Who Was Jephthah in the Bible?

He was a leader of God's people, yet his choice cost him everything.

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There are some people whose lives can be condensed into a single moment -- a single choice that defines everything else. On the positive side, think of Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation. On the negative side, think of Edward J. Smith, Captain of the RMS Titanic, choosing to push ahead full steam regardless of the warnings he received about ice.

The biblical character Jephthah was another person whose entire world can be condensed into a single choice.

Unfortunately for him -- and for his family -- it was a rash and terrible decision.


Pronunciation: [JEFF - thuh]

Dates: Approximately 1100 B.C.

Scripture: Jephthah's story is told mostly in Judges 11 and 12.

We find the story of Jephthah in the Book of Judges -- the seventh book of the Bible. Despite the title, Judges isn't a legal book. Instead, it's a collection of stories revolving around a number of men, and one important woman, who lead the people of Israel between the time of Joshua and the establishment of the kings. These leaders were called judges.

Jepthah was one of these judges. However, he did not follow a common path to leadership. Jephthah was the son of a prostitute, which gave him some trouble early in his life. Specifically, his own brothers drove him out of his household because they didn't want him to be included in his father's inheritance. (Jephthah was the only son born of a prostitute.)

Despite this trouble, Jephthah was apparently known as an effective fighter and military commander. Some time later, the Israelites were attacked by another tribe known as the Ammonites. The Israelites, God's chosen people, were unprepared for these attacks. In desperation, they called for Jephthah to return as their leader.

It's important to point out that this was a pattern with God's people. After the miraculous exodus from the land of Egypt, including the 10 plagues and the parting of the Red Sea, the Israelites eventually came to the promised land. Under the leadership of Joshuah, they conquered the people of Canaan and took possession of the land God had promised them.

Things went well for a while. Eventually, however, the spiritual condition of the people began to drift. They started worshiping idols and adopting the sinful practices of their cultural neighbors. Whenever this happened, God's people quickly found themselves in military trouble -- they became oppressed by the kings and armies surrounding them. Facing this oppression, they would cry out to God for help. God would hear, send a judge to lead them into victory, and the land would have peace for a time. Then, the people would drift spiritually again and the whole cycle would start over.

That's the context for Jephthah's entrance onto the scene.

The Terrible Choice

As I said, Jephthah was a supreme military commander. He rallied the Israelites and prepared for a major battle against his enemies. And in that moment, he made the decision that eventually cost him much more than he was willing to pay:

29 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. 30 And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, 31 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.”
Judges 11:29-31

You can probably see where this is going, right? What happened next was the worst possible thing that could happen next:

34 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. 35 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.”
Judges 11:34-35

It's important to understand there was no reason for Jephthah to make his vow. God had already raised him up to defeat the Ammonites, and there's nothing in the Old Testament Law about offering random sacrifices of this nature. This was purely and simply a stupid decision Jephthah made while feeling overly zealous about his military campaign.

Today, we would find lots of ways to talk ourselves out of actually fulfilling such a promise, stupid or otherwise. However, the ancient world took a very serious stance on vows and oaths -- especially vows made before God. Even Jephthah's daughter understood the gravity of what her father had done:

36 “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. 37 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.”

38 “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. 39 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 40 that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.
Judges 11:36-40

There's a lot of debate among Bible scholars about whether or not Jephthah actually carried out his vow and murdered his daughter. Indeed, many scholars believe that his daughters words, "I will never marry," indicate that Jephthah metaphorically sacrificed the girl by preventing her from finding a husband and starting a family -- they believe she became an old maid.

However, the ominous tone of verses 39 makes me believe that such opinions are a stretch: "and he did to her as he had vowed." It's very likely that Jephthah went forward with his promise and burned his own daughter as a sacrifice to God.

The Aftermath

Jephthah continued as leader of the Israelites for several more years.

In Judges 12:1-7, you can read about his creative victory over the Ephraimites. However, Jephthah will always be remembered for that one choice -- that single moment of rash pride or hysteria or whatever drove him to make his vow.

So, what can we learn from Jephthah's story? First and foremost, we can learn not to make stupid promises -- not to mention elevating children to a high priority. But Jephthah's story also reminds us of God's true character. Child sacrifice was a common practice in the ancient world, but one that was never adopted by the true God of the Bible. Indeed, such sacrifices are condemned in many places throughout the Scriptures. So, Jephthah was totally on his own (and totally sinful) in his decision to make the oath and carry it out.

More importantly, Jephthah's story reminds us that, rather than demanding our children for His pleasure, God sacrificed His own Son so that we can be saved. That's the story of Easter.
And it's a story with a much happier ending than Jephthah's.