Read: Judges 11:1-40
Jephthah stood at the door of his wilderness house. He had things pretty well fixed up, like he wanted them. After all, there was a day he would have liked to live in town, but that had been impossible. You see, it was because of his mother. The Bible says his mother was a harlot. Some scholars have wanted to say she was an innkeeper, but the harsh reality of his rejection implies the truth was that his mother was more likely a Canaanite prostitute. His half-brothers called her “that other woman.” The one that made the whole family ashamed. Jephthah was a —
Jephthah’s father was named Gilead. This is also the name of a man several generations earlier. It may also have been the name of the whole district.
Rabbi Telushkin suggests, “there might have been a certain ironic sensibility in so naming the father, comparable to saying, ‘And the father’s name was New York’; in other words any male in Gilead might have been Jephthah’s father. Many of Gilead’s citizens therefore might have mocked him, not just members of one family.” (Telushkin, Biblical Literacy)
But Jephthah’s father’s name must have also been Gilead because the text describes his brothers, sons of the same man by his lawful wife driving Jephthah from home and from sharing in their inheritance. (Keil and Delitzsch)
Jephthah was “a child of shame. His father had chosen to sacrifice upon the wayside altar. His father had had his fling. He had sown his wild oats and of necessity there was a harvest.” Jephthah’s mother was no better. She was “a professional outcast.” “The first eyes into which he looked were the eyes of an unclean woman.” “Ugly names were flung at him before he was old enough to know their dark and sinister meaning. He was forbidden to go to the big house of his father before he knew why he was not allowed to go. He was excluded from the games of those more fortunately born than he….” (Clovis Chappell, Sermons on Biblical Characters)
Perhaps Gilead provided for Jephthah and his mother until he died, but then everything changed. There was a law protecting sons of a less favored wife, but not protecting the rights of a son of a harlot by the same father.
So Jephthah was denied any inheritance. This godly (well, really, godless) society could go on their wicked way and some people could get away with their sins, but Jephthah had to be reminded of his parents’ sin again and again.
The angry bitterness, even hatred, of his brothers did not matter. They could act any way they pleased. Jephthah just had to put up with their scorn.
Kicked out of home, separated from family and from his countrymen, Jephthah had to fend for himself. Other roughnecks heard about him and sauntered out to the wilderness, to the land of Tob, to hang around with him. A kind of gang developed.
Jephthah was followed by a band of hoodlums. The Hebrew is req (rake). It means at least poor, without property. Most scholars have treated them as plunderers. Josephus says they raided the territory of Israel’s enemies and carried off plunder. Interestingly, this is the same thing that David did when he was driven out by Saul. Driven by force from home, he at least defended and befriended his own people by attacking their enemies.
Edersheim says Jephthah’s name means “the breaker through.” (Alfred Edersheim, Bible History) I wish I could gain an insight into what faith prompted someone to name him that!
I also acknowledge a number of insights from Wesley Tracy (What’s a Nice God Like You Doing in a Place Like This?) Jephthah was tough! Courageous. He had always had to fight to survive, but now living in the wilds had given him a new toughness, a shell of harshness that kept other people at a distance. Even his own men, he had to manage with tough reserve.
Now he was watching an assembly of the elders of Gilead trooping up the hill. Heads down, except for an occasional nervous glance to see whether Jephthah and his ruffians might attack them. “What in the world did they want?” They raised their hands in a gesture of surrender and pleading.
“Please, come help us! Please be our captain. The Ammonites are unbearable! They have destroyed our towns. Please, can you help?”
Jephthah had often tasted the pain of being a reject, but now he was a —
II. SPARE TIRE!
They were in dire need. In Ch. 10:18 you can read they had just offered the commanding office to any in Gilead who would take it. Apparently, no one stepped forward. Now they have humbled themselves to come ask for Jephthah to take over, or at least drive out the Ammonites.
“Why have you come to me?”
Parker says, “It was not a resentful speech: it was the eloquence of a noble man. Some people can only be taught when they are whipped.” (J. Parker, Biblical Illustrator).
What brought them to Jephthah now? They had no compassion when he was in need! Now they come parading up the hill with their heads down in shame and repentance.
Don’t we often do the same thing to God and the church? When things are going well, we are off on our own. Then when we have a problem, we traipse back to God. Well, thank God, He still hears our prayers. And the church still extends a hand of help.
7 And Jephthah said unto the elders of Gilead, Did not ye hate me, and expel me out of my father’s house? and why are ye come unto me now when ye are in distress?
