All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. - 2 Timothy 3:16-17

Consequences of a Tragic Vow
Based on Judges 11 and 12

Jephthah is a Gileadite, a region east of the Jordan River named after his famous ancestor, Gilead, the grandson of Mannaseh.

Jephthah’s mother is a prostitute, making him an illegitimate son. He is expelled from the family by his half brothers so they can receive his part of the family inheritance.

Being driven from his home signifies that he is also eliminated from his clan and country, since tribal and inheritance rights all go together; but although he ranks very low in his family, the Lord determines to use him in a remarkable way.

Once expelled from his home, he is forced to flee to Tob, located about 15 miles east of Ramoth Gilead. In this desolate region, he is joined by a group of misfits who also are without employment, property, or training to make a living. Jephthah becomes a skilled fighter and leader who molds these men into a renowned and effective fighting force.

An Offer to Rule

Because of Jephthah’s fame, the elders of Gilead ask to him to lead them in the fight for liberation from 18 years of miserable Ammonite oppression. They essentially invite him and his men to serve as their mercenaries.

“Did you not hate me, and expel me from my father’s house?” Jephthah answers. “Why have you come to me now when you are in distress?”

Apparently the elders had supported his half brothers in driving him from home, and in essence, he is telling them that he feels they’re appealing to him as their last resort.

“That is why we have turned again to you now,” they answer, “that you may go with us and fight against the people of Ammon, and be our head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.”

Jephthah responds, “If you bring me back home, and the Lord delivers the Ammonites to me—will I really be your head?”

“The Lord will be a witness between us,” the elders respond, giving the greatest weight to their promise. Straightaway, they make Jephthah their military commander and civil ruler. His hard life apparently has obviously deepened his faith, because he confirms his intentions before the Lord at Mizpah in what seems to be his coronation ceremony.

Jephthah’s Logic

Jephthah now contacts the Ammonites in an attempt to negotiate peace. He sends messengers to the Ammonite king, asking, “What do you have against me, that you have come to fight against me in my land?”

The king responds, “Because Israel took away my land when they came up out of Egypt…. Now therefore restore those lands peaceably.”

In response, Jephthah reminds him that Israel has justly received their land. They had come from the wilderness to cross the Jordan into Canaan, however Edom and Moab were in their path. God had told the Israelites not to attack either of them because they were their relatives (the Edomites were the descendants of Esau, and the Moabites were the descendants of Lot). However, when the Israelites asked permission to cross through their land, they were denied. This forced them to travel around those lands through a difficult and torturous route.

Farther north, Israel had asked Sihon, king of the Amorites, for permission to pass through his land, but he responded by attacking them. He lost that battle—and his land! So by the time Israel received the land, it did not belong to Ammon any longer, but to Sihon of the Amorites.

At this point, Jephthah adds a second argument, concerning the national gods. He says, in essence, that his God gave the Israelites this land by their victory over the Amorites, then adds, “Will you not possess whatever Chemesh your god gives you to possess?” Both countries share the common belief that the battles are always between the gods. The strongest god gives them the land. The strongest god also preserves the possession of the land for his people.

Now Jephthah brings his third argument to bear: Israel has possessed the land for 300 years, and only now, the Ammonites are they attempting to gain it back. Did not the long period of possession prove Israel’s right to the land?

The Ammonite king does not respond to Jephthah’s arguments, so the attempted negotiations fail and war is inevitable. He travels through Gilead and the territory of Manasseh, recruiting solders for his army. Then he makes a vow to the Lord for security saying, “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 greet 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.” The ancients commonly made vows to their deities, and the Hebrews were no exception.

A Sad Mistake

In the battle, the Lord delivers the Ammonites into the hands of Jephthah, and he conquers 20 cities. This victory liberates Israel from the Ammonites for six years.

However, when Jephthah returns to his house after the war, he is met by his daughter, who is happily coming out to meet him, dancing to the sound of small tambourines. It is common for women to go out to meet and greet their victorious soldier as he returns from war.

When Jephthah sees her, he is shocked. He tears his clothes in mourning, exclaiming, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low! You are among those who trouble me! For I have given my word to the Lord, and I cannot go back on it.”

Undoubtedly, she is shocked by his response as he realizes what an awful thing he has done. He realizes not only will he lose his daughter, but that this will also be the end of his lineage, since she is his only his child.

His daughter responds, “My father, if you have given your word to the Lord, 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.”

Then she adds, “ Let this thing be done for me: let me alone for two months, that I may go and wander in the mountains and bewail my virginity, my friends and I.”

Her father says, “Go,” and she leaves for two months.

On her return, he carries out his vow. Of the more than 250 occurrences of “burnt offering” in the Old Testament, it always refers to a literal sacrifice. In Jephthah’s thinking, a vow made to the Lord must be carried out. However, the Lord has already commanded the Israelites not to offer their children as human sacrifices—as the pagans do. Obviously, the Lord does not want him to sacrifice his own child, even if he has made a rash vow.

Although He is a God of great mercy, vows made unto the Lord should be carefully considered. Jephthah’s story stands as both a lesson, and a testament of the seriousness of vows, which our society today does not understand.

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