Jephthah (Hebrew יִפְתָּ֣ח, he will open) (fl: September 24, 1152 BC-1146 BC) was the tenth Judge of Israel. He is best remembered for making a vow of a controversial nature, but his career is also important because it occurs at a specified interval from an event of which one can easily assign the date.
Life and family
Jephthah was a Gadite, but was also a natural son in the worst sense of that word: his mother was, quite simply, a prostitute. Eventually his father had a number of lawful sons, and when they achieved their majority they expelled him from the estate on that specific ground. So Jephthah went to live in a land called Tob, and became the leader of a gang of malcontents. (Judges 11:1-3 )
The expulsion of Jephthah probably occurred during the eighteen-year period in which Israel was oppressed by a Philistine-Ammonite coalition. Evidently Judge (biblical) Jair, who was serving at the time, did not do a very good job, because the Israelites were worshiping every god except the True God. For the most part they joined one cult or another of Baal and Asherah, but they also worshipped the national gods of Aram, Sidon, Moab, and even of Ammon and Philistia. And so the Ammonites conquered Gilead, in which the Gadites and Reubenites lived, and then crossed the Jordan and conquered some Judahite, Benjamite and Ephraimite territory. Philistia lay to the west of Judah, so one may infer from the Biblical description that Philistine troops also operated in Judahite territory.
The people of Israel cried out to God, and at first God was disinclined to help. Presumably through some unnamed prophets, He suggested that the Israelites could cry out to their strange gods and see what help they would be. In answer, the Israelites renounced all their worship of the various cults. Only then was God inclined to deliver them. This deliverance occurred after Jair had died, and God's chosen champion came from the same region (Gilead) that Jair came from.
The Ammonites occupied Gilead, and the Israelites camped at Mizpah. The various clan leaders in Gilead said that they would offer leadership of all of Gilead to any man willing to take command. Someone thought of Jephthah, so a delegation from Gilead traveled to Tob to contact him. At first Jephthah refused and reminded them that he had been stripped of any share in his father's estate. The Gileadite elders repeated their offer of command of all of Gilead, and even swore to this by God.
So Jephthah came to Mizpah and accepted the command.
CommuniquéJephthah began by sending messages to the king of Ammon insisting that he withdraw his forces. The Ammonite then accused the Israelites of seizing Ammonite land
Jephthah immediately set the record straight on the actual history of the region:
from the Arnon as far as the Jobbok, and the Jordan Judges 11:13 (NASB)
Israel did not take away the land of Moab nor the land of the sons of Ammon. For when they came up from Egypt, and Israel went through the wilderness to the Red Sea and came to Kadesh, then Israel sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, "Please let us pass through your land," but the king of Edom would not listen. And they also sent to the king of Moab, but he would not consent. So Israel remained at Kadesh. Then they went through the wilderness and around the land of Edom and the land of Moab, and came to the east side of the land of Moab, and they camped beyond the Arnon; but they did not enter the territory of Moab, for the Arnon was the border of Moab.
And Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, the king of Heshbon, and Israel said to him, "Please let us pass through your land to our place." But Sihon did not trust Israel to pass through his territory; so Sihon gathered all his people and camped in Jahaz and fought with Israel. The LORD, the God of Israel, gave Sihon and all his people into the hand of Israel, and they defeated them; so Israel possessed all the land of the Amorites, the inhabitants of that country. So they possessed all the territory of the Amorites, from the Arnon as far as the Jabbok, and from the wilderness as far as the Jordan. Since now the LORD, the God of Israel, drove out the Amorites from before His people Israel, are you then to possess it? Do you not possess what Chemosh your god gives you to possess? So whatever the LORD our God has driven out before us, we will possess it. Now are you any better than Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab? Did he ever strive with Israel, or did he ever fight against them? While Israel lived in Heshbon and its villages, and in Aroer and its villages, and in all the cities that are on the banks of the Arnon, three hundred years, why did you not recover them within that time? I therefore have not sinned against you, but you are doing me wrong by making war against me; may the LORD, the Judge, judge today between the sons of Israel and the sons of Ammon. Judges 11:15-27 (NASB)
The key points of Jephthah's communiqué are:
- The sons of Israel never crossed the Arnon River into Moabite territory, so that part of the Ammonites' accusation was false.
- The specific territory "from the Arnon as far as the Jabbok," was Amorite, not Moabite or Ammonite.
- King Balak of Moab had an opportunity to fight with Israel after the Battle of Heshbon, but did not take it.
- Even if Heshbon and its surrounding villages had belonged to Ammon (which they hadn't), the Ammonites were a little late trying to reclaim them now, three hundred years after Israel first conquered them.
Thus the Ammonites were not fighting a just war, as Augustine of Hippo might have defined it, but the Israelites had a perfect right to defend themselves.
