It is rather unfortunate that on most occasions when thought is given to the life of Jephthah, interest is confined to opinion regarding the fate of his daughter! Chapters have been written and much inconclusive speculation undertaken to try to determine from the record of scripture just what took place at Mizpeh following the defeat of the children of Ammon. Yet, lessons will be missed if we give only passing acknowledgement to other details of Jephthah’s life.
The forty-five years which followed the murderous exploits of Abimelech were relatively calm and peaceful under the administrations of Tola and Jair. Tola is on record as a defender or deliverer of Israel. A man of Issachar whose family character is mentioned in the nation’s genealogies, ‘valiant men of might in their generations’, 1 Chr. 7. 2. He dwelt and died in the same town, consistent and content, a worthy ruler of his people.
Jair, the judge who undertook responsibility following the death of Tola, was a man of Gilead. This mountainous region to the east of the Jordan was also home to Jephthah, and would later produce the prophet Elijah, all men of calibre and authority whom God could use. The brief record of Jair shows us a man of wealth and influence. Each of his thirty sons had their own transport and their own city and his name lived on after his passing, Judg. 10. 4.
The remaining verses of chapter 10 have a familiar ring as we read, ‘The children of Israel did evil again in the sight of the Lord’, v. 6. On this occasion, however, the Spirit of God takes time to explain in some detail the nature and the consequences of their rebellion, before a deliverer is raised up. The nation had embraced the gods of seven nations, suggesting a complete departure. The appropriate retribution followed, with the nation suffering oppression for some eighteen years from the Philistines on the west, and the children of Ammon on the east. Eventually, the cry for relief is heard by the Lord as in former times, but now it seems that the divine patience is exhausted. Instead of raising up a liberator, the Lord gives them a history lesson and reminds them of the seven-fold deliverance He had brought about for their blessing, vv. 11-12. In view of the Lord’s previous responses to their cries, the statement which followed must have brought the nation up with a collective jolt! ‘Ye have forsaken me … I will deliver you no more … the gods which ye have chosen; let them deliver you in the time of your tribulation’, vv. 13-14. It is a serious matter to presume upon the longsuffering of God, yet such is His character that their pleas and prayers touched His heart, and in verse 16 we read that ‘his soul was grieved for the misery of Israel’; what a gracious God we have! We recall the words of the prophet Jeremiah in very trying circumstances, ‘It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness’, Lam. 3. 22-23.
The Ammonites remained as the main oppressor, descendents of Lot, ever a picture in scripture of the threat posed by the flesh; a danger to us all. One major casualty, when the flesh is allowed to dominate, is spiritual leadership. This was acknowledged by ‘the people and princes of Gilead’, v. 18, and their thoughts turned to Jephthah.
Jephthah was a Gileadite, one of their own. Already known as ‘a mighty man of valour’, Jephthah had been judged and condemned by his family over a matter in which he was entirely innocent, the immorality of his parents. The hypocrisy involved in the actions of his brothers is stunning! When we consider the debased and corrupt behaviour associated with the many gods which Israel had served in their recent past, Jephthah’s conception was commonplace by comparison. Nevertheless he had been cast out of the family home. In exile, Jephthah’s reputation was formed, as, together with his band of mercenary followers, he became notorious. So much so that when the need for a leader became imperative the elders of Gilead abandoned the high moral ground they once occupied and, because it was expedient for them to compromise, they called for Jephthah. There is no doubt that Jephthah was as much a deliverer prepared by God as others had been. Nevertheless, there are aspects of his character which were forged on the anvil of his own harsh experience. Jephthah had known rejection. Now he desired more than just acceptance, he sought position and authority over those who had despised him. Scripture reminds us that ‘pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall’, Prov. 16. 18. Before Jephthah’s course was run he would have to confess to being brought ‘very low’, Judg. 11. 35.
Granted his request, Jephthah turned his attention to the Ammonites. It is encouraging to notice his acknowledgement that any victory would be wholly attributable to the Lord, v. 9, and that all his plans were made subject to divine approval, v. 11. But first, before a sword is unsheathed, he sends messengers to speak with the Ammonites in order, in the words of a secular phrase, to ‘give peace a chance’. A dialogue followed between the two opposing parties, in which the king of the children of Ammon sought to justify his actions by appealing to history, and what he perceived to be Israel’s territorial aggression some three hundred years previously! The response of Jephthah’s envoy proved that Ammon’s claim was based upon a false premise. In Deuteronomy chapter 2, Moses clearly stated God’s prohibition as far as the Ammonites were concerned, ‘I will not give thee of the land of the children of Ammon any possession; because I have given it unto the children of Lot’, v. 19; the land which Israel possessed was taken from the Amorites, a pagan Canaanite nation under the judgement of God.
