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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible
Judges 11

 

 

Verses 1-3

THE TRAGIC STORY OF JEPHTHAH (Judges 11:1-40)

VIII. JEPHTHAH

JEPHTHAH'S EARLY LIFE (Judges 11:1-3)

"Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty man of valor, and he was the son of a harlot: and Gilead begat Jephthah. And Gilead's wife bare him sons; and when his wife's sons grew up, they drove out Jephthah, and said unto him, Thou shalt not inherit in our father's house; for thou art the son of another woman. Then Jephthah fled from his brethren, and dwelt in the land of Tob: and there were gathered vain fellows to Jephthah, and they went out with him."

"And Gilead begat Jephthah" (Judges 11:1). "The word `Gilead' has two meanings: (1) the name of the country so-called, and (2) the name of an individual."[1] However, this presents no problem to this writer, since he has never heard of "a country" begetting a son. Gilead is here, of course, the name of an individual. As Keil noted, "We are forced to this conclusion by the fact that the wife of Gilead and his other sons are mentioned in Judges 11:2."[2]

"Jephthah" (Judges 11:1). This name means, "God opens the womb,"[3] which might have been founded upon the fact of his unexpected birth to a harlot.

"Thou shalt not inherit in our father's house" (Judges 11:2). Jephthah was, "a half-Canaanite and was not acknowledged by his father's clan."[4] In Judges 11:7, below, it is learned that the expulsion of Jephthah from his father's house by his brothers was backed up and enforced by all the Gileadites.

The justice and lovingkindness of God appear in the contrast between Abimelech (Judges 10) and Jephthah here. Even the son of a harlot became the charismatic leader of Israel in a time of danger. The Spirit of God came upon him.

"Jephthah fled ... dwelt in Tob ... gathered vain fellows, and they went out with him" (Judges 11:3). "Tob may be tentatively identified with et-Taiyibeh, some fifteen miles east of Ramoth-Gilead."[5] The "vain fellows" here were probably, as were the men who gathered around David, various characters whom society had rejected. "`Went out' was a well-understood term meaning, `went out on raids.'"[6] However, "It seems improper, in view of what we later learn of Jephthah's character, to ascribe to him and his men the lawless plundering of villages. More than likely, he, like David, protected settlements from marauders.[7]


Verses 4-11

JEPHTHAH TO LEAD IN THE WAR (Judges 11:4-11)

"And it came to pass after awhile, that the children of Ammon made war against Israel. And it was so, that, when the children of Ammon made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to fetch Jephthah out of the land of Tob; and they said unto Jephthah, Come and be our chief, that we may fight with the children of Ammon. And Jephthah said unto the elders of Gilead, Did ye not hate me, and drive me out of my father's house? and why are ye come unto me now when ye are in distress? And the elders of Gilead said unto Jephthah, Therefore are we turned again to thee now, that thou mayest go with us, and fight with the children of Ammon; and thou shalt be our head over all the inhabitants of Gilead. And Jephthah said unto the elders of Gilead, If ye bring me home again to fight with the children of Ammon, and Jehovah deliver them before me; shall I be your head? And the elders of Gilead said unto Jephthah, Jehovah shall be witness between us; surely according to thy word so will we do. Then Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and chief over them: and Jephthah spake all his words before Jehovah in Mizpah"

"The elders ... went to fetch Jephthah" (Judges 11:4). There must have been excellent reasons behind such a request as this. It was certainly a great humiliation on the part of the elders of Gilead that they would consent to plead with a man whom they had formerly expelled from their clan.

What is not related here is the reputation which Jephthah had earned by his association with that band of freebooters that surrounded him. His exploits, whatever they might have been, had indicated his ability as a military leader and strategist, and the Gileadites swallowed their pride and eagerly sought Jephthah's help in the impending war with the Ammonites.

Jephthah made it a condition of his helping them that he would be the ruler of the Gileadites after the military campaign was over. It is a measure of the Gileadites' distress that they readily consented to do this, making a solemn covenant with Jephthah to that effect "before Jehovah" in Mizpah. Strahan may have been correct when he wrote that, "Jephthah did not think that the word of the elders was as good as their bond; and he would not budge an inch without their adjuration, `Yahweh be witness between us.'"[8] Some have appeared to be a little critical of Jephthah for making, "his own aggrandizement the condition of delivering his country,"[9] but the sad circumstances of his birth, the enmity of his brothers, and his being excluded from his country were not at all favorable for the development in Jephthah of any other attitude than that which he manifested here. We feel a great admiration of him, because, in spite of the unwholesome environment in which he was forced to live, his name nevertheless appears in the roster of God's faithful servants (Hebrews 11:31).

