Jephthah: The Dangers of Victory
Have you every talked your way into trouble and needed help getting out? The Israelites knew this conundrum well. Judges chapter 10 sets the scene for Jephthah’s story. Israel, surprise surprise, has been doing evil in the eyes of the Lord, so he turns them over to enemy nations. Judges 10:7-9 says:
“[God] became angry with them. He sold them into the hands of the Philistines and the Ammonites, who that year shattered and crushed them. For eighteen years they oppressed all the Israelites on the east side of the Jordan in Gilead, the land of the Amorites. The Ammonites also crossed the Jordan to fight against Judah, Benjamin and Ephraim; Israel was in great distress.”
In their desperation, the Israelites try bargaining with God to save them. In the meantime, the Ammonite army sets up camp in Gilead. The Israelite leaders need a champion – someone who can lead the Gileadites in a stand against the incursion. . . . Cue Jephthah.
“Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior. His father was Gilead; his mother was a prostitute. Gilead’s wife also bore him sons, and when they were grown up, they drove Jephthah away. ‘You are not going to get any inheritance in our family,’ they said, ‘because you are the son of another woman.’ So Jephthah fled from his brothers and settled in the land of Tob, where a gang of scoundrels gathered around him and followed him” (Judges 11:1-3).
1) Judges is full of great introductions. What sticks out to you most about Jephthah’s introduction?
2) What kind of childhood do you imagine Jephthah had? How might the people of his wider community have treated him? (He lived with his father, not his mother, so there was probably a lot of tension between him and his stepmother as well as his half-brothers. That probably caused tension between his father and the other family members.)
3) What’s the very first thing scripture says about Jephthah? (He is a mighty warrior.)
Thinking of other characters – fictional or otherwise – who were mistreated as kids, usually one of two things happens. They either become spineless doormats, or they become extreme versions of themselves, right? Superheroes or supervillains. Perhaps Jephthah became a warrior because he was picked on and abused, and had to learn to defend himself?
We’re not told how old he was when he left, but we do know he fled the ill treatment of his half-brothers. He’s presumably got nothing as his siblings’ main taunt is related to inheritance. Jephthah has to start a brand new life among new people in a new land with nothing to his name. Not even a good reputation. Yet somehow this social pariah becomes a leader. The NIV calls his followers “adventurers;” other versions use less flattering words like “scoundrels,” “outlaws,” or “worthless fellows.” We don’t know exactly what this band of merry men got up to, but after years of getting kicked around, Jephthah is now the one calling shots of what sounds like a pretty rough bunch.
4) Based on the info we have so far – his background, the company he keeps, his abilities – what sort of personality do you imagine Jephthah has? What sort of man would you say he is at this point?
Judges 11:4-11 goes on to say:
“Some time later, when the Ammonites were fighting against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to get Jephthah from the land of Tob. ‘Come,’ they said, ‘be our commander, so we can fight the Ammonites.’
Jephthah said to them, ‘Didn’t you hate me and drive me from my father’s house? Why do you come to me now, when you’re in trouble?’
The elders of Gilead said to him, ‘Nevertheless, we are turning to you now; come with us to fight the Ammonites, and you will be head over all of us who live in Gilead.’
Jephthah answered, ‘Suppose you take me back to fight the Ammonites and the Lord gives them to me—will I really be your head?’
The elders of Gilead replied, ‘The Lord is our witness; we will certainly do as you say.’ So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and commander over them. And he repeated all his words before the Lord in Mizpah.”
5) What, if anything, strikes you from this part of the story?
6) What does the fact that the leaders went to him themselves instead of sending a messenger imply?
7) What kinds of things may have been running through their heads as they went to find Jephthah? (It’s possible his brothers were among the leaders or the leaders were those who allowed his abuse to happen. Perhaps some were afraid, remembering the hateful things they’d done to him; maybe some thought they could bully him into helping them like they bullied him as a boy).
8) How repentant do the leaders seem when Jephthah reminds them of how they mistreated him?
9) How does Jephthah respond to their proposal?
10) Why would he say yes to their request? (Sense of honor? Protect his own home/lands/family? Revenge? Because it was the right thing? It’s not like he owes them anything.)
11) Does this conversation remind you of any other bible stories? (What parallels between the stories do you see? How about Joseph when his brothers come for famine relief?)
12) What do you make of verse 11? (The Hebrew translation of the phrase “he repeated all his words before the Lord,” means making a promise or decree face to face with God. He’s been leading a band of scoundrels. He’s not lived in a God-fearing culture. That’s why they’re in this mess to begin with. Does his beginning his command in such a faithful way surprise you at all?)
13) How does Jephthah’s relationship with the Gileadites mirror God’s relationship with Israel? (Israel is troubled by other nations because they are not living faithfully. They are playing the part of the wanton woman, yet they hypocritically ostracize the children of harlots.)
14) Put yourself in Jephthah’s shoes for a moment. You’re a warrior. A commander. The tormentors of your youth are back in your life. You’ve declared your service to God. An enemy troop is on your doorstep and your army is gathered. What do you do?
Read Judges 11:12-15:
“Then Jephthah sent messengers to the Ammonite king with the question: ‘What do you have against me that you have attacked my country?’
