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Judges 11

Chapter 11

What sort of man was Jephtha?  Two things in his story imply that he may have been less than a perfect gentleman.  First is the fact that he seems to have been a brigand.[1] And then there is the matter of human sacrifice (see below for details).  To his credit, he does not seem to have been a liar, and he did respect God.  Also, in the book of Hebrews he is praised for his faith.  His one dominant characteristic in this story, however, is his might as a warrior.  He seems more rash and less thoughtful than Gideon, not only because of the vow, but because of his reaction to Ephraim in comparison to Gideon’s (Judges 12).

v. 5:  It would be ironic if the “elders of Gilead” were the very brothers that drove him off.  Since the actual Gilead (son of Machir, son of Manasseh) was probably not Jephtha’s father (being long dead by this point) the Gilead mentioned here must be named after that famous ancestor.  If the brothers are the “elders of Gilead” then the “Gilead” of the title is probably a reference to their tribe rather than to their father.

v. 7:  I believe this exchange between Jephtha and the elders is meant to parallel the previous chapter’s exchange between God and Israel.

Chapter 10:  Israel rejects God

Chapter 11:  The brothers reject Jephtha

Chapter 10:  Israel begs God to save them from Ammon.

Chapter 11:  The brothers beg Jephtha to save them from Ammon.

Chapter 10:  God refuses

Chapter 11:  Jephtha essentially asks, “Why should I?”

Chapter 10:  Israel begs God again

Chapter 11:  The brothers beg Jephtha again

Chapter 10:  God again becomes ruler of Israel

Chapter 11:  Jephtha becomes ruler of Gilead

v. 30:  Now, about this vow.[2]  The whole story is very ominous, strange, and difficult to understand.

I believe Jephtha intended to sacrifice a human from the beginning because he says the first thing that comes out of his house to meet him will be the offering.  The fact that he envisioned the victim coming out of his house seems to suggest that he had a human in mind.  Some people argue that he may have kept animals in the house and that this is what he had in mind.  I am not familiar with the customs of the day, so I do not know if animals could just walk in and out of the house at their pleasure.  It does seem unusual to me, and I cannot think of another story in the Bible that describes such an arrangement.  Nevertheless, the fact that the potential victim would come to meet him seems like an additional clue that Jephtha had a human in mind, perhaps a servant (although I suppose a pet would behave the same way).  My general feeling is that Jephtha intended for the sacrifice to be human.

I also think that he intended to kill the victim (as opposed to “sacrificing” it any other way like selling it and giving the money to the poor, etc.).  I suspect that, having lived in Tob for so long and been immersed in the wicked culture of its people, Jephtha thought this was appropriate for securing God’s favor and intended to sacrifice the first of his servants who came out to greet and assist him.

So, was it right for Jephtha to follow through with his vow?  I do not think that he would have done wrong to break the vow in this case.  One thing this story does effectively communicate is the awful weight that vows carry, but in Jephtha’s case, what he vowed to do was evil, so the act of vowing to sacrifice a human was a deed he should have repented of.  Even if he had not intended to sacrifice a human when he first made the vow, the act of fulfilling it by sacrificing one (especially his own daughter) was an evil that he should not have done.  I do not believe we are ever morally bound to do evil in order to do good; that amounts to a logical contradiction in terms equivalent to saying “evil is good.” [3] I wonder if God intentionally brought the daughter out first to show his divine displeasure with the vow.[4]

Since both men were faced with the idea of sacrificing their children,[5] let us compare Abraham’s predicament with Jephtha’s.  Abraham is praised for honoring God before his only child.  However, God told Abraham to offer Isaac, whereas Jephtha took it upon himself to make a human sacrifice.   And God, having told Abraham to offer Isaac, did not allow Abraham to kill his son because it was evil.  But Jephtha took the deed upon himself from first to last and carried it out without God’s approval.  Perhaps this has something to do with why God did not stop Jephtha as he did Abraham.  One of the terrible ironies of this whole tale is that child sacrifice was practiced in the worship of Molech, the abominable god of the Ammonites, the enemies over whom Jephtha had just triumphed in the name of the God of Israel.[6]

v. 37:  Here is another strange part of the story.  I can understand that she wanted to mourn the fact that she would never marry.  But why the specific time of two months?  And in v. 40, why do Israelite women go out for four days?  Where do they go – to the mountains, like Jephtha’s daughter?

[1] Or perhaps he was a mercenary.  After all, his brothers did come to secure his martial services.

[2] See also notes on 1st Samuel 14:39, and 1st Samuel 25:22.

[3] Jephtha may not have been motivated by the moral conundrum of deciding what the right thing to do was.  He may have simply followed through with his vow because he feared the consequences for himself if he broke a vow he had made in the name of God.

[4] It seems to me that Jephtha’s mention in Hebrews as a man of faith is based on what good he did for Israel in the face of fearful odds (i.e. delivering them from Ammon).  The sacrifice here has as little to do with his being a commendable man of faith as his treatment of the Ephraimites in chapter 12.

[5] Incidentally, it was as a burnt offering that both men intended to sacrifice their children.

[6] See Leviticus 18:21.


4 Responses to “Judges 11”

  1. […] have updated my Bible commentary notes to include chapter 11 of Judges, which tells the strange story of Jephtha’s vow to sacrifice “whatever comes out of the […]

  2. […] have updated my Bible commentary notes to include chapter 11 of Judges, which tells the strange story of Jephtha’s vow to sacrifice “whatever comes out of the […]

  3. […] – See Joshua 7:10-26).  A close (but not exact) parallel would be Jephthah’s dilemma in Judges 11:29-40 (See notes).  David breaks an oath in chapter twenty-five because he comes to realize that the oath itself was […]

  4. […] – See Joshua 7:10-26).  A close (but not exact) parallel would be Jephthah’s dilemma in Judges 11:29-40 (See notes).  David breaks an oath in chapter twenty-five because he comes to realize that the oath itself was […]

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