"Shall I be your head?" (Judges 11:9). "There is no interrogative in the Hebrew; and the words here may be taken as Jephthah's laying down of the conditions under which he would aid Gilead, a condition to which they assented in the next verse."[10]

"Before Jehovah" (Judges 11:11). Several writers have supposed that there must have been some kind of a sanctuary at Mizpah, but Keil assures us that, "These words imply no more than that Jephthah confirmed all his words with an oath."[11]

What happened at Mizpah was the confirmation by the Gileadites of the agreement establishing Jephthah as the and military ruler of the Trans-Jordanic territory where the Gileadites lived.

The very first thing that Jephthah did was to attempt to procure a negotiated cessation of hostilities, his first maneuver being an inquiry of the Ammonite king, asking him to state the reason for his declaration of war.


Verse 12-13

THE KING'S REPLY

"And Jephthah sent messengers to the king of the children of Ammon, saying What hast thou to do with me, that thou art come unto me to fight against my land? And the king of the children of Ammon answered unto the messengers of Jephthah, Because Israel took away my land, when he came up out of Egypt, from the Arnon even unto the Jabbok; and unto the Jordan: now therefore restore those lands again peaceably."

The king of Ammon made it quite clear in this reply that nothing short of Israel's giving up the disputed lands could avert the impending war. It is to Jephthah's great credit that he effectively defended Israel's right to the disputed territory. He did this with four very brilliant and truthful arguments.


Verses 14-22

ARGUMENT NO. 1

This argument was simply that Israel had not taken the disputed land away from the Ammonites; they had defeated the Amorites and had taken it away from them, not from the Ammonites, who did not originally own the land. This point was elaborated by Jephthah in Judges 11:14-22.

"And Jephthah sent messengers again unto the king of the children of Ammon; and he said unto him, Thus saith Jephthah: Israel took not away the land of Moab, nor the land of the children of Ammon; but when they came up from Egypt, and Israel went through the wilderness to the Red Sea, and came to Kadesh; then Israel sent messengers unto the king of Edom, saying, Let me, I pray thee, pass through thy land; but the king of Edom hearkened not. And in like manner he sent unto the king of Moab; but he would not: and Israel abode in Kadesh. Then they went through the wilderness and went around the land of Edom, and the land of Moab, and came by the east side of the land of Moab, and they encamped on the other side of the Arnon; but they came not within the border of Moab, for the Arnon was the border of Moab. And Israel sent messengers unto Sihon king of the Amorites, and the king of Heshbon; and Israel said unto him, Let us pass, we pray thee, through thy land unto my place. But Sihon trusted not Israel to pass through his border; but Sihon gathered all his people together, and encamped in Jahaz, and fought against Israel. And Jehovah, the God of Israel, delivered Sihon and all his people into the hand of Israel, and they smote them: so Israel possessed all the land of the Amorites, the inhabitants of that country. And they possessed all the border of the Amorites, from the Arnon even unto the Jabbok, and from the wilderness even unto the Jordan."

This is a very important paragraph, a great deal of it being a repetition, much of it verbatim, of what is written in the Books of Moses, namely in Numbers 13:26; 14:25; 20:1; 18-21; 21:21-24-42. This fact establishes every word of what Jephthah stated here as absolutely accurate and is also a glorious proof of the fact that the Pentateuch existed many, many years before the Book of Judges. As we have often pointed out, nothing is any more erroneous and ridiculous than is the radical critical dictum that the Pentateuch did not exist until the times of Josiah. That "fairy tale" is comparable only to those of Hans Christian Andersen.

The summary of Jephthah's argument here is simply that Israel had not taken the land away from the Ammonites at all, but had defeated and displaced the Amorites who were originally the inhabitants of the land. It was a perfectly true and reasonable argument.


Verse 23-24

ARGUMENT NO. 2

This argument was simply that since the God of Israel, the true God and ruler of all lands, had given the land in question to Israel, the Israelites therefore had every right to keep it.

"So now Jehovah, the God of Israel, hath dispossessed the Amorites from before his people Israel, and shouldest thou possess them? Wilt not thou possess that which Chemosh thy god giveth thee to possess? So whomsoever Jehovah our God hath dispossessed from before us, then will we possess."

The argument "ad hominem" here is that since the Ammonites do not hesitate to take whatever they claim was given to them by their god Chemosh, they should also allow that whatever Jehovah, the God of Israel, has given Israel should belong to them.

"That which Chemosh thy god giveth thee" (Judges 11:24). This is by no stretch of imagination a recognition by Jephthah of any reality whatever regarding Chemosh. It was only an argument from the standpoint of what the Ammonites believed. Strahan commented that, "The truth of monotheism had not yet dawned on even the greatest minds of Israel."[12] This false view depends absolutely upon one's acceptance of the "fairy tale" mentioned above regarding the date of the Pentateuch.

