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Go to Bible: Judges 11
“Now Jephthah.” Judges 11:1 is the direct continuation of Judges 10. The immediate context of Judges 11:1 is Judges 10:17, so for the best understanding, start reading the Jephthah record with Judges 10:17.
“was a valiant warrior.” Judges 11:1-3 are almost parenthetical, and introduce Jephthah. He was a valiant warrior, something that had to have been demonstrated over time by his leadership and success in raids and skirmishes, nevertheless, he is a social outcast, which is explained in these verses. Judges 11:4 then picks up where Judges 10:17 left off, with the war between Israel and Ammon.(top)
“have an inheritance.” In this context, the inheritance involves land.(top)
“the land of Tob.” The identity of this area is uncertain, but it is most likely just out of Gilead to the north or northeast in the area of Bashan. Ironically, the area is called “Tob” (or Tov), “good,” but it was apparently not normally a good place to live, being adjacent to pagan lands and open to attacks and marauders. In spite of his circumstance, and in some respects due to them, Jephthah learned to rely on Yahweh and sharpened his fighting skills. He could fight off enemies and also attack to the north, east, or south without attacking Israel and fighting Israelites. The “worthless fellows” he gathered around him may have been worthless from the world’s point of view, but they became an excellent fighting force.
“empty men.” The meaning of the Hebrew is unclear and debated. It is literally, “empty men,” but that could easily mean that they were men like Jephthah himself, who had no good name and no land. This very much anticipates the men who joined David (1 Sam. 22:1-2). This does not mean that the men were ungodly or unprincipled. The men who followed David were in debt, discontented, etc., and could be referred to as “empty” from a social point of view. David also went out on raids when he was in the same situation.
“went out with him on raids.” This is where Jephthah would have gotten his reputation as a warrior. He could well have been raiding the enemies of Israel.(top)
|Jdg 11:4||- (top)|
|Jdg 11:5||- (top)|
|Jdg 11:6||- (top)|
|Jdg 11:7||- (top)|
“That being so.” In other words, “We agree we did that, so now we ourselves have come to get you and make you commander.”
“head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.” This is more than a military leadership position, but a permanent position in the leadership of the people.(top)
“bring me back.” That is, back to Gilead.(top)
“be a witness.” The Hebrew is more literally, “be a hearer between us,” in other words, Yahweh is listening and will hold their words against them and judge them if they are not telling the truth.(top)
“and Jephthah spoke all his words before Yahweh in Mizpah.” There is a certain aspect of a covenant between Jephthah and the men of Gilead here (cp. Judg. 11:10), and their words were spoken “before Yahweh,” with Yahweh as the witness.(top)
“Then Jephthah sent messengers.” Why Jephthah sent messengers is unclear. It may have to do with dignity and propriety, and perhaps also not wanting to be personally confrontational. It also keeps Jephthah safe from harm.
“What is there between me and you.” An idiom. The idiom has a wide range of meanings, and so the context sets the meaning, but in this case that is difficult. Jephthah could have been trying to make peace, saying, “What is the reason you are doing this,” or it may be more aggressive, “Why is there a fight between us?” It might be like our English, “What’s the problem here?” The idiom is used in 1 Kings 17:18; 2 Kings 3:13; 2 Chron. 35:21).(top)
“Israel took away my land.” This is revisionist history. Israel did no such thing. At the time of the Exodus, the Amorites controlled the land that Israel conquered, as Jephthah pointed out to the king of Ammon (Judges 11:15-26). The record of Israel’s conquest of the Amorite territory east of the Jordan River is in Numbers 21:21-35 and Deuteronomy 2:24-36; 3:1-11. God specifically told Israel to not invade the Ammonite territory (Num. 21:24; Deut. 2:19, 27). The king of Ammon defined the land that Israel supposedly took by three rivers, the Arnon to the south, the Jabbok in the north, and the Jordan River on the west.
Often people lie when they want something, and the wise person is aware of that. Sadly, some people are so convinced of their lie (or greedy for what they want) that it leads to conflict, and the godly person must be prepared to enter into that conflict to protect his name, rights, and property. Evil will enlarge its boundaries unless people stand against it.
