David Guzik's Commentary on the Bible
Judges 11 - JEPHTHAH AND THE AMMONITES
A. Jephthah negotiates with the Ammonites.
1. (Judges 11:1-3) Jephthah’s background before his rise to leadership.
Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty man of valor, but he was the son of a harlot; and Gilead begot Jephthah. Gilead’s wife bore sons; and when his wife’s sons grew up, they drove Jephthah out, and said to him, “You shall have no inheritance in our father’s house, for you are the son of another woman.” Then Jephthah fled from his brothers and dwelt in the land of Tob; and worthless men banded together with Jephthah and went out raiding with him.
a. Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty man of valor: This brave and notable man in Israel had a clouded pedigree. His mother was a harlot, a common heathen prostitute.
b. Worthless men banded together with Jephthah and went out raiding with him: Jephthah wasn’t necessarily the leader of a band of criminals. Adam Clarke explains that the term worthless men doesn’t necessarily mean a bandit: “The word may, however, mean in this place poor persons, without property, and without employment.”
i. Jephthah and his band probably operated more in the manner of David and his men during the period described in 1 Samuel 25:4-8, protecting cities and settlements from marauders and receiving pay from those whom they helped.
2. (Judges 11:4-11) Jephthah assumes the leadership of Gilead.
It came to pass after a time that the people of Ammon made war against Israel. And so it was, when the people of Ammon made war against Israel, that the elders of Gilead went to get Jephthah from the land of Tob. Then they said to Jephthah, “Come and be our commander, that we may fight against the people of Ammon.” So Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “Did you not hate me, and expel me from my father’s house? Why have you come to me now when you are in distress?” And the elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “That is why we have turned again to you now, that you may go with us and fight against the people of Ammon, and be our head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.” So Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “If you take me back home to fight against the people of Ammon, and the LORD delivers them to me, shall I be your head?” And the elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “The LORD will be a witness between us, if we do not do according to your words.” Then Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and commander over them; and Jephthah spoke all his words before the LORD in Mizpah.
a. The people of Ammon made war against Israel: The nation of Ammon, the Ammonites, lived to the south of Israel. They were a semi-nomadic group of people who descended from Abraham’s nephew Lot.
b. Come and be our commander, that we may fight against the people of Ammon: Because of the crisis of the Ammonites, the leaders of Gilead were desperate for an able leader, and they turned to Jephthah. They gave him the authority as head over Gilead.
3. (Judges 11:12-28) Jephthah negotiates with the king of the Ammonites.
Now Jephthah sent messengers to the king of the people of Ammon, saying, “What do you have against me, that you have come to fight against me in my land?” And the king of the people of Ammon answered the messengers of Jephthah, “Because Israel took away my land when they came up out of Egypt, from the Arnon as far as the Jabbok, and to the Jordan. Now therefore, restore those lands peaceably.” So Jephthah again sent messengers to the king of the people of Ammon, and said to him, “Thus says Jephthah: ‘Israel did not take away the land of Moab, nor the land of the people of Ammon; for when Israel came up from Egypt, they walked through the wilderness as far as the Red Sea and came to Kadesh. Then Israel sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, “Please let me pass through your land.” But the king of Edom would not heed. And in like manner they sent to the king of Moab, but he would not consent. So Israel remained in Kadesh. And they went along through the wilderness and bypassed the land of Edom and the land of Moab, came to the east side of the land of Moab, and encamped on the other side of the Arnon. But they did not enter the border of Moab, for the Arnon was the border of Moab. Then Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, king of Heshbon; and Israel said to him, “Please let us pass through your land into our place.” But Sihon did not trust Israel to pass through his territory. So Sihon gathered all his people together, encamped in Jahaz, and fought against Israel. And the LORD God of Israel delivered Sihon and all his people into the hand of Israel, and they defeated them. Thus Israel gained possession of all the land of the Amorites, who inhabited that country. They took possession of all the territory of the Amorites, from the Arnon to the Jabbok and from the wilderness to the Jordan. And now the LORD God of Israel has dispossessed the Amorites from before His people Israel; should you then possess it? Will you not possess whatever Chemosh your god gives you to possess? So whatever the LORD our God takes possession of before us, we will possess. And now, are you any better than Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab? Did he ever strive against Israel? Did he ever fight against them? While Israel dwelt in Heshbon and its villages, in Aroer and its villages, and in all the cities along the banks of the Arnon, for three hundred years, why did you not recover them within that time? Therefore I have not sinned against you, but you wronged me by fighting against me. May the LORD, the Judge, render judgment this day between the children of Israel and the people of Ammon.’ “ However, the king of the people of Ammon did not heed the words which Jephthah sent him.
