The land of Israel east of the Jordan River needs a judge. Someone mighty. A warrior! We’re introduced to him in verse 1 of chapter 11.
11:1 ¶ Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty man of valour, [Oh, good! He sounds like a prime candidate to deliver Israel from her enemies!] and [Or “but”] he was the son of an harlot: [Oh, that’s not so attractive, is it? Well, let’s hear a little more about him.] and Gilead begat Jephthah. 2 And Gilead’s wife bare him [Gilead] sons; and his wife’s sons grew up, and they thrust out Jephthah, and said unto him, Thou shalt not inherit in our father’s house; for thou art the son of a strange woman. 3 Then Jephthah fled from his brethren, and dwelt in the land of Tob: and there were gathered vain men to Jephthah, and went out with him. [Got that so far? Jephthah is mighty. But he’s an illegitimate child. And his brothers chase him away so that he won’t receive an inheritance with them. So, he’s somewhat of a reject. But he’s not alone. Some vain or worthless men gather around him in the land of his exile. But those same brothers who chased Jepthah away will be wanting him back soon enough. Now,…]
4 ¶ And it came to pass in process of time, that the children of Ammon made war against Israel. [OK, so back to the story – in other words. Verses 1-3 were sort of an aside to bring us up to speed on the man whom Gildead would call to lead them. Now, let’s listen in on Jepthah’s calling by these very elders who chased him away years ago.] 5 And it was so, that when the children of Ammon made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to fetch Jephthah out of the land of Tob: 6 And they said unto Jephthah, Come, and be our captain, that we may fight with the children of Ammon. 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? 8 And the elders of Gilead said unto Jephthah, Therefore we turn again to thee now, that thou mayest go with us, and fight against the children of Ammon, and be our head over all the inhabitants of Gilead. 9 And Jephthah said unto the elders of Gilead, If ye bring me home again to fight against the children of Ammon, and the LORD deliver them before me, shall I be your head? 10 And the elders of Gilead said unto Jephthah, The LORD be witness between us, if we do not so according to thy words. 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.
There’s a very interesting parallel here in this part of the story. Notice the events between Jepthah and Gilead. Gilead rejects Jephthah. Then Gilead needs Jephthah. Then Gilead says to Jephthah: “We need you.” Jephthah: “You rejected me. Why are you calling on me now after you rejected me?” Gilead: “We’re in trouble. We need you back.” Does that kind of conversation sound familiar? It actually mirrors the dyanmics of Israel and the Lord. Can you see that? And, just like the Lord relented to Israel’s pleas, so does Jepthah.
Now, let’s watch him deliver Israel.
12 ¶ And Jephthah sent messengers unto the king of the children of Ammon, saying, What hast thou to do with me, that thou art come against me to fight in my land? [That’s interesting. Jepthah starts by talking. He doesn’t just immediately go into battle. He wants to discuss the situation with the enemy. Let’s see how the enemy responds.]
13 And the king of the children of Ammon answered unto the messengers of Jephthah, Because Israel took away my land, when they came up out of Egypt, from Arnon even unto Jabbok, and unto Jordan: now therefore restore those lands again peaceably.
So now, the question becomes – is the king of Ammon right? Did Israel indeed take land from Ammon when they came up out of Egypt? Have you ever thought about that? Well, let’s see what Jepthah thinks.
