Judges 11:12-40

Then Jephthah sent messengers to the Ammonite king with the question: "What do you have against us that you have attacked our country?" 13The king of the Ammonites answered Jephthah's messengers, "When Israel came up out of Egypt, they took away my land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, all the way to the Jordan. Now give it back peaceably." 14Jephthah sent back messengers to the Ammonite king, 15saying:  "This is what Jephthah says: Israel did not take the land of Moab or the land of the Ammonites. 16But when they came up out of Egypt, Israel went through the desert to the Red Sea and on to Kadesh. 17Then Israel sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, 'Give us permission to go through your country,' but the king of Edom would not listen. They sent also to the king of Moab, and he refused. So Israel stayed at Kadesh. 18  "Next they traveled through the desert, skirted the lands of Edom and Moab, passed along the eastern side of the country of Moab, and camped on the other side of the Arnon. They did not enter the territory of Moab, for the Arnon was its border.

19  "Then Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, who ruled in Heshbon, and said to him, 'Let us pass through your country to our own place.' 20Sihon, however, did not trust Israel to pass through his territory. He mustered all his men and encamped at Jahaz and fought with Israel. 21  "Then the Lord, the God of Israel, gave Sihon and all his men into Israel's hands, and they defeated them. Israel took over all the land of the Amorites who lived in that country, 22capturing all of it from the Arnon to the Jabbok and from the desert to the Jordan. 23  "Now since the Lord, the God of Israel, has driven the Amorites out before his people Israel, what right have you to take it over? 24Will you not take what your god Chemosh gives you? Likewise, whatever the Lord our God has given us, we will possess. 25Are you better than Balak son of Zippor, king of Moab? Did he ever quarrel with Israel or fight with them? 26For three hundred years Israel occupied Heshbon, Aroer, the surrounding settlements and all the towns along the Arnon. Why didn't you retake them during that time? 27I have not wronged you, but you are doing me wrong by waging war against me. Let the Lord, the Judge, decide the dispute this day between the Israelites and the Ammonites." 

28The king of Ammon, however, paid no attention to the message Jephthah sent him. 29Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah. He crossed Gilead and Manasseh, passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from there he advanced against the Ammonites. 30And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord: "If you give the Ammonites into my hands, 31whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord's, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering." 32Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the Lord gave them into his hands. 33He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon.

34When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of tambourines! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. 35When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, "Oh! My daughter! You have made me miserable and wretched, because I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break." 36"My father," she replied, "you have given your word to the Lord. Do to me just as you promised, now that the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites. 37But grant me this one request," she said. "Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry." 38"You may go," he said. And he let her go for two months. She and the girls went into the hills and wept because she would never marry. 39After the two months, she returned to her father and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin. From this comes the Israelite custom 40that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.


This week, we continue to study the story of Jephthah in the book of Judges.  As we said at the beginning of the series of messages on Judges, the spiritual climate in Israel was in a progressive, downward spiral during this time.  By the time we get to Jephthah, the Jews have completely turned their back on Yahweh and have given themselves to seemingly any and every other pagan god in the region.  What little Judaism IS practiced is a perverse mixture of Judaism and Baal worship and we see God’s disapproval in chapter 10 as he sharply rebukes his covenant people.  To review what we learned two weeks ago, we read that Jephthah was the son of a man named Gilead who was probably a Jewish nobleman of some sort but who fathered Jephthah by a prostitute.  Jephthah’s half brothers violate Jewish law by throwing him out of the house and cutting him off from his inheritance.  Jephthah, who was known as a skilled warrior earns a living by gathering around himself a small army of worthless men—mercenaries who go around the countryside hiring themselves out as a hit squad to those with the cash and the need to intimidate or eliminate their adversaries.  That’s Jephthah’s background—soaked with sin and godlessness.

            When the Ammonites on the eastern border of Israel begin to invade Israel into Jephthah’s former homeland of Gilead, the elders of that area call on him to come back and lead their army in the hopes of dispelling this Ammonite threat.  They don’t consult God in the matter of who their leader would be and there is never any mention of God raising up Jephthah as a judge as we have seen with other judges.  The author labors to communicate that Jephthah, unlike other judges is asked to be the deliverer of his people purely on the basis of fallen human reason.  Jephthah responds to the elders’ offer to be their deliverer with amazing shrewdness.  We discover he is one smooth operator as he plays these elders like a cheap violin and manipulates his way not only into the position of deliverer--commander of the army but also the president of the region.  He brilliantly uses his status as an outcast to his advantage and parlays that injustice into political leverage that forces the elders to make him the chief executive officer in Gilead.  The author portrays Jephthah as a person who is good at political deal making—a born wheeler-dealer.  Jephthah, though thoroughly paganized in his religious faith (along with his countrymen,) is clearly a very gifted and ruthless person on and off the battlefield.

