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Jephthah: His Character and His Vow

November 1, 2021 3 comments

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.

Judges 2-3, Thorns in the Side, and Experience and Providence

September 1, 2021 1 comment

Several years ago when I was referencing a sermon series in 2 Corinthians and the Apostle Paul’s thorn in the flesh, a blog reader here noted the word study and Old Testament references to “thorns,” which gives indication that when Paul used this term he was referring to the Judaizers who were causing such agitation for him; they were his “thorn in the flesh.”

One of these mentions of “thorns in the side” comes from Judges 2:3, the Lord’s pronouncement to the people of Israel, who had broken the covenant with Him.  Therefore, the Lord would no longer drive out the inhabitants of the land; rather, they (the peoples dwelling among them) shall be thorns in your side.  

As I continue through the book of Judges, chapters 2 and 3 mention the people being tested — a theme referenced elsewhere such as in Deuteronomy 8 and 13 — to know whether the people would be true to the Lord, to walk in His ways, to keep His commands.  Here, Judges 2:22: so that through them I may test Israel, whether they will keep the ways of the Lord, to walk in them as their fathers kept them, or not,”  and again in Judges 3:1 and 3:4 — the surrounding nations were left to test Israel.  So, the nations were left as a “thorn in the side,” as something that could snare them, and then described also as a test, to see if the people would keep the ways of the Lord, or not.  

Then another reason is mentioned for this new providence from God:  for later generations to know military discipline and war.  The surface level explanation brings to mind the idea of military tactics and actual battles of war.  Yet, as George Bush’s commentary points out, this text includes a deeper level of meaning, beyond this first idea that he describes as an inadequate view. 

The term ‘to know,’ must in fairness be interpreted according to its usual Scriptural import, which is to have not merely an intellectual, but an experimental knowledge of any thing. By those therefore who ‘had not known all the wars of Canaan,’ we understand those who had not with confiding faith, with lively zeal, and from a prompt and grateful spirit of obedience, entered into and persevered in those conflicts with the Canaanites which God had enjoined.

As they had grossly failed in their duty in this respect, and had not ‘known’ these wars as they should have done, their children, according to the righteous economy of Providence, were appointed to reap the bitter fruits of their neglect. They were to know to their cost, to be taught by sad experience, the trouble, vexation, and annoyance that should come upon the successive generations descended from those who, by their culpable remissness, had so righteously incurred this afflictive judgment.

(From George Bush, “Notes, Critical and Practical, on the Book of Judges: Designed as a General Help to Biblical Reading and Instruction.”)

Such a great point made here, and a fuller explanation of this text. Indeed, Judges 3:4 notes that the testing’s purpose was to know “whether they would obey the commandments of the Lord” — commandments (to their fathers by the hand of Moses) which clearly encompassed a lot more than just battle tactics used by Joshua and those immediately after Joshua. We can see the application to our own spiritual warfare–and our great failures, with the bitter consequences of past neglects. So true it is, that we must often learn this way, through sad experience of our failures. God chastens and disciplines His children. (Ref. Hebrews 12:5-6.) Yet, praise God, He does not leave us there. In the book of Judges, the people sometimes were oppressed for many years (in one example in Judges 3, for 18 years), but when they learned to cry out to God, to seek Him earnestly, God again brought deliverance. We learn from these examples (ref. 1 Corinthians 10:11), and likewise seek God, knowing that He will answer us when we call upon Him, in true repentance, as we seek Him earnestly.

Study: The Book of Judges, and Othniel as a Type of Christ

August 26, 2021 3 comments

I’ve started a study on the book of Judges.  A local church Bible group is doing a study of it, and though it didn’t work out to attend that one, the book of Judges is a good study topic, a book not often thought of for Bible study yet, as always with God’s word, quite appropriate and relevant for our day.  

