judges a picture of the overseers or elders mentioned in the New Testament. Nowhere do we see that they need to be persuaded to become overseers. It is a voluntary matter. “Shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to [the will of] God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock” (1Pet 5:2-3).
Here are a few aspects that Jephthah should have taken more account of. But let us remember that this fact also applies to us. We can learn a lot from Jephthah, even how not to do it. It is therefore not a question of giving a brief indication of all things Jephthah is doing wrong. As is said, in what we want to learn from Jephthah, we must always remember that God has given him a place among the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11 (Heb 11:32).
With Jephthah we see that he only wants to help if they accept him as their leader. That is not the characteristic of a leader according to God’s thoughts. A true leader is ready as soon as there is a danger to the people, regardless of whether he is asked or not. And whether he is accepted or not, he will commit himself immediately.
With Jephthah it is not even so much about being the leader in the fight, but he also wants to be the leader after he has won. It seems that Jephthah speaks against the elders of Gilead from a personal hurt. Still, it is nice to see that he doesn’t count on his own strength for his victory over the Ammonites. He makes his dependence on God clear when he says: “And the LORD gives them up to me.”
The elders of Gilead agree with his proposal and reply with the swearing of an oath that they will keep their agreements. In turn, Jephthah declares that he will keep the agreement by making the LORD a Witness to all that he has said. This seems to be the meaning of the words: “Jephthah spoke all his words before the LORD”, which does not necessarily mean that God agrees with all Jephthah’s statements.
12 - 13 The First Conversation with the Enemy
12 Now Jephthah sent messengers to the king of the sons of Ammon, saying, “What is between you and me, that you have come to me to fight against my land?” 13 The king of the sons of Ammon said to the messengers of Jephthah, “Because Israel took away my land when they came up from Egypt, from the Arnon as far as the Jabbok and the Jordan; therefore, return them peaceably now.”
Jephthah begins his encounter with the king of Ammon by drawing a clear dividing line between Israel and his enemies. That may seem intolerant, but it is the only right way to deal with the enemy. Ammon means in a spiritual sense: error about what God has said. Any form of compromise is completely out of place here.
Therefore, modern theologians who use the human mind as a basis to judge the authority of the Bible can never be treated on a friendly basis. Such people must be made clear that they do not participate in the relationship that exists between God and His people. However kind such people may be, they are essentially enemies of the people of God. We can bear a lack of knowledge, not enmity.
The reaction is not long in coming. The king of Ammon confirms his claim to the land by pointing to its history. He makes another nice gesture: they can give the land back at will, so Israel does not have to fear that he will use violence. It sounds so plausible.
If Jephthah had not known the history of God’s people, he would probably have succumbed to the arguments. That is how many people are doing today. They fall prey to the fine talk of modern theologians because they do not read the Bible themselves. They do not know the Word of God and are “tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming” (Eph 4:14).
14 - 26 The Second Conversation
14 But Jephthah sent messengers again to the king of the sons of Ammon, 15 and they said to him, “Thus says Jephthah, ‘Israel did not take away the land of Moab nor the land of the sons of Ammon. 16 For when they came up from Egypt, and Israel went through the wilderness to the Red Sea and came to Kadesh, 17 then Israel sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, “Please let us pass through your land,” but the king of Edom would not listen. And they also sent to the king of Moab, but he would not consent. So Israel remained at Kadesh. 18 Then they went through the wilderness and around the land of Edom and the land of Moab, and came to the east side of the land of Moab, and they camped beyond the Arnon; but they did not enter the territory of Moab, for the Arnon [was] the border of Moab. 19 And Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, the king of Heshbon, and Israel said to him, “Please let us pass through your land to our place.” 20 But Sihon did not trust Israel to pass through his territory; so Sihon gathered all his people and camped in Jahaz and fought with Israel. 21 The LORD, the God of Israel, gave Sihon and all his people into the hand of Israel, and they defeated them; so Israel possessed all the land of the Amorites, the inhabitants of that country. 22 So they possessed all the territory of the Amorites, from the Arnon as far as the Jabbok, and from the wilderness as far as the Jordan. 23 Since now the LORD, the God of Israel, drove out the Amorites from before His people Israel, are you then to possess it? 24 Do you not possess what Chemosh your god gives you to possess? So whatever the LORD our God has driven out before us, we will possess it. 25 Now are you any better than Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab? Did he ever strive with Israel, or did he ever fight against them? 26 While Israel lived in Heshbon and its villages, and in Aroer and its villages, and in all the cities that are on the banks of the Arnon, three hundred years, why did you not recover them within that time?
Jephthah knows the history of God’s people very well. He is well aware of God’s dealings with them in the past. He returns to the origin, as the apostle John says, what is “from the beginning” (1Jn 1:1; 2:13,14,24). John writes in view of certain errors that undermined the truth about Christ – that He is truly God and truly man in one Person. Then you cannot do better than go back to what God has told in the beginning. What God has entrusted to us from the beginning, we must preserve and defend, but then we must know those words. The best way to resolve a conflict with ‘Ammon’ is to read a chapter from the Bible.