As we have already seen, Ammon has lessons to teach us concerning that which the epistles speak of as ‘the flesh’, that part of our being, inherited from Adam, which constantly lusts ‘against the Spirit’, and wars ‘against the soul’, Gal. 5. 17; 1 Pet. 2. 11. Ammon’s intention was to take control of that which had been given to Israel for an inheritance. We have an adversary who persistently goads the believer to yield to his promptings through the flesh, in order that we lose our enjoyment of the inheritance which God’s grace has brought us into.
It is at this point, when the ambassadors of Jephthah have been rejected, that we read the third of seven occasions in the book of Judges when ‘the Spirit of the Lord came upon’ certain individuals. In a later day, the prophet Isaiah appreciated the significance and the timing of God’s interventions as he wrote, ‘When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him’, Isa. 59. 19. The battle now became inevitable, but before the opposing armies are joined, Jephthah utters the words for which he is best remembered, Judg. 11. 30. The promise that if the Lord would give him the victory, then whatsoever came forth from the doors of his house to meet him, would be offered up as a burnt offering. It may well have been that he wanted to display his zeal or show his commitment, but whatever the motive, it was a rash statement, a foolish vow and totally unnecessary. It must be said that there seems to be an element of the flesh in such a promise! Yet, his desire to maybe appear super-spiritual would have serious and lasting consequences for him. Scripture makes it abundantly clear that we are to make no ‘provision for the flesh’, Rom. 13. 14. Perhaps Jephthah’s efforts to negotiate with Ammon had left their mark, as indeed any attempt to accommodate the flesh will affect the believer’s ability to make sound judgements.
The manner in which Jephthah’s vow was framed apparently allows more for the possibility of a person meeting him rather than any animal suitable for sacrifice! Could it be that Jephthah, who knew his Bible, had God’s dealings with Abraham and the offering up of Isaac in mind? Jephthah recognized that the end result on that occasion was a life spared, the promise of a blessing and a multiplied seed. But Jephthah was no Abraham and, in the absence of guidance from the Lord, in the carrying out of his vow by whatever means, he ended any hope of establishing a family line.
The battle against Ammon was won, ‘the Lord delivered them into his hands’, Judg. 11. 32. But the elation of Jephthah’s victorious return to Mizpeh is soon extinguished by his grief at the meeting of his only daughter. The story is well documented, but two commendable resolutions are worthy of note. First, the determination of Jephthah to carry out his vow, having opened his mouth to the Lord, he would not retract his words. Secondly, the courageous stance of his daughter, ‘Do to me according to that which hath proceeded out of thy mouth’.
What followed has been the subject of much debate without any convincing conclusion. Words have been analyzed, customs considered, the character of deity questioned, and still the two main possibilities remain. Did Jephthah offer up his daughter as a human sacrifice? Or did she remain under a vow of lifelong chastity, thus ending Jephthah’s hopes for future generations? A concise and comprehensive presentation of the different viewpoints can be found in Judges by C. T. LACEY in What the Bible Teaches series, published by John Ritchie Ltd. Suffice it to say that the Bible’s only comments are that Jephthah ‘did with her according to his vow which he had vowed’, Judg. 11. 39; and his name is recorded among the faithful, Heb. 11. 32. The victory over Ammon was soon overshadowed as the Northern tribes descended into a brief but bitter civil war. The catalyst for this conflict, as on a previous occasion, Judg. 8. 1, was the complaint of Ephraim that they had been overlooked in the call to arms. It would seem that Ephraim was not particularly looking for a fight, but Jephthah, the man prepared to negotiate peace with the children of Ammon, turned rapaciously upon his brethren! Not only did he ‘smite them’ but cut off at the fords of Jordan those who escaped and slew ‘forty and two thousand’ of them. These unfortunate ones failed ‘the Shibboleth test’ and it cost them their lives. How often have we made a brother ‘an offender for a word’, Isa. 29. 21, and condemned him out of hand? For a further six years Jephthah judged Israel and in passing away was buried in his native mountains in Gilead.