Bible Commentary: Judges 11

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Judges 11

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Jephthah’s Vow 

We come now to one of the most difficult passages in the book of Judges—the story of Jephthah. The story is more important than one would at first suspect, for the critics have seized upon it as evidence that God is self-contradictory, bloodthirsty and devoid of any sense of equity and justice. Similarly, those who adhere to the belief in the divine inspiration of Scripture have found the story to be a stone of stumbling, especially since the book of Hebrews includes Jephthah by name in its famous catalog of the heroes of faith (Hebrews 11:32-34 Hebrews 11:32-34 [32] And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gedeon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthae; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets: [33] Who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions. [34] Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.
American King James Version×
).

If the common understanding of the story is correct, we surely have a very odd series of facts to explain. Jephthah demonstrated a detailed knowledge of the history of his people, a history he could only have learned from the books of Moses (see Judges 11:12-28 Judges 11:12-28 [12] And Jephthah sent messengers to the king of the children of Ammon, saying, What have you to do with me, that you are come against me to fight in my land? [13] And the king of the children of Ammon answered to the messengers of Jephthah, Because Israel took away my land, when they came up out of Egypt, from Arnon even to Jabbok, and to Jordan: now therefore restore those lands again peaceably. [14] And Jephthah sent messengers again to the king of the children of Ammon: [15] And said to him, Thus said Jephthah, Israel took not away the land of Moab, nor the land of the children of Ammon: [16] But when Israel came up from Egypt, and walked through the wilderness to the Red sea, and came to Kadesh; [17] Then Israel sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, Let me, I pray you, pass through your land: but the king of Edom would not listen thereto. And in like manner they sent to the king of Moab: but he would not consent: and Israel stayed in Kadesh. [18] Then they went along through the wilderness, and compassed the land of Edom, and the land of Moab, and came by the east side of the land of Moab, and pitched on the other side of Arnon, but came not within the border of Moab: for Arnon was the border of Moab. [19] And Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, the king of Heshbon; and Israel said to him, Let us pass, we pray you, through your land into my place. [20] But Sihon trusted not Israel to pass through his coast: but Sihon gathered all his people together, and pitched in Jahaz, and fought against Israel. [21] And the LORD God of Israel delivered Sihon and all his people into the hand of Israel, and they smote them: so Israel possessed all the land of the Amorites, the inhabitants of that country. [22] And they possessed all the coasts of the Amorites, from Arnon even to Jabbok, and from the wilderness even to Jordan. [23] So now the LORD God of Israel has dispossessed the Amorites from before his people Israel, and should you possess it? [24] Will not you possess that which Chemosh your god gives you to possess? So whomsoever the LORD our God shall drive out from before us, them will we possess. [25] And now are you any thing better than Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab? did he ever strive against Israel, or did he ever fight against them, [26] While Israel dwelled in Heshbon and her towns, and in Aroer and her towns, and in all the cities that be along by the coasts of Arnon, three hundred years? why therefore did you not recover them within that time? [27] Why I have not sinned against you, but you do me wrong to war against me: the LORD the Judge be judge this day between the children of Israel and the children of Ammon. [28] However, the king of the children of Ammon listened not to the words of Jephthah which he sent him.
American King James Version×
). Yet, if this is so, how do we explain his apparent ignorance of the blaring prohibition against child sacrifice contained in the books of Moses? (Leviticus 18:21 Leviticus 18:21And you shall not let any of your seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shall you profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.
American King James Version×
; Leviticus 20:2 Leviticus 20:2Again, you shall say to the children of Israel, Whoever he be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn in Israel, that gives any of his seed to Molech; he shall surely be put to death: the people of the land shall stone him with stones.
American King James Version×
; Deuteronomy 12:31-32 Deuteronomy 12:31-32 [31] You shall not do so to the LORD your God: for every abomination to the LORD, which he hates, have they done to their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods. [32] What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: you shall not add thereto, nor diminish from it.
American King James Version×
; Deuteronomy 18:10-12 Deuteronomy 18:10-12 [10] There shall not be found among you any one that makes his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that uses divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch. [11] Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. [12] For all that do these things are an abomination to the LORD: and because of these abominations the LORD your God does drive them out from before you.
American King James Version×
)

Again, immediately after sending the ambassadors to Ammon “the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah” (verse 29). But if this is so, how could a person led by the Holy Spirit be so absolutely callous as to sacrifice his own child? In fact, Jephthah’s vow is made immediately after receiving the Spirit (verse 30)—how is that to be explained? Moreover, if the common understanding of the story is correct, God gave Jephthah the victory over Ammon knowing full well that Jephthah would sacrifice his child, and yet He never said a word—not in person, not in a dream, not by a prophet.