         After a brief introduction, this week’s text falls fairly naturally into three major sections.  The first in verses 12-27 again put on display Jephthah’s skill as a dealmaker.  The second section begins in verse 30 and contains the gut-wrenching account of Jephthah’s self-serving, pagan vow.  The third section in verses 29 and 32-33 show us yet another example of God’s inexplicable grace in the midst of profound spiritual darkness.  In the first section, we see Jephthah quickly taking control of this crisis situation in his homeland.  The Ammonites are attacking his people and Jephthah chooses to try to stave off the onslaught through some ancient near eastern diplomacy.  He sends a message to the king of Ammon and when he queries the king as to why he is attacking Israel, he justifies the attack saying, “When Israel came up out of Egypt, they too away my land from the Arnon to the Jabbock, all the way to the Jordan.  Now give it back peaceably.”  Jephthah spends the next 14 verses responding to that charge and demand and in so doing we see Jephthah’s skill as a negotiator.  Jephthah’s response can be divided into three arguments.

            In verses 16-20 Jephthah responds to the blatant historical inaccuracies of the king’s charge by setting the facts straight about the Jews’ relationship to Ammon and their land.  We could call this the factual reconstruction part of his argument.  The king of Ammon engages in the same kind of deception Saddam Hussein used in 1990 when he claimed that Kuwait was part of Iraq.  When the king claims that this 60-mile by 30-mile stretch of land once belonged to Ammon he is lying through his teeth.  That section of land never belonged to Ammon and the king knows that.  Jephthah recounts for the king the story of Israel’s initial entrance into Canaan under Moses and his version of the events is faithful to the account given in Deuteronomy chapter two and Numbers 20-21.  In Deuteronomy 2:18-19 God told Moses, “Today you are to pass by the region of Moab at Ar. 19When you come to the Ammonites, do not harass them or provoke them to war, for I will not give you possession of any land belonging to the Ammonites. I have given it as a possession to the descendants of Lot."  Jephthah goes to some pains to remind the king that not only had the Jews not only not attacked Ammon, but also veered around Moab, another region God had forbidden the Jews to take.

            He then explains that the reason they took the land from the Amorites NOT AMMONITES was because when the Jews asked to peaceably go through their land, a king named Sihon ruthlessly attacked them and in response to that attack, they fought in self-defense, conquered Sihon’s army and took the spoils, this land.  Does this narrative with its debate about land claims and revisionist history remind you of what is happening today in the Middle East?  Isaac and Ishmael still cannot get along and we must not stop, as the Psalmist reminds us to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”  Jephthah’s point is clear—“because you never had any factual, valid claim to this land you are now invading, you have no right to it."  That alone would have been a sufficient response to slay the king’s phony premise, but Jephthah demonstrates comprehensiveness in his response and goes beyond just the factual basis of the Ammonite claim.

            In verses 21-24 Jephthah details that not only do the Ammonites have no factual claim to the land they are not invading, neither do they have any spiritual claim to the land.  This is the spiritual argument and Jephthah deftly makes his case here.  In order to understand this argument, we must understand that in the ancient near east each nation had a patron god that ruled over them and he was responsible to give “his” nation a land in which to dwell and prosper.  The patron god of Israel is Yahweh while the patron god of the Ammonites was Milkom.  And in verse 21 Jephthah says the reason the Jews rightfully possessed the land in dispute is because Yahweh gave it to them.  Verse 23 says, “Now since the LORD, the God of Israel, has driven the Amorites out before his people Israel, what right have you to take it over?  These people rightly believed that the possession of land was ultimately a spiritual matter and because Yahweh had already claimed this piece of land for his people, what right do they have to come in and try to subvert the plan of God?  

Verse 24 says, “Will you not take what your god Chemosh gives you?”  Do you notice that Jephthah calls their god Chemosh?  That’s a slap in the face of these people—Chemosh was NOT the patron god of Ammon—[we said their patron god was Milkom], but of neighboring Moab.  All these people would have known that—especially Jephthah who, as we will see later on is a thoroughly paganized man himself.  By ascribing the wrong god to the Ammonites, he is showing his contempt for them.  We see that this message to the Ammonite king has some real bite in it if you read it through the lens of its day. Finally in verse 24 Jephthah closes out the spiritual argument by declaring, “Likewise, whatever the LORD our God has given us, we will possess.”  In other words, “our God gave it to us and we are not going to let you take what He has given to us.  It belongs to him, not you and he has given it to us, not you.”  Do you hear the logic there?  That’s a spiritual argument defending Israel’s right to the land.

