Judges 10-12: Jephthah

Jephthah's reckless vow dooms him to the decision of breaking a vow to God or killing his only child.


During the reign of the previous "major" judge (Abimelech), Isreal was still wrought with idolatry and sinfulness (at his own hand to say the least). When you combine this with the history of the Israelites, it's no surprise that Israel falls back into turmoil after Tola and Jair. This time, God allows the Philistines and Ammonites to oppress the Israelites in the area stretching from the Tribe of Judah through the Tribe of Benjamin and across the Jordan into the Ammonites' territory. The oppression lasts for 18 years.

Eventually, Israel repents of their sins, asking God to help them. At first, God denies them, suggesting they ask their idols for help. This is like today when we forget about God until suddenly we need Him. Realizing their error, the Israelites do not turn back to idolatry, but instead purge their land of images, focusing on repentance. They persist at worshipping the One True God. When God sees this, He becomes sorrowful and decides to deliver them once again. We too much persist in our relationship with God.

The Next Judge

Jephthah was the next person God rose up to judge Israel. Like Abimelech, he was also a Gileadite. Once again, God chooses a man unlikely to be selected for leadership based on pedigree. Jephthah was the son of a harlot; society would have chosen one of his brothers from a more "acceptable" parentage. Cast out by his brothers, Jephthah ends up in the land of Tob. There, he teams up with a group of "vain men." While the meaning of vain men isn't explicitly given, it's pretty obvious that this isn't an indication of Godliness.

When the Ammonites gather against Israel, the elders of Gilead suddenly seek out Jephthah for leadership. The original offer is for the position of a military leader, but when Jephthah is not moved by the offer, they offer him the position of head over the city, instead. For the first time, God is mentioned in the exchange when Jephthah agrees that if God delivers the Ammonites to him, the elders should make him leader. Unlike the judges mentioned earlier in the book, both Abimelech and Jephthah seem to have appointed themselves as judges with God blessing them for Israel's sake.

The Conversation

Jephthah sends messengers to Ammon to request the reason they have gathered against Israel. The Ammonites state that they are taking back the land Israel took from them. The scenario sounds much like something that could happen today, especially after all of the boundary changes colonization brought about.

Jephthah reminds the Ammonites that the only reason Israel has that land is that the Ammonites refused to let Israel pass during Moses' day. They had won the land in war and had been living there for 300 years. Jephthah inquires as to why it is only now that the Ammonites are trying to get their land back. The Ammonites, however, do not continue the discussion and disregard Jephthah's messengers.

Using the dates from 1 Kings 6:1, we can date the Exodus to 1446. This is disputed by some, but I agree with the literal dating that renders the exodus in 1446bc, as opposed to the symbolic dating proposed by those who disagree. Perhaps I'll do a post on that topic in the future. In the meantime, this means the Israelites started conquering land in 1406bc and gives us a date of about 1106bc for the time of Jephthah (likely when Jephthah said they had been living there for 300 years, he was using a round number estimate as opposed to a precise calculation.

The Vow

Photocredit: Qureshi
When preparing for battle, Jephthah vows to God that whomever greets him at the door when he returns will be a burnt offering for God. It is unclear whether Jephthah had spent too much time around pagans and was promising God a human sacrifice—which God never sanctions—or if Jephthah expected an animal to greet him.

The Israelites lived in 4 room homes in which the first room housed the animals, therefore it is quite plausible that Jephthah expected a cow or goat to be the first to approach him at the door.[1] A lesson in making rash promises about things we cannot control is given in the outcome of Jephthah's vow, because it is not an animal that greets him but his only child, his daughter.

She is adamant that he fulfills his vow, strangely. Instead of fleeing like most of us would, she merely asks for 2 months to lament her virginity. Not only does her virginity tell us that she was likely very young, but also a that there would be an inability to pass on her and her father's lineage. Despite being an unnamed woman, she was mourned yearly by the daughters of Israel after her sacrifice.

Unlike with Abraham and Isaac, God doesn't send a goat to replace Jephthah's daughter, which may cause some to wonder about the message. Many may ask if the lack of intervention is a sign that God wanted him to sacrifice his daughter. I think one of the key points in comparing Abraham's situation with Jephath's is in the origin stories.

Abraham and his wife had been failing at having a child for a very long. Once God finally blessed Sarah's womb to grant Abraham a miracle child, He was asking Abraham to sacrifice the child! This was a test of Abraham's faith in God. Would Abraham give up the one thing he wanted most to please God? Did Abraham trust that if God told him to kill his son, He would provide another? In this scenario, God initiates this test.

Contrastingly, it is Jephthah who coins this vow all on his own. Killing people vs. not killing people wasn't meant to display Jephthah's faith; this was simply a problem Jephthah created for himself. Likely, God simply let Jephthah reap what he had sewn.

Ephraim vs. Jephthah

Once again, Ephraim becomes angry at not being invited to war. Jephthah claims he did invite the tribe of Ephraim, but this claim can't be substantiated in the text. Offended by the men of Ephraim, Jephthah raises his army against them. As they try to escape, the army asks them to pronounce a particular word in which the pronunciation revealed the origin of the person. This is similar to the accents found across the U.S. today. Upon "mispronouncing" the word, the army would kill the man.

Jephthah may not have slaughtered his own brothers like Abimelech, but he was quick to anger and unjustly violent like Abimelech (and Gideon). In fact, Jephthah kills 42,000 men in this temper tantrum of his. This is what must have been meant about power being corruptive. We should note that God's blessing is not given in this passage. Based upon countless scriptures in the Bible about loving your neighbor and being slow to anger or take offense, we can easily conclude that God was not pleased with this behavior.

Minor Judges

Jephthah only rules for 6 years; further proof that God did not approve of his actions. Afterward, there is a series of minor judges that take over leadership. Ibzan of Bethlehem, who has 30 sons and 30 daughters, judges for 7 years. Elon, from the tribe of Zebulun, judges for 10 years. Abdon, the son of Hillel with 40 sons and 30 nephews, judges for 8 years. Note that this Hillel is not likely the famous Hillel that many Jewish institutions today are named after.[2] Also note that the word "nephews" in the King James Version may actually refer to grandsons[1]


  1. Holman Bible Publishers. Holman KJV Study Bible. pg. 433-436. 2014
  2. American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. "Hillel and Shammai". Jewish Virtual Library. 2016

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