“when he came up out of Egypt.” The “he” represents Israel as a corporate entity, a singular. The text does not read “they.” Also, it is noteworthy that the king of Ammon acknowledges that Israel came up out of Egypt, something that many historians do not want to acknowledge today.(top)
|Jdg 11:14||- (top)|
|Jdg 11:15||- (top)|
“Kadesh.” That is, Kadesh-barnea.(top)
“Then Israel sent messengers to the king of Edom.” This is described in Numbers 20:14-29.(top)
“and circled around the land of Edom and the land of Moab.” Israel had wanted to travel on the King’s Highway but ended up having to go quite far east to go around Edom and Moab through the Arabian desert.
“the east side of the land of Moab.” The Hebrew is more literally, the side of the rising of the sun.
“they camped on the other side of the Arnon.” The Israelites came out of the wilderness from the southeast, crossed the Arnon River into the territory of the Amorites, and camped there. South of the Arnon is Moab, so Israel did not camp in Moab.(top)
“And Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites.” This event is described in Numbers 21:21-35.
“Heshbon.” The capital city of the Amorites, where Sihon lived.
“let us pass through your land to my place.” In this sentence, Israel is both a lot of people (let ‘us’) and a collective singular, (“my” place).(top)
|Jdg 11:20||- (top)|
“Yahweh, the God of Israel, gave Sihon and all his people into the hand of Israel.” It is almost like Jephthah is reviewing the history of the area as warning to the Ammonites. Israel had fought for this territory before, against the Amorites, and Yahweh had given them victory, so are you Ammonites sure you want to fight over it? Yahweh will again fight for Israel.(top)
“and from the wilderness.” That is, from the wilderness (desert) that is the east part of what is now the country of Jordan.(top)
“Yahweh the God of Israel has dispossessed.” Jephthah gives credit to where credit is due: Yahweh. Israel did not conquer the Amorites by their own strength. Verses like this are good evidence that Jephthah was a godly man.(top)
“Chemosh your god gives you.” Chemosh is normally viewed as a Moabite god, but it is conceivable that he was worshipped by Ammonites as well. It is highly unlikely that Jephthah recognized Chemosh as a legitimate god. Jephthah almost certainly said what he did about Chemosh to avoid an argument about the Ammonite god, and also to get agreement that if a god gave territory to you, then it was indeed your territory. If the king of Ammon agreed with that statement, then he would have to agree that the land he was invading belonged to Israel because it was given to them by Yahweh.
“your god.” The Hebrew text uses the plural, literally, “your gods,” but it is a grammatical plural, not that Chemosh was a plurality of gods.
“whatever.” The “whatever” includes the land and anyone on it.(top)
“better, yes better….contend, yes contend...fight, yes, fight.” The Hebrew text uses the figure polyptoton for emphasis, repeating the words “better,” “contend,” and “fight” (for more on polyptoton and the translation of it, see commentary on Gen. 2:16).
“Balak the son of Zippor.” The record of Balak the king of Moab starts in Numbers 22. Jephthah may be saying to the Ammonite king, “Balak king of Moab fought against Israel and lost; do you think you are better than he was?”(top)
“daughter-towns.” The Hebrew text is just “daughters,” referring to small close-by towns that are supported by a “mother” town, a large and normally well-fortified town (see commentary on Josh. 15:45).
“300 years.” Jephthah’s point should be well taken, because if the Ammonites did not try to take their supposed territory back from Israel in 300 years, maybe that was because it was never theirs in the first place.
