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Jephthah—Used by God!


Paul Rose MA

His Early Life in Gilead

The account of Jephthah is found in Judges 11:1 to 12:7. He was the son of Gilead by a harlot and when Gilead's legitimate sons had grown up they thrust out Jephthah, and said unto him, Thou shalt not inherit in our father's house; for thou art the son of a strange woman (Judges 11:2).

The Decision to Live in Tob

Then Jephthah fled from his brethren, and dwelt in the land of Tob... (Judges 11:3a)

We have no further details of this but the word thrust which is used in verse 2 means 'to drive away'. It is probable that a degree of violence was used to drive Jephthah out of Gilead. After 'leaving' the land of Gilead he dwelt in the land of Tob, a district of Syria, north of Gilead.

Life in Tob

...there were gathered vain men to Jephthah, and went out with him (Judges 11:3b)

Josephus, the Jewish historian, says that when Jephthah lived in Tob he 'received all that came to him, let them come from what place soever, and paid them wages'.1 Josephus describes him thus: 'Now there was one whose name was Jephthah, who, both on account of his father's virtue, and on account of that army which he maintained at his own expenses, was a potent man'.2 Jephthah's escapades with his army is probably where his reputation as a mighty man of valour came from (Judges 11:1).

A Crisis in Gilead

Then the children of Ammon were gathered together, and encamped in Gilead. And the children of Israel assembled themselves together, and encamped in Mizpeh. And the people and princes of Gilead said one to another, What man is he that will begin to fight against the children of Ammon? he shall be head over all the inhabitants of Gilead. (Judges 10:17–18)

Israel was under threat from the army of the Ammonites and keenly felt the need for a military leader.

And it came to pass in process of time, that the children of Ammon made war against Israel. (Judges 11:4)

Jephthah's military skill was evidently well known to the Gileadites, and, previously, while the armies were at a stand-off, Jephthah was probably considered the best man for the job, but I suspect they were reluctant to approach him because of the way he had been thrust out of Gilead. However when the Ammonites attacked, they could delay no longer.

And it was so, that when the children of Ammon made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to fetch Jephthah out of the land of Tob: And they said unto Jephthah, Come, and be our captain, that we may fight with the children of Ammon. (Judges 11:5)

Jephthah was understandably reluctant to comply. He still nursed a grudge against his brethren for driving him out of Gilead.

And Jephthah said unto the elders of Gilead, Did not ye hate me, and expel me out of my father's house? and why are ye come unto me now when ye are in distress? (Judges 11:7)

Jephthah only consented to become their captain on the condition that in the event of his success against Ammon, he would continue to be their head after the battle (Judges 11:8–11; cf. Judges 10:18).

And Jephthah said unto the elders of Gilead, If ye bring me home again to fight against the children of Ammon, and the LORD deliver them before me, shall I be your head? And the elders of Gilead said unto Jephthah, The LORD be witness between us, if we do not so according to thy words. Then Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and captain over them: and Jephthah uttered all his words before the LORD in Mizpeh. (Judges 11:9–11)

Jephthah's Vow

After Jephthah had unsuccessfully tried reasoning with the Ammonites to try to turn them back peacefully (Judges 11:12–28), he made his approach.

Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah, and he passed over Gilead, and Manasseh, and passed over Mizpeh of Gilead, and from Mizpeh of Gilead he passed over unto the children of Ammon. (Judges 11:29)

Then came that rash vow that Jephthah is particularly remembered for.

And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands, then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD'S, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering. (Judges 11:30–31)

Jephthah had obviously not considered that it might be his daughter that came out of the house. Jephthah's house would have consisted of one room.3 Since we must assume that he kept cattle or flocks, two-thirds of the space would have been given over to a raised platform, about eight-to-ten feet off the ground and supported by low domed arches. This raised space would be where Jephthah and his family lived. The lower part of the house would be the dwelling place of the animals which would be kept inside the house in winter weather. The door of houses of this type were opened before sunrise and stayed open until sunset. People in Bible times spent as much time as possible outside the house during daylight hours and thus it was unusual for Jephthah's daughter to be coming out of the house during the day. It would have been far more usual to see a cow or sheep wandering out of the house.

And Jephthah came to Mizpeh unto his house, and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances: and she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter. (Judges 11:34)

It may be that his daughter had seen Jephthah coming home in victory after the battle and had hidden inside to surprise him with timbrels and with dances, but whatever the reason, Jephthah would have expected to see an animal coming out: his daughter would normally have been outside already.

The Mystery of Jephthah's Daughter

And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he rent his clothes, and said, Alas, my daughter! thou hast brought me very low, and thou art one of them that trouble me: for I have opened my mouth unto the LORD, and I cannot go back. (Judges 11:35)

May this be a warning to us to be careful what we ask or promise in prayer to God!

And she said unto him, My father, if thou hast opened thy mouth unto the LORD, do to me according to that which hath proceeded out of thy mouth; forasmuch as the LORD hath taken vengeance for thee of thine enemies, even of the children of Ammon. (Judges 11:36)

Jephthah's daughter was possessed of a quality which is becoming increasingly rare today: that of honouring and obeying her parents.4 Too often nowadays, parents let their children get away with being disrespectful and disobedient, and we can all see the effect this has had on society!

And she said unto her father, Let this thing be done for me: let me alone two months, that I may go up and down upon the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my fellows. And he said, Go. And he sent her away for two months: and she went with her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains. (Judges 11:37–38)

For a Hebrew woman to die childless was considered a disgrace, hence the importance Jephthah's daughter placed on having time to come to terms with this.

And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she knew no man. (Judges 11:39)

So did Jephthah offer his daughter to the Lord as a burnt offering? We are, naturally enough, abhorred by such a thing, but a plain interpretation of scripture suggests that he did.

[Jephthah] did with her according to his vow which he had vowed... (Judges 11:39)

There are also other indications which suggest that Jephthah offered his daughter to the Lord as a burnt offering:

And it was a custom in Israel, That the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year. (Judges 11:39b–40)

The Hebrew word translated in Judges 11:40 as lament is 'tanah', which means: 'to give praise'; or 'to lament'; or 'to rehearse'.

Jephthah's grief at seeing his daughter come out of the house to greet him also suggests that he really did offer her to the Lord as a burnt offering.

And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he rent his clothes, and said, Alas, my daughter! thou hast brought me very low, and thou art one of them that trouble me: for I have opened my mouth unto the LORD, and I cannot go back. (Judges 11:35)

Jephthah's Qualities

Jephthah was:

  • disadvantaged in his upbringing;

  • prone to speaking hastily;

  • a man with leadership qualities and military skills;

  • a man of faith—Jephthah is mentioned in the Hebrews 'hall of fame' (Hebrews 11:32–33).

Despite Jephthah's failings he was USED BY GOD.


1 From William Whiston's translation of The Works of Josephus–Complete and Unabridged, Hendrickson Publishers, inc. Antiquities 5.7.8 (260). Return to text

2 Op. cit. Antiquities 5.7.8 (257). Return to text

3 Wight, F. A., 1983. Manners and Customs of Bible Lands, Moody Press, Chicago, p. 21, 34. Return to text

4 Scripture gives clear guidance in this area, e.g.

Ephesians 6:1–3, Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right. Honour thy father and mother; (which is the first commandment with promise;) That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth.

Proverbs 22:6, Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it. Return to text

© Paul Rose 2000 <>

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