The Judges of Israel
In the book of Exodus, God powerfully delivered Israel from oppression in Egypt. In Joshua, we read how He defeated enemies as Israel entered the Promised Land. Israel had repeatedly promised to be faithful to God’s commandments (e.g. Josh. 1:16–18). Would they do so?
In Judges, the answer is given twice: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 17:6; 21:25). God brought the people under discipline through foreign oppressors, and when He did, they cried out to Him. God heard their cries and mercifully raised up judges. Some judges acted locally while others had broader assignments.
However, a government often reflects the moral character of the governed people. Israel needed judges because they did not judge their own behavior. But many judges had the same problem: they showed faith at certain times of their lives (see Heb. 11:32) but failed in managing their natural hearts and desires. These accounts prove by plain, painful examples what our natural condition looks like, and why only the Lord Jesus Christ can resolve sin.
In Judges 10–12 we read about another departure by Israel, a fresh oppression by the Ammonites, and a judge named Jephthah. The record of Jephthah’s actions centers around his war against the Ammonites, his foolish vow with tragic consequences in his family, and a brutal civil war with the tribe of Ephraim. That middle event provokes strange controversies among Christians, but I don’t think it should. The details are given for a reason and I believe these should be both an encouragement and a clear warning to us.
Jephthah and His Vow
Jephthah began in obscurity. He was the son of a prostitute, so his half-brothers forced him out of the household. When the Ammonites threatened Israel, Jephthah’s brothers returned to him for help. He was a warrior and they needed a captain to lead their army.
Jephthah was a negotiator. First, he secured a promise that he would rule over his brothers in exchange for the service they wanted. Second, he sent messengers to warn the king of Ammon that his intentions against Israel were unjust and would fail. The king of Ammon refused to listen. The Spirit of Jehovah came upon Jephthah to war against the Ammonites, and he was victorious (Judg. 11:33).
In these details, there are glimpses of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord was born into humble circumstances and rejected by His brethren in Israel. In a future day they will return to Him and acknowledge His rule, and He will judge the nations and lead a remnant of Israel out of the tribulation and into the millennial kingdom. Also, a recurring pattern in Scripture is that God gives warning before judgment, and Jephthah did so for the king of Ammon.
However, this is a mixed picture. Only the Son of God was qualified to become the Son of Man, and one obvious contrast is that the Lord was conceived through the Holy Spirit and born to a virgin (Mt. 1:23), while Jephthah was conceived by his father’s immorality. Mixed pictures are common in the book of Judges because the outward view of God’s work was limited by Israel’s ongoing failures.
Meanwhile, Jephthah’s negotiations went too far. He tried to bargain with God:
And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s, and1 I will offer it up for a burnt offering” (Judg. 11:30–31).
Words like these can sound impressive, but I believe we see self-willed religion here, not faith. God’s purposes cannot be manipulated and He never asked for a sacrifice in this way. God had already determined the victory (vv. 32–33), but Jephthah wanted a piece of it for himself. He would offer God a reward for being faithful, and God could choose His reward from the contents of Jephthah’s house. Human pride always leads to judgment of some kind and Jephthah would experience this principle in practice.
The Tragic Twist
Jephthah returned to his home and the consequences of his vow were heart-breaking:
…behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter. And as soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the LORD, and I cannot take back my vow” (Judg. 11:34–35).
Later in the same chapter, Jephthah “did with her according to his vow that he had made” (v. 39).
Every reader is horrified to imagine this young woman being killed and burned by her father, and worse, for him to believe he was providing service to God.2 Some commentators are quick to offer objections. Surely Jephthah did not really sacrifice her as a burnt offering? He showed knowledge of the Law and history when dealing with the king of Ammon, so he must have known the Law’s prohibitions against burning children for Molech, an Ammonite idol (Lev. 18:21; 20:2–5). It is clear from the Law that God would not have been honored by such an offering. Surely in this case He would not hold Jephthah accountable to the laws for vows? (Lev. 7, Num. 30). Also, where could Jephthah have found a priest and an altar available for a sacrifice that blatantly violated the Law?3
So, one explanation is that Jephthah banished his daughter to lifetime celibacy, placing a death sentence on his family inheritance in Israel. Further evidence is claimed in verse 39, where her part of the narrative ends by reaffirming that she never had any sexual relations. The Spirit of God does not repeat details carelessly, and we should carefully consider repeated statements. So, some believe her life must have been preserved.
