Jephthah’s Tarnished Victory (Judges 11:30-12:7)
The last time I began considering the judgeship of Jephthah. He served during a time when the tribes of Israel were engaged in apostasy on a mass scale. As a result, God specifically gave them to the Ammonites and Philistines in judgment. However, the LORD is gracious. After they confess their sin, cast away their idols, and returned to serving the LORD, Jephthah was raised up as a deliverer.
Because he was the son of a harlot, he was cast out of his family and joined with a band of pirates. The situation with the Ammonites caused his people to call him back to be their leader against their enemy, and after failed negotiations with the Ammonites, he rallies the Israelites in a spirit-led victory over them.
His victory, regrettably, became tarnished. Two events brought him to a downfall as a hero. His vow regarding his daughter and his brutalization of the Ephraimites.
– The Vow
In verse 30, before he goes to battle, he makes a vow. Vows were not necessarily unusual. For instance, Hannah’s vow of Samuel (1 Samuel 1:11), Israel’s vow of victory (Numbers 21:2), Jacob’s vow at Bethel (Genesis 28:20-21). In Jephthah’s case, he vowed to offer as a burnt offering the first thing that greeted him from the doors of his house if God delivered his enemies into his hands. The question I always had is what did he expect to come through the doors of his house? A goat? Moreover, did he really think He was going to make a burnt offering of a human being?
A burnt offering has the idea of “to cause to go through fire.” It normally refers to a sacrifice like a lamb. We see this idiom in a number of places through Scripture and never does it refer to a human sacrifice.
The question is: Did Jephthah kill his daughter or was there something else that happened to her?
The alternative to actually killing her is that he devoted her to a life of perpetual service to the Lord at the tabernacle. This interpretation is typically put forward by biblical interpreters who are uncomfortable with the idea of a man killing his only daughter as a sacrifice to God. They claim that Jephthah, being Jewish, would have abhorred the idea of human sacrifice to begin with. He was God fearing enough to respect what the law stated on the matter of murder.
Additionally, they further argue that a burnt offering can have the idea of tabernacle service. There is evidence of individuals being given in service like Hannah did for Samuel or possibly the Daughters of Shiloh mentioned in Judges 21. Also, Leviticus 27 has stipulations about committing a person to service, so perpetual service could be a real possibility. The text does say she was allowed to go bewail her virginity (11:37), meaning lamenting her inability to ever be married due to fulfilling the vow. That suggests she is going into perpetual service like a nun.
However, while this view is a commendable attempt to tone down the harshness of what happened, given Jephthah’s reputation as a horrible father, there are some problems with it.
– Jephthah’s life was one that was non-religious. It may be that he wasn’t even a practicing Jew, being half-Jewish himself. He lived away from the tabernacle and viewed God much in the same way the Canaanites viewed their gods, a being who occasionally needed to be placated or manipulated so he would favor the person.
– It is also significant that he lived among men who practiced human sacrifice. He was in a synchronized culture that was not a pure devotion to YHWH alone. Clear example is the Moabites he associated with who did practice human sacrifice to their gods Milkon and Chemonesh. In 2 Kings 3:27, the Moabite king sacrificed his oldest son in order to stay the Israelites moving against him in battle.
– It is true that Leviticus 27 allowed for perpetual service, however, the chapter explains that God provided an “out” for an individual who could not fulfill the vow because it was too difficult. Their was a shekel price Jephthah could have paid if he wanted to be released from his vow. All he needed to do was to make a trip to Shiloh where the tabernacle was located, paid the required offering, and then he would be released from his vow. He did not do this.
Given the nature of his vow, what he said, and the time and place where he lived, the only sad conclusion to draw is that he offered her up as a burnt offering. A rather sad and tragic example of the bizarre, ungodly times Israel was experiencing.
– Against Ephraim
We also find Jephthah embroiled in a civil war, a battle between the tribe of Gilead and Ephraim. The Ephraimites were bothered that they weren’t called to join the battle against the Ammonites, and so they crossed the Jordan to pick a fight with Jephthah. They even threatened to burn his house down.
He tried to explain to them that he was involved with his people in a struggle against a mortal enemy that left him no choice to fight them. He apparently had called them, but they did not respond, so he had fight them with his people.
His words, however, did not placate the Ephraimites. They went to battle with Jephthah and Gileadites. They in turn soundly defeated the Ephraimites, but rather than just letting them return defeated to their homes, they prevented them from escaping across the river back to their home territory.
A couple of thoughts about the judgeship of Jephthah.
First, he demonstrates a Canaanizing influence within Israel. He attempted to manipulate God with the promise of a sacrifice, only to be mocked when his only daughter greets him at the door.
Secondly, there is no national unity, but only tribal squabbles that lead to battle. Rather than unifying the Gileadites with the Ephraimites, they are engage in a regional conflict with one another instead of finding unity in their identity as God’s people united around the worship of the one true covenant God, YHWH.