“rescue them.” This is tongue in cheek. Jephthah is making the situation more obvious by using irony. The towns did not need rescuing because they were not Ammonite in the first place.(top)
“Yahweh the Judge, judge.” This is the figure antanaclasis for emphasis; using the same word, judge, with different meanings. Also, here again, we see the godliness of Jephthah and his reliance on Yahweh. Also, we see the Jephthah recognized that Yahweh is the real “Judge,” and any earthly judge is at best a servant and representative of Yahweh. For earthly judges to act as if they are the final authority is nothing less than treason against the One who gives humans any authority at all. That Yahweh is “the Judge” behind the scenes shows that the Book of Judges is not a haphazard collection of stories of the trials, tribulations, and occasional victories of Israel, but rather of God working to demonstrate His power and righteousness through frail and fallible human judges, whom He entrusted with His holy spirit to lead and protect others.(top)
|Jdg 11:28||- (top)|
“and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh.” Jephthah is moving towards the south, and we know he was also recruiting men to fight with him. In fact, the people of Ephraim were upset he did not call them (Judg. 12:1).
“Mizpeh of Gilead.” Likely the Mizpeh that Jacob named, but the location is not exactly known now, but some likely places have been suggested.(top)
“And Jephthah vowed a vow.” It seems that Jephthah vowed this vow when he was passing through Manasseh(top)
“whatever.” This is masculine. It is likely that Jephthah did not even consider one of the women coming out to meet him. More likely a slave or servant. Jephthah was not expecting his daughter to come out of his house, but he was expecting someone or something to come out.
“and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.” We agree with E. W. Bullinger (The Companion Bible), J. V. McGee (Thru the Bible), and C. F. Keil (Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament) that Jephthah did not burn his daughter to death upon the altar, but rather dedicated her to the Lord to serve at the Tabernacle, in much the same way as Samuel’s parents dedicated him to the Lord and he served at the Tabernacle (1 Sam. 1:22-28).
There are many reasons to come to this conclusion, but nevertheless, a large number of scholars think that Jephthah did indeed burn his daughter as a human sacrifice. Those scholars generally cast Jephthah as an ungodly and crafty man who lived on the east side of the Jordan and was influenced by the Ammonite and Moabite cultures that engaged in human sacrifice. But that opinion is at odds with the biblical text, which portrays Jephthah as a man of prayer and faith, and a hero of the faith (Heb. 11:32). Also, that ungodly portrayal of Jephthah is also at odds with the character of God, who called Jephthah one of the “judges” of Israel (Judg. 12:7) and supported him by putting His spirit upon him to empower him in war (Judges 11:29).
Interestingly, scholars who assert that Jephthah dedicated his daughter to the Lord without killing her have reached that conclusion by two different ways. Scholars such as E. W. Bullinger see the Hebrew vav, usually translated “and,” as being an “or” instead of an “and.” In that case, Judges 11:31 would read, “…shall be Lord’s or I will offer it up as a burnt offering. Bullinger writes:
Scholars such as C. F. Keil see the vav as an “and,” but conclude that Jephthah was using “burn offering” in a way that refers to total dedication, not actually an offering that was burned upon the altar, and we believe that is more likely the case. There is biblical evidence that just as Samuel was given to the Lord to minister to Him, that certain women were also given to the Lord (Exod. 38:8; 1 Sam. 2:22). Also, Keil correctly points out that we cannot expect every custom in the Bible to be spelled out for us in the text; we often have to be sensitive to the context to get the full picture of what is going on in Scripture.
Of the two alternative translations for the vav, “and” and “or,” we feel the stronger case is for “and” because Jephthah’s saying, “whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return,” would normally have been spoken of a person. Even animals that were brought into the house at night for safety were outside during the day. In contrast, Jephthah’s servants in the house would have been looking for him to return, and he would have expected one of them to come out to meet him.
The evidence in Scripture is that Jephthah was a godly man and would have followed the Law of Moses. Although he lived on the east side of the Jordan, that does not mean he would not have known or obeyed Yahweh. Scripture never finds fault with Jephthah, and, as was previously stated, he is listed in Hebrews 11:32 as one of the heroes of faith. God put His spirit upon him to empower him, and Yahweh gave the Ammonites into his hand (Judg. 11:32). Many commentators state that Yahweh would have given him victory over the Ammonites without him vowing, and that may be the case, but it misses the point: the reason that Yahweh put His spirit upon Jephthah was certainly due to his godliness. Besides, when Israel sinned, they were often defeated, as Joshua found out the first time he attacked Ai (Josh. 7:1-11), and as God had said they would be (Deut. 28:25).