And further, how could a man who was so scrupulous to keep his vow (verse 35) be so unscrupulous as to murder his innocent child in flagrant disobedience to God’s law? Additionally, when his daughter learned of her father’s vow, she encouraged him to keep the vow and asked only to be able to go and mourn her virginity for two months, at the end of which time she voluntarily returned so that her father could carry out his vow. Jephthah’s daughter exhibits no terror, no pleading for her life—even the friends with whom she mourned her virginity allowed her to return! How is that to be explained?

And why didn’t Jephthah avail himself of the laws for redeeming things vowed (Leviticus 27)—he said, “I cannot go back”—when such an option would have been open to him?

And finally, if the common understanding of Jephthah’s vow is correct, where is that marvelous and self-evident faith that caused the writer of Hebrews, probably the apostle Paul, to unhesitatingly include him in his catalog of the heroes of faith?

The confusion can be cleared up by carefully examining Jephthah’s vow. Let us notice it in the New King James Version: “If You will indeed deliver the people of Ammon into my hands, then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering” (verses 30-31). First, notice that it is a conditional vow (if…then). Second, the phrase “whatever comes out to meet me” is actually “the one who comes forth to meet me” in Hebrew, an apparent reference to a person. The Nelson Study Bible concurs: “The phrase to meet me seems to refer more appropriately to a human than to an animal” (note on Judges 11:31 Judges 11:31Then it shall be, that whatever comes forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.
American King James Version×
).

How then are we to understand Jephthah’s vow? The Hebrew of verse 31 is the source of the difficulty—or rather, the translation of the Hebrew text is the source of the difficulty. The next phrase could just as well be translated, “…shall surely be the Lord’s, OR I will offer it a burnt-offering.” The Nelson Study Bible notes, “The conjunction in Jephthah’s pivotal statement in v. 31, that whatever or whoever came out of the door ‘shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering’ could be translated or. Thus, if a person came out first, he would dedicate that person to the Lord, or if an animal came out first, he would offer the animal as a burnt sacrifice” (note on Judges 11:39 Judges 11:39And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she knew no man. And it was a custom in Israel,
American King James Version×
). This explanation, however, has left out the possibility of an unclean animal, such as a dog, coming out. Presumably, a clean animal in this scenario would be sacrificed while an unclean animal would be dedicated like a person. But there is a possibility that this translation is not entirely correct either, as it leaves out the possibility of nothing or no one coming out to meet Jephthah. This brings us to the next apparent problem in translation.

The clause “or I will offer it up as a burnt offering” could also be rendered, “or I will offer Him a burnt offering.” If that is correct, then we are left with Jephthah imagining a person coming out to meet him and stating, in a perhaps corrected rendering of verse 31, “The one who comes forth to meet me I will consecrate to the Lord, or [if no one comes out] I will offer Him [i.e., the Lord] a burnt offering.” This changes the complexion of the difficulty entirely.

What emerges from a clear understanding of the Hebrew is significant. First, let’s note that Jephthah was making a conditional vow with God. If God would give Jephthah the victory and bring him safely home, then Jephthah would either dedicate a person of his household to God or he would offer a burnt-offering to God if no one came out. Once God performed His part of the vow, Jephthah was bound to fulfill his part.

Second, and most important however, Jephthah left the choice in God’s hands! Jephthah could not control who would come out of the doors of his house to greet him (or whether anyone would), just as Abraham’s servant had no control over who would give him drink (see Genesis 24:12-14 Genesis 24:12-14 [12] And he said O LORD God of my master Abraham, I pray you, send me good speed this day, and show kindness to my master Abraham. [13] Behold, I stand here by the well of water; and the daughters of the men of the city come out to draw water: [14] And let it come to pass, that the damsel to whom I shall say, Let down your pitcher, I pray you, that I may drink; and she shall say, Drink, and I will give your camels drink also: let the same be she that you have appointed for your servant Isaac; and thereby shall I know that you have showed kindness to my master.
American King James Version×
). The vow contained a choice to be made by God: either accept a consecrated person or a burnt offering. Therefore, Jephthah was perhaps, to a degree, acting on faith, allowing God to choose how Jephthah would fulfill his part of the covenant.

