One of the most difficult stories in the Bible for the student of Scripture to handle correctly is the story of Jephthah found in Judges 10-11. While the student of Scripture is no stranger to biblical narratives that recount the actions of sinful persons, the story of Jephthah is startling because he seems to have the stamp of God’s approval and yet carries out a horrible deed. Does this story give us reason to doubt the truthfulness of the Scriptures or to discount the message of the Bible because of embarrassing tales like this? Or, can it be correctly handled so that we do not become like the “ignorant and unstable” people who distort the hard to understand parts of the oracles of God (see 2 Peter 3.16)?
The story of Jephthah takes place during the dark days of Israel’s past. After being led to the edge of the land of promise by Moses, and then into the Promised Land by Joshua, the people of God left the light of God behind them as they each did what they saw fit (see the summary statement of Judges 21.25). Though Moses had written down the law, it is almost totally absent from the period of the Judges, which roughly covers the next 400 years. Gone are Moses, Aaron, and Joshua and any prophet and priest who might have walked in their shadow. Even the brightest lights during the dark time (Gideon, Samson, etc.) are not all that bright. But the story of Jephthah is one of the darkest of all.
The stories of the time of the Judges all follow the same pattern: the people forsake the Lord, stop obeying His commands, and begin to worship others gods. As a result, the Lord raises up plunderers who invade the land and oppress the people of Israel. After a long period of suffering, the people cry out for help. God then raises up a judge who will deliver the people, both from the invading army and to faithful obedience to the Lord (see Judges 2 for the summary of this time period). A few of the Judges are familiar to most Bible readers: Deborah, Gideon, and Samson, but Jephthah has been kept on the shelf, out of sight.
Jephthah was the son of Gilead but by a prostitute. As a result, he was raised in the home of Gilead but never accepted as a full son. When Gilead died, his brothers drove him away so that he would not collect any of the inheritance. He fled to the desert where he gathered a group of adventurers around him and became their leader. Over the years, he gained a reputation for being a mighty warrior and a strong leader.
When Israel could not stand the oppression of the Ammonites any longer, they cried out to God for help. Instead of running to their rescue, God said to them, “Go and cry out to the gods you have chosen. Let them save you when you are in trouble” (Judges 10.14). Even so, Israel repented of their sins, got rid of the other gods, and served the Lord. Eventually, the Lord “could bear Israel’s misery no longer” (Judges 10.16).
At this point, an important part of the story is missing. In the story of Gideon, when the people cry out for help, God answers their prayer by selecting a judge to lead them. The people cry out, and God raises up a judge. But in this story, God does not raise up a judge. Instead, the elders of Israel seek out their own judge. They come to Jephthah and asked him to be their commander and head to fight the Ammonites.
Eventually, Jephthah agrees. He tries to negotiate peacefully with the Ammonites, to no avail (see Judges 11.12-28). When the King of the Ammonites paid no attention to his letters of peace, it was time for a military solution. At this point, “the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah” (Judges 11.29). In the Old Testament, the Spirit of the Lord would often come upon people to accomplish specific tasks. This anointing was much different than the new covenant arrival of the Spirit of God who would indwell all believers continuously.
Jephthah organizes his military forces, and he marches towards the battlefield. Before he goes, he makes a vow to the Lord:
“If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering” (Judges 11.30-31).
At this point we see that Jephthah has very little, if any, real knowledge of the Lord that he calls upon. Jephthah uses the covenant name of God (YWHW) more than any other person in the book of Judges, and yet he seems to know very little about this Lord that he seeks to serve.
He knows about vows, that they are voluntary promises that one enters into with God that become binding once vowed. As the Law said, “Whatever your lips utter you must be sure to do, because you made your vow freely to the Lord your God with your own mouth” (Deuteronomy 23.23). But while he knew about vows, he knew very little about the Lord. The Lord had specifically told Israel that He did not want them to worship Him by practicing human sacrifice:
29The LORD your God will cut off before you the nations you are about to invade and dispossess. But when you have driven them out and settled in their land, 30and after they have been destroyed before you, be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, “How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.” 31You must not worship the LORD your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods. (Deuteronomy 12.29-31)
Jephthah is operating more out of his knowledge of pagan worship than he is out of the knowledge of God. All around him, Jephthah thought, the pagans worshipped their god in this manner, so it must be the right way to worship his god. The worshippers of pagan gods bribed their gods with their vows, and so Jephthah was bribing the Lord with his vow.
The vow is quite clear: after the victorious battle, whoever comes out of the door of his house would be offered as a burnt offering to the Lord. There is no easy way to sugarcoat his intentions. If God would give him the victory, he would sacrifice the first human to walk out of his house upon his return.
Afterwards, Jephthah goes to battle and the Lord gave the Ammonites into his hands (see Judges 11.32). And then,
34When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of tambourines! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. 35When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh! My daughter! You have made me miserable and wretched, because I have made a vow to the LORD that I cannot break.” 36“My father,” she replied, “you have given your word to the LORD. Do to me just as you promised, now that the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites. 37But grant me this one request,” she said. “Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.” 38“You may go,” he said. And he let her go for two months. She and the girls went into the hills and wept because she would never marry. 39After the two months, she returned to her father and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin. (Judges 11.34-39)
While we can give Jephthah minor points for feeling “miserable and wretched” over the consequences of his vow, we are even more disturbed to read that he “did to her as he had vowed.” Some Bible readers try to escape the horrible implications by insisting that Jephthah did not “sacrifice her as a burnt offering” as his vow stated, but that he doomed her to a life of perpetual virginity, perhaps in service at the Tabernacle. But that is to play fast and loose with the text which clearly says, “he did to her as he had vowed” which was to “sacrifice her as a burnt offering.”
What in the world do we do with Jephthah?
Jephthah is a horrible demonstration of the danger of zeal without knowledge. The apostle Paul writes about such zeal in his letter to the Romans:
1Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. 2For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. 3Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. (Romans 10.1-3)
Paul is speaking about Israel’s refusal to accept the righteous that comes by faith. Instead, they continued to cling to a righteousness through the law.
Jephthah is cut from the same cloth. He was zealous for YHWH, but his zeal was not based upon knowledge. Since he did not know about the righteousness that comes from God, since he did not know how God defined righteousness, since he did not know the revelation of God through the Law, he sought to establish his own. And his own righteousness was an amalgamation of his own beliefs and the beliefs and practices of the pagan people around him. There was a way that seemed right to him, but it only led into death.
Some Bible readers feel Jephthah’s pain, at least that he was caught between a rock and a hard place. He had made a rash vow that violated the Law, but now he was commanded by the same Law to keep it. Did he really have a choice? If he knew the Law, he did.
In the priestly code of Leviticus, the people are instructed what to do when they “make a special vow to dedicate persons to the Lord” (Leviticus 27.1). In effect, financial equivalents are set according to the age of the person who was dedicated to the Lord. If Jephthah had truly known the righteousness that comes from God, he would have known of a way out. He would have redeemed her with either 30 or 10 shekels, depending upon her age (see Leviticus 27.3-4).
Zeal without knowledge is a dangerous thing, but the spirit of Jephthah lives on. Many people today have a zeal for religious things, but since they do not know the righteousness that comes from God, they seek to establish their own. And most often, that righteousness is a combination of their own ideas and the foolishness of the culture in which they live. If there is a poster child for the importance of knowing and understanding the righteousness of God so that zeal is guided by knowledge, Jephthah is the man.