Jephthah: Faithful but Flawed
Believers never completely escape the influence of the times in which they live. That is not meant as an excuse but as a context in which to evaluate a great man of faith who was humbled by a flaw and is often remembered for that flaw alone.
Jephthah’s story does not begin with him but with Joshua. The book of Judges rehearses Israel’s history from Joshua to Samuel, who likely wrote the book.1 It ostensibly is designed to demonstrate the need for central leadership, i.e., a king. We sometimes mistakenly assume these books are primarily historical. However, though historical, they are primarily theological. They use selected historical materials to advance a theological agenda. The book of Joshua ended on a high note but shows that the seeds of destruction were already planted. In Judges the tribes of Israel are encouraged to return to those glory days by again accepting centralized leadership. This agenda clearly appears in the recurring phrase In those days there was no king in Israel, implying, “Aren’t you glad we have a king today!”
The structure of Judges is designed to impress the reader with the fact that, throughout the whole period (about 400 years), things just went from bad to worse. Little attempt is made to emphasize the positive qualities of the latter three judges—Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson. Each is more flawed than his predecessor.
Gideon puts out a fleece; Jephthah makes a rash vow; and Samson trusts in his Nazirite vow. Gideon was a weak man who tested God; Jephthah was a strong man who asked God to test him; and Samson was a deluded man who valued the test above the God who gave it.
Yet these men were heroes of the faith. (See Hebrews 11:32–34.) We must always keep in mind that the author of Judges chose his material to emphasize the importance of a king. His readers would have known this fact. Hebrews, on the other hand, gives a more balanced or generic overview.
God consistently chooses the least likely candidate to fulfill His missions. This truth is established in Genesis and continues throughout the entire Bible.
For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty (1 Cor. 1:26–27).
This pattern keeps the glory where it belongs: with God. And Jephthah fits this model perfectly (Jud. 11:1–3). The illegitimate child of Gilead and a prostitute, Jephthah was disowned and driven out by Gilead’s legitimate children.
But later, in Joseph-like irony, the very individuals who had driven him out were forced to go to him begging for his help (vv. 4–11). God truly has a sense of humor. The rejected half-brother is transformed into savior of the family. A much more important rejected half-brother will appear later in history, and his name will be Jesus. But that is another story.
So the man of the hour was Jephthah. He was as innocent as a dove and as wise as a serpent, negotiating with his conveniently admiring family. Suddenly he went from despised duckling to revered chief (v. 10).
The narrative then recounts Jephthah’s dealings with the nation of Ammon (vv. 12–40). Here he displayed the same negotiating skills that he demonstrated with his family. But more important, he displayed a clear understanding of God’s Word (particularly deuteronomy) and the history of Israel.
Ammon had accused the Israelites of confiscating land from both Ammon and Moab. This claim probably was Ammon’s pretext for war. Jephthah did not bother to refute the charge and made it clear that the land his people possessed was given to them by God. His entire speech reflected a man of faith who was willing to stand firmly on the promises of God.
His Big Mistake
Jephthah’s flaw emerged, however, when he began to negotiate with God. In an attempt to make the promise more sure, Jephthah vowed a sacrifice to God:
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 Lᴏʀᴅ’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering (vv. 30–31).
Many modern Christian and Jewish exegetes have argued that Jephthah did not actually sacrifice his daughter, but rather dedicated her to a life in God’s service as a perpetual virgin.2 However, this opinion seems forced with respect to the language, culture, and purpose of the book. The word used for “burnt offering” means “that which goes up.” This is perhaps related to the concept of smoke going up as an animal is burned or to the fact that it goes up to God. The word is consistently used in the Old Testament to refer to ceremonial sacrifices, not to walking somewhere, such as to a mountain.
Furthermore, the idea of perpetual virginity is not an ancient Near Eastern tradition. It originated in the ascetic period of the early church. Interestingly, this interpretation seems to have migrated from the church to the synagogue during the Middle Ages. Marc Saperstein, a professor of Jewish history, wrote,
Now clearly the Christians did not learn about cloisters from this ambiguous passage. Rather, Jewish intellectuals derived their interpretation from the Christian practice of nuns in cloisters. What is striking is that the Biblical phrase in the vow, “devoted to God,” is interpreted to be fulfilled through a life of seclusion and virginity. It is impossible to derive this from an internal Jewish tradition of celibate eremiticism [seclusion]. What it shows is that this aspect of Christian spirituality, far removed as it was from most Jewish sources and actual behavior, apparently had some impact.3
Jephthah’s flaw was not that he made a foolish vow, but that he vowed at all. The greatest enemy of faith is often a person’s own strength and self-righteousness. What was the purpose of this vow?Was it an act of worship, or was it an attempt to secure insurance? Jephthah was not trying to thank God for His incredible promises; he was trying to guarantee them.
God instituted sacrifices and vows as an appropriate means for people to thank Him for what faith has wrought. They were not designed to replace, augment, or even enhance that faith.
The final element to this story hinges on the purpose of the book. Samuel wrote Judges to highlight the worsening social and political climate that existed in Israel from the time of Joshua until the nation accepted a king. diminishing the repulsion of Jephthah’s act seems incompatible with that theme. Godly men are certainly capable of committing the worst of sins.
A modern parallel might be the lack of concern we sometimes show about abortion. Often these little ones are sacrificed for mere convenience. The biblical text never implies that God approved of Jephthah’s vow, but neither did He stop him from fulfilling it.
God is not obligated to bail out His saints, even a choice servant like Jephthah. Note Ecclesiastes 5:4–6:
When you make a vow to God, do not delay to pay it; For He has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you have vowed—Better not to vow than to vow and not pay. Do not let your mouth cause your flesh to sin, nor say before the messenger of God that it was an error. Why should God be angry at your excuse and destroy the work of your hands?
The final phase of the Jephthah narrative concerns the treatment of the Ephraimites (12:1–7). Ephraim was a tribe of Israel whose men were slow to answer the distress call that Jephthah had sent out. They showed up after the battle was won, and rather than help Jephthah, they fought against him. So Jephthah tenaciously pursued the Ephraimites and set up checkpoints at all the river crossings. Because the Ephraimites had trouble pronouncing the “sh” sound, Jephthah’s men easily identified them by asking them to pronounce the word shibolleth. Whoever could not pronounce it was killed. This tactic again shows Jephthah’s skill as both a warrior and politician.
The story of Jephthah underscores the fact that Romans 12:1–2 asks us as believers to offer ourselves in response to the mercies of God, not in order to obtain them. Jephthah must have considered his offer of inestimable value to God, when in reality it was but the overstepping of a proud and rash man. And he paid dearly for it. He should have known that it was not his political and military skill that allowed God to use him; it was his faith.
The gospel has always been most attractive to and most effective for the “poor in spirit.” The unconditional promises of God cannot be earned; they can only be freely received. The conditional promises of God, such as the Mosaic Law, are particularly useful for showing men and women that they need a different way of salvation. But that is another story.
- Irving L. Jensen, Jensen’s Survey of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1978), 156.
- Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 164.
- Marc Saperstein, “Jews and Christians: Intolerance and Creative Competition in the Middle Ages,” <www.jcrelations.net/en/?id=1945>.