A third argument is in verses 25-26 where Jephthah makes an argument based on historical precedent.  Then as now, precedent played an important role in determining the legality of an action.  So in verse 25 Jephthah cites the precedent of one of the neighboring countries and their response to the Jewish claim to this land.  Are you better than Balak son of Zippor, king of Moab?  Did he ever quarrel with Israel or fight with them?” According to Numbers 22 Balak was the king of the neighboring Moabites when the Jews took this land now being invaded by the Ammonites.  The historical record shows that Balak of Moab didn’t lift a finger when the Jews took this land from its previous inhabitants and the implication is, “so neither should you.”  The precedent of the Moabites is used here to show the illegitimacy of any claim the Ammonites have to this land.   

Another historical precedent is cited in verse 26, “For three hundred years Israel occupied Heshbon, Aroer, the surrounding settlements and all the towns of the Arnon [this was the disputed territory].  Why didn’t you retake them during that time?”  This is a clear enough statement.  “If you have felt a right to claim this land for such a long time as you say, why are you only making a case for it now—after you have invaded it?  We’ve been here 300 years.”  The historical precedent of the Ammonite response to the Jews living in this land was an attitude of acceptance.  Their invasion of the land signaled a very recent change of heart and that indicated this was not a matter of the Ammonites taking back what was theirs but in fact, they were driven by political, expansionist motives.  Jephthah concludes these three arguments strongly and declares in verse 27, “I have not wronged you, but you are doing me wrong by waging war against me.  Let the LORD, the Judge, decide the dispute this day between the Israelites and the Ammonites.”  He rejects the Ammonite king’s defense of his invasion—he says it is an unjust war and he piously appeals to a higher court—the court of Yahweh who he indicates will decide favorably on their behalf.  Notice that at the end of the message, Jephthah seems resigned to the fact that this disagreement will be decided in battle.  In other words, Jephthah probably did not initiate this series of communications with much hope of averting a fight.  But what this might have done would be to get the Ammonites off his back while they negotiated.

One question we should ask after reading this message to the Ammonite king should be, “Why is this here?”  Why does the author take 16 verses to recount for us a letter of diplomacy from Jephthah to an unnamed Ammonite king?  He wasn’t including this because it played a pivotal role in the outcome of this dispute.  The letter, as shrewdly as it was argued was a complete failure.  Verse 28 says, “The king of Ammon, however, paid no attention to the message Jephthah sent him.”  The Jews had to strap it on and fight against the Ammonites anyway.  The answer to the question as to why the author included it is bound up in the fact the inspired authors of Hebrew narrative included what they did for a specific purpose and that purpose was NOT only to convey historical truth.  They do that but the authors write to convey a specific message, not just to record accurate historical data. So, what is the message here?

Part of the answer is surely found in the context. The author takes pains in the earlier section to show us that Jephthah is a shrewd, calculating political animal who is very adept in making persuasive arguments designed to achieve his personal agenda.  Last time we saw how he skillfully manipulated the Gilead elders into giving him political power and this time we see his skillful argumentation that may well have been used to buy him some time to mobilize an army to fight.  In any case, the author clearly wants us to focus on the person of Jephthah and his skill in negotiating.   In the next section of the narrative, we see Jephthah preparing for war as he advances against the Ammonites and in verse 30 we read, “And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD:  “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD’S, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”

This section obviously deals with Jephthah’s self-serving, pagan vow.  This is one of the darkest moments in Old Testament history—this series of events is unspeakably wicked and repulsive.  It makes even the hardest hearts cringe.  Do you see how the context helps us interpret this event?  Jephthah wants to be president of Gilead so he shrewdly uses his status as an outcast to bargain for power.  Once in office Jephthah wants to either avoid a war or buy time so he once again leans on his strength as a bargainer in a very proficient, though ultimately unsuccessful manner in his dealings with the king of Ammon.  Now, finally here—pressed to fight a difficult foe Jephthah once again plays to his strength as a negotiator… and seeks to strike a deal with God.  Jephthah is a deal cutter.  He cut a deal to gain his political power.  He goes through the process of cutting a deal to either postpone or completely avoid warfare and now that war is imminent he tries to cut a deal with the Lord of the universe to compel him to give his people the victory.

