This post follows the Bible reading plan available at oaktreechurch.com/soap.
Chapter eleven tells the story of Jephthah and his battle against the Ammonites (beginning in Judges 10:17). Like Abimelech, Jephthah’s mother was a prostitute, so he did not have a good relationship with his brothers from his father’s wife (Judges 11:1-3). They kicked him out of the house, and he formed a gang of “lawless men.”
“Some time after this” the Ammonites and Israel were at war, and the leaders of Gilead (Jephthah’s clan) requested his help (Judges 11:4-11). When he refused, citing their past disdain for him, they begged him, promising to make him their leader, if God granted them success in battle; he agreed to those terms. His first act as commander was to engage the Ammonites diplomatically (Judges 11:12-28). Asking why they were attacking Israel, he received the response that Ammon believed Israel had taken their land, and they wanted it back. Jephthah returned a message, detailing the true historical record – how Israel had defeated the Amorite king, Sihon, but they never attacked Moab or Ammon. This was true even though these nations tried to use Balaam to curse Israel (Numbers 22-24). If God had protected Israel so far, how did Ammon think they could defeat Israel now?1 However, “the Ammonite king disregarded the message sent by Jephthah.”
With Ammon’s response, God led Jephthah to take action against them (Judges 11:29-33). However, before going into battle, Jephthah vowed to God that, if God granted them success, whoever was the first to greet him at home would become a burnt offering to God. God did grant them success, but Jephthah was crushed when, returning home, his only child – a daughter – ran out to greet him first (Judges 11:34-40).
Much has been written about whether Jephthah fulfilled his vow or if his daughter simply remained a virgin in God’s service for the rest of her life (and even why he made that vow at all!). Those who reject that he followed through with his vow literally insist 1) that human sacrifice was always an abomination to God; 2) that the girl’s friends (and future generations) bemoaned her virginity, not her death; and 3) that God had established in the law a way to redeem a person who had been dedicated to him (Leviticus 27).
On the other hand, the natural reading of the passage seems to indicate that he did follow through with the sacrifice: 1) He said that he could not break his oath to God; 2) the special time to mourn her virginity with her friends was meaningless if they could mourn it the rest of her life; 3) the annual memorial feast is more appropriate for her death. Most importantly, the text states that, when she returned, “he did to her the vow which he vowed” (literal translation).
- Judges 11:26 contains a rare time reference in Judges. According to Jephthah, Israel had been living in those areas “for three hundred years.” If this refers to when they entered that area approximately 1405 B.C., before the conquest of Canaan, Jephthah lived around 1100 B.C. ↩