The king of the Ammonites answered Jephthah’s messengers, ‘When Israel came up out of Egypt, they took away my land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, all the way to the Jordan. Now give it back peaceably.’
Jephthah sent back messengers to the Ammonite king, saying:
‘This is what Jephthah says: Israel did not take the land of Moab or the land of the Ammonites.’”
15) Instead of launching into battle, what is Jephthah’s strategy? (Diplomacy.) Why?
We won’t read the whole letter, but essentially, he details the evidence of Israel’s innocence. The enemy’s argument is based on a 300-year-old technicality, so by this point their accusation is invalid. You can read verses 16-27 and see if you agree, but I’d say the tone of his message is nothing but respectful. He’s firm and forthright, but extremely tactful. He even gives the Ammonite king a chance to prove himself, so he does his best to uphold both justice and peace.
16) Is that what you would expect of a warrior?
17) Is your understanding of Jephthah changing or expanding in any way? What do you think of him so far?
Judges 11:28-32 continues:
“The king of Ammon, however, paid no attention to the message Jephthah sent him. Then the Spirit of the Lord came on Jephthah. He crossed Gilead and Manasseh, passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from there he advanced against the Ammonites. And Jephthah made 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.’
Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the Lord gave them into his hands.”
18) The king of Ammon disregards Jephthah’s peace deal. The Spirit of the Lord comes upon Jephthah and he advances his troops. Why do you think he makes this open-ended vow? Jephthah obviously has faith going into the situation, so why would he feel compelled to make a further “deal” with God? If he already trusts him, why bargain? Is this more a way to buy what he wants instead of an expression of gratitude?
19) Is there an element of doubt behind the vow? If so, what is he doubting?
20) What do you think might have been Jephthah’s motivation behind making this vow?
21) Would you say he gave much consideration to this vow? It’s open-ended, but specific at the same time. He doesn’t just say he’ll offer whatever comes out the door, but specifically a burnt offering. Burnt offerings require the slaughter and destruction of a living thing. It’s the most dramatic of ritual sacrifices.
22) Why didn’t he think that the first thing out the front door would probably be a person? (Heat of the moment? Letting emotions get the best of him?)
23) What sort of vows do we make today? Are they as much a part of our culture as perhaps they once were? If not, why? (Common examples: swearing in presidents and witnesses, marriage vows/vow renewals, etc.) How often are they just formalities and not made genuinely?
24) Have you ever made a promise you regretted? What led you to make it in the first place?
Well, Jephthah makes this vow and God grants him complete success in trouncing Ammon.
Imagine the scene of his homecoming. He strides home on the heels of such a great triumph both on the battlefield and on a personal level. He’s probably eager to walk in the door and embrace his family. He is at the highest point of his life right now.
“He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon.
When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, ‘Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break.’
‘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. But 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.’
‘You may go,’ he said. And he let her go for two months. She and her friends went into the hills and wept because she would never marry. After the two months, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin.
From this comes the Israelite tradition that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.”
25) Remembering Jephthah’s background, how ostracized he was from his family, and knowing that his daughter is his only child, what would you expect their relationship to be like? (His world probably revolved around her.)
At the news of his victory, of course his loved ones rush out to celebrate with him and welcome him home. But the moment his daughter steps out the door, the weight of what he’s promised God knocks him to his knees. In the blink of an eye he’s gone from having more respect and success than he’s ever dreamed of to overwhelming devastation and regret.
26) What does his daughter say?
She doesn’t beg for mercy. Her tone is accepting. And her request is reasonable. She doesn’t try to get out of the circumstance thrust upon her.
27) Based on what little information we have on her, what sort of person does his daughter seem to be? What gives you that impression?
The daughter’s response echoes that of Isaac when Abraham went to sacrifice him. It shows that despite his disadvantages and tragedies, Jephthah raised her to be faithful and honorable. Jephthah trusts her to return from that two-month mourning period, and she does.
28) So why would God accept such a naïve sacrifice knowing it would claim an innocent life? He forbade human sacrifice in Leviticus and said multiple times how despicable it was that other nations practiced it. Why not release Jephthah from the vow if he didn’t want the sacrifice anyway?
In light of God’s condemning human sacrifice and the daughter mourning never marrying instead of impending death, scholars still debate whether or not Jephthah went through with a literal burnt offering. It’s been suggested that he committed her to lifelong tabernacle service instead, which they argue fulfills the same purpose of a burnt offering without breaking God’s law.
All we know for certain is that Jephthah followed through on giving his daughter up as an offering in one way or another. He’s true to fulfilling his vow. Jephthah’s story continues a little longer into chapter 12 as his rule as a judge goes on for another six years, but nothing more is said of his vow or his daughter.
What do you make of Jephthah’s story?
Why is this in the bible?
How can this be relevant to us today in our own walks of faith?
Our troubles, if we let them, prepare us for accomplishing great good.
Others’ mistakes may bear on our lives, but we choose how to respond. Our choices can leave a legacy of faith.
Be wise in how you treat others because you might need their help some day. God raises the humble to humble his people and lead them back into faithful relationship.
The account of Jephthah and his daughter serves as an example for us to not make foolish vows or oaths. It should also serve as a warning to make sure any vow we make is something that is not in violation of God’s Word.