This communiqué is important to modern historians for another reason: it establishes the date of Jephthah's career as Judge at exactly three hundred years following a major battle that the Israelites fought in the last year of the life and career of Moses. Floyd Nolen Jones describes this as the most important fact that allowed him to calculate a definitive time-line for the era of the Judges, before the start of the United Kingdom of Israel.
The Battle of Gilead
The Ammonites refused to answer Jephthah's last message. (Judges 11:28 ) So Jephthah marched his forces from Mizpah toward the Ammonite camp. As he approached, he made a vow to God that if he won, he would dedicate to God the first living thing that came out of his door and offer it up as a burnt offering. Then he engaged the enemy and routed it. (Judges 11:29-33 ) The Ammonites would not trouble the peace of Israel again until the regal era, but the Philistines would continue to be thorns in the Israelites' western flank for a long time to come. (The present inhabitants of Philistia, now known as the Gaza Strip, are not Philistines at all, but Arabs. Nevertheless, they call themselves by a name—"Palestinian"—that Emperor Hadrian of Rome gave to the region in a deliberate evocation of the name of ancient Philistia.)
This battle probably took place on 1 Eitanim 2853 AM, three hundred years after the Battle of Heshbon.
Jephthah returned home, and the first living thing to greet him was a person, namely his daughter, who was also his only child. He tore his clothes when he saw her, and confessed that he had made a vow to God and could not retract it. His daughter agreed that he should keep that vow, and asked that she and her best friends go into the mountains to mourn for the children that she would never have.
The Bible does not say that his daughter died. It says that she had no relations with any man, and that the women of Israel established a custom (probably not observed today) to commemorate the sacrifice of Jephthah's daughter for four days in every year. (Judges 11:34-40 )
The exact nature of Jephthah's vow has been in sharp dispute for years. Some commentators interpret Jephthah's offer of a "burnt offering" literally, and infer that Jephthah offered his own daughter as a human sacrifice. Other commentators state positively that no such sacrifice could possibly have been in view, because God would never approve of such a sacrifice. Instead, the sacrifice was not of life, but of marriage and childbirth. The consequence of the vow, then, was not that Jephthah's daughter should die, but that she should dedicate her life fully to God and remain a virgin. Monks and nuns do this today, and the Apostle Paul encouraged all who could, to do likewise. (1_Corinthians 7:6-9 ; see also Romans 12:1 )
The Ephraimite War
Sadly, the Ephraimites now started a civil war. They accused Jephthah of going to war without including them. Jephthah replied that, to the contrary, he had asked for their help and they had refused. Jephthah then fought with the Ephraimites and won easily. The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan River, and whenever any Ephraimite wanted to cross, they challenged them to say the word Shibboleth (Hebrew שִׁבֹּ֜לֶת), but the Ephraimites would pronounce it Sibboleth (סִבֹּ֗לֶת) instead, and the Gileadites would kill him. The Ephraimites ultimately lost 42,000 in that war. (Judges 12:1-6 ) Today a shibboleth is a particular word, phrase, or language convention used to distinguish a certain group, or a catch-word or catch-phrase used by adherents of a party, sect, or creed, of which the opponents say that it has lost any real meaning that it might once have held. (Both Shibboleth and Sibboleth mean an ear of grain, but Shibboleth can also mean a stream.)
Career and death
Jephthah continued to administer justice in all of Israel for six years, and then he died. (Judges 12:7 )
- Jones, Floyd N., The Chronology of the Old Testament, Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2004, p. 279
- Jones, Floyd N., op. cit., pp. 71-104 and Chart 4
- Konig G, "Jephthah," AboutBibleProphecy.com, 2001. Accessed December 19, 2008.
- "Jephthah and his vow," LearnTheBible.org, n.d. Accessed December 19, 2008.
- Hirsch EG, Seligsohn M, Schechter S, and Barton GA, "Jephthah," The Jewish Encyclopedia, n.d. Accessed December 19, 2008.
- Schenk CE, "Entry for Jephthah.", International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, James Orr, MA, DD, gen. ed., 1915. Accessed December 19, 2008
- Bratcher D, "Jephthah's Rash Vow," CRI/Voice, n.d. Accessed December 19, 2008.
- Miller D, "Jephthah's Daughter." Apologetics Press, 2003. Accessed December 19, 2008.
- Holding JP, "Jephthah and Daughter: Bad News for the Firstborn?" Apologetics Ministries, n.d. Accessed December 19, 2008.
- Morris HM, "Jephthah's Daughter," Institute for Creation Research, June 2008. Accessed December 19, 2008.
- "shibboleth." Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2008. Merriam-Webster Online. Accessed December 19, 2008 <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/shibboleth>