Now, that could be a correct interpretation, but it is partly speculative. Note that Jephthah’s knowledge of the Law didn’t stop him from making a foolish vow, or offering a sacrifice on terms the Law never specified. In doing so he was “testing Jehovah [his] God” which was forbidden (Deut. 6:16). A careful reader should see that the narrative includes more than what God desired Jephthah to do. It also records things Jephthah chose to do. Knowledge of the Law did not count for much if a person did not apply it consistently. The Law had power to condemn sin, but it could not give anyone power over sin.
Also, we do not read about Jephthah humbling himself. He could have confessed “I have sinned by making a vow I cannot keep, and deserve to die,” and cast himself upon “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6). I believe this is the only outcome that would have fully honored God after the foolish vow was made.
Instead, the now-stunned Jephthah tore his clothes and accused his daughter of “becom[ing] the cause of great trouble to me” (v. 35). Sincere grief and regret were evident, but not faith. The flesh avoids taking responsibility for its own faults.
Yet there is one thing more surprising than Jephthah’s pride: his daughter’s response. She submitted graciously to all this. A vow had been made to Jehovah? Then it must be fulfilled! She requested two months to mourn her virginity with her friends. Jephthah had time to think about his actions. Yet verse 39 states that once she returned, he “did with her according to his vow that he had made.” Whatever the full outcome really was, Jephthah’s daughter and family line in Israel were lost.
Law, or Just Legalism?
What was the basis of Jephthah’s actions? He began in faith when God led him to victory over Ammon. But the next two events seem to show something else in his motivations.
A commentator named Ridout has observed that Jephthah’s behavior is typical of legal self-righteousness, and the possibility that he made his daughter into a burnt offering fits a pattern.4 First, he had to judge the Ammonites at the beginning of Judges 11, as God required. But then Jephthah made his foolish vow, returned home to the consequences, and brought the same standard of judgment to his household. Next, in Judges 12, he responded to a provocation by his brethren in Ephraim with a vicious slaughter.
Was the civil war against Ephraim a governmental act, or personal vengeance? Ephraim was worthy of judgment, and Jephthah was a judge. But Scripture does not record Jephthah speaking with God about it, nor does it say that Jehovah helped him this time. In fact, Scripture does not even record how many Ammonites were killed in the previous war, only that twenty cities were involved. But it notes that Jephthah was responsible for killing 42,000 of his brethren in Israel!
In summary, Jephthah knew he was right, and had a sword to prove it. In Scripture, Ammon is sometimes a symbol of the flesh, and we should always judge the flesh as an enemy. But while Jephthah could judge Ammon, he did not judge his own flesh. So he finished fighting his enemies and began warring against his own family and his brethren in Israel.
We can easily fall into the same pattern, particularly when our Christian brethren are also not in a good state and appear to deserve judgment, while thinking ourselves to be speaking and acting for God. The end results of self-righteousness are always tragic and often have the deepest effect in our own families.
As such, I believe the ambiguity in the Scriptural text is intentional. What Jephthah actually did to his daughter is less important to us than his motives and methods, which put him in an impossible position. Judgment must fall upon either guilty Jephthah, or his innocent daughter, and verse 39 tells us which one he chose. Sadly, in making that choice, he destroyed his entire family line. The warning here is that you and I will sink equally low if our flesh is not properly judged.
Sin’s Pattern and God’s Review
Jephthah was not alone in this behavior. Another example from earlier history is Lot, Abraham’s nephew. The New Testament tells us he was a righteous man (2 Pet. 2:7–8). But when he was cornered in his house in Sodom by an angry mob, he was so far from the mind of God that he tried to bargain with the mobs’ perverse desires by offering his two daughters for another kind of awful sacrifice.5 A similar evil is recorded in Judges 19 (vv. 23–24).