Also, God specifically called Jephthah one of the “judges” in Judges (Judges 12:7). Only nine other people in Judges are called “judges,” and they were all people who had human weaknesses but walked with God. In contrast, there was a ruler in Judges who was not godly and ruled without the spirit of God. Earlier in Judges, Abimelech, a son of Gideon, was a crafty, deceitful man who “ruled” Israel for three years (Judges 9:22) but is never said to have “judged” Israel, and never said to have had the spirit of God come upon him. Thus, the internal evidence in the Book of Judges is that Jephthah was a godly man who walked with God.
Jephthah showed a very good knowledge of Israel’s history (Judg. 11:15-27) so we can assume he would have known the Law also, especially commandments such as “Do not murder” (Exod. 20:13) and the many commandments that forbid human sacrifices (Deut. 12:31; cp. Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5; Deut. 18:10). If God would “look the other way” when a man murdered someone in his household whom he had authority over, such as a child or slave, just because he had made a vow, that would have opened the door to much evil. Also, Jephthah was obviously very upset at the consequence of his vow and did not want to have to give his daughter to the Lord, and it seems from that if Jephthah was the crafty, conniving man that many commentators paint him to have been, he would have figured out a way to get out of his vow. But instead he saw the importance of keeping his vow to God even though he did not want to (Judg. 11:35). In fact, keeping one’s vows even when it hurts is the mark of a godly person (Ps. 15:4).
Also, although some commentators claim Jephthah made a “rash vow,” there is no actual indication of that in the text. He was not in a war at the time, and the fact that he tried to negotiate a peace treaty with the Ammonites rather than fight a war shows he was not arrogant or uncaring. He made his vow before he ever entered the war, just as Gideon had bargained with God using a fleece before he entered a war (Judg. 6:36-40). It is more reasonable to believe that Jephthah understood what his vow meant than to say he made a rash vow, but we can see he was caught off guard when his daughter was the first one out of his house—he almost certainly expected it to be one the servants who was charged with caring for and protecting the house.
As to the accusation that Jephthah was just a rough man living among rough men and so he would not have been bothered by human sacrifice, we point out that Jephthah was very upset that his daughter was the first to meet him; and besides, his life seems to parallel the life of David when David had to take to the woods when his society rejected him, and David did not become ungodly just because he was rejected, lived in the land of the unbelieving Philistines, and was accompanied by a band of malcontents.
Also, Jephthah fulfilled his vow; he “did to her according to the vow that he had vowed” (Judg. 11:39). But there are a couple things about that phrase that are very revealing. For one thing, if “burnt offering” meant an actual human sacrifice to Yahweh (Judg. 11:31), that would mean the girl would have had to have been sacrificed by the Levitical priests at the Tabernacle, which they would have never agreed to. So, Jephthah would have then had to sacrifice her on some other altar and the priests would not have been Levites. But if that were the case, it would not have been a sacrifice to Yahweh at all. If Jephthah had been a crafty, manipulative person, and had burned his daughter as a human sacrifice on some unholy altar somewhere in the Transjordan with either non-Levitical priests or with himself acting as a priest, his sacrifice would not have qualified as being a sacrifice to Yahweh.
Furthermore, the very way the phrase is written, that Jephthah “did to her according to the vow that he had vowed,” seems somewhat supportive of the act, not the condemnation of it that we would expect if he had performed a human sacrifice. That sacrifice would have been a huge sin, and the book of Judges is not easy on people’s sin. For example, the sin of the people is pointed out over and over (cp. Judg. 2:11; 3:7, 12; 4:1; 6:1; 10:6; 13:1), and when Gideon, a judge and hero, sinned and made an idol, the text points out the sin and says “it became a snare” to him and Israel (Judg. 8:27). It seems that if Jephthah had really performed a human sacrifice, which would have been the first human sacrifice in the history of Israel, there would have been some kind of condemnation of it rather than the text simply telling us that he did what he vowed to do.
