Faith applies to every aspect of life.
“32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised, who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies.” (Hebrews 11:32-34).
The story of Jephthah leaves us with our mouths open. It is intense, even frightening. To discover faith in many of this judge’s actions may be difficult, but the writer to the Hebrews insists that faith is there. As in the case of others during this spiritually dark period in Israel’s history, even the slightest spark of faith produced immense light in the dimness of the story.
Jephthah’s journey is told to us in Judges 10:6 through to Judges 12:7. Because the book of Judges is written about a time when God’s people continually allowed themselves to be contaminated by evil and the pagan practices of their neighbours and oppressors, we can understand that even the judges were not immune to the evil influences of those around them.
The situation is explained to us in Judges 10:6-18.
“Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord. They served the Baals and the Ashtoreths, and the gods of Aram, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites and the gods of the Philistines. And because the Israelites forsook the Lord and no longer served him, he became angry with them. He sold them into the hands of the Philistines and the Ammonites, who that year shattered and crushed them. For eighteen years they appressed all the Israelites on the east side of the Jordan in Gilead, the land of the Amorites. The Ammonites also crossed the Jordan to fight against Judah, Benjamin and Ephraim; Israel was in great distress. Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord, ‘We have sinned against you, forsaking our God and serving the Baals. The Lord replied, ‘When the Egyptians, the Amorites, the Ammonites, the Philistines, the Sidonians, the Amalekites and the Maonites appressed you and you cried to me for help, did I not save you from their hands? But you have forsaken me and served other gods, so I will no longer save you. Go and cry out to the gods you have chosen. Let them save you when you are in trouble!’ But the Israelites said to the Lord, ‘We have sinned. Do with us whatever you think best, but please rescue us now.’ Then they got rid of the foreign gods among them and served the Lord. And he could bear Israel’s misery not longer. When the Ammonites were called to arms and camped in Gilead, the Israelites assembled and camped at Mizpah. The leaders of the people of Gilead said to each other, ‘Whoever will take the lead in attacking the Ammonites will be head over all who live in Gilead.”
Israel again cries out to God after 18 years of oppression. They sound genuinely repentant and even take action to return to the Lord without any promise from the Lord to rescue them or the presence of a judge to lead them. Initially God only challenges their sincerity and tells them to go get help from the gods they have preferred over Him. But they are not discouraged and come back to him again.
“But the Israelites said to the Lord, ‘We have sinned. Do with us whatever you think best, but please rescue us now.’ Then they got rid of the foreign gods among them and served the Lord. And he could bear Israel’s misery no longer.”
This last statement suggests that God was about to act on their behalf to rescue them. Israel was at the time totally contaminated by the pagan nations around them and among them. They had forgotten some of the nuances to following the Lord. Though they confessed their sin, were willing to accept God’s judgment, threw themselves on God’s mercy, and turned away from their idol worship, there is no indication that they asked God for His choice of the one who would lead them against their enemies. There is no indication that their choice of a leader was God’s first, or best, choice for them. They were willing to take anyone who volunteered.
They choose Jephthah, the least likely to succeed in anyone’s high school yearbook. He is the son of a prostitute, a social outcast, the leader of a gang of criminals. There is no indication that they asked God for direction or that God spoke to Jephthah and called him as he had called the other judges.
In the cases of other judges there is often a phrase indicating that the Lord chose the judge that would rescue Israel from her enemies. Take note of Judges 3:9, 15: “But when they cried out to the Lord, he raised up for them a deliverer…” and “Again the Israelites cried out to the Lord, and he gave them a deliverer…”
Judges 11:1-3 tells about the man the Israelites chose: “Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior. His father was Gilead; his mother was a prostitute. Gilead’s wife also bore him sons, and when they were grown up, they drive Jephthah away. ‘You are not going to get any inheritance in our family,’ they said, ‘because you are the son of another woman.’ So Jephthah fled from his brothers and settled in the land of Tob, where a gang of scoundrels gathered around him and followed him.
Jephthah appears to be the leader of a bunch of ruffians. He is a mighty warrior so may have seemed like the logical choice to the elders. But it doesn’t appear that they asked guidance from God or that God spoke to them about who should be their defender. This is not to imply that a person’s background should be held against him, particularly in areas over which he has no control, but it does show that even though Jephthah was the leader of an unsavory gang, he was a mighty warrior and that was exactly what the Israelites thought they needed—someone who could fight well and even fight dirty!