14 And Jephthah sent messengers again unto the king of the children of Ammon: 15 And said unto him, Thus saith Jephthah, Israel took not away the land of Moab, nor the land of the children of Ammon: [By the way, Moab and Ammon descend from Lot’s two daughters.] 16 But when Israel came up from Egypt, and walked through the wilderness unto the Red sea, and came to Kadesh; 17 Then Israel sent messengers unto the king of Edom, saying, Let me, I pray thee, pass through thy land: but the king of Edom would not hearken thereto. And in like manner they sent unto the king of Moab: but he would not consent: and Israel abode in Kadesh. 18 Then they went along through the wilderness, and compassed the land of Edom, and the land of Moab, and came by the east side of the land of Moab, and pitched on the other side of Arnon, but came not within the border of Moab: for Arnon was the border of Moab. 19 And Israel sent messengers unto Sihon king of the Amorites, the king of Heshbon; and Israel said unto him, Let us pass, we pray thee, through thy land into my place. 20 But Sihon trusted not Israel to pass through his coast: but Sihon gathered all his people together, and pitched in Jahaz, and fought against Israel. 21 And the LORD God of Israel delivered Sihon and all his people into the hand of Israel, and they smote them: so Israel possessed all the land of the Amorites, the inhabitants of that country. 22 And they possessed all the coasts of the Amorites, from Arnon even unto Jabbok, and from the wilderness even unto Jordan. [Which is the territory that the king of Ammon just mentioned as belonging to his people.]
Wow. That’s a lot of words. Jephthah rehearses Israel’s history as it relates to their coming to take the land of the Amorites.
And I’ll ask now what I asked about the king of Ammon and his statement – is Jephthah right? Who’s speaking the truth here?
There are some complications to this series of events and the retelling of them by these two men. First, we know from Deuteronomy 2:19 that God did not want Israel to take the Ammonites’ land. God said that he reserved that land for the sons of Lot – of whom the Ammonites were descendants. But then in Joshua 13:24-25 we learn that Moses gave the tribe of Gad half of the land of the Ammonites. So at first it sounds like Moses did wrong. Israel wasn’t supposed to take the land. But Moses and Israel took the land. Is that really what happened?
Actually, no. What really happened is this. Israel took the land of the Amorites. Remember – Sihon and Og were Amorites not Ammonites. But then — how does the author of Joshua say that Moses gave Gad half the land of Ammon? It’s because the land of Sihon and Og originally belonged to Ammon. But here’s what happened. Before Moses came up from the wilderness, the Amorites attacked the Ammonites and took part of their their land. This is actually recorded in the secular history of that time.
So, was Jephthah right? Yeah, I think he was. Was the king of Ammon right? Well, there’s no doubt that his people lost that land that became the Amorites’ possession and now for the past 300 years by this point had belonged to the Israelites. That land was theirs. But Israel didn’t take it from the Ammonites. The Amorites did. And then Israel took it from the Amorites.
Now, after giving this history lesson, Jephthah has some applications he wants the king of Ammon to make. He says…
23 So now the LORD God of Israel hath dispossessed the Amorites from before his people Israel, and shouldest thou possess it? 24 Wilt not thou possess that which Chemosh thy god giveth thee to possess? So whomsoever the LORD our God shall drive out from before us, them will we possess. [Now, I really don’t like Jephthah’s argument here. He’s basically putting Chemosh and Yahweh on the same level. Like – hey Ammon – your god gave you some land. Go ahead and possess it. And our God gave us some land. So we’re going to posses what he’s given to us.” Chemosh shouldn’t even enter the equation! He’s a false god. Forget about Chemosh. And besides, Chemosh isn’t even the god of Ammon. He’s the god of Moab! Milcom or Molech was the god of Ammon. So maybe Jephthah isn’t very well versed in Ammonite mythology. Now, Jephthah continues applying his message…] 25 And now art thou any thing better than Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab? did he ever strive against Israel, or did he ever fight against them, 26 [w]hile Israel dwelt in Heshbon and her towns, and in Aroer and her towns, and in all the cities that be along by the coasts of Arnon, three hundred years? why therefore did ye not recover them within that time? 27 Wherefore I have not sinned against thee, but thou doest me wrong to war against me: the LORD the Judge be judge this day between the children of Israel and the children of Ammon. [OK, so that last statement of Jephthah was probably the best. May the Lord be the judge between us. So, here’s what I gather from this. Jephthah knows his Torah. He knows the stories of what God did for his people. And he can even teach others about it. I imagine that was a rare thing in the days of the judges. So, I think that’s commendable. Now, the king of Ammon gets this letter from Jephthah and here’s his reaction…] 28 Howbeit the king of the children of Ammon hearkened not unto the words of Jephthah which he sent him. [No response. So, the talking is over and now it’s time for Jephthah to fight to deliver God’s people.]