They made their lame repentance. “We see our mistake. Please forgive us for wronging you.”
Jephthah swallowed slowly, suppressing a smirk. This could be the Opportunity of a Life-Time! He surely did want to be accepted. Deep inside he could feel the stir of a —
III. DESPERATE CRAVING FOR ACCEPTANCE
He stifled the emotion and asked for more information.
9 And Jephthah said unto the elders of Gilead, If ye bring me home (KJV) again to fight against the children of Ammon, and the LORD deliver them before me, shall I be your head?
Can you hear that word, home, stick in his throat? Involuntarily a lump formed. Old memories flooded through his brain. He had to choke that flood of emotion. He had to maintain control!
“Will I really be your head?” Actually, from the Hebrew it appears that Jephthah said “I will be your head!” (Keil and Delitzsch)
That’s not exactly what they had in mind, but the elders were not in a position to argue. Meekly and quickly, they agreed with him. Chief Governor! They had come asking for a captain, a leader in war, but Jephthah wanted more. “Will I really be your head?” Jephthah did not want to be ditched after the crisis was over.
The elders covenanted in the name of the LORD.
Jephthah and the elders walked from Tob back to Gilead. The elders arranged a big meeting in Mizpeh, then before the people in general the elders confirmed that Jephthah was Chief Governor over the tribes east of the Jordan. They stood in a solemn assembly before the Lord and Jephthah took the oath of office before the Lord.
11 Then Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and captain over them: and Jephthah uttered all his words before the LORD in Mizpeh.
This man Jephthah has made good far beyond anyone had ever imagined he could. He offered —
IV. FORGIVENESS AND SERVICE, NOT REVENGE
Jephthah immediately tried to resolve the conflict with Ammon by diplomacy. Vv.12-28 describe his efforts.
He sent two messages through ambassadors and waited patiently for the response from the king of Ammon. Jephthah was not afraid to fight, but he would rather settle things diplomatically. His recitation of the history of the disputed land, reveals detailed knowledge of Numbers 20. Much of his language is almost a literal quotation from the passage. (Edersheim)
I wonder who it was that taught Jephthah the Scriptures. Did his father repent of his sin and try to raise this son to serve the Lord? The Bible describes Jephthah as a very devoted man in so many ways.
Jephthah first became judge over the tribes east of the Jordan and later over all Israel, even though there was a law in Israel forbidding an illegitimate person to “enter into the congregation, or bear any public office.” (John Gill)
The Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah in special anointing. Everything seems to be going his way. He organizes his troops and prepares for battle. But —
As he prepared for battle, having received a special anointing from the Lord, he went a step farther. He made a vow! And all these centuries later, this is the biggest reason he is remembered.
30 And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands, 31 Then it shall be, that whatsoever [the Hebrew implies whosoever] 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.
Taylor warns, “There is in the best a root of pride and vanity which in prosperity and warm sunshine sprouteth and grows wonderfully stiff. Paul himself is in danger to be exalted out of measure by abundance of revelation; and therefore the Lord, as a wise physician, adds a dose of affliction to be an antidote to expel the poison of pride, and with a prick lets out the wind of vainglory.” (T Taylor, Biblical Illustrator)
Up to the point of his vow, he acted as a true worshipper of Jehovah. (Edersheim) He forgave those who had so mistreated him. He prayed for the blessing of the Lord. He received a special anointing of the Spirit. He was not eager to shed blood because he tried to resolve the issue by sending ambassadors to Ammon. But in a moment of desperation he went one step farther.
Ecc. 5 warns
1 Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God, and be more ready to hear, than to give the sacrifice of fools: for they consider not that they do evil.
2 Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few.
3 For a dream cometh through the multitude of business; and a fool’s voice is known by multitude of words.
4 ¶ When thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to pay it; for he hath no pleasure in fools: pay that which thou hast vowed.
5 Better is it that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay.
6 Suffer not thy mouth to cause thy flesh to sin; neither say thou before the angel, that it was an error: wherefore should God be angry at thy voice, and destroy the work of thine hands?
Jephthah ran into —
VI. DOUBLE TROUBLE
Jephthah made a bad vow, and he kept a bad vow!
What did he actually do? The Jewish scholars and even the early Christian church fathers — most of the Biblical scholars up until the Middle Ages — almost all agree that Jephthah offered his daughter as a burnt sacrifice. Though it shocks and sickens my soul, I confess that the evidence seems to point to his actually killing his own daughter. I realize he lived in days of less light. I realize he had been exiled among Ammonites whose worship of Moloch regularly required human sacrifice.