Yet it still appears that the vow was rash and unwise. Jephthah had apparently not thought this through well enough. He was shocked and deeply grieved that his daughter was the one who came out to meet him, stating that this had brought him very low (verse 35). He was clearly expecting it to be someone else—probably a household servant. No doubt, he learned a powerful lesson that day.

Thankfully, as the evidence seems to support, Jephthah did not sacrifice his daughter—he devoted her to the service of God, much as did Hannah devote Samuel to the service of God. As such, Jephthah’s daughter would remain a virgin as she served at the tabernacle as part of a special class of dedicated women (compare Exodus 38:8 Exodus 38:8And he made the laver of brass, and the foot of it of brass, of the mirrors of the women assembling, which assembled at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.
American King James Version×
; 1 Samuel 2:22 1 Samuel 2:22Now Eli was very old, and heard all that his sons did to all Israel; and how they lay with the women that assembled at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.
American King James Version×
Luke 2:36-37 Luke 2:36-37 [36] And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity; [37] And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day.
American King James Version×
). It appears that they acted as door porters, singers, musicians and workers in cloth (most valuable and needed when the tabernacle stood, as it did in Jephthah’s day). This dedication meant that Jephthah would have no grandchildren—for his daughter was his only child—and thus no heir.

As we know, the Israelites viewed barrenness as a stigma, and for the family line to end was considered virtually a curse from God. Now becomes very clear the grief of Jephthah (for he would have no inheritor) and of his daughter (for she would have no children) and of her friends (for their friend would never become “a mother in Israel,” and possibly mother of the promised Messiah) and of the people of Israel (for their hero would not leave them descendants and his name would “perish out of Israel”)! It is interesting to note the contrast between Jephthah and the judges immediately before and after him. They both had 30 sons (Judges 10:3-4 Judges 10:3-4 [3] And after him arose Jair, a Gileadite, and judged Israel twenty and two years. [4] And he had thirty sons that rode on thirty ass colts, and they had thirty cities, which are called Havothjair to this day, which are in the land of Gilead.
American King James Version×
; Judges 12:8-9 Judges 12:8-9 [8] And after him Ibzan of Bethlehem judged Israel. [9] And he had thirty sons, and thirty daughters, whom he sent abroad, and took in thirty daughters from abroad for his sons. And he judged Israel seven years.
American King James Version×
), while Jephthah had just this one and only daughter.

As a final observation, we must note verse 39 again. The sacred historian records that Jephthah “carried out his vow with her which he had vowed” and then adds, “she knew no man.” It is not recorded that Jephthah sacrificed her—that is apparently a conclusion based upon an incomplete understanding of the above scriptures. Some will argue that this last clause just magnifies the tragedy of her death—that she died young without ever marrying. But if, indeed, Jephthah’s daughter was sacrificed in gruesome and flagrant disobedience to God, this added statement about knowing no man would seem to be superfluous and inane; it only appears to make sense if she continued in a state of celibacy after Jephthah fulfilled his vow.

The writer of Hebrews, then, is vindicated for including Jephthah in the heroes of faith. Though Jephthah was evidently rash and unwise in making his vow to start with, he nevertheless obeyed God’s command to pay one’s vows to Him (Deuteronomy 23:21-23 Deuteronomy 23:21-23 [21] When you shall vow a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not slack to pay it: for the LORD your God will surely require it of you; and it would be sin in you. [22] But if you shall forbear to vow, it shall be no sin in you. [23] That which is gone out of your lips you shall keep and perform; even a freewill offering, according as you have vowed to the LORD your God, which you have promised with your mouth.
American King James Version×
), even when it was to his own hurt (compare Psalms 15:4 Psalms 15:4In whose eyes a vile person is contemned; but he honors them that fear the LORD. He that swears to his own hurt, and changes not.
American King James Version×
). In that sense, Jephthah’s fulfilling of his vow may be seen as a real act of faith! He was willing to give up his only hope of grandchildren and perpetuation of the family line, enduring a social stigma, in order to obey God. Why? Because he looked forward to the promises that he had seen and embraced (Hebrews 11:13 Hebrews 11:13These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.
American King James Version×
), which would be bestowed in that country of God (verse 14) when he would be raised in that better resurrection (verse 35)! Truly, then, Judges 11 reveals Jephthah to be, in the end, a courageous man of integrity, faith and vision!

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