Jephthah vs. Ammon

God Uses Whom He Will

“For I have opened my mouth to the Lord and I cannot take back my vow” (Judges 11:35 NRSV).

by Cecil Nordé

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The eighth Judge from Joshua, Jephthah, a Gileadite, arrives at a time in Israel when his people, the half-tribe of Manasseh living in Gilead, were threatened by their southern neighboring enemy, the Ammonites.  The Gileadites became vulnerable because they had not given reverence to God and had not heeded his commandments. Instead, they began to worship the local gods of their heathen enemies. God’s wrath with the sinfulness of his chosen people living in the land of Gilead became evident when he delivered them into the hands of the sons of Ammon. The land of Gilead is located in the hills just east of the river Jordan Valley, from Lake Galilee to the Dead Sea and the Arnon River.

“Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, worshipping the Baals and the Astartes, the gods of Aram, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites, and the gods of the Philistines.  Thus they abandoned the LORD and did not worship him. So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel and he sold them into the hand of the Philistines and into the hand of the Ammonites, and they crushed and oppressed the Israelites that year. For eighteen years they oppressed all the Israelites that were beyond the Jordan in the land of the Amorites, which is in Gilead. The Ammonites also crossed the Jordan to fight against Judah and against Benjamin and against the house of Ephraim; so that Israel was greatly distressed” (Judges 10:6-9 NRSV).

Jephthah was talented as a mighty and effective warrior. He was one of the sons of Gilead.  His mother, however, was a prostitute. Gilead also had a wife who bore him many other sons.  This put Jephthah at a disadvantage in Gilead’s family. He was ostracized by his half-brothers as an illegitimate son. Jephthah learned how to fight. He grew up to be a mighty warrior.  Consequently, as a young man he befriended local
outlaws in Gilead. His illegitimacy was not tolerated by his brothers, and he was forced to leave his family. Jephthah eventually relocated himself with his outlaw friends, in the hills of Tob (meaning “good”), northeast of his town.  His band of outlaws grew in size and did their raiding of food and goods to survive. Jephthah was successful as a warrior outlaw; so that soon his reputation grew, and even the elders of Gilead held him in some respect.

For nineteen years the towns and villages of Gilead had been oppressed by the Ammonites, who saw the Israelites in Gilead as a people who had taken their land from them three centuries earlier (Judges 11:13,26). (Actually, Israel took it from the hostile king of Heshbon, not from the Ammonites.) The elders of Gilead eventually sought the help of Jephthah to defend themselves from the Ammonites and to regain the tribal homeland God had given to them. “They said to Jephthah, ‘Come and be our commander, so that we may fight with the Ammonites.’ But Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, ‘Are you not the very ones who rejected me and drove me out of my father’s house? So why do you come to me now when you are in trouble?’ ” (Judges 11:6-7 NRSV). Jephthah was pleased and felt vindicated that he finally had the respect of his people. He and his men also saw the Ammonites as an enemy. Jephthah secured the obedience of the elders by demanding that they return him home to Gilead and to his family members, while receiving the respect he needed to fight against the Ammonites.  They surrendered their military authority over to Jephthah as their commander. His army was thus expanded and then trained by his men in tactics and strategies to defeat the Ammonites. His humility before the Lord was made evident by how he carried himself as commander of the Gileadite army. “So Jephthah went to the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head commander over them; and Jephthah spoke all his words before the LORD at Mizpah” (Judges 11:11 NRSV).

Jephthah wisely tried to negotiate with the Ammonites to minimize the bloodshed of future battles. But it was to no avail. The Ammonites felt that the Israelites were not the original people of Gilead, as they themselves pretended to have been prior to Joshua. The Ammonites believed they had the right, might and power, to subjugate the Gileadites. However, little did they know that Jephthah had God’s protection for his army, a protection that led to victory whenever battles against the Ammonites ensued. Eventually, the Ammonites in complete defeat had to retreat.