Jephthah has suffered rejection before. He is not convinced that those who now come to him for his help, will not reject him again once he has accomplished what they are asking him to do. The story continues and in verse 9 we get a sense of Jephthah’s faith.
“Some time later, when the Ammonites were fighting against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to get Jephthah from the land of Tob. ‘Come,’ they said, ‘be our commander, so we can fight the Ammonites.’ Jephthah said to them, ‘Didn’t you hate me and drive me from my father’s house? Why do you come to me now, when you’re in trouble?’ The elders of Gilead said to him, ‘Nevertheless, we are turning to you now; come with us to fight the Ammonites, and you will be head over all of us who live in Gilead.’ Jephthah answered, ‘Suppose you take me back to fight the Ammonites and the Lord gives them to me—will I really be your head?’ The elders of Gilead replied, ‘The Lord is our witness; we will certainly do as you say.’ So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and commander over them. And he repeated all his words before the Lord in Mizpah.”
Israel had rejected their God just as the people of Gilead has rejected Jephthah. Then, in desperation, Israel comes back to God just as Gilead comes back to Jephthah. The parallels in the story prompt Matthew Henry to comment: “…he thereby reminds his countrymen to look up to God as the Giver of victory. The same question as here, in fact, is put to those who desire salvation by Christ. If he save you, will ye be willing that he shall rule you? On no other terms will he save you. If he make you happy, shall he make you holy? If he be your helper, shall he be your Head?”
The people took an oath before God to keep their word. Judges 11:11 indicates that some kind of formal ceremony took place to seal the deal between the people and their new commander.
The Pulpit Commentary notes: “Verse 11. -Head and captain. Both civil ruler and judge, and military chief. Uttered all his words before the Lord. The expression ‘before the Lord’ is used in Exodus 34:34; Leviticus 1:3; Judges 21:2 (before God), and elsewhere, to signify the special presence of the Lord which was to be found in the Tabernacle, or with the ark, or where there was a priest with an ephod. And this must be the meaning of the expression here. Jephthah was installed at the national place of gathering and consultation for Gilead, viz., at Mizpah in Gilead, into his office as head of the State, and there, as in the capital, he performed his duties under the sanctions of religion. Whether, however, the ark was brought there, or the altar, or a priest with an ephod, or whether some substitute was devised which the unsettled times might justify, it is impossible to say from want of information. There seems to be some reference in the words to Jephthah’s vows, in ver. 31, as one of such utterances.”
Jephthah issued a challenge to Israel’s oppressors in 11:12-28, a challenge that was ignored.
The Ammonites justified their oppression by accusing Israel of have taken away territory that belonged to them. Jephthah, apparently well versed in Israel’s history, reminded them that they lost that land because of their refusal to allow Israel safe passage through their territory when they were on their journey to Canaan after having left Egypt. They then had no right to ask for the territory back. He tells them: “…whatever the Lord our God has given us, we will possess.” Interestingly enough, it appears that what Jephthah says to the King of the Ammonites in verses 24-26 is not quite correct but his argument is still valid.
But the Ammonites ignored him. In Judges 11:29-31 we read, “Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah” followed by a description of the path to victory over the Ammonites that God directed him to take. A he advances toward the enemy, Jephthah makes a foolish vow before the Lord: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”
Vows were taken seriously in Biblical times.
Numbers 30:2: “…when a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he not break his word but must do everything he said.”
Deuteronomy 23:21, 22: “If you make a vow to the Lord your God, do not be slow to pay for it, for the Lord your God will certainly demand it of you and you will be guilty of sin…Whatever your lips utter you must be sure to do, because you made your vow freely to the Lord your God with your own mouth.”
Ecclesiastes 5:4, 5: “When you make a vow to God, do not delay to fulfil it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfil your vow, It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfil it. Do not let your mouth lead you into sin.”