In everything that Jephthah brings forward of Israel’s history, we see submission to what God has said. He recounts history as it has happened in reality and as God has made it written down. He knows his ‘Bible’ well and knows what is written in Numbers 21 and Deuteronomy 2, where it is described that Israel has conquered this area from the Amorites and not from the Ammonites. The Amorites and the Ammonites are two different peoples, although the names still look so much alike. God has forbidden Israel to pass through the Ammonite region, and the Israelites have kept to this (Deu 2:37).
Jephthah’s conclusion is clear. The LORD, the God of Israel, has given his people the land, and they have taken it (verse 23). The same goes for us. We too can and must take possession of what God has given us in the heavenly regions in terms of spiritual blessings, and do not allow them to be robbed. Jephthah challenges the king of Ammon to take possession of what their god gives them and thus makes the dispute a battle between God and the idols.
The last argument he uses is based on the number of years Israel has lived in the disputed area. Balak, the king of Moab, has tried to get rid of Israel by hiring Balaam and cursing the people of God through him (Num 22:1-7). That attempt failed and in the 300 years that followed, no attempt was ever made to free the cities conquered by Israel from the Amorites. Israel’s right to those cities has remained undisputed all this time. And should they give up this area now? No way!
27 - 29 Conclusion of the Argument
27 I therefore have not sinned against you, but you are doing me wrong by making war against me; may the LORD, the Judge, judge today between the sons of Israel and the sons of Ammon.’” 28 But the king of the sons of Ammon disregarded the message which Jephthah sent him. 29 Now the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah, so that he passed through Gilead and Manasseh; then he passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he went on to the sons of Ammon.
Jephthah comes to this unequivocal conclusion: “I therefore have not sinned against you, but you are doing me wrong by making war against me.” The conversation with the king of Ammon is over. Jephthah surrenders the case to the hand of LORD, that he may act as a judge between the two nations. He is not waiting for an answer, continuing to talk makes no sense. He gives the LORD the last word: “May the LORD, the Judge, judge today between the sons of Israel and the sons of Ammon.”
Jephthah has provided convincing proof of Israel’s right to the land on the basis of the Word of God. But the king of Ammon does not want to listen. Then “the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah” and he goes to battle. There is no doubt that he is fighting for a just cause. Everyone who has heard his speech is encouraged by it. It is a struggle that is fully in accordance with God’s Word. This makes Jephthah’s speech to the king of Ammon a true ‘pep talk’, a great encouragement for all those who go to war with him.
30 - 36 The Vow of Jephthah
30 Jephthah made a vow to the LORD and said, “If You will indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hand, 31 then it shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, it shall be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.” 32 So Jephthah crossed over to the sons of Ammon to fight against them; and the LORD gave them into his hand. 33 He struck them with a very great slaughter from Aroer to the entrance of Minnith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel-keramim. So the sons of Ammon were subdued before the sons of Israel. 34 When Jephthah came to his house at Mizpah, behold, his daughter was coming out to meet him with tambourines and with dancing. Now she was his one [and] only child; besides her he had no son or daughter. 35 When he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you are among those who trouble me; for I have given my word to the LORD, and I cannot take [it] back.” 36 So she said to him, “My father, you have given your word to the LORD; do to me as you have said, since the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the sons of Ammon.”
Before Jephthah actually engages in battle, he does something that is not necessary. He enters into a kind of agreement with God and thereby commits himself to do something whereof he does not supervise the consequences. With this he indicates that he neither knows God nor himself well. From Jacob we read something similar (Gen 28:20-22). Jephthah, who has shown an excellent knowledge of the history of God’s people, does not learn any lessons from what Jacob has done.
By making a vow he, like Jacob, actually negotiates with God, indicating that he does not unconditionally trust God. By making a vow he, like Jacob, considers himself capable of doing what he promised without taking into account the real content of his vow. He has been too quick in entering into this agreement with God. If he had thought for a moment, he could hardly have expected an ox or a sheep to come and meet him from his house. He is guilty of a vow made too quickly. There are several warnings for this in Scripture (Pro 20:25; Ecc 5:1).
There are also good vows made in the Bible, such as the vow of Hanna (1Sam 1:11). This is a vow that comes from a good spiritual mind and is made with a view to the honor to which God is entitled in the midst of His people. Hanna longs for that and wishes her child to be the instrument for it.
God gives Jephthah a victory of great magnitude and has convincingly fulfilled His part of the agreement. The message of the victory is quickly spread and when Jephthah arrives home, his daughter meets him. She is his one and only child. This is reminiscent of what God says to Abraham about his son Isaac: “Your son, your only son, whom you love” (Gen 22:2).