Do you see just how sick this is and just how wicked Jephthah is to do this?  Far too often Jephthah has been portrayed as some sort of tragic figure who, out of his own innocent ignorance inadvertently puts his child at risk and who, much to this father’s horror mistakenly costs his beloved daughter her life because he nobly keeps this ill-fated vow he makes.  The author gives us NO permission to interpret this event this way. He clearly sets up the narrative to portray this as just another example of Jephthah’s self-serving deal-making character.  The rest of the narrative only reinforces that portrait.  We know that this vow is self-serving when we notice Jephthah’s response to his daughter coming out of the house.  Verse 35 says, “When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh! Daughter! You have made me miserable and wretched, because I have made a vow to the LORD that I cannot break.”  Notice the wording here conveys that Jephthah places the blame for this tragedy on his daughter—“You have made me miserable and wretched.”    Another scholar translates this, “You are responsible for my ruin!”  He blames his daughter for his ruin and for putting him between a rock and a hard place.  He’s looking at his only child who he now knows he will sacrifice as a burnt offering and instead of grieving her or cursing himself for making such a wicked, satanic vow he blames her for making him miserable.  When he should have been ultimately concerned with his daughter’s welfare, Jephthah has made this all about him and he blames it on his daughter. 

What’s more, if we assume this vow was binding on Jephthah (and scholars disagree on that point) wouldn’t it have been more valiant to break the vow and take upon himself whatever curse would have been placed on him according to the law?  Any loving father would surely rather receive the curse of breaking a vow and take that upon himself than keep the vow at the expense of his daughter’s life.  He made the stupid vow—he should be the one paying for it, not his daughter.  Jephthah is a self-centered man.  This gives us a real window into Jephthah’s heart and what we see there is as dark as pitch.

We know this is totally man-centered because Jephthah relates to God just like he has the Gileadites and the Ammonites—not as a God to be humbly prayed to and before whom you are contrite and submitted.  No, to Jephthah God is Someone you can strike a deal with.  Do you hear how by the terms of this deal Jephthah assumes that God a need or desire for what may have come out of Jephthah’s front door?  He assumes that this burnt offering would be a delicious enough carrot to dangle in front of Yahweh’s nose to compel him to come across a victory.  What does this tell us about Jephthah’s view of God?  Jephthah doesn’t humble himself before God, pleading for his mercy.  NO!  He arrogantly pulls a seat up to the divine bargaining table and lays down his terms—He tries to cut another deal.

This is not only self-serving and man-centered it is also thoroughly pagan.  Remember, back in 10:10 the author told us that the Jews were running after all the gods of the pagans.  They worshipped Milkom of the Moabites and Chemosh of the Ammonites and Chemosh demanded as part of his appeasement from his people, child sacrifice.  When Jephthah tells God he can have as a burnt offering of “whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me” that clause quoting one scholar, “envisages the exuberant welcome by children of a father who has been away on a military campaign.”[Block, 368]  Its true that Jephthah did not know with certainty that it would be his only child coming out to greet him, but the text implies that Jephthah certainly knew that was a strong possibility—it might not be a dog or other animal—it was more likely to be his daughter.  At best, Jephthah is gambling with fate and the stakes are his daughter who he has callously thrown out on this pagan roulette table.  When his daughter comes out of the house, Jephthah loses his gamble and his reaction is more consistent with losing a big bet than losing your only child.

We can see how thoroughly Jephthah is paganized by the very thought that he would knowingly offer to God the possible sacrifice of his daughter.  Child sacrifice was anathema to Yahweh.  In Leviticus 20, he speaks to this detestable practice of the Ammonites as they served their god Molech.  He says in verse two, “…Any Israelite or alien living in Israel who gives any of his children to Molech must be put to death…” Child sacrifice was a capital crime.  Would any Jew of any understanding believe that Yahweh, a God of patience and love, a God who prohibits murder and who advocates for the helpless would ever condone child sacrifice?  Only a thoroughly paganized Jew would bring such a wretched offer to Yahweh.  Jephthah betrays his earlier pious language about “Let the LORD judge…” in his correspondence with the king of Ammon.  He doesn’t care anything about Yahweh—in fact he doesn’t know the first thing about the character of Israel’s God.  Jephthah is a pagan through and through.