But there was no reason for the vow in the first place. Jephthah was trying to bargain with God: “if you do this…I will do that…” That kind of covenant is one only God makes in Scripture: “if you do this…I will do that…”
The Pulpit Commentary: “Verses 30, 31. - And Jephthah vowed a vow. This verse and the following go back to relate something which preceded his passing over to the children of Ammon, viz., his rash and unhappy vow. This is related, as so many things in Scripture are, without note or comment, and the reader must pass his own sentence upon the deed. That sentence can only be one of unreserved con- detonation on the part of any one acquainted with the spirit and letter of the word of God. Many attempts have been made to show that Jephthah only contemplated the offering of an animal in sacrifice; but the natural and indeed necessary interpretation of the words shows that he had a human victim in mind. He could not expect any but a human being to come forth from the doors of his house, nor could any but a human being come forth ‘to meet him’ - a common phrase always spoken of men (Genesis 14:17; Genesis 24:65; Exodus 4:14; Exodus 18:7; Numbers 20:20; 1 Samuel 25:34, etc., and below in ver. 34). Obviously, in the greatness of his danger and the extreme hazard of his undertaking (Judges 12:3), he thought to propitiate God's favour by a terrible and extraordinary vow. But if we ask how Jephthah came to have such erroneous notions of the character of God, the answer is not far to seek. Jephthah was ‘the son of a strange woman,’ probably, as we have seen, a Syrian (Judges 11:1-11, note), and had passed many years of his life as an exile in Syria. Now it is well known that human sacrifices were frequently practised in Syria, as they were also by the Ammonites, who made their children pass through the fire to Moloch, and it cannot surprise us that a man brought up as Jephthah was, and leading the life of a freebooter at the head of a band of Syrian outlaws, should have the common Syrian notion of the efficacy of human sacrifices in great emergencies.”
We take note of Jephthah’s faith in God. Unhappily that faith is overshadowed except in Hebrews because of the rash promise that this mighty warrior made to God. What happens next is described in Judges 11:32-35: “Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the Lord gave them into his hands…When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of tambourines! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, ‘Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break.’”
But even in this tragic moment, faith is again observed. Jephthah makes no attempt to go back on his promise, nor does his daughter ask him to. In fact, she tells him that he must keep the promise he has made to God.
There was a long-standing law in Israel concerning the redeeming of the firstborn whether human or animal. This had been established back in the days when God handed down the Law to His people as they journeyed to the Promised land. Exodus 13:12-15 says: “…you are to give over the Lord the first offspring of every womb. All the firstborn males of your livestock belong to the Lord. Redeem the first born with a lamb every firstborn donkey, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem every firstborn among your sons. In the days to come when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed the firstborn of both people and animals in Egypt. This is why I sacrifice to the Lord the first male offspring of every womb and redeem each of my firstborn sons.’”
Though the redemption of firstborn males was a continual example of what God had done for Israel in rescuing them from Egypt, there were other occasions when vows were made that involved humans, animals and property. And though the vow Jephthah made here was rash, he appears ignorant of the fact that he can redeem his daughter. The conditions for this were laid out in the Law and are described in Leviticus 27. However, considering the spiritual state of the nation no one probably remembered the stipulations of this particular part of the law—we have to note that he was conscious enough of his obligation to the Lord to know that a vow made to God was to be taken seriously. In contrast, Samson had many vows made for him, but didn’t have any sense to take any of them seriously!
His daughter’s response in verse 36 compares to that of Isaac as he traveled to the place of sacrifice on Mount Moriah with his father, Abraham.
Ellicott: “I have opened my mouth unto the Lord.—A vow was not deemed binding unless it had been actually expressed in words (Numbers 30:2-3; Numbers 30:7; Deuteronomy 23:23). There were two kinds of vows among the Hebrews—the simple vow, neder (Leviticus 27:2-27), and the ‘devotion,’ or ‘ban,’ cherem (Leviticus 27:28-29). Anything devoted to Jehovah by the cherem was irredeemable, and became ‘a holy of holies’ (kodesh kadashim) to Him, and was to be put to death (Leviticus 27:29).”
In contrast to this, the commentary in the Zondervan Study Bible argues that Jephthah could have redeemed his daughter based on Leviticus 27:1-8 among others. At the same time, the commentator argues that God was not in this man’s appointment as leader of Israel. No explanation is given in reference to the Hebrews 11 statement that says that Jephthah acted in faith except to say that other men including him served God’s purposes and that constituted acting in faith. We can look at his vow to God as foolish though, given that animals lived in the courtyards of the family property, he may have expected to have an animal rush out to meet him. But if we see the divine design in this tragic episode we also know that God could have intervened to ensure that an animal did come out to greet him—but did not! Was this the act of faith? Or was it a test of faith similar to that of Abraham when God asked him to sacrifice Isaac?