"Of course, Jephthah here is not acknowledging the reality of the false god Chemosh."[13] Jephthah's familiarity with the Book of Numbers certainly indicates that he was familiar with the rest of the Pentateuch and the strict monotheism that pervades every line of the Book of Moses.


Verse 25

ARGUMENT NO. 3

This was a political argument founded upon the fact that Moab had once claimed some of the disputed territory, but had lost it when Sihon, the king of the Ammonites had forcefully displaced Moab and occupied the land they once had. Jephthah here points out that after Israel defeated and dispossessed Sihon and occupied that strip between the Arnon and the Jabbok, that not even Moab, who once owned it, ever disputed Israel's right to possess it. That being true, who was the king of Ammon that he should lay any claim against the disputed territory?

"And now art thou anything better than Balak; the son of Zippor, king of Moab? did he ever strive against Israel, or did he ever fight against them?"

Of course, the Book of Numbers revealed that Balak thoroughly hated Israel and employed Balaam to curse Israel, but still it was a fact that Moab acknowledged Israel's right to the land they had taken away from the Amorites and their king Sihon.


Verse 26

ARGUMENT NO. 4

This was what might be called an argument based upon what men call today "the statute of limitations." Israel had been in possession of Gilead ever since the days of Moses, and, "It was too late for Ammon to press her claim, since Israel had enjoyed such a long period of undisputed occupation of that territory."[14]

"While Israel dwelt in Heshbon and its towns, and in Aroer and its towns, and in all the cities that are along by the side of the Arnon, three hundred years; wherefore did ye not recover them within that time?"

This is one of the most significant statements about the entire Book of Judges:

"Jephthah here argued that the `statute of limitations' had expired since Israel had then held this territory for three hundred years ... Since Jephthah's judgeship began about 1100 B.C., adding the 300 years mentioned here dates the conquest at approximately 1400 B.C. The exodus took place forty years earlier in 1440 B.C., the so-called `early date' held by most evangelical scholars."[15]

These dates synchronize exactly with the dates of the Exodus and of the Conquest which we assigned to those events in our Commentaries on the Pentateuch.


Verse 27

JEPHTHAH'S APPEAL TO THE JUDGE

"I therefore have not sinned against thee, but thou doest me wrong to war against me: Jehovah, the Judge, be judge this day between the children of Israel and the children of Ammon."

This concluded Jephthah's efforts to avoid the war by diplomatic activity. The king of the children of Ammon could not answer the arguments of Jephthah and therefore made no reply whatever to Jephthah's arguments. Therefore, the war would be fought, and Jephthah's first action was to appeal to Jehovah, the Judge, as both sides of the dispute had resort to arbitration by the edge of the sword.


Verse 28

"Howbeit the king of the children of Ammon harkened not unto the words of Jephthah which he sent him."

This verse is the statement of the unaltered position of the king of the Ammonites who was determined to take Israel's territory by force of arms.


Verse 29

"And the Spirit of Jehovah came upon Jephthah, and he passed over Gilead and Manasseh, and passed over Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead, he passed over unto the children of Ammon."

"And the Spirit of Jehovah came upon Jephthah." Thus, Jephthah entered the lists of the great charismatic leaders of Israel. This made all the difference. With Jephthah led by God's Spirit, the victory of Israel was assured.

As Yates noted, "Jephthah here made a series of journeys,"[16] and the implication is clear enough that Jephthah did so under the direction of the Spirit of God. We are not told exactly what the purpose of those trips was, but, in all likelihood, it was to enlist as many as possible in the army with which Jephthah would meet the foe.


Verse 30-31

JEPHTHAH'S VOW

"And Jephthah vowed a vow unto Jehovah, and said, If thou wilt indeed deliver the children of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth from the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, it shall be Jehovah's, and I will offer it up for a burnt-offering."

This, along with Jephthah's honoring the vow after his victory, is the big problem with this entire narrative. Our confidence in the ASV is behind our interpretation of this passage. In spite of the fact that a marginal reading of "whosoever cometh forth ... to meet me" is given, our translators rendered the word as whatsoever, indicating that Jephthah certainly did not anticipate that a human being would be the first to meet him. This meaning is emphasized by the impersonal pronouns, "it shall be Jehovah's," and, "I will offer it for a burnt-offering."


Verse 32-33

THE GREAT VICTORY

"So Jephthah passed over unto the children of Ammon to fight against them; and Jehovah delivered them into his hand. And he smote them from Aroer until thou come to Minnith, even twenty cities, and unto Abel-cheramim with a very great slaughter. So the children of Ammon were subdued before the children of Israel."


