Chapter 11


Jephthah Becomes Israel’s Judge

        • Jephthah the Gileadite was a great warrior. His mother was a prostitute and his father was Gilead. Gilead’s wife also bore him sons and when they grew up they drove Jephthah out saying, “You will not have an inheritance in our family because you’re the son of another woman.”

          • ESV Archaeology Study Bible notes, “The Hebew term zonah can denote a prostitute or an adulterer. The text makes clear that such a situation was outside the norm and resulted in Jephthah’s suspect legal attachment to his father’s inheritance.”

          • NLT Illustrated Study Bible writes, “…Gilead was a descendant of Manasseh (Num 26:29-33; 32:39-40; 1 Chr 7:14-17). Jephthah’s social standing raised his visibility despite the ignominy of his prostitute mother. His half brothers had no obligation to accept Jephthah’s status or leadership.”

        • NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible adds, “In the ancient world, women would often resort to prostitution if they had no other means of economic support, especially if they were widows or orphans. However, Jephthah also illustrates the plight of the children of prostitutes in the ancient Near East. Without legal attachment to the head of a household, they were generally denied inheritance of property and social standing within the community, and were often forced into a life of prostitution simply to survive. The reason for Jephthah’s expulsion is not family shame; in a culture with polygamy and sanctioned religious prostitution, ‘illegitimate’ children would have been common. The dispute is over inheritance: one less share means more for everyone else.”

        • So Jephthah ran away from his brothers and lived in the land of Tob. Worthless fellows gathered around Jephthah and went around with him.

        • ESV Archaeology Study Bible says, “The land of Tob is identified as et-Tayibeh. Tob is mentioned in the city list of Thutmose III. These figures (worthless fellows), considered to be of an inferior class or on the fringe of society, can be compared to the Habiru of the Amarna period (14th century BC), men who banded together and organized against the rulers of city-states.”

        • Some time later, the Ammonites made war with Israel. The elders of Gilead went to get Jephthah in Tob and said , “Come be our leader so we can fight against the Ammonites.” Jephthah replied, “Didn’t you hate me and drive me away from my father’s house? Why have you come to me now that you’re in trouble?” They answered, “That’s true, and now we have come back to you so that you may come fight with us against the Ammonites and be the leader of all those who live in Gilead.” Jephthah said, “If I come back with you to Gilead to fight the Ammonites, and Yahweh hands them over to me, will I be your head?” Then the elders of Gilead answered, “Yahweh will be witness between us; we will do as you have said.” So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and leader over them. And Jephthah repeated all his words in the presence of Yahweh at Mizpah.

            • NLT Illustrated Study Bible elaborates, “…They had promised (10:18) that whoever took the military initiative and attacked the Ammonites would become the ruler (head). Here, in typical Middle Eastern bargaining style, they only offered the status of commander (leader), trying to diminish their initial promise. When Jephthah challenged the offer, the elders returned to the stronger word, ruler (head)…At the end of the negotiations, Jephthah was sworn in as both ruler and commander (head and leader). This Mizpah (‘watchtower’) was a shrine east of the Jordan in Gilead, which was Jephthah’s home (10:17; 11:29, 34); it should not be confused with Mizpah in Benjamin, the place near Bethel where the tribes later assembled and swore oaths for the final battle of Judges (20:1; 21:1). The ceremony at Mizpah in the presence of the Lord appears to have been the making of a suzerain-vassal covenant, in which a ruler (the suzerain) promises to protect and defend a vassal people in exchange for authority over them…”

Jephthah Rejects Ammonite Claims

        • Jephthah sent messengers to the king of the Ammonites saying, “What do you have against me that you have come to fight me in my land?” The king of the Ammonites told Jephthah’s messengers, “When Israel came from Egypt, they took my land from the Arnon River to the Jabbok River, and all the way to the Jordan River. Now then, give the land back peaceably.”

          • NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible notes, “Jephthah acts remarkably kinglike- dispatching envoys, negotiating directly with the king of Bene Ammon, dealing with the conflicting issues as if they were personal between him and the Ammonite king and claiming the land as his own. The identity of this king is unknown. This may have been a predecessor to Nahash (c. 1030-1000 BC), the first Ammonite king identifiable by name, who appears in 1 Sa 11:1-12; 12:12; 2 Sa 10:2. Based on the Biblical and extra-Biblical evidence, 11 Ammonite kings can now be identified.”

        • Again, Jephthah sent messengers to the king of Ammon to say, “Jephthah says: Israel did not take any land from Moab or the Ammorites. When Israel came out of Egypt, they went through the wilderness to the Red Sea, then on to Kadesh. Israel sent messengers to the king of Edom saying, ‘Please let us pass through your land.’ But the king of Edom wouldn’t listen. Israel also sent messengers to the king of Moab, but he refused. So, Israel stayed in Kadesh. Then, they went around Edom and Moab through the wilderness. They came to the eastern border of Moab and camped on the other side of the Arnon River. But they didn’t cross over into the territory of Moab, because the Arnon River was the border of Moab. Then, Israel sent messengers to Sihon, the king of the Amorites, who ruled in Heshbon, saying, ‘Please let us pass through your land to our country.’ But Sihon didn’t trust Israel. He gathered his people together, camped at Jahaz, and fought with Israel. Yahweh, the God of Israel, handed Sihon and all his people over to Israel, and they defeated them. So, Israel took possession of the land of the Amorites who lived in that country. They took possession of all the Amorite territory from the Arnon River to the Jabbok River, and from the wilderness to the Jordan River. So Yahweh, the God of Israel, took the land away from the Amorites and gave it to Israel. What right do you have to it?”

          • NLT Illustrated Study Bible explains, “The Ammonites, like the Moabites (both descendants of Lot) and the Edomites (Esau’s descendants), were to be left alone, as their territories were assigned to them by the Lord (Deut 2:16-23). Contrary to the Ammonite king’s contention, the Amorites, not Ammon or Moab, lived between the Arnon and Jabbok rivers at the time of the conquest. In response to Sihon’s refusal to let Israel pass, the Lord had given the land of the Amorite kings Sihon and Og to Israel. The Ammonite king had no legitimate quarrel with Israel.”

        • Jephthah’s message continued, “ Don’t you possess whatever your god, Chemosh, gives you to possess? Likewise, we possess everything our God, Yahweh, gives to us. Are you any better than Balak, Zippor’s son, king of Moab? Did he ever contend with Israel or fight with them? Israel has been living here for 300 years, inhabiting Heshbon and its surrounding villages, Aroer and its surrounding villages, and all the cities on the banks of the Arnon River. Why haven’t you tried to take them back during that time? I have not sinned against you, but you have wronged me by waging war against me. Let Yahweh, the Judge, decide this dispute between Israel and Ammon.” However, the king of Ammon would not listen to Jephthah’s message.

          • NLT Illustrated Study Bible notes, “Chemosh was the god of the related tribe of Moabites. If the land occupied by Israel east of the Jordan originally belonged to Moab, the Ammonite king would still have regarded Chemosh as the god of that land…Whether the conquest and settlement took place in the 1400s or the 1200s BC, Jephthah’s 300 years is probably a round figure.”

Jephthah’s Tragic Vow

        • The Spirit of Yahweh came upon Jephthah. He traveled through Gilead and Manasseh, through Mizpah of Gilead, and from there he crossed over to the Ammonites. Jephthah made a vow to Yahweh saying, “If You will hand the Ammonites over to me, then whatever comes out of my house to meet me when I return safely from the Ammonites will belong to Yahweh, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.”

          • NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible notes, “Although we might find it strange for Jephthah to speak of a sheep or a calf coming out of his house, the word ‘house’ refers to a complex domestic structure known as the four-room house, which included rooms for the animals…”

          • HCSB adds, “How could Jephthah make such a rash vow if the Spirit of the Lord had come upon him? Even though the Holy Spirit may guide an individual, that person retains the freedom to follow or reject the Spirit’s leading. Jephthah apparently chose to act on is own in this case and, in his exuberance, uttered an unwise vow (Pr 20:25; Ec 5:2-4). The Spirit’s guidance may have related solely to Jephthah’s activity as a judge and not to his private life. Other Israelites (eg Samson, Saul, and David) experienced the anointing of the Holy Spirit to be leaders of God’s people (13:25; 14:6, 19; 15:14; 1 Sam 10:10; 11:6; 16:13) but failed in various aspects of their personal lives (Jdg 14:1-3; 16:1; 1 Sm 13:9-13; 2 Sm 11:2-4).”

        • Jephthah crossed over to fight the Ammonites and Yahweh handed them over to him. He defeated 20 cities, striking them from Aroer all the way to Minnith and Abel-keramim. The Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel.

          • It should go without saying, however the NLT Illustrated Study Bible adds, “Nowhere does the Lord demand such bargaining for his favor…No connection is drawn between the victory, which was the Lord’s gift, and Jephthah’s vow.”

        • When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and dancing. She was his one and only child; he didn’t have any other sons or daughters. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “No! My daugher! You have devastated me and have caused me great trouble because I have given my word to Yahweh and can’t take it back!”

        • She said to him, “My father, you have given your word to Yahweh. Do to me as you have said because Yahweh avenged you on your enemies, the Ammonites. Just let me do this one thing: Give me two months to roam the hills with my friends and mourn my virginity.” So, he told her to go and sent her away for two months. She and her friends left and mourned her virginity as they wandered through the hills. At the end of two months, she returned to her father, and he kept the vow he had made. She had never been intimate with a man. It became a custom in Israel for young Israelite women to lament the fate of Jephthah’s daughter for four days each year.

          • If you’re horrified, you aren’t alone. Some have tried to escape the conclusion that Jephthah offered his daughter as a burnt offering. NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible mentions the attempt to offer an alternative interpretation:

            • Some interpreters suggest that Jephthah’s vow involved dedicating his daughter to cultic service, rather than offering her as a literal sacrifice. This option could be supported by appeal to the presence of women involved at the tabernacle in the Bible (Ex 38:8; 1 Sa 2:22) and in temple service in the ancient Near East, though there is no reason to think that these were lifelong dedications with vows of celibacy. The attractiveness of this solution to some is that it would also give an explanation of why she is mourning her virginity rather than her imminent death (Jdg 11:37-39). The problem with this option is that the language of the text (‘burnt offering,’ Jdg 11:31) cannot easily support it, and the logical arguments based on theological assumptions are mitigated by the fact that this is the period of the judges, when ‘everyone did as they saw fit’ (Jdg 17:6; 21:25).”

          • Guzik takes this view and gives the following reasoning, “Yet her committal to be one the women who assembled at the tabernacle still seems like the best explanation because Jephthah is listed as a hero of the faith (Hebrews 11:32). It is hard to think of him as doing something so contrary to God’s ways as offering his daughter as a human sacrifice and still being mentioned as a man of faith in Hebrews 11.”

          • HCSB adds, “…This did not mean that the Lord accepted or approved of that offering (Is 1:10-15; Am 5:22).”

        • Guzik cites this excellent comment from Spurgeon, “He had made a rash vow, and such things are much better broken than kept. If a man makes a vow to commit a crime his vow to do so is in itself a sin, and the carrying out of his vow will be doubly sinful. If a man’s vowing to do a thing made it necessary and right for him to do it, then the whole moral law might be suspended by the mere act of vowing, for a man might vow to steal, to commit adultery, or to murder, and then say, ‘I was right in all those acts, because I vowed to do them.’ This is self-evidently absurd, and to admit such a principle would be to destroy all morality.”