Ellicott continues: “I cannot go back. -Numbers 30:2. Jephthah had not understood until now the horror of human sacrifice. He would neither wish nor draw back from his cherem (Ecclesiastes 5:4-5; Matthew 5:33; Jonah 2:9; Pss. 72:25; Psalm 26:11) merely because of the anguish of it would fall so heavily upon himself. The Hebrews had the most intense feeling about the awfulness of breaking an oath or vow, and they left no room for any mental reservations (Leviticus 27:28-29). Saul was determined to carry out his ban even at the cost of the life of his eldest son…It must be remembered that though the cherem had taken an unusual and unlawful (though far from unknown) form, the notion of such a vow would come far more naturally to a people which in very recent times, as well as afterwards, had devoted whole cities—men, women, children, cattle and goods—to absolute destruction (Numbers 21:2-3).”
Others argue again that Jephthah may have backed out on carrying out the vow that he had made once he realized how rash it had been and how contrary to God’s commands it had been. Others suggest that the sacrifice was not death, but something else. Gill observes, commenting on the same statement that Jephthah could not go back on the promise he had made: “…for if his vow was to sacrifice her, as some think, he was not obligated to do it, since it was contrary to the law of God, and abominable in his sight, and besides, what was vowed to be the Lord’s or devoted to him, might be redeemed according to the law, a female for thirty pieces of silver, Leviticus 27:2 and if the vow was to separate his daughter from the company of men and obligate her never to marry…what he had to do was to repent of this rash vow, and humble himself before God for making it, and not add sin to sin by performing it.”
More important to this girl than even her imminent death is a life unfulfilled, a life cut short before it could experience everything that someone living a complete life would expect. To accept that is an act of faith. She says: “’Do to me just as you promised…But grant me this one request…Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry’…After two months, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin.”
If he knew who would greet him when he returned it is possible that a vow to virginity might have been what he meant.
Matthew Poole comments: “Quest. What was it which Jephthah vowed and performed concerning his daughter?
Answ. Many, especially of modern writers, conceive that Jephthah’s daughter was not sacrificed, but only devoted to perpetual virginity, which then was esteemed a great curse and reproach. This they gather,
1. From Judges 11:37,38, where we read that she bewailed not her death, which had been the chief cause of lamentation, if that had been vowed, but her virginity.
2. From Judges 11:39, where, after he had said that
he did with her according to his vow, he adds, by way of declaration of the matter of that vow,
and she knew no man. But for the first, there may be a fair reason given, That she could not with honour bewail her death, which she had so generously and cheerfully accepted of, because it was attended with and occasioned by the public good, and her father’s honour and happiness, Judges 11:36, and was a kind of martyrdom; and moreover, an act of religion, the payment of a vow, which ought to be done cheerfully; but only bewailed the circumstance of her death, that it was in some sort accursed and opprobrious; she having had no husband to take away her reproach, as they speak, Isaiah 4:1, and leaving no posterity to her father’s comfort, and the increase of God’s people. And for the second, that clause, and she knew no man, is plainly distinguished from the execution of his vow, which is here mentioned before; and this is added, not as an explication of the vow, but as an aggravating circumstance, that this was executed when she had not yet known any man. Besides, this opinion seems liable to weighty objections:
1. There is no example in all the Scripture of any woman that was obliged to perpetual virginity by any vow of her own, much less by the vow of her parents; nor have parents any such power over their children, either by the law of nature, or by the Holy Scripture.
2. The express words of the vow, Judges 11:31, mention nothing of her virginity. but only that she should surely be the Lord’s, i.e. devoted to the service of the Lord, which might be without any obligation to perpetual virginity; for even Samuel, who was as fully devoted to the Lord by his parents as she could be, 1 Samuel 1:11; and Samson, who was devoted not only by his parents, but by God himself, and that in the highest degree, even to be a perpetual Nazarite, Judges 13:5,7; yet were not prohibited marriage; nor were any of the most sacred persons, Levites, or priests, or high priests, though they were the Lord’s in a singular manner, obliged to perpetual virginity: and therefore if she was not offered up for a burnt-offering, as the authors of this opinion say, but only was consecrated to God, there was no occasion to bewail her virginity, which, for any thing that appears, she was not tied to.
3. If this were all, here was no sufficient cause why so wise and valiant a man as Jephthah should so bitterly and passionately lament over himself or his daughter. And therefore it may seem most probable that Jephthah did indeed sacrifice his daughter, as he had vowed to do; which was the opinion of Josephus the Jew, and of the Chaldee Paraphrast, and of divers of the Jewish doctors, and almost all the ancient fathers, and many eminent writers; and this best agrees with the words of the vow, delivered Judges 11:31,”
So the debate goes on, clouding the fact that faith is here in this story, a fact that the writer to the Hebrews latches onto in his list of the faithful.
