Summary: How does an outcast rebel outlaw end up in the hall of faith and did Jephthah really sacrifice his daughter?
The story we are going to look at in Judges 11 and 12 today is one of the strangest and most troubling in the Bible. It’s about a notorious man who comes to the rescue of Israel, then promptly vows to sacrifice his own daughter and gets into a big fight where 42,000 fellow Israelites are killed. Or is the story of a guy who nobody liked or accepted, but was accepted by God and ended up a leader who wanted to follow God with his whole heart, so much so that he was willing to give everything to Him?
We’re going to look at Jephthah. In a way he is like Abimelech of chapter 10. He was an outcast, a rebel, and some might call him a loser. Abimelech though was also a poser. He wanted power and position and he did anything to get it, though not all serving Yahweh. Jephthah, on the other hand, starts out on the wrong path, but after recruited to serve God finds faith and his calling.
Let’s look at Jephthah, answer a few questions about his actions, and then talk about what makes us serve God.
Chapter 11, verses 1 - 3
Jephthah was the son of Gilead-the grandson of Manasseh, but his mother was a prostitute. Gilead was not a polygamist and so the legitimate sons threw him out. Unlike Abimelech (ch 9) he didn’t have protection from his mother’s family so he drifted into others like him in Tob, about 15 miles from Ramoth Gilead. This is in modern day Jordan, on the eastern fringes of the land of Israel.
So here’s this guy roaming around the countryside. The NKJ says they "raided" with him. NIV says they "followed him." It seems pretty clear that Jephthah was not what we might call an upstanding citizen, but he must have gotten a pretty good reputation as a fighter because when the Ammonites come Israel calls on him to help.
Verses 4 - 11
Jephthah’s faith in the Lord had apparently been deepened during his time in the wilderness of Tob, and though he is initially reluctant, he accepts headship over the very place he was ostracized from.
So before he goes to battle, this guy who was probably used to shooting first and asking questions later goes on a diplomatic mission.
Verses 12 - 28
To summarize what’s going on here: when Israel left Egypt they did not go to war against Moab, Edom, or the Ammonites because they were related to Israel and God had given them their own territory (Deut 2:5, 9, 19). But no promise existed for Sihon, king of the Amorites. So when attacked, Israel won a decisive victory and claimed the land for themselves-the land that the Ammonites now claimed as theirs. Israel had possessed the land for a long time-Balak, king of Moab, had not tried to regain the territory after his failed curses against Israel (Numbers 24:10).
The Ammonite king is not impressed and thinks he can win the day on the battlefield.
Verses 29 - 33
The author of Judges doesn’t spend much time on the battle. Jephthah basically goes almost due south from Tob and won over the Ammonites with God’s help.
But he makes a very unusual vow. Was this a bargain with God? If so, he didn’t need it. Have you ever done that? "God if you’ll get me out of this jam I’ll give up this sin and go to church every week!" God cannot be bargained with, only reasoned with.
And when we come to God honestly there is nothing we can do to earn His favor and nothing we can do to help Him help us. We can only rely on God’s mercy and grace-that unmerited favor where He does it all and we do nothing. You can’t buy God’s favor. Yes its good to dedicate your life more to Him and even more as you see Him victorious in your life-but don’t use it as a bargaining chip or you might end up like poor Jephthah.
Perhaps it was more zeal than bargaining for Jephthah, we don’t really know.
The Spirit came upon Old Testament figures to accomplish a specific purpose for God, not for the purpose, necessarily, of character transformation. So we shouldn’t assume that Jephthah’s vow is the result or prompted by the Holy Spirit.
So now let’s look at what happens and explore some possibilities:
Verses 34 - 40
The main question, of course, is "did Jephthah sacrifice his daughter?" Believe it or not there is great debate on either side.
It was a sin to break his vow (Numbers 30:2) but an even greater sin to perform human sacrifice (Lev 18:21, Dt 12:31).
Did he kill his daughter? Scholars are pretty divided on the subject.