Dr. Alan Cairns (see previous post) did a 23-part series in the book of Judges (1989-1990)– not covering every chapter and verse but on quite a few passages, starting with Judges 1 and 3 in a look at the life of Othniel, the first judge.  For more detailed study of all 21 chapters, verse by verse, a good commentary I found, from an author recommended by Charles Spurgeon, is “Notes, Practical and Expository, on the Book of Judges,”  by 19th century scholar George Bush  — a distant relative/ancestor of the recent U.S. Presidents.

Judges is a book relevant for our time, an age of apostasy, as Dr. Cairns noted in his first sermon.  The particular apostasy he noted was the influence of Roman Catholicism and surveys showing the lack of doctrinal knowledge by Protestants (who by their answers to questions appeared to believe Roman Catholicism instead of Protestant theology).  The apostasy is much more pronounced now, a generation later. 

Othniel was the first of the twelve Judges in the Book of Judges — along with a 13th, Abimelech.  From the references to him in Judges 1:13, and again in Judges 3:9-11, here are some interesting observations about Othniel, including ways that he can be considered a type of Christ.  

First, Othniel’s name means “Lion of God,” and our Lord is referred to also as a Lion, the “Lion of the Tribe of Judah.”  Like Christ, Othniel was called by God, raised up for conflicts and for conquest.  Othniel delivered the people from their bondage (Judges 3:9).  Othniel purchased his bride (Judges 1:13), again a type/illustration of what Christ accomplished for His people. 

From Bush’s commentary on Judges chapter 1, another interesting observation:  life for the Israelites during this era was not always one of conflict and falling away.  This book highlights the times when the people were disobedient, and the continual cycle of disobedience, punishment, and deliverance — through a judge brought to the scene, to deliver the people and bring them back to the Lord. Yet peaceful times, many years at a time, are mentioned in brief sentences, years we are told almost nothing about.  In Othniel’s day, for instance, after the war and conquest by Othniel we are told that the land had rest for 40 years (Judges 3:11). 

Here I recall a “Chronicles of Narnia” scene in which C.S. Lewis depicted this idea, that there are times of peace during which little appears to happen, punctuated by great dramatic times of conflict and conquest:  the children entering Narnia had only visited at the major, important times of crisis in the land’s history, but the Narnians recalled living through the ordinary, routine years of peace.  So with the book of Judges, we do see a lot of conflict, and a lot of apostasy throughout, but (by God’s grace) there were respites, times of peace for the Israelites.  Of these years, though, we are only told the consequence, in the terrible reality of human sin and depravity:  those years of peace only brought about complacency and worldliness, for the people to forget about God and to quit serving Him.  Then another era of oppression, also lasting several years at a time, would come, before God would again send another judge to deliver His people.

The first chapter of Judges has a few other positive lessons, from the good things that occurred before the disappointments:  Judah and Simeon worked together as a team (Judges 1:3-5).  One group was stronger and the leader (Judah), and Simeon assisted.  Commentator George Bush notes the lessons: 


Judah therefore must lead in this perilous enterprise; for God not only appoints service according to the strength and ability he has given, but ‘would also have the burden of honor and the burden of labor go together.’ Those who have the precedency in rank, reputation, or influence, should always be disposed to go before others in every good work, undismayed by danger, difficulty, or obloquy, that they may encourage others by their example. … [Regarding Simeon]: ‘Observe here that the strongest should not despise but desire the assistance even of those that are weaker. It becomes Israelites to help one another against Canaanites; and all Christians, even those of different tribes, to strengthen one another’s hands against the common interests of Satan’s kingdom.’ Henry.

Another commentary I’ll be referencing along the way is the well-known Matthew Henry commentary, a standard go-to commentary for most books of the Bible for his insights and applications in the details of these texts. (As seen in the above excerpt from Bush, he also included selections from Matthew Henry in his commentary.)  All three of these — the two commentaries, and Alan Cairns’ sermons series, are good study helps as I continue this study, past the first chapter and through the rest of the book.