The Word Made Fresh
1Jephthah, a renowned fighter from Gilead, was the son of a man named Gilead and a woman who was a prostitute. 2Gilead had other sons with his legal wife, and when they were grown, they chased Jephthah off, determined to keep him from inheriting anything from their father. 3So, he had moved on and settled in Tob where he recruited a band of outlaws and raided the surrounding area.
4Some time passed, and the Ammonites went to war against Israel. 5When that happened, the leaders of Gilead went to Tob to find Jephthah. 6They begged him to come and lead them against the Ammonite invaders.
7Jephthah said to them, “Aren’t you the very ones who rejected me, and ran me away from my father’s house? Why come to me now when you’re in a little trouble?”
8They answered, “Yes, but we are turning to you now. Please come back with us and fight the Ammonites; then you can be the ruler over all the people of Gilead.”
9“Very well,” said Jephthah. “I’ll return with you to fight the Ammonites, and then I will be the chief of the people of Gilead.”
10They said, “Agreed, the LORD as our witness.”
11So, Jephthah went with them, and the people of Gilead made him their commander, and at Mizpah he repeated his promise.
12Then Jephthah sent a message to the king of the Ammonites to ask, “Why have you come to make war against us?”
13The king replied, “We are here because when Israel came out of Egypt, they took the land away from us, from the Arnon wadi to the Jabbok wadi and then to the Jordan river. Now give it back to us.”
14Jephthah sent this reply: 15“This is what Jephthah says: Israel did not take away Moab’s land or the Ammonites’ land. 16When they left Egypt they traveled through the wilderness from the Sea of Reeds to Kadesh. 17They sought permission from the king of Edom to pass through his land, but he refused. They also asked the king of Moab, but he also refused, so they halted at Kadesh. 18Then they again went through the wilderness around the territory of Edom and Moab and camped east of Moab on the other side of the Arnon wadi. They did not enter Moab. They stayed on the other side of the Arnon, Moab’s border. 19Then Israel sent messengers to king Sihon of the Amorites at Heshbon and asked permission to pass through his land. 20But Sihon refused and brought his army to Jahaz and attacked Israel. 21Then the LORD, the God of Israel, gave Sihon and his army over to Israel, and Israel defeated them 22and occupied all the territory of the Amorites, from the Arnon to the Jabok and from the wilderness to the Jordan. 23So, the LORD, the God of Israel, defeated the Amorites for Israel. Do you want to be next? 24Shouldn’t you be content with the land your god Chemosh gave you? And shouldn’t we possess what the LORD has taken for us? 25Do you think you’re better than king Balak son of Zippor of Moab? Did he ever attack or go to war against Israel? 26Israel has lived in Heshbon and Aroer and the surrounding country all along the Arnon for three hundred years. Why didn’t you lay claim to the land all that time? 27I haven’t done anything to you, but now you have threatened to go to war against me. Let the LORD judge between Israel and Moab.”
28The Ammonite king paid no attention to Jephthah.
29Then the spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah, and he marched from Gilead through Manasseh, then through Mizpah of Gilead, and confronted the Ammonites. 30He made a promise to the LORD. He said, “If you will give the Ammonites to me, 31when I return home victorious I will offer to the LORD as a burnt offering whoever is the first to come out of my house.”
32Then Jephthah attacked the Ammonites, and the LORD gave him the victory. 33He devastated the Ammonite army from Aroer to the land near Minnith, twenty towns in all as far as Abel-Keramim, and the Ammonites fell before the Israelites.
34Then Jephthah returned home to Mizpah, and his daughter, his only child, rushed out to meet him with timbrels and dancing. 35When Jephthah saw her he tore at his clothes. “Oh, no, my child!” he cried. “You have brought me down with grief because I made a promise to the LORD and I cannot take it back!”
36She replied, “My father, whatever you promised the LORD, you have to do to me, because the LORD has given you victory over the Ammonites. 37But, father,” she said, “give me two months to walk through the mountains with my companions to weep that I will die a virgin.”
38Jephthah told her to go and sent her away for two months with her friends to mourn that she would never marry. 39After two months she returned to her father, who carried out the pledge he had made. She had never slept with a man. Because of her it became a custom in Israel 40that for four days every year the young girls would go out to mourn the daughter of Jephthah from Gilead.
1-3: Jephthah’s background is given. He is a Gileadite, from the region of Gilead, and his father was also named Gilead. The son of a prostitute, his beginnings echo Abimelech’s story. Abimelech was also the child of a consort, despised by his brothers, and an outcast. Jephthah surrounds himself with “worthless fellows,” and raids villages across the border.
4-11: The Ammonites rise up in arms, and the elders call on Jephthah to lead their defense. He at first declines, but then agrees. The gist of their conversation seems to be to offer him something akin to a kingship. The deal is made “before the LORD” at Mizpah, indicating that Jephthah is seen by the authors of the book of Judges as God’s chosen one. He is an outlaw, but will turn out to be a surprisingly capable leader.
12-28: Jephthah enters into negotiations with the unidentified Ammonite king, who gives his version of history — that Israel came out of Egypt and took Ammonite territory. Japhthah replies with a surprisingly accurate and well-informed account of the real history of Israel’s wanderings and subsequent conquest of the land, ending with the assertion that the land the Ammonite king claims never belonged to the Ammonites, but rather to the Amorites under king Sihon. He claims the land is occupied by the Israelites as their divine right. The Ammonites, for their part, disagree.
Some of today’s tension in that part of the world can be traced to this very confrontation.
29-33: Jephthah gathers a volunteer army and prepares for battle. In the process he makes a very foolish vow, one that God surely would not have inspired, that he will sacrifice the first person who comes out of his house when he returns, if he returns victorious. And he is victorious.
34-40: Of course, the first one out of his house turns out to be his only child (what was he thinking?!!!), a daughter whose name is not given. She stoically consents to being sacrificed, but asks for two months to grieve with her friends. The event, it is said, gives rise to the custom (albeit, apparently, a brief one), for Israelite girls to spend a little time in the wilderness in her memory before they are married.
War is always tragic for the victor as well as the vanquished. It should be avoided if at all possible, whether between nations or between neighbors. It is unforgivable that we are not even told the daughter’s name. She is the noblest person in the whole chapter.