a. What do you have against me, that you have come to fight against me in my land? Jephthah asked a simple question: why are you in the land of Israel? The king of Ammon gave a simple reply: because it is really our land, and Israel took it from is unjustly.
b. Israel did not take away the land of Moab, nor the land of the people of Ammon: Jephthah’s written response to the King of the Ammonites carefully explained why Israel had a right to the land that the Ammonites claimed was theirs.
i. Thus Israel gained possession of all the land of the Amorites, who inhabited that country: They Amorites conquered the Ammonites and took control of their land. When Israel defeated the Amorites in battle, they justly took the land of the Amorites - which also happened to be the previous land of the Ammonites. The war against the Amorites was prompted by the vicious Amorite war against Israeli civilians.
ii. And now the LORD God of Israel has dispossessed the Amorites from before His people Israel; should you then possess it? Since God gave this land to Israel, the Ammonites have no claim over it.
iii. Will you not possess whatever Chemosh your god gives you to possess? The Ammonite god Chemosh must show himself worthy to conquer the land of Israel. Since Israel held this land for three hundred years, it demonstrates that Chemosh was not greater than the God of Israel. This is an inherent challenge: “If your god is mighty enough to give you the land, then let him do it. Let us see who is stronger - Yahweh or Chemosh.”
iv. Jephthah did not see this battle as primarily between two armies, but between the God of Israel and the false god of Ammon. Jephthah showed true wisdom in seeing this as a spiritual battle first.
c. Chemosh your god: Chemosh was traditionally the god of the Moabites, not the Ammonites. But they may have worshipped each other’s gods, and they may also have considered Chemosh and Milcom to be the same god with different names.
B. Victory and a vow.
1. (Judges 11:29) Jephthah gathers troops and advances courageously on Ammon.
Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh, and passed through Mizpah of Gilead; and from Mizpah of Gilead he advanced toward the people of Ammon.
a. Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah: This was the source of Jephthah’s courage. When we are beset by fears and anxieties, we need to fill our lives with Jesus and be filled with the Holy Spirit.
b. He advanced toward the people of Ammon: The filling of the Spirit makes us advance. We go forward in the sense of spiritual progress and we go forward in the sense of confronting the enemies of God.
2. (Judges 11:30-31) Jephthah makes a rash vow, thinking it will help his cause before God.
And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD, and said, “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 meet 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.”
a. Jephthah made a vow to the LORD: Though well intentioned, this was a foolish vow. Such vows can be attempts to get God “on our side.” It is far more important to be on God’s side than to try and persuade Him to be on your side.
i. Even a Spirit-filled man can do foolish things. The Holy Spirit does not overwhelm and control us, He guides us - and that guidance can be resisted or ignored at smaller or greater points.
b. Whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me . . . I will offer it up as a burnt offering: Jephthah did not have a human sacrifice in mind. This is indicated by the ancient Hebrew grammar: “The masculine gender could be translated ‘whatever comes out’ or ‘whoever comes out’ and ‘I will sacrifice it.’ “ (Wolf)
i. Commentator Adam Clarke agreed that according to the most accurate Hebrew scholars, the best translation is I will consecrate it to the LORD, or I will offer it for a burnt-offering. As he wrote, “If it be a thing fit for a burnt-offering, it shall be made one; if fit for the service of God, it shall be consecrated to him.”
ii. Human sacrifice was strictly forbidden by the Mosaic Law in passages such as Leviticus 18:21 and Deuteronomy 12:31. It is almost certain that Jephthah was familiar with such passages because when he negotiatiated with the Ammonites, has demonstrated that he knew God’s Word.
