Jephthah, the bad judge
Jephthah was from Gilead, which was the area of Israel east of the River Jordan, now in the country of Jordan. Gilead was where the tribes of Reuben, Gad and half the tribe of Manasseh had settled after the Exodus from Egypt, though it was not part of the land promised to Moses. Part of the deal for letting them settle there was that the tribes in Gilead were that they must send warriors to help the other tribes if they were under attack, and if Gilead was threatened the tribes west of the Jordan must assist them.
The judges if Israel were not people who sit in courtrooms. Before Israel had a king these were prophet warriors who led the nation against invasion from the surrounding countries. They were a mixed bag, some better than the others. Jephthah was the worst of them. The story of Jephthah, and how he did everything wrong, is told in Judges chapters 11 and 12.
What we are told about Jephthah is that he was a mighty warrior, his mother was a prostitute and his father was called Gilead, meaning his father was unknown but could have been any of the men of Gilead. Jephthah was brought up by his father, but his half brothers sent him away so that he would not inherit any of his father’s property.
Later the Ammonites, the people who were displaced when Israel settled Gilead attack, they want their land back. Jephthah is brought back to lead the Gilead army. God is not consulted. No one is shown to be praying to God, nor does a prophet from God bring word.
30 And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, 31 then whatever[a] comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it[b] up for a burnt offering.”Judges 11:30-31
[a] or “whoever.”
[b] or “him”
Jephthah is offering God a human sacrifice. This has a parallel with Homer’s Iliad, where Agamemnon sacrifices his eldest daughter Iphigenia to the goddess Artemis. The setting of the Iliad is the Trojan Wars, about 1250 BC, though it was written about 880 BC. The setting of the Jephthah story is in the time before Israel had a king, so they are from the same time period, human sacrifice in war was used in those days. What Jephthah was doing was against God’s Law.
Anyone among the Israelites, or among the strangers residing in Israel, who gives any of his offspring to Molech, shall be put to death; the people of the land shall pelt him with stones.Leviticus 20:2
Molech, according to thetorah.com is identified with the Ammonite god Milcom. Jephthah is using the Ammonite’s tactics against them. The outcome was tragic. Jephthah won the battle, but his daughter, his only child, came out of the house first, celebrating. After allowing for two months for the daughter to spend time with her friends, Jephthah tragically carried out his vow.
But there was no need for him to do this. Rabbinic writings show that vows taken in God’s name which are against the Law of god do not need to be kept. The real tragedy is that Jephthah’s daughter did not need to be killed.
But that’s not the end of Jephthah’s mistakes, he did what he should not have done, made and carried out a rash vow, but he had not done what he should have done. It was part of the agreement that should Gilead be threatened then the rest of Israel west of the Jordan should be invited to help protect them. Jephthah had not done this, and the army of the nearest tribe on the other side of the Jordan, Ephraim, come over to complain, with threats. The result is civil war. For the second time Jephthah is unable to repent of what he did wrong and apologise. Instead he calls up his army again, fights against Ephraim and 40,000 of Ephraim’s warriors are killed.
A note on numbers in the Old Testament: The original Hebrew contains no vowels, vowel markings were added later. The same consonants for the word thousand are the same as the word for fighting group, thought to have been about 30 strong. Even so 1,200 unnecessary deaths is still tragic.
A tragic story, one of the worst in the Bible, which can be read in several ways. One way is to read it as if God is in favour of rash promises being kept to, which is totally wrong. Another way is a tale of the tragic consequences of being unrepentant. I am looking at Bible stories and asking, “Where is God in this?” In the story of Jephthah God is absent and his laws ignored, which I find telling.