According to Wikipedia: “Jephthah appears in the Book of Judges as a judge who presided over Israel for a period of six years (Judges 12:7). According to Judges, he lived in Gilead. His father’s name is also given as Gilead, and, as his mother is described as a prostitute, this may indicate that his father might have been any of the men of that area. Jephthah led the Israelites in battle against Ammon and, in exchange for defeating the Ammonites, made a vow to sacrifice whatever would come out of the door of his house first. When his daughter was the first to come out of the house, he immediately regretted the vow, which would require him to sacrifice his daughter to God. Jephthah then carried out his vow, though some commentators have disputed as to whether or not the sacrifice was actually carried out. Traditionally, Jephthah is listed among major judges because of the length of the biblical narrative referring to him, but his story also shares features with those of the minor judges, such as his short tenure—only six years—in office”.
Right now, as part of my studies in the Prophets of the Bible, I have come to the Book of the Judges. It is an amazing book as are all the books of the Bible, but with a lot of blood and gore and awkward situations that don’t sit well with modern sensibilities and not what you would want to share with your Sunday School class, such that one might be tempted to skip over much of it. Yet there are lovely parts too – the Book of Ruth which in the Hebrew Bible is part of the Book of Judges is a wonderful story – but I digress. The Book of Judges mentions twelve leaders who are said to “judge” Israel: Othniel, Shamgar, Deborah, Gideon, Tola, Jair, Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, Samson. Ehud. Judge was possibly a misnomer but what these “leaders” had in common was taking on the role of a trouble shooter, usually with the blessing of God, and doing so at times when Israel were being oppressed by their enemies.
The story of Jephthah begins: “Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty man of valour, and he was the son of an harlot: and Gilead begat Jephthah” Judges 11:1. The story ends, before moving onto the next judge, “And Jephthah judged Israel six years. Then died Jephthah the Gileadite, and was buried in one of the cities of Gilead” Judges 12:7. Jephthah was deemed an outcast by his kinsmen, having been born illegitimately. Yet it was he who they turned to when they were coming under attack by the Ammonites, who did what many wannabe conquerors did after them, justifying their claims over the territory they had designs on and then go for an attack. Jephthah the diplomat and when that failed, the warrior, also resonated with comparable situations in history. But Jephthah was serious about honouring God, seeking after Him and relying on Him for help and, being filled with His Spirit, was able to win the day.
The story takes on at this point an unexpected twist. He had vowed a vow to God (which probably was not necessary) that “that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering” Judges 11:31. Before discussing what happened next, it is well to recall that fulfilling vows in ancient Hebrew society was very important: “If a man vow a vow unto the Lord, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth” Numbers 30:2 and “When thou shalt vow a vow unto the Lord thy God, thou shalt not slack to pay it: for the Lord thy God will surely require it of thee; and it would be sin in thee” Deuteronomy 23:21. While for modern Christians, we might rather take up the words of Jesus: ” But I say unto you, Swear not at all … But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay” Matthew 5:34, 37, we should recognize that Jephthah took the need for obedience to God’s law seriously.
The shocking finale to the story was the “whatsoever” that come into his house was his daughter, joyful that her victorious father had returned safely from battle, and that Jephthah with great regret felt obliged to fulfil his vow. Scholars are not in agreement whether this was done literally although most would say his vow was folly given keeping one’s promises mattered greatly. A follow on and another unexpected twist to the story was following his victory, Israelites from a neighboring tribe (Ephraim) took umbrage they had not been invited to join in the battle and threatened to burn Jephthah’s house down. While he pointed out they had their chance to join in but failed to do so, they remained adamant. A civil war ensued, with Jephthah coming out on top, yet sadly many lives lost as a result.
When it comes to favourite Bible characters, we are spoiled for choice and there are arguably many more worthy and well-rounded figures to choose from besides Jephthah. I can think of a least three good reasons though for choosing Jephthah as a favourite character, which personally resonate, despite problematic areas in the narrative. Firstly, I have often felt with justification that I have been cast aside because somehow I didn’t fit in and yet I am heartened God chooses unlikely people to accomplish his purposes. Secondly, Jephthah kept his promises. In a day when people often promise one thing and fail to deliver, including among those deemed saintly, and notably concerning the “til death do us part” marriage vows, this is refreshing to know. Thirdly, Jephthah was usable of God and used by God. He showed wise diplomacy and a warrior spirit. He was motivated by a fear and a love of God, a ideal man to lead Israel in a time of crisis, and against many odds he took God at His word.
Two final thoughts: firstly, the matter the taking of innocent life is abhorent to God’s will, vow or no vow. There seems little doubt that Jephthah acted precipitously and wrongly making his vow. As students of the Bible, we can only go with what we know and, as William Tyndale put it, “the Old Testament is a book in which is written the law of God and the deeds of those who fulfill it, and, also, of those who do not“. Secondly, there are two references to Jephthah outside of Judges 11:1 – 12:7. The first is “And the Lord sent Jerubbaal, and Bedan, and Jephthah, and Samuel, and delivered you out of the hand of your enemies on every side, and ye dwelled safe” 1Samuel 12:1. “And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gedeon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthae; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets” Hebrews 11:32. While it is always worth studying the context of whatever scripture we wish to cite, we ought to be able to deduce that Jephthah was a signifcant Bible character, worthy of honour.