Jephthah – fulfilled vows and family tragedy!


The Bible is always brutally honest about its heroes (and of course its villans), often more honest than we feel comfortable with for Sunday School picture books… so I didn’t know Jepthah’s story until I read it for myself as a young adult. Which is a shame, he is a classic tragic-hero with all the flaws and misplaced passions, with a likeability that draws in the reader and loyalty from his gang of bandits, but who makes you wince at his failures

Thomas Nelson Publishers. (1996). Nelson's complete book of Bible maps & charts : Old and New Testaments. (Rev. and updated ed.). Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson.

Thomas Nelson Publishers. (1996). Nelson’s complete book of Bible maps & charts : Old and New Testaments. (Rev. and updated ed.). Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson.

Jephthah is the ninth judge and the sixth to be a saviour to the people… after him we only have Samson to go in our review of the seven saviours in Judges.

Jephthah was the son of a harlot, his Father was a Gileadite who was actually called Gilead, which implies he was from an important family. Gilead’s legitimate children resented Jephthah , who it seems was older than they where, (note Jephthah’s name means “To Open” implying priority) so once these brothers where full grown they drove him out of the home.

But clearly there is something about Jephthah, because very soon some “worthless fellows” or “scoundrels” gather to him as their leader. His band clearly gain some notoriety so when the Israelites are being attacked by the Ammonites, the elders of Gilead make Jephthah an amazing offer:

If Jephthah will lead the people in their fight against the Ammonites the tribe of Gilead will recognise Jephthah as their leader.

Jephthah doesn’t take them purely at their word, he first makes them swear to the deal at one of Israel’s three ancient sacred places, Mizpeh or the “watchtower”. This Mizpeh may have been the place where Jacob made a formal separation from his uncle Laban, the two of them had erected a pillar of stones. But we can’t be sure, like the name Gilgal, (which implies a circle of stones) it seems there where a few places designated by the name Mizpeh probably all designated by the simple man-made feature, a pile of stones or a standing stone pillar.Mizpeh

So Jephthah takes up the leadership of Gilead. At first he tries to makes a peace with the Ammonites, but when they reject it, The Spirit comes on Jephthah, anointing him as a leader and he starts to gather his troops. It is at this moment that he makes his tragic mistake. Like so many Biblical characters, Jephthah’s name becomes a prophecy of a key moment in his life and he “opens” his mouth without thinking!
And Jephthah made a vow to YHWH, and said, ‘If you deliver the children of Ammon into my hands, then whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be YHWH’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.”” – Judges 11:30-31

On Jephthah’s return from victory it is his only child, a daughter who runs out to greet him! From earliest times Jewish rabbi’s have criticise Jephthah, both for making an inappropriate vow and then for being too proud to have sought the counsel that would have told him (based on the law of Moses), that human sacrifice was not an option, as one ancient rabbi noted,  if a camel, or an ass, or a dog had come out he might have realised how poor his vow had been and how dishonouring to God the sacrifice was but perhaps because sacrificing your own children was common practice in the nations surrounding Israel nobody told him it would be an insult not an honor to YHWH. Years later  Jeremiah speaking for YHWH raised the question: “‘Did I ask that (human) lives be offered before Me?“, Jeremiah 19:5.

Jephtha's Daughter by George HicksAt this moment in the story Jephthah’s daughter emerges with tragic honor, accepting the legitimacy and binding nature of her Father’s vow she willingly offers herself as a sacrifice, asking only for a period to mourn the fact that she will never have a husband nor bear children.

As a Spirit anointed saviour, there are a couple of hints of Jesus in Jephthah. Jesus was accused of being illegitimate, John 8:41, and he was for a season rejected by his brothers, travelling instead with a band of less well educated followers some of whom where definitely considered morally suspect, (Matthew was a quisling tax-collector, Mary Magdalene an immoral woman). But it is the typological relationship of Jepthah and his only child that really gives this story its import creating a powerful though awful model of how the Father’s victory and honor cost the life of his beloved child. The Father’s own justice require the willing sacrifice on an only begotten offspring.

Jephthah’s daughter is not named, perhaps because it there was always a tension between the joy of victory and the tragedy of an innocent paying the price. But she was commemorated! A new yearly ritual was created, four days of mourning were adopted by the women of Israel to remember her sacrifice. This is the earliest recorded festival specifically for women in all history and is still observed in some Jewish sects today.

As we have observed several times in this series… none of the Saviour-Judges reflects Jesus with moral clarity but each adds detail by their stories to the full picture of the promised Saviour-Judge of the whole world.

Jephthah and his daughter first hint at Jesus, by Jephthah’s outsider status and band of less respectable followers. But they shout it to us in the model of God’s victory having to tear open the Godhead, Father from Son to fully satisfy God’s own righteousness.


Christen Forster

Christen Forster is widely recognised as an original Bible teacher who brings people into a love of and confidence in scripture.

Christen has planted churches, been a youth worker, mission administrator and church leaders. The author of several books, Christen is now an itinerant minister, helping churches to step into a more deliberately spiritual experience of the Christian life while at the same time firmly rooting their practice in scripture.

© 2000 - 2023 Christen Forster
Christen Forster

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