Of course, even if Jephthah did sacrifice his daughter that does not mean that it pleased the Lord.
De 12:31 expressly forbids human sacrifice:
“Thou shalt not do so unto the LORD thy God: for every abomination to the LORD, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods.”
Since the Middle Ages, many Jews as well as Christians have thought that he committed her to a life of never marrying and, of course, never bearing children. Perhaps she was dedicated to serve the Lord at the tabernacle, but if an illegitimate son was forbidden to enter the tabernacle, was it possible that his female descendant would be permitted?
Even if Jephthah did not actually sacrifice his daughter, and merely pledged her never to marry, it was an awful and rash vow. For her not to marry meant that Jephthah’s family would be cut off from Israel and his inheritance go to someone else. It also meant there was no hope of the Messiah coming through his family.
Since Jephthah is mentioned in the Hall of Faith in Heb. 11, many have thought there was no way he could have actually sacrificed his own daughter.
Jephthah should teach us to be on our guard that even in moments of what appears to be holy passion, we do not vow something foolishly.
To make a special vow to the Lord was natural in such a crisis, but to vow impulsively and rashly was stupidly foolish.
Follow his faith, but not his foolishness!
What about his daughter?
VII. COMPLETE SUBMISSION
The Bible presents her as joyfully submissive, even though sorrowful.36 And she said unto him, My father, if thou hast opened thy mouth unto the LORD, do to me according to that which hath proceeded out of thy mouth; forasmuch as the LORD hath taken vengeance for thee of thine enemies, even of the children of Ammon. 37 And she said unto her father, Let this thing be done for me: let me alone two months, that I may go up and down upon the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my fellows [friends].
Just when it seemed they would be accepted back into the society of Israel, just when life seemed to promise its best, just when she was dancing with glee and anticipation, Jephthah’s ambitious foolishness dashed all their hopes.
“Think of her, that child of an outcast — brought up in a heathen land and in a camp — think of her, how pure, how unworldly, how unselfish, how noble in spirit! Think of her patriotism, think of her self-sacrifice, that you may abhor all that is mean and selfish, and worldly and untruthful; and that you may cease to grudge the sacrifices your Father in heaven requires in love and wisdom, and for your own deliverance and safety.” (M Nicholson, Biblical Illustrator)
The wail of Jephthah’s daughter is the wail heard in every generation of the “grievous waste of all that is good in human nature, of devotedness to country and family, of fine feeling, of the best intellect. Again and again, in our own society, we see the most splendid mental abilities squandered in the quest of what can never be discovered, the truest eloquence and highest moral feeling consecrated to a cause that is not worth lifting a finger to defend. Who has not seen the most precious human feelings wasted, you would say, on worthless people, while they might have fertilized and enriched responsive natures — the noblest devotedness sacrificed to a mere lie, or deception, or mockery?” As the friends of Jephthah’s daughter passed on the stories to their own children, how they must have urged their children to be brave, to be true and uncomplaining! (M Dods, Biblical Illustrator)
Jephthah sacrificed his daughter to a mistaken concept of the true God. Jephthah died and was buried and no one long paid attention to where he was buried.
“Jephthah [thought he] sacrificed his daughter to the true God. But what are many modern parents doing? Why, offering up their children to false gods!
- The god of idleness. Indolence is ruin.
- The god of worldliness.
- The god of ambition.” (Homilist, Biblical Illustrator)
What should we learn from Jephthah’s sad experience.
Vow, but think first.
Vow complete devotion and obedience. Partial Obedience is NOT obedience at all, because you are still choosing what to obey!
Vow from thanksgiving, not from a desire to get something from God. Bargain Vows are extremely dangerous!
Don’t keep a wrongful vow.
Immature and Improper Vows: Repent and walk away from them. Don’t live in bondage to them. The Scripture provided a method of repentance and release or redemption from a wrongful vow. Thirty pieces of silver could have redeemed Jephthah’s daughter.
Adam Clarke advises, “A rash vow was never to be kept; ‘for…he who commits an unjust action because of his vow adds one crime to another, 1. By making an unlawful vow; 2. By doing an unlawful action.’”
Wesley Tracy explains that Jephthah’s Vow was improper because
- It required someone else to sacrifice more than its maker.
- It was illegal by the laws of God and of man.
- It was a vow God would not recognize.
- It was a self-serving vow with an “if” clause.
All these improper vows, do not require too much of us, but rather too little.
In the Middle Ages, the saints developed the concept of “self-donation” — donating your whole self to God.
Of course, this is what Rom. 12:1 means! “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.”