Many years later, King Solomon thought a while on the subject of vows, and wrote:
When you vow a vow to God, do not delay in paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Let not 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 voice and destroy the work of your hands? For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear (Eccl. 5:4–7).
In the New Testament, the Lord carried the topic further:
“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is His footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Mt. 5:33–37).
After reviewing all these things, we must consider: was Jehovah God honored by Jephthah’s offering? On one hand, God received honor through the Law because it vindicated His righteousness. The Law did not put Jephthah into this position. He put himself thereby not using wisdom and self-judgment. Jephthah avoided an immediate penalty by subjecting his daughter to the consequences of his vow, but he still brought evil upon his family and, one way or the other, ended his inheritance in Israel. God’s righteousness was not bypassed.
However, the honor God always desires to receive is from faithful obedience. If Jephthah had a submitted spirit then some events recorded here would have gone much differently. When the Lord calls us to do something, He expects obedience. The flesh will try to interfere, but God will never share His glory with the flesh. Sometimes God appoints a specific judgment to teach us that lesson. Other times, He withdraws His protective hand and allows the consequences of our own choices to play out.
Nothing Left to Say?
Once the civil war with Ephraim ended, Jephthah’s story is summarily closed: “Jephthah judged Israel six years. Then Jephthah the Gileadite died and was buried in his city in Gilead” (Judg. 12:7).
However, I believe there is something else shining from within this dark account: the details of Jephthah’s daughter. She was innocent of guilt in regards to Jephthah’s vow, yet willingly submitted herself to the Law’s judgment in place of the man who had sinned. In this I see an amazing illustration of “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom. 5:20).
I will look closer at how the narrative presents Jephthah’s daughter in part 2 of this discussion. Until then, please share your thoughts in the comments below! The PT team would like to hear your view on this difficult passage.
1. Commentator F.W. Grant had some experience with Bible translation and claimed the conjunction could be translated “or” instead of “and” with a different effect. (F. W. Grant, The Numerical Bible: Joshua to 2 Samuel, (Neptune: Loizeaux Brothers, 1932), 235–237). Among older commentators I have read, and among Bible translation teams responsible for the most reliable translations we have today, this does not seem to be a common view. The fact that a translation variant is possible does not mean it is the best option in context, and the need to remove potential bias is one reason why reliable Bible translations are produced by teams even if a notable individual leads the effort. J. N. Darby, for example, did not work alone on his translations.
2. Interestingly, this is exactly what the Lord told His disciples to expect: reference John 16:2. Persecution arises from many sources, but the Lord’s prophecy has been fulfilled many times against true followers of Christ by professing followers of God.
3. For Grant (see note 1), this is another reason to look for an alternate meaning in the narrative, and he asserts the lifetime celibacy view. But the theme of Judges is, “every man did what was right in his own eyes.” Note that later in Judges, a man named Micah easily convinced a young Levite to be a priest for his idolatrous religion, which was equally wicked before God. The Levite eventually became the priest for the tribe of Dan (Judg.17–18). Two points more: if Jephthah was bent on fulfilling his vow to the bitter end, why would he think it necessary to obtain a proper priest and altar? And second, how does the alternate explanation represent any less injustice, and misapplication of the Law, against Jephthah’s innocent daughter?
4. Samuel Ridout, Lectures on the Books of Judges and Ruth, Lecture VII, “Jephthah: His predecessors and successors” (New York: Loizeaux Brothers, 1958). Portions are available online. Accessed 5/24/2023.
5. Reference Genesis 19:4–8. Lot had two angels in his home but didn’t realize it! God intervened on that occasion, but after the destruction of Sodom, Lot’s lack of spiritual wisdom produced evil fruit. His wife looked back at the city as the judgment fell and received judgment in kind. Next, his daughters, corrupted by Sodom’s evil morals and desperate to have heirs in their wilderness exile, conspired to get their father drunk and then committed incest. Their children were Moab and Ben-ammi, the respective fathers of the Moabites and the Ammonites (Gen.19:30–38). Both of those tribes became a perpetual trouble to Israel, including the Ammonite war here in Judges 11.