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The Intriguing Story of Jephthah

Nestled in the middle of the book of Judges is an intriguing story of an intriguing man – Jephthah. Though not specifically called a “judge” he certainly bears all the marks of the others. He rose up to lead Israel to freedom from oppression when it was desperately needed. But his story offers some interesting twists and turns.

A Picture of Christ, Our Captain

First of all, Jephthah was born to an harlot. His Mom was a prostitute, so his half brothers rejected him and kicked him out of the family. When they get in trouble with the Ammonites, they run in fear to Jephthah begging for help…

And they said unto Jephthah, “Come, and be our captain, that we may fight with the children of Ammon.”
~ Judges 11:6

What a picture of Jesus! The innocent half brother of sinful humanity, rejected and thrust out and even hung on the cross. Someday, however, “every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of the Father” when He comes to bring ultimate deliverance to all who choose to be identified with Him as eternal brethren.

What a picture of us – rejecting God and putting His Son from among us, then seeing our need and swearing allegiance to Him by faith.

A Hasty Vow

In the second part of his life, he demonstrates how different he is from Jesus, making a rather hasty vow. He swears that if Ammon falls before the Israelites in battle, he’ll sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house to meet him when he gets home. Culturally, this isn’t so strange – animals would have been roaming around the property, even in and out of the gated yard around his house all the time. But to his surprise, it was his only daughter.

Here is where scholars begin to diverge in their opinions of the text. He tells her of the vow and his intention to keep it, to which she agrees, but first roams the earth for two months to mourn her virginity. He then fulfills the vow and the King James version says the daughters of Israel “went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah.”

Did Jephthah literally sacrifice his daughter’s life? Some scholars say yes, I say no, and here are a few reasons why…

  • She mourned her virginity, which I interpret as meaning that she realized she would never know a man.
  • Bible says he fulfilled his vow, but doesn’t say he killed her but that she “knew no man.”
  • Human sacrifice was strongly forbidden to the Israelites, yet there is no word of condemnation of the act here.
  • Nothing negative is said about Jephthah after this.
  • The word “lament” (KJV) is normally translated as praise in the Old Testament.

I think what Jephthah did to fulfill his vow was to “sacrifice” her to perpetual celibacy. Even if I’m right, the passage still teaches us to take very seriously the words we say because God certainly does. We should never speak rashly and should never make a vow we don’t intend to keep.

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