We also can see that Jephthah did not burn his daughter to death when we study the verses about her. Jephthah’s daughter saw the importance of Jephthah keeping his vow, but she asked for two months so she could “weep over my virginity” before being given to Yahweh (Judg. 11:37). That point alone should have told commentators that she was not going to be put to death. If she was going to die in two months, it does not seem reasonable that she would want to be with her friends and weep about dying as a virgin. She would have wept over dying.
Furthermore, the phrase in Judges 11:39, “and she knew no man” would be superfluous; of course she did not have sex if she was killed! The point was that she was dedicated to Yahweh, and so she never married, which is why she wanted two months to weep over her future life as a virgin never to be married and bear children.
Also, we can understand why she would want to go to the mountains for two months (Judg. 11:37). It would take some time for a young woman to adjust to the fact that instead of being a wife and mother, she would be a virgin her whole life. She needed some time to get used to her future and work through her emotions, and it would be proper to do that alone with friends, not in town where everyone could hear, which would make it seem that she was dishonoring her father’s vow. Furthermore, it would have dishonored both her father and her God if she showed up at the Tabernacle without having worked through the many emotions she would have been feeling. She needed to show up ready to serve. The tears she would shed would explain why she wanted to get away from people and go to the mountains for two months (Judg. 11:37).
Furthermore, after Jephthah’s daughter was given to Yahweh, it became a custom for the women of Israel to go to the Tabernacle four days a year to “recount” or “retell” the story of the experience of Jephthah’s daughter, which would have been done with her present (Judg. 11:40). Since Jephthah’s daughter was alive and serving at the Tabernacle, she would have had great wisdom and encouragement that she could have given the women who came to see her and talk with her. The word translated “recount” is the rare Hebrew word tanah (#08567 תָּנַה), and it means “recount,” “rehearse,” (TWOT; BDB Hebrew-English Lexicon), “recount” (HALOT Hebrew-English Lexicon). It also occurs in Judges 5:11, where it is also translated “recount.” Many English translations, assuming that Jephthah’s daughter was dead, translate tanah as “lament,” but that translation is based upon an assumption and is incorrect. There would be no need to mourn for her death yearly, and especially for four days, and there certainly would be no need to take four days to retell the story if the girl’s death were due to a rash vow made by a hard man.
Jephthah made a vow to God without taking into account every possible outcome, but kept his vow even though it cost him dearly. Many people find themselves in that situation when unexpected things happen. Psalm 15 says the kind of person who can live on God’s holy mountain is a person “who keeps an oath even when it hurts, and does not change his mind;” (Ps. 15:4). Jephthah was such a person.(top)
|Jdg 11:32||- (top)|
“and as far as Abel-keramim.” This area from Aroer to Abel-keramim is known as the Medaba plateau because Medaba is the major town on the plateau.(top)
“came out to meet him.” The verb is feminine, whereas in Judges 11:31 Jephthah used masculine verbs.
“she was his only child.” So Jephthah had no designs on starting a dynasty. At least a daughter could have provided an heir, and that was not to be for Jephthah.(top)
“Alas, my daughter!” What a jolt to Jephthah’s daughter this must have been! She was so excited to see her father and greet him with music and dancing, only to hear that she was a cause of trouble and sorrow for him because of what she did. Life is so fragile and fickle; it can change in an instant.
“brought, yes, brought.” The Hebrew text uses the figure of speech polyptoton for emphasis (for more on polyptoton and the way it is translated, see commentary on Gen. 2:16).(top)
|Jdg 11:36||- (top)|
“virginity.” The word is plural in Hebrew, referring to an abstract idea, not a historical fact. Gesenius refers to this as a plural of the abstract of quality.(top)
|Jdg 11:38||- (top)|
“And it became a custom in Israel.” This is one of the places where the verse break is clearly in the wrong place. The final phrase of Judges 11:39 should be the first phrase of Judges 11:40.(top)
“retell.” The Hebrew can mean to retell (E. Fox, The Schocken Bible) recount, rehearse.(top)