The theme of the third and final section is one we have seen repeatedly in Judges and that is God’s inexplicable grace.  In the midst of this hideous, revolting context with this grotesque example of Hebrew leadership God remains faithful to his covenant people.  In verse 29 before Jephthah makes his vow it says, “The Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah.”  God wants us to know that whatever victory was achieved by Jephthah and his army was won only because God, in a stunning display of grace, was empowering this paganized man.  We see this reiterated in verse 32 after Jephthah has made this foolish vow, “Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites and the LORD gave them into his hands.”  The hero in this victory is Yahweh, not Jephthah—this victory was HIS.  We dare not draw from this narrative the conclusion that God is either indifferent or worse yet, approving of what has gone on in this gruesome, paganized, satanic context.  NO!  The ONLY reason God undertakes for his people is because they are his people and He is a God of grace.  He could have just as easily let them languish at the hands of the Ammonites but he instead chooses to take pity on them and deliver his rebellious, paganized covenant people.  We dare not be emboldened by this story to think that God will be played a fool by a rebellious people.  What we should take away from this story is the unfathomable strength of God’s commitment to his covenant people.  Though we are faithless, he is faithful, he cannot deny himself.”  This truth should drive us to our knees to worship a God of such amazing grace.

What else should are we to draw from this story?  Here’s one point of application and that is:  We must never think that God is someone to strike a deal with.  This point seems so obvious as to be insulting to us but the truth is we try to strike deals with God all the time.  The more extreme examples would be the parents of a critically ill child who tell God that if he pulls their child through they will do all sorts of things for him.  Most of us are far too sophisticated to do that.  No, our divine deal making is much more subtle than Jephthah’s bargain.  How do we bargain with God?  We bargain with God every time we try to earn his love or acceptance by what we do for him.  When we believe that we can compel God to love us or accept us on the basis of what we do for him we are acting just like Jephthah.

God must really love me today—I read my bible for 45 minutes this morning.”  “Of course I’m going to heaven—I’ve gone to church all my life.”  “God is pleased with me because I spend five hours a week at church.”  “God is pleased with me because I don’t smoke or drink or chase women or use bad language.”  Do you hear how in each of those statements a deal has been struck with God that utterly betrays the gospel?  God, I’ll do this and this and this and I will NOT do this and this and this and in return, love me, accept me and get me to heaven.  But if I fail to do this and this and this and if I sinfully do commit this sin and this sin or this one, then you will clearly not love me and accept me.”   That’s a business deal, plain and simple and as Protestants we know in our hearts that this is horrible theology, we do it ALL the time, don’t we?

May I suggest that this is far more wicked, more presumptuous than Jephthah’s vow?  Think about it, when Jephthah offered his daughter as a burnt offering, he was trying to buy God’s power with a human sacrifice.  When we try to buy off God on the basis of our performance, we are not only assuming that we can be good enough to warrant His favor (a preposterous notion) we are also trampling on the precious blood of his Son.  Because the truth is God IS holy and we are sinful and His favor DID need to be purchased—our acceptance before him DID need to be bought.  But when we try to do it on the basis of our performance we are saying to him, “When you sent your Son to die on a cross to pay the penalty of my sins—to cancel my indebtedness to you—it wasn’t sufficient.  It wasn’t enough.  You need what I have to offer you—so take these filthy rags of my righteousness and accept them as my attempt to gain favor with you.”  A sacrifice WAS needed to satisfy the wrath of a holy God against sin, but not a burnt offering and certainly not anything we could ever do for Him.  We can’t strike a deal with God and we need to see our legalist attempts to earn his acceptance and love as arrogant, deal-making before a God who has already paid for our acceptance—who has already settled the matter of his love for us in giving his only Son to die for us.  We are to love and obey God and be in his word and regularly be with God’s people NOT in EXCHANGE for what God has done for us but in RESPONSE to what God has done for us in Christ. 

The Christian life is not a series of deals you strike with God, it’s a series of joy-filled, love-induced thank offerings given to him in response to the glorious “deal” the Father made with the Son when in eternity past the Father said, “These people will be sinful and my anger against them will need to be satisfied by a perfect human sacrifice” and the Son said, “I’ll do it—I’ll go and place myself on the altar of the cross—I will be the perfect blood sacrifice—I will receive your wrath that their sins deserve—You purchase them with MY blood.”  That’s the only “deal” that needed to be made and it was completely out of our hands and still is.  If you have not accepted Christ and his death as the penalty for your sins—or if you foolishly try to buy God’s favor and love by what you do, learn from Jephthah and stop the foolishness.  Instead, simply receive by faith what God has done for you and live a life of joy in response to his indescribably gift.  May God give all of us the grace to believe and live out the gospel of Jesus Christ.


Page last modified on 8/25/2002

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