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Jephthah: His Character and His Vow


In my continuing study of the book of Judges, with the help of a very well-written commentary, I now have a much greater understanding of and appreciation for Jephthah — one of the Judges that has often been misunderstood and who has received a bad rap in modern times.   A common idea in teaching today is of Jephthah as a rough and crude warrior, or a “religious hypocrite” (without any scriptural exposition to backup that assertion) who fully imbibed the pagan culture of his day and actually killed his daughter in a burnt sacrifice — an idea taught, for example, in the MacArthur Study Bible and by those associated with TMS. 

Yet a closer look at the details reveals a very different picture of Jephthah: a man who experienced great difficulties in early life — the shame of his parentage, and rejection by his family (Judges 11:1-2).  He then was far away from the formal worship of Israel, with “worthless men,” the rejects of society — yet, as commentator George Bush rightly observes, The mode of life here indicated, is precisely that which was followed by David, when his reputation brought around him men of similar character to these followers of Jephthah. Jephthah was thus lacking in full, proper instruction in God’s word, and his ideas of the true God were tainted by the pagan customs around him.  Yet in Jephthah we see a man given grace –God’s grace to overcome the shame and rejection of his early life. We also see a godly, pious man who took God seriously, and who uttered words before God with the utmost sincerity.  As described in verses 9 through 11, he is somewhat cautious with those who had rejected him — not unlike Joseph who first tested his brothers in Egypt — and then was willing to go with them — indicating forgiveness, not continuing in bitterness and anger toward them. Then, Jephthah spoke all his words (the agreement between the elders of Gilead and Jephthah as their leader) before the Lord in Mizpah.  Jephthah also shows great concern and knowledge of his nation’s history, and great diplomacy in how he deals with the Ammonites — first seeking peace, to talk with the enemy before going to fight and kill.

In Judges 11, yes we have his rash vow, one that he really should not have made, but we also see the example of his daughter.  Whatever the details of Jephthah and his daughter’s lives (the mother is nowhere mentioned, so we do not know what happened to her), we see the daughter walking in godly, humble submission to her human father and to God’s will for her life, through her father’s vow. Jephthah’s daughter does not come across as the offspring of a “religious hypocrite,” but a child brought up well and not rebellious — instead, her having whatever understanding of God that her father had, so that she showed such honor to him. Indeed, as George Bush here remarked: if she believed when she uttered these words, that she was to be put to death, neither Greece nor Rome, with all their heroes and heroines, can furnish an instance of sublimer self-sacrifice than this of the humble maid of Israel. Had it occurred among these boasting people, instead of the plain unvarnished tale of the sacred historian, we should have had it pressed on our admiration with all the pomp of eloquence. Indeed it cannot be doubted, had but Jephthah and his daughter been heathens, that the very persons, who now find in the transaction nothing but a pretence for vilifying the Scriptures, would then have extolled the whole as exhibiting the finest example of the most noble constancy, the most disinterested virtue.

Bush’s commentary, Notes, Critical and Practical, on the Book of Judges, is especially helpful in its lengthy treatment of Jephthah’s vow in its two parts: first, the actual words and the making of the vow, and secondly, the later fulfilling of the vow.  Alan Cairns’ sermon on this part of Jephthah’s life (“A Portrait of Jephtha”)  agrees with the same conclusions as presented by Bush, though without the lengthy explanation and details more appropriate for a commentary than the format of a sermon.  

As noted in the commentary, scholars have taken four different interpretations of the words of Jephthah’s vow in verses 30-31, different grammatical variations to try to explain away what Jephthah actually vowed — such things as translating the last clause as “or” offering it up as a burnt offering.  Bush examines the actual Hebrew wording and these variations, concluding (as do nearly all English translations), that the wording really does support the idea that Jephthah intended to offer a human sacrifice, a  burnt offering, and that he expected that it would be a rational, intelligent creature coming to meet him (an act of volition) — and not a mere animal.  Quite possibly, Jephthah had in mind that the sacrificial victim would be one of his household servants. 

That this rendering supposes Jephthah to have had a human sacrifice in his thoughts when he made the vow, is undeniably true, and without doing violence to the letter we know not how to avoid this conclusion.  The evident bitterness of emotion which he betrayed, on meeting his daughter, clearly shows that he then looked upon himself as bound by the tenor of his vow to make her life a sacrifice. … the anguish which he now expressed appears too intense and excruciating to be caused by any thing but the conviction that she must die—die a martyred victim to his precipitate vow.