Verses 34-40

JEPHTHAH FULFILLS HIS VOW

"And Jephthah came to Mizpah unto his home; and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances: 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 rent his clothes, and said, Alas, my daughter! thou hast brought me very low, and thou art one of them that trouble me; for I have opened my mouth unto Jehovah, and I cannot go back. And she said unto him, My father, thou hast opened thy mouth unto Jehovah; do unto me according to that which has proceeded out of thy mouth, forasmuch as Jehovah hath taken vengeance for thee on thine enemies, even on the children of Ammon. And she said unto her father, Let this thing be done for me: let me alone for two months, that I may depart and go down upon the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my companions. And he said, Go. And he sent her away for two months: and she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains. And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she knew not a man. And it was a custom in Israel, that the daughters of Israel went yearly to celebrate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year."

We are very aware of the dogmatic assertions of many commentators that Jephthah offered his daughter as a burnt-offering, but we simply cannot accept such assertions as truth. We shall not bother to cite that type of comments. Those who prefer that interpretation are welcome to seek out those comments for themselves. We shall be content with stating our reasons for the conviction that Jephthah's fulfillment of this vow was not that of offering her up as a burnt-offering, but a dedication of her to the service of God in the tabernacle located in those days at Shiloh.

  1. Jephthah was a man who had the Spirit of God, and that alone would never have allowed him to offer his daughter as a burnt-offering.
  2. Jephthah was thoroughly familiar with the Book of the Law of Moses and the laws governing sacrifices. In that Law, the first-born, who were required to be "offered" to Jehovah, were never offered as a burnt-offering, but they were "redeemed" by the offering of a lamb instead. This applied even to the first-born of a donkey! It is simply inconceivable that Jephthah would have been ignorant of this principle, or that he would have failed to take advantage of it on behalf of his daughter.
  3. “It shall be Jehovah's" (Judges 11:31). "This should be understood in terms of what Hannah meant when she said of her unborn child, "I will give him unto the Lord all the days of his life (1 Samuel 1:11)."[17] Hannah gave up Samuel for temple services under Eli the High Priest.
  4. "The Hebrew word for burnt-offering does not carry with it the idea of death, but of something offered completely unto God. Of course, this was carried out in animal sacrifice, but the word would also accurately describe a young woman giving herself completely to the Lord as a temple servant."[18]
  5. “Let me alone for two months ... that I may bewail my virginity" (Judges 11:37). This cannot mean, "Let me bewail my untimely death." It was her dedication to the tabernacle as a life-long servant, during which she would not be permitted to marry. That is what she bewailed, not her death. Those who want to affirm that she was offered as a burnt-offering will have to find it somewhere else; it is not in the text.
  6. "He did with her according to his vow" (Judges 11:39). And what was that? The same verses tell us what it was:"And she knew not a man." Does that mean that she became a burnt-offering? Certainly not. She was dedicated as a perpetual virgin servant of the tabernacle.
  7. "The daughters of Israel went yearly to celebrate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite" (Judges 11:40). Where did those daughters of Israel go? To the tabernacle, of course. Why? That is where Jephthah's daughter was. If she had become a burnt-offering, the yearly celebration would not have involved any "going" at all.
  8. We have already noted that Jephthah's name is listed in the roster of the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11, along with David and Samuel, and due to the fact of human sacrifice having been forever and always an abomination to the Lord, it is impossible to believe that Jephthah would have been so favorably mentioned in the N.T. if indeed he had offered up a human sacrifice in the person of his daughter. Such a thing simply cannot fit what is written.
  9. Let it be supposed, for a moment, that Jephthah would have attempted to offer his daughter as a burnt-offering. No priest would have allowed it; the people of Israel would simply not have tolerated it.
  10. There is not a word in this narrative that declares any "burnt-offering" to have been offered. Furthermore, if Jephthah had actually intended to offer up a human being as a burnt-offering, as a number of commentators affirm, can we believe that God would have allowed the victory to go to a man thus in open rebellion against what is everywhere revealed in the Bible as God's will?
  11. This writer is fully convinced that Jephthah's loving daughter was dedicated to a life of service in the tabernacle and that that action was indeed the complete fulfillment of his vow.

The grief of Jephthah was not because his daughter would become a burnt-offering, but because ... as she was his only child, it was the end of his posterity upon the earth. In the thinking of the people of his day, this was more than enough to break his heart.

"I have opened my mouth unto Jehovah, and I cannot go back" (Judges 11:37). We dare not close this discussion without taking note of this magnificent line. The nobility of Jephthah is enshrined in this attitude. What a pity it is that countless alleged "Christians" today entertain no such thoughts of loyalty to promises made to God.

When one is baptized into Christ, that sacred ceremony is, in fact, a pledge of fidelity and loyalty to God, not for a few days, but for a lifetime, not merely for times of prosperity, but for times of suffering and hardship as well.

All of those who forsake their Christian duty, who deny the claims of holy religion, or backslide into the ways of carnal man are spiritual pigmies contrasted with Jephthah, one of the giants of faith.

 


Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Judges 11:4". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/bcc/judges-11.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.

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Sunday, November 17th, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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