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the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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Bible Commentaries
Judges 11

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verses 1-7

3. Deliverance through Jephthah 11:1-12:7

To prepare for the recital of Israel’s victory over the Ammonites the writer provided the reader with some background information concerning the man God raised up to lead this deliverance. Like Gideon, Jephthah was an unlikely hero who got off to a good start but ended poorly.

Verses 1-11

The choice of Jephthah as Gilead’s leader 11:1-11

Judges 11:1-3 provide information about Jephthah’s personal background. His name means "He [an unspecified deity] has opened [the womb]." Jephthah lived on the east side of the Jordan River. Unlike Gideon, he was a courageous and valiant warrior. He was, however, the product of his father’s sexual liaison with a prostitute, another clue to the moral level in Israel. Evidently Jephthah’s grandparents named his father in honor of an ancestor named Gilead, perhaps the man from whom the region of Gilead derived its name.

Today we would say that Jephthah was an abused child (Judges 11:2). His half-brothers rejected him in violation of the Mosaic Law that commanded the Israelites to love one another, their neighbors, and outcasts (Leviticus 19:33-34; Deuteronomy 10:12-22). David may have suffered the same kind of hostility in his family (cf. Psalms 27:10). One also recalls Jesus’ rejection (cf. Isaiah 53:3), though we have no reason to believe His parents abused Him.

Jephthah fled to Israel’s frontier on the edge of civilization. Tob (Judges 11:3) stood between Ammon and Syria northeast of Gilead (cf. 2 Samuel 10:6; 2 Samuel 10:8). The Hebrew term translated "worthless fellows" in the NASB is more accurately "adventurers," as in the NIV. These men were not necessarily evil, but they were wild. Jephthah evidently lived a Robin Hood style of existence. One writer likened him to a guerrilla fighter or terrorist. [Note: McCann, p. 80.]

Jephthah’s personal background was quite similar to Abimelech’s (Judges 8:31 to Judges 9:4). His character, though, seems to have been considerably purer in view of what follows. Unlike Abimelech, he was more sensitive and submissive to Yahweh.

Jephthah was such a gifted warrior that when the Ammonites threatened Gilead, the elders of that region overcame their personal dislike for Jephthah, humbled themselves, and begged him to defend them (Judges 11:4-6). This story reminds me of a theme that is common in western movies. The townsfolk drive the young misfit who has grown up among them away because his love of violence makes them uneasy. However when a gang of outlaws threatens the town they send for the gunslinger to save them.

Jephthah’s complaint about being appealed to as a last resort reminds us of God’s similar words in Judges 10:14. To persuade Jephthah to accept their invitation, the elders promised that he would be their leader (sheriff?) and that they would follow his directions in the battle (Judges 11:8). He acknowledged that if he defeated the Ammonites it would be because the Lord gave them over to him (Judges 11:9). Interestingly, Jephthah used the name of Yahweh more frequently than any other person in Judges. He was a man of faith even though he was a rough character.

The elders of Gilead made a formal public agreement with Jephthah at Mizpah in northern Gilead, contracting the conditions of his leading Israel in battle (Judges 11:10-11). They pinned the sheriff’s badge on him. Evidently Jephthah told the Lord about this covenant in prayer.

Notice how the writer of Judges constructed these first 11 verses parallel to Judges 10:6-16. The elders of Gilead had treated Jephthah exactly as Israel had treated Yahweh.

"ThemeChapter 10Chapter 11
RejectionJudges 11:6Judges 11:1-3
DistressJudges 11:7-9Judges 11:4
RepentanceJudges 11:10Judges 11:5-6
ObjectionJudges 11:11-14Judges 11:7
AppealJudges 11:15-16 aJudges 11:8
AcquiescenceJudges 11:16 bJudges 11:9-11" [Note: Davis, p. 141.]

". . . where is God in this complex process of engaging Jephthah? Far from playing the decisive role, as he had in the provision of all the other judges, God is relegated to the role of silent witness to a purely human contract between a desperate people and an ambitious candidate." [Note: Block, Judges . . ., p. 356.]

Verses 12-28

Jephthah’s negotiations with the king of Ammon 11:12-28

Jephthah did not rush into battle but wisely tried to settle the Ammonites’ grievance with Israel peacefully. His approach reveals his humility as well as his wisdom. Most men would have wanted to demonstrate their prowess in battle to impress the ones who had expressed confidence in them and to guarantee their future security with a victory. However, Jephthah restrained himself and appealed to the king of Ammon very logically through messengers. He initiated peace talks rather than launching a war.

Jephthah appealed to the king of Ammon with three arguments. His point was that the Ammonites had no right to Israel’s territory east of the Jordan that they were trying to obtain by force. First, he traced the history whereby this territory had come into Israel’s possession, showing that Ammon had no claim on Gilead (Judges 11:15-22). Israel had not attacked any territory held by Ammon or Moab when God’s people approached the Promised Land in Moses’ day. Israel had taken the land in dispute from the Amorites who had previously wrested it from the Ammonites.

