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4.27 Judges -- Jephthah

The next dubious leader of Israel was Jephthah (Judg 11).  He was the son of Gilead and a prostitute.  One has to wonder whether his prostitute mother was a Canaanite.  It is quite likely, but we simply aren’t told.  In any case, he was an outcast.  Gilead's lawful wife drove him out of the household.  Like Ishmael and Abimelech, Jephthah was disinherited and became a renegade (Judg 11:3).  However, the Ammonites attacked Israel, and the elders of Gilead asked Jephthah to help them and lead them in battle.  They must have seen in him the qualities of leadership lacking in the other sons of Gilead.  A covenant was made between Jephthah and the Gileadites before the Lord (Judg 11:10-11).


Jephthah recounted the history of the nations in a long message to the king of the Ammonites.  He held the "territorial" view of religion:

         "Now since the Lord, the God of Israel, has driven the Amorites out before his people Israel, what right have you to take it over?   Will you not take what your god Chemosh gives you? Likewise, whatever the Lord our God has given us, we will possess" (Judg 11:23-24).
Jephthah apparently abandoned the Israelite belief in one God as the ruler of all the nations, and had succumbed to the Canaanite belief in local gods, each with its allotted borders.  On the other hand, he appealed to the Lord as Judge between the Ammonites and Israel, for their attack was unjust (Judg 11:27).  This appeal to a higher moral law was unusual.  It could have led to a negotiated settlement with the enemy, except that the Ammonite king did not reply.


Jephthah was not like Gideon, a man who doubted God's call and resorted to fleeces. He doubted the sincerity of the clan of Gilead, but not the work of God.  And whereas God gave Gideon a task to perform before anointing him -- destroying his father's shrine -- He laid no such requirement on Jephthah.  After the Ammonite king failed to respond, God's Spirit came upon Jepthah (Judg 11:29).            


Then Jephthah made a rash and unnecessary vow, by promising to offer to God as a burnt offering the first person to come out of his tent to greet him upon his return from battle.  This incident, and its tragic consequence, shows the religious syncretism of this period of Israelite history.  There was an authentic anointing on Jephthah, a divine empowerment to lead Israel into battle.  However, Jephthah attempted to "guarantee" his victory by resorting to a pagan religious practice learned from his enemies -- human sacrifice.  This act was considered an abomination that defied God's explicit commands (Lev 18:21Lev 20:2-5Deut 12:31).  Jephthath didn't realize that, with the anointing of God, he didn't need any boost from his enemies' gods.  Nor did he understand that attempting to worship the true God with pagan rituals was blasphemous.  So we have this contradictory conjoining of God's Spirit and human rebellion, even in the chosen leader.  It is a strange mix, and one wonders that God did not disown him.  But as we have seen, this amalgam was not unique to Jephthah:  Gideon went straight from being God's appointed deliverer to creating a clone of Aaron's golden calf.  And Samson would later become the poster child of the spiritual wild man -- a man who apparently could not distinguish the stirrings of the Spirit from the impulses of the flesh.


Jephthah moved in the power of the Spirit to defeat the Ammonites.   But this victory paled before the tragedy awaiting him at home, when his daughter came out to meet him.  She thus became the promised sacrifice. Unlike the Abraham-Isaac story, there was no ram caught in the thicket (Gen 22:13) as a substitute offering.  That is because Abraham was acting in obedience to God's command, whereas Jephthah's sacrifice was his own idea.   It is interesting that men who were so often disobedient to the revealed and written laws of God could be so zealous to fulfill an unrighteous vow.  It was unthinkable for him to break this sacred oath.  Yet we can ask, what worse consequence could have resulted from breaking the vow than from keeping it?  When Saul later uttered a similarly rash vow that made his son Jonathan liable to the sentence of death, his own soldiers refused to enforce the death sentence (1 Sam 14:24-45).  As the Interpreter's Commentary states, this episode reads like a Greek tragedy, specifically the tale of Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia (p. 145).  


The defeat of Ammon and the murder of the unnamed daughter did not bring peace to Israel.  Instead, civil war ensued.  Ephraim attacked Jephthah for excluding them from the victory over Ammon.  The Gileadites defeated Ephraim and killed 42,000 of them! (Judg 12:6).  Once again, we see the misapplication of devotion and commitment.  Israel was not sufficiently motivated to expel the Canaanites and cleanse the land -- but the tribes proved merciless against each other, and took offence at the slightest cause.

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