“Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty man of valor, but he was the son of a harlot…” (Judg. 11:1, NKJV). Thus, the reader of the Scriptures is introduced to this man who served as a judge over Israel for a period of six years. The fact that Jephthah was the son of a harlot will greatly impact his life and the making of the man he became. He was cast out of his father’s house because he was not considered a legitimate heir by his half-brothers. He became an outcast and eventually ended up leading a band of ruffians in the land of Tob (Judg. 11:3, 7). His fame as the leader of this gang of ruffians must have spread, as he was sought out by the elders of Gilead to lead their fight. He hardly seems to be a likely candidate to lead God’s people, but God often uses such people to accomplish His will.
Israel had turned away from God to serve the idols of the people who surrounded them. In response to their unfaithfulness, God gave them over to their enemies to be oppressed. Judges 10:7 states that God “sold them into the hands of the Philistines and into the hands of the people of Ammon.” For eighteen years, God’s people would suffer at the hands of their enemies. We are reminded by the Scriptures that God’s chastening is a result of His love for us and that such correction is for our profit (Heb. 12:5-11). The children of Israel repented of their idolatry and turned back to God. They cried out to God for deliverance (Judg. 10:10-16).
The Ammonites had gathered to attack Israel in the region of Gilead. The Israelites were without a leader. In desperation, they turned to the man they had cast out of their midst, Jephthah. An interesting exchange occurs between Jephthah and the elders of Gilead in Judges 11:5-10. The elders traveled to Tob, where they found Jephthah and pleaded with him to lead the Jews in their effort to defeat the people of Ammon. Jephthah responded, “Did you not hate me, and expel me from my father’s house? Why have you come to me now when you are in distress?” This exchange is reminiscent of the occasion which preceded it when the Israelites asked God to deliver them from the oppression of the Ammonites. God responded: “Yet you have forsaken Me and served other gods. Therefore, I will deliver you no more. Go and cry out to the gods which you have chosen; let them deliver you in your time of distress” (Judg. 10:13-14). The Jews had forsaken God to serve idols yet turned to Him for deliverance. They had rejected Jephthah, yet they turned to him for leadership. The similarities between these two exchanges are striking.
Jephthah agreed to go back to his homeland and lead the Jews in their fight against Ammon on the condition that he would become their head if he prevailed. They vowed to meet his demands. The man who had fled as an outcast came back home to be the leader of those who had hated him. After a failed attempt at diplomacy, it became clear that a battle against the Ammonites was imminent. We are told in Judges 11:29 that “the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah.” As he made his advance toward the enemy, Jephthah made the vow for which he is most known:
“And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, “If You will indeed deliver the people of Ammon into my hands, then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering” (Judg. 11:30-31).
God delivered the Ammonites into Jephthah’s hands, and victory followed a tremendous onslaught covering twenty cities. Thus, Jephthah subdued the people of Ammon and delivered the Israelites from their oppression. The joy of his victory was short-lived, though. As he approached his house in Mizpah, the first one to come to meet him, the object of his vow to God, was his daughter and only child. She came out to meet him with timbrels and dancing, but Jephthah was distraught at the sight of her. His daughter was now his sacrifice of promise. While one may justifiably question the wisdom of Jephthah’s vow, one must recognize with admiration his daughter’s faith. She said, “Do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, because the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the people of Ammon” (Judg. 11:36). Her only request was to be able to go into the mountains with her friends and bewail her virginity. After two months in the mountains, she returned to her father, and “he carried out his vow with her which he had vowed” (Judg. 11:39b).
There are some important lessons to be learned from this account:
- God is a jealous God. He could not abide the idolatry of the Jews, nor will He abide ours when we put anything or anyone before Him.
- God is a merciful God. He repeatedly forgave and delivered His people. He will forgive all who will repent and obey Him.
- God chastens those He loves. Learn to view your hardships through the prism of that which leads you closer to God. God can and will use your hardships to help you become a better person, and ultimately He will be glorified through your faithfulness to Him.
- You can always go home. If forgiveness needs to be sought, seek it. If it needs to be given, give it. If you need to repent to come home to God’s people, repent. You will be blessed for it.
- Do not barter with God! Seek His will and fulfill it. Jephthah’s mistake in making a foolish vow was that He thought He could barter with God as he had bartered with the elders for his leadership.
- Do not vow lightly. “Better to vow than to vow and not pay” (Eccl. 5:5).
- True faithfulness requires of us the willingness to make the greatest sacrifices. The example of Jephthah’s daughter, who was willing to submit to her father’s foolish vow, should invoke in each of us a greater desire to obey God, no matter what sacrifice that demands.