Jephthah’s reaction is heartbreaking. He has not forgotten his vow. He suddenly realizes the disastrous consequences of his ill-considered speaking. It seems that he first of all blames his daughter for having to fulfil his vow in this way. He reproaches her for meeting him first from his house and reproaches her for plunging him into misfortune.
The vow he has made is irrevocable to him. He cannot come back to it, at least that is not possible for him. Leviticus 5 mentions a possibility to return to his rash words and confess them as sin (Lev 5:4-5). However, he must then bring a trespass offering (Lev 5:6). That he doesn’t do that, shows something of Jephthah’s character. On the one hand it shows that he is a man of character. He stands for his words. On the other hand, it shows that he is a man of inflexible principles. Then we see someone in Jephthah who is not prepared to lose his face.
This characterizes many legal people. The consistent attitude of these people can command respect as long as they apply this attitude to themselves. However, as soon as they impose their principles on others, they cause a lot of damage to the other. They sometimes sacrifice women and children to be able to live up to their statements. They cause a lot of mental damage to their relatives because they don’t want to revoke the vows made too quickly because of their fear of losing face. The next chapter will confirm this character trait of Jephthah.
It is remarkable, however, that the Bible itself does not make a statement about Jephthah’s actions. What is said about this is an application. In addition, it is unclear whether Jephthah literally sacrificed his daughter, or whether it means that she has remained unmarried. That will be discussed in the next section.
In the daughter of Jephthah a beautiful mind comes to light. She submits herself completely to her father and makes no attempt to change his mind. She urges him to fulfil his vow, even at the expense of herself. In this she is a beautiful type of Christ who also completely submitted to the way He had to go from His Father. In the history of Genesis 22 we see the same reference to the Lord Jesus in Isaac.
37 - 40 How Did Jephthah Fulfil His Vow?
37 She said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me; let me alone two months, that I may go to the mountains and weep because of my virginity, I and my companions.” 38 Then he said, “Go.” So he sent her away for two months; and she left with her companions, and wept on the mountains because of her virginity. 39 At the end of two months she returned to her father, who did to her according to the vow which he had made; and she had no relations with a man. Thus it became a custom in Israel, 40 that the daughters of Israel went yearly to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year.
Many Bible teachers have broken their heads about the question of whether Jephthah literally sacrificed his daughter. A small selection of what esteemed Bible interpreters have put forward on this subject shows that it is difficult to give an unambiguous answer to this question.
Henri Rossier: She would have to spend her whole life as a separated one and would not have a husband to have relations with, so she would always remain childless. In that sense she would live on as a dead person.
William Kelly: He sacrificed his daughter, after his determined intransigent mind. The holy wisdom of Scripture avoids the details of a fact that so contrasts with the thoughts of God.
Frederick William Grant: With regard to Jephthah’s vow, with it seems to be connected haste and failure, but certainly not the human sacrifice that many have assumed. Most youngest commentators agree and believe that his daughter was simply dedicated to God to lead an unmarried life as verses 37-39 clearly show.
Martin Luther: Some maintain that she was not sacrificed, but the text is too clear to allow that explanation.
Kurtz, in Sacred History: Evidence of literal sacrifice is found in the father’s desperation, the generous resignation of the daughter, the annual remembrance and mourning of Israel’s daughters, and in the story of the writer himself, who is unable to clearly describe the terrible scene he sees with both admiration and horror.
Edersheim: The great Jewish commentators of the Middle Ages have pointed out, in contrast to Talmud, that the two expressions in verse 31 (“it shall be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering”) are not identical. Never is it said of an animal burnt offering that it will be “the LORD’s”, for the simple reason that a burnt offering as such already is.
But if it concerns people who are offered to the LORD, then this expression is used, as in the case of the firstborn of Israel and of Levi (Num 3:12-13). But in these cases it has never been assumed that it is a literal human sacrifice. If the loving daughter had dedicated herself to death, it is almost incomprehensible that she wishes to spend the two months that remained of her life not with her heart-broken father, but in the mountains with her friends.
Samuel Ridout: I have never been able to change my mind about the fact that Jephthah has done with his daughter what every simple reader who reads this section believes he has done. He makes himself known as a severe, self-righteous man who later kills 42,000 of his fellow Israelites with a good conscience. Such a man is also able to literally sacrifice his own daughter. He had drawn the sword to defeat the Ammonites, he killed his daughter because he had promised it, and killed his brothers. Friend and enemy were treated the same.
Personally, I tend to think that Jephthah has indeed sacrificed his daughter. That is the impression I get when I read the text as it appears. It says that he “did to her” according to the vow which he had made. In other words, to me this indicates that he took a concrete action.
After this selection still a remark is left to make about the last verse of this chapter. If the daughter Jephthah was commemorated annually, how much more is the Lord Jesus worth to be commemorated every day, especially every first day of the week.