There is one more episode to Jephthah’s story, found in Judges 12:1-8. It appears that this judge was never to come out from under the shadow of his heritage.
Jephthah was never trusted. His heritage made him suspect all of his life.
Barnes’ commentary states this: “And of Jephthae - The story of Jephtha is recorded in Judges 11. The mention of his name among those who were distinguished for faith, has given occasion to much perplexity among expositors. That a man of so harsh and severe a character, a man who sacrificed his own daughter, in consequence of a rash vow, should be numbered among those who were eminent for piety, as if he were one distinguished for piety also, has seemed to be wholly inconsistent and improper. The same remark, however, may be made respecting Jephtha which has been made of Samson and others. The apostle does not commend all which they did. He does not deny that they were very imperfect men, nor that they did many things which cannot be approved or vindicated. He commends only one thing - their faith; and in these instances he particularly alludes, doubtless, to their remarkable valour and success in delivering their country from their foes and from the foes of God. In this it is implied that they regarded themselves as called to this work by the Lord, and as engaged in his service; and that they went forth to battle, depending on his protection and nerved by confidence in him as the God of their country.
Their views of God himself might be very erroneous; their notions of religion - as was the case with Jephtha - very imperfect and obscure; many things in their lives might be wholly inconsistent with what we should now regard as demanded by religion, and still it might be true that in their efforts to deliver their country, they relied on the aid of God, and were animated to put forth extraordinary efforts, and were favoured with extraordinary success from their confidence in him. In the case of Jephtha, all that it is necessary to suppose, in order to see the force of the illustration of the apostle is, that he had strong confidence in God - the God of his nation, and that, under the influence of this, he made extraordinary efforts in repelling his foes. And this is not unnatural or improbable, even on the supposition that he was not a pious man. How many a Greek, and Roman, and Goth, and Muslim, has been animated' to extraordinary courage in battle, by confidence in the gods which they worshipped! That Jephtha had this, no one can doubt; see Judges 11:29-32.
(It is not likely that Jephtha's faith would have found a record here, had it been of no higher kind than this. Peirce admits his unnatural crime, but supposes him to have repented. "It must be owned," says he, "that if Jephtha had not repented of this very heinous wickedness, he could not have been entitled to salvation. The apostle, therefore, who has assured us of his salvation, must undoubtedly have gone upon the supposition that Jephtha actually repented of it before he died. That he had time to repent is beyond dispute, because he lived near six years after this. For it is expressly said he judged Israel six years, Judges 12:7, and it is as certain he made this vow in the beginning of his government. What evidence the apostle had of Jephtha's repentance I cannot say. He might know it by the help of old Jewish histories, or by inspiration.")
Even in the great and improper sacrifice of his only daughter which the obvious interpretation of the record respecting him in Judges 11:39, leads us to suppose he made, he did it as an offering to the Lord, and under these mistaken views of duty, he showed by the greatest sacrifice which a man could make - that of an only child that he was disposed to do what he believed was required by religion. A full examination of the case of Jephtha, and of the question whether he really sacrificed his daughter, may be found in Warburton's Divine Legation of Moses, book 9, notes, in Bush's Notes on Judges 11; and in the Biblical Repository for January 1843. It is not necessary to go into the much litigated inquiry here whether he really put his daughter to death, for whether he did or not, it is equally true that he evinced strong confidence in God. If he did do it, in obedience as he supposed to duty and to the divine command, no higher instance of faith in God as having a right to dispose of all that he had, could be furnished; if he did not, his eminent valour and success in battle show that he relied for strength and victory on the arm of Yahweh. The single reason why the piety of Jephtha has ever been called in question has been the fact that he sacrificed his own daughter. If he did not do that, no one will doubt his claims to an honored rank among those who have evinced faith in God.”
CONVERSATIONS AND CONSIDERATIONS
1. Most of us have made promises that we didn’t keep. The critical ones are those that we make to the Lord. Describe a time when you have bargained with the Lord with an “If you do ____________, then I’ll do _____________.” How did that work out?
2. How does trying to bargain with the Lord (Question 1) undermine the exercise of faith?
3. What lessons does this story teach you about making promises to God?
4. Jephthah never seemed to question that God might have rejected him because of his background even when his peers rejected him. Though we know little of what might have been going through his mind, or what might have been in his heart, what lessons about faith can we learn from this?
5. Report on how you are doing in strengthening your relationship with God as a vital part of your faith journey.
 Judges 10:18
 I kings 11:5-7; Deut. 2:19; Numbers 22-24