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
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
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
Israel was under threat from the army of the Ammonites and keenly felt the need for a military leader.
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.
Jephthah was understandably reluctant to comply. He still nursed a grudge against his brethren for driving him out of Gilead.
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 11:811; cf. Judges 10:18).
After Jephthah had unsuccessfully tried reasoning with the Ammonites to try to turn them back peacefully (Judges 11:1228), he made his approach.
Then came that rash vow that Jephthah is particularly remembered for.
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.
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
May this be a warning to us to be careful what we ask or promise in prayer to God!
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!
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.
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.
There are also other indications which suggest that Jephthah offered his daughter to the Lord as a burnt offering:
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.
Despite Jephthah's failings he was USED BY GOD.
ARE WE BEING USED BY GOD?
1 From William Whiston's translation of The Works of JosephusComplete 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
© Paul Rose 2000 <http://www.twoedgedswordpublications.co.uk/Articles/Jephthah-Used_by_God.htm>