The Vow

Prior to the battle, “Jephthah made a vow to the LORD, and said, ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the LORD’s, to be offered up by me as burnt offering.’ So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them; and the LORD gave them into his hand” (Judges 11:30-32 NRSV). After his victory celebration of liberation from the Ammonites, Jephthah went home.  Unfortunately, and to his crushing sadness, the first one that came out of his house to greet him with timbrels and joyful dancing was his one and only daughter. She was his only child. Jephthah was devastated to see that she would be his burnt offering to the Lord. But he could not go back on his word to the Lord. Giving a vow to Jehovah was so serious that Jephthah had to fulfill it. When he saw his daughter, he tore his clothes as a sign of great distress and regret. He had to tell her about his vow, wishing that he had never given it so broadly. Still, the vow had to be fulfilled.  “When you make a vow to God, do not delay fulfilling it; for He has no pleasure in fools. Fulfill what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not fulfill it. Do not let your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake; why should God be angry at your words, and destroy the work of your hands?” (Ecclesiastes 5:4-6 NRSV).

So much did his daughter love her father and humble herself to his vow that she agreed to be his offering. She asked her father to give her two months to be sent away into the mountains to be alone and to “bemoan” her virginity with her companions. At the end of the two months, she returned to her father, and the scriptures say that “he did with her according to the vow he had made. She had never slept with a man” (Judges 11:39 NRSV). Fortunately, human sacrifices were strictly forbidden by the Law (Deuteronomy 12:30-32). Therefore, an acceptable substitute for death had to be made. It is believed that her love and obedience to her father was fulfilled by living perpetually a virgin the rest of her life. Not being able to be married and to have children was as good as being dead. Consequently, adhering to his vow caused Jephthah to live in misery over the “demise” of his daughter during the remaining six years of his life while his vow was being fulfilled (read Reprint 2897).1

Summary — A Spiritual Contentment

In Old Testament times, God chose men and women to lead against oppression and to restore freedom to Israel in the land God provided them. Sin kept Israel from adhering to
the laws and commands from God. Subsequently, his wrath brought justice to the Israelites that enabled them to return to a spiritual contentment of worshiping and praising God daily. It is so simple, and yet at times so hard, because sin blinds us. Jephthah was already under God’s grace to be victorious over the Ammonites. Jephthah did not have to make his vow to God. He should have been content with the favor God gave him. God’s love and divine providence for us who consecrate our lives to him should prevent us from making any rash vows to Him.

(1) Editor’s note: Judges 11:31 in KJV, margin, reads: “whosoever … shall surely be the Lord’s, or I will offer it up for a burnt offering [Lit. ascending-offering],” signifying a choice. Another suggestion is: “and I will offer to him a burnt offering” (Emphatic Diaglott, Appendix: Jephthah, R2897). The Hebrew word is v’haghaliythihu, literally, “and/or I cause to sacrifice him/it.” In any case, humans are not clean for sacrifice (Deuteronomy 12:29-31, 14:3-8). Jephthah’s daughter could only be devoted to Jehovah (remaining a virgin).

Under our vow of consecration, we, as new creatures in Christ, are anointed by God to do His will and to eventually help establish the Millennial Kingdom’s thousand-year reign under Christ Jesus. This spiritual contentment is infused in our minds and hearts as we do our daily service and commitment toward our families, brethren, and friends. Brother Russell put it eloquently: “This is an important question with all the truly consecrated, and one surely of paramount importance. Let us consider then, that when we consecrated ourselves fully to the Lord, we thereby signified that we would hold nothing back for self. That consecration included all our possessions, our time, our physical energies, and our mental attainments. And it implied the sacrifice of all our former earthly ambitions, hopes, and aims so that we should no longer pursue them to any extent. This, and nothing less, is what our vow of full consecration signifies. But it signifies, further, that these possessions or personal qualifications, which the Lord terms talents, are not only to be released from the service of the worldly ambitions, etc., but that they are to be so released, not for aimless inactivity, but for the purpose of being utilized in an opposite direction — in the service of God, of his plan and of his children” (Reprint 1281).

Praise be to God!

Postnote on a Type: Jephthah was illegitimate and was rejected by his brethren. When they were in trouble they called for him. When they agreed to have him be their head, he saved them. Israel rejected Jesus, the Son of God, as though he were illegitimate. (Should they not have learned from Jephthah?) Now that Israel is returning to the land, they are in trouble. Jesus Christ is the Savior who will deliver Israel from Armageddon, and then they will accept him as their Head in Christ’s Thousand-Year Kingdom. (Jephthah’s daughter might welltypify the faithful church.)