29 ¶ Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah, and he passed over Gilead, and Manasseh, [That’s the ½ tribe of Manasseh east of the Jordan.] and passed over Mizpeh of Gilead, and from Mizpeh of Gilead he passed over unto the children of Ammon. [Again, Ammon is east of Gilead, which is east of the Jordan.] 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 [Or actually “whosoever” – it’s the male gender] 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 [Or literally “him” – again male grammatical gender] up for a burnt offering.
Wait, what did Jephthah just do? Why did he make this vow? What or whom is he expecting to meet him when he returns? Maybe you think “a dog”. Well, any kosher Israelite isn’t going to have dogs. A cat maybe? Probably not. What other kind of animal would meet his owner? Cows probably wouldn’t. Would sheep or goats? Even if they would, would they really be living in Jephthah’s house? Would they be coming out his doors? They’re not domesticated. No, I think Jephthah is making a rash unreasonable dangerous vow. His vow to sacrifice whatever or whomever comes to meet him can probably include animals or humans. But why would he even take the chance? Maybe it’ll be a human and not an animal! Why make this vow to the Lord? Couldn’t he have just kept his mouth shut and delivered Israel? And he knows his Torah. He knows the books of Moses. He knows that a vow to the Lord must be kept.
Well, the battle ensues.
32 ¶ So Jephthah passed over unto the children of Ammon to fight against them; and the LORD delivered them into his hands. 33 And he smote them from Aroer, even till thou come to Minnith, even twenty cities, and unto the plain of the vineyards, with a very great slaughter. Thus the children of Ammon were subdued before the children of Israel.
Wow, that was short. Then apparently, the writer didn’t want to focus on the battle itself. Well, what does he want to focus on?
Let’s keep reading.
34 ¶ And Jephthah came to Mizpeh unto his house [And we’re mindful of his vow and dreading what or who is going to come out to meet him.], and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances: and she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter. [Oh no. His only daughter. With her dies Jepthah’s lineage. She comes out to greet him. She’s happy for her father and comes out to celebrate the victory God gave him. But he certainy isn’t happy to see her.] 35 And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he rent his clothes, and said, Alas, my daughter! thou hast brought me very low, and thou art one of them that trouble me: for I have opened my mouth unto the LORD, and I cannot go back. 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. 38 And he said, Go. And he sent her away for two months: and she went with her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains. 39 And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she knew no man. And it was a custom in Israel, 40 That the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year.
So, the question on everyone’s mind is – “did we really just see a judge in Israel sacrifice his daughter as a burnt offering?” As best I can tell, the answer is “Yes”. Some argue that Jephthah’s vow allowed for him to just dedicate his daughter to the Lord’s service. But if that were the case, why would she need two months to lament the fact that she wasn’t going to be married? Couldn’t she have done her lamenting after she was dedicated to the Lord’s service? No, I think what we see here is – in very discreet terms – Jephthah offering his daughter as a sacrifice.
That’s shocking. That couldn’t happen in Israel! That sounds like something the Canaanites would do – offer their children to their gods. Yes, and do you remember what we’re seeing in this book? The Progressive Canaanization of Israel. Through Jephthah’s ridiculous vow he ends up engaging in one of the most abhorrent actions of the Canaanites around Israel – child sacrifice. But couldn’t Jephthah have backed out of his vow? The law doesn’t allow for it. Making a vow to the Lord is serious and breaking it could result in equally serious consequences. But surely God didn’t approve of this! I know he wouldn’t have. But did you notice his silence? He doesn’t say a word as Jephthah makes and then carries out his unreasonable vow. So, God doesn’t approve of this. And at the same time I think we need to remember that there’s not much that God approved of in the days of the Judges.