After the lengthy section addressing these two verses, Jephthah’s making of the vow, and then in sequence addressing (rather briefly) the intervening verses, Bush’s commentary then provides great observations and what he feels is the best explanation of what actually unfolded in the fulfilling of the vow — acknowledging that every interpretation has some difficulties, but that this view has the fewest difficulties and makes the most sense of the text.  Jephthah at first really did expect to offer up his daughter as a burnt sacrifice, as exhibited in his great anguish upon first seeing her.  Then, over the next two months, he became better instructed regarding the Mosaic law and acceptable sacrifices.  After all, who would have given the actual burnt offering?   The priests at the tabernacle would not do so — they who did know the Levitical law.  Jephthah himself could not have, for that would also have been against the Levitical law, that offerings were actually made by the priest.  Another interesting point is the circumstance and the geography:  the tabernacle was at Shiloh, in the tribe of Ephraim — and we also find Jephthah, right after the triumph over the Ammonites, in a battle with the men of Ephraim.  

This makes it in the highest degree improbable that he should, in the very heat of the quarrel, have gone into the heart of that tribe to offer such a sacrifice, even had it been lawful. If then, there is the utmost reason to believe that such an offering was not made by the high priest or any inferior priest—that it was not made by Jephthah himself—and that it was not made at Shiloh, the appointed place of sacrifice, what reason is there to suppose it was made at all?

The remaining verses indicate mention of the daughter remaining a virgin, and that he did to her according to his vow.  The evidence strongly indicates that he fulfilled the vow, not in the way he originally intended, but in a way that fulfilled the spirit of the law — that his daughter was made “dead to him” in that she was given to lifelong service at the tabernacle, and he would have no descendants, his line would be cut off.

As to the idea of tabernacle service, and that in fulfilling this service she could never marry, two additional considerations.  First, regarding a custom of children dedicated to the Lord’s service:

On what custom was it founded? Is there an intimation of any thing similar in any other part of the Scriptures, or in any thing relative to oriental manners and usages? We know of nothing, and must sit down resigned in our ignorance. Yet we think the inference fair, that children, both sons and daughters, were occasionally dedicated by Jewish parents to the perpetual service of God at the tabernacle or temple, as we know was the case with Samuel, though he, in after life, seems to have obtained a dispensation from the vow of his mother. Where this was the case with youthful females, it is probable the custom obtained of their retiring for a season in groups from domestic scenes to sequestered places, in token of regret at being thereby excluded the privilege of a place among the ancestors of the future generations of Israel, and perhaps of the Messiah.

Regarding the objection, that Samuel and Samson were both dedicated to the Lord, and yet were able to marry — we observe here the difference regarding young men and women.  The woman in marriage is under the control of her husband, who could have overruled and interfered with her duties to God; she would not have been free to fully serve God, with the same liberty and  in the same way that the husband has.

Some of the concluding remarks from the commentator, George Bush (emphasis added):

From all the circumstances, the probability, we think, is very strong that Jephthah availed himself of the provisions of the law, in respect to devoted persons and things; in other words, that during the two months’ interval, he had become better instructed in regard to the subject of vows in general under the Mosaic statutes, and ascertained that a dispensation, in his case, was practicable. We have already remarked that vows were encouraged under the law, and that besides the ’herem or anathema, persons or things might be devoted to God. But where this was the case, the law permitted that a valuation should be made of the devoted person or thing, and that the money should be regarded as a ransom for it, or an offering be presented in its stead. If a human being were devoted, the estimation was to vary according to the sex or age of the person, Lev. 27:2–13, but for an adult female, it was thirty shekels of silver. 

Now supposing that Jephthah, at the time of making the vow, had no distinct recollection or knowledge of this law … yet is it conceivable, that when the execution of it was postponed for two months, and the affair had become notorious throughout the nation, and was the subject of general discussion and great lamentation, there was no person in all Israel who once thought of this law? Would not the agonized father, besides devoting to it his own intensest study, consult the priests on the subject? And would not the priests acquaint him with the provisions of the law in reference to a case of casuistry like the present? And what would naturally be the result? Could he fail to come to the conclusion, that such a sacrifice as he first intended was not only unlawful, but in the face of the numerous pointed prohibitions against it would amount to nothing short of downright murder? … Under these circumstances, would he, could he persevere in his original intention? 