3. (Judges 11:32-33) God grants Israel victory over the Ammonites.
So Jephthah advanced toward the people of Ammon to fight against them, and the LORD delivered them into his hands. And he defeated them from Aroer as far as Minnith; twenty cities; and to Abel Keramim, with a very great slaughter. Thus the people of Ammon were subdued before the children of Israel.
a. And the LORD delievered them into his hands: God won a great and important victory for Israel through Jephthah. He overcame bitterness and family rejection to meet a great need. Despite his difficulty past, God still wonderfully used him.
4. (Judges 11:34-35) A difficult vow to fulfill.
When Jephthah came to his house at Mizpah, there was his daughter, coming out to meet him with timbrels and dancing; and she was his only child. Besides her he had neither son nor daughter. And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he tore his clothes, and said, “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.”
a. When he saw her, he tore his clothes: Jephthah made his foolish vow sincerely, fully intending to keep it. Yet he had not seriously considered the consequences of the vow. Therefore he was grieved when his daughter was first to greet him out of his house.
b. I have given my word to the LORD, and I cannot go back on it: Jephthah knew the importance of keeping our vows to God. He would keep an oath even when it was to his own hurt (Psalms 15:4)
i. Ecclesiastes 5:1-2; Ecc_5:4-6 speak of the danger of making foolish vows. This passage makes it clear that it is better to not make vows at all than to make foolish vows. This does not mean that vows are bad - they can be good. It means we must take them seriously. Christians need to take seriously the sin of broken vows, and when we see them we must either repent and keep them or repent of your foolishness in ever making the vow, and seek His release from the vow.
5. (Judges 11:36-40) Jephthah fulfills his vow to God.
So she said to him, “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 said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: let me alone for two months, that I may go and wander on the mountains and bewail my virginity, my friends and I.” So he said, “Go.” And he sent her away for two months; and she went with her friends, and bewailed her virginity on the mountains. And it was so at the end of two months that she returned to her father, and he carried out his vow with her which he had vowed. She knew no man. And it became a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went four days each year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.
a. He carried out his vow with her which he had vowed: Some think that Jephthah did really offer his daughter as a burnt offering. If he did, this was clearly an example of misguided zeal for God, because God never asked him to make such a foolish vow or to fulfill it so foolishly.
i. Later in their history, Israel began to serve a terrible pagan god named Molech, who was “worshipped” with child sacrifice in the most terrible way imaginable. God never asked to be served in this terrible way, and therefore it can’t be blamed on God.
b. She went with her friends, and bewailed her virginity . . . She knew no man: These words indicate that it is more likely that Jephthah set his daughter aside for the tabernacle service according to the principle of Leviticus 27:2-4, where persons set apart to God in a vow are not required to be sacrificed (as animals were) but were “given” to the tabernacle in monetary value.
i. We know that there were women who were set apart for the tabernacle service; they were called the women who assembled at the door of the tabernacle of meeting (Exodus 38:8; 1 Samuel 2:22). It is likely that Jephthah’s daughter became one of these women who served at the tabernacle.
ii. His daughter and friends rightly sorrow that she was given to the tabernacle service before she was ever married. Probably most the women who assembled at the door of the tabernacle were older widows.
iii. By sending his unmarried, only daughter to the service of the tabernacle for the rest of her life, it shows how seriously both Jephthah and his daughter took his promise to God.
iv. This seems like the best explanation because Jephthah is listed as a hero of the faith (Hebrews 11:32). It is hard to think of him as doing something so contrary to God’s ways as offering his daughter as a human sacrifice.
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