Is it not more probable, that after deep deliberation in concert with the authorized expounders of the law, he yielded to the conviction, that although his solemn pledge did not originally contemplate any such alternative, yet it might be embraced in the provisions now alluded to—that it might come under the class of redeemable vows?… It was not an act of willful disregard of the divine statutes relative to this point, but one rather of misapprehension and infirmity, though from its rash and reckless character by no means innocent. He was still, we may suppose, ready to humble himself before God in view of his precipitancy, and while he paid the ransom price that delivered his daughter from death, piously resolved, by way of punishing himself for his rashness, to fulfill his vow in her civil excision from among the living. He accordingly, we conceive, consigned her henceforth to a state of perpetual seclusion and celibacy—of living consecration to God—and in this manner ‘did unto her his vow,’ though in a mode of execution, which did not, in the first instance, enter into his thoughts.

Another interesting point, as to why the text ends as it does, stating that Jephthah did to her according to his vow — without mentioning the details:  Jephthah was a leader, a judge, and the story of his vow became well known by all the people.  Yet the Levitical system regarding vows is such a serious matter, never to be taken lightly or disregarded.  To include the full details of what actually occurred, that Jephthah “only” consigned his daughter to lifetime service to God and she was not killed, could possibly signal to the common people the general idea to lightly esteem vows, that vows could be altered and changed willy-nilly.  We certainly know that throughout Israel’s history such did become a problem, of people taking vows in wrong ways and breaking their vows –texts such as Matthew 5:33-37) and Jeremiah 34:8-11 come to mind.  

In the commentator’s words:

we may suggest in reply, that the Spirit of inspiration may have framed the record as it now stands, marked by a somewhat ambiguous aspect, in order to guard against a light estimate of the obligation of vows. We do not affirm this to have been the design, but it is certainly conceivable that if it had been expressly stated that the vow in its literal sense had not been performed, it might have gone to relax somewhat of the apprehended sacredness of all such votive engagements, and led men to think that God himself might easily dispense with them. Whereas, as it is now worded, and would be perhaps most naturally understood, it would inspire far other sentiments, and lead men at once to be very cautious in making, and very punctilious in performing their vows.

This commentary on Judges, by 19th century writer George Bush, and in the list of Charles Spurgeons’s recommended commentaries, is well worth the Logos purchase and the time for reading it.  Nowhere before in all my reading, including of sermons and online articles, have I read such a thorough examination of all the data, and thorough responses to all the possible questions and objections that have been raised concerning Jephthah’s vow and its fulfillment.

  1. November 1, 2021 at 9:02 am

    Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging.

  2. Gerry
    November 1, 2021 at 6:05 pm

    Hi Lynda:

    Interesting post on this I interesting part of Gods Word.

    It’s been a while since I read this portion and while I did not quite understand what happened to Jephthah’s daughter I had no idea that some had condemned him as a religious hypocrite.

    I certainly did not see him that way and felt sad that he had made this vow, for as you point out there are ample references to his sincerity toward God and desire to do what honors Him, even if confused as to how to do that.

    I recall just feeling sad for Jephthah when I read this.

    Also, how refreshing was his daughter’s response to the turn of events; submission to her God’s Will for her!

    I could not help thinking that MacArthur labeling him a religious hypocrite was like the pot calling the kettle black.

    I wonder how much money Mac has made off those “study Bibles”, not to mention all those other titles his business enterprise has pumped out tenaciously over the years. Apparently this poor man never gave much thought to the scripture that declares the gospel not a means of “gain”- worldly gain that is- for it is just as clear that it is a most assuredly a means of spiritual gain…to those who seek it for that reason first and foremost.

    In Him
    Gerry

    • November 2, 2021 at 1:42 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Gerry, and yes a good observation about the one calling Jepthah a religious hypocrite: not truly understanding the scriptures and their true power, but seeing it all as means to worldly gain (in all the ways such as the actual wealth and the celebrity status), instead of the true riches, the true, lasting, spiritual blessing and gain.

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