Second, he emphasized the fact that Yahweh had given Israel this land. Thus it would have been wrong theologically to allow the Ammonites to take it from them (Judges 11:23-25).

"Even the pagans recognized that when victory was given by a deity, the victors had full right to possess that territory." [Note: Davis and Whitcomb, p. 123.]

"Jephthah’s theology contains at least one serious flaw: Chemosh was not the patron deity of the Ammonites but of Moab. The divine patron of Ammon was Milkom." [Note: Block, Judges . . ., p. 361.]

This mistake could have been inadvertent or intentional and designed to denigrate the Ammonites. [Note: See Lindsey, p. 401, for three other possible interpretations.] King Balak of Moab had never fought with Israel (Numbers 22-24). This powerful king realized that opposing Israel in battle would be futile in view of the power of Israel’s God.

Third, Jephthah appealed logically that Ammon had not tried to take the land she now claimed for 300 years. If she had a legitimate claim on it, she should have tried to secure it long ago (Judges 11:26).

Jephthah’s reference to 300 years (Judges 11:26) is an important benchmark in biblical chronology. It had been approximately 300 years since the Israelites had defeated Sihon and captured Heshbon (in 1406 B.C.). Shortly after Jephthah spoke these words he defeated the Ammonites (Judges 11:33; about 1106 B.C.) and ended the 18-year Ammonite oppression (Judges 10:8). The Philistine oppression of Israel began at the same time as the Ammonite oppression (Judges 10:7; in 1124 B.C.). The Philistines harassed Israel for 40 years (Judges 13:1; ca. 1124-1084 B.C.). The dates of the Philistine oppression are important because they provide a framework for the ministries of Eli and Samuel as well as Samson. This time reference, along with the one in 1 Kings 6:1, indicates that the Exodus took place about 1446 B.C. rather than about 1280 B.C. Advocates of the 1280 B.C. date of the Exodus usually take the 300 years as a round number indicating several generations, as they also interpret 1 Kings 6:1, or as a total of overlapping periods. [Note: For further discussion of the chronology of Judges, see Merrill, Kingdom of . . ., pp. 146-51.]

Finally, Jephthah called on Yahweh the Judge to judge who had rightful title to the land (Judges 11:27). The Ammonite king disregarded Jephthah’s message (Judges 11:28). He obviously believed he could take Gilead in battle.

Verses 29-33

Jephthah’s vow and victory 11:29-33

God’s Spirit then clothed Jephthah, giving the promise of divine enablement and victory in the approaching encounter with the Ammonite army (Judges 11:29; cf. Judges 3:10; Judges 6:34; Judges 14:6; Judges 14:19; 1 Samuel 10:10).

"The spirit may be an effective power; but it seems that it is not automatically effective, at least not in terms of effecting deliverance. The spirit comes upon or possesses human beings; therefore, it must be embodied with cooperation and faithfulness if deliverance is to be effected . . ." [Note: McCann, p. 82.]

Jephthah traveled through Gilead, in the tribal territory of Gad, and eastern Manasseh, to the north, recruiting soldiers. He led his troops back to Mizpah in Gilead (cf. Judges 11:11) and then eastward into Ammon.

Jephthah made a vow before going into battle. He promised that if the Lord would give him victory he would give God whatever came out of the door of his house when he returned from the conflict (Judges 11:30-31). He would offer this person or animal either as a sacrifice of dedication to the Lord or as a burnt offering of worship (Judges 11:31).

"The making of the vow is an act of unfaithfulness. Jephthah desires to bind God rather than embrace the gift of the spirit. What comes to him freely, he seeks to earn and manipulate. The meaning of his words is doubt, not faith; it is control, not courage. To such a vow the deity makes no reply." [Note: Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror, p. 97.]

Compare Gideon’s similar response to the gift of God’s Spirit. The masculine gender of the Hebrew word translated "whatever" can apply to a person or an animal, but Jephthah was probably thinking of an animal.

"His negotiations with the elders, his diplomacy with the Ammonites, and his vow, have all amply displayed Jephthah’s facility with words. Jephthah, we know, is good at opening his mouth. (How ironical that his name means literally ’he opens’!). What has precipitated the crisis with his daughter is that he has opened his mouth to Yahweh, that is, he has tried to conduct his relationship with God in the same way that he has conducted his relationships with men. He has debased religion (a vow, an offering) into politics." [Note: Barry Webb, "The Theme of the Jephthah Story (Judges 10:6-12:7)," Reformed Theological Review 45:2 (May-August 1986):42.]

Webb pointed out, in the helpful article quoted above, that Israel had done the same thing Jephthah did. This tendency to negotiate with God marked and marred her relationship with Yahweh during this period of her history.

The Lord gave Jephthah success in the battle, and he destroyed 20 cities in Ammon. He broke the Ammonites’ strong power, so they ceased oppressing Israel (Judges 11:33).

The writer wrote Judges 11:29-32 using a chiastic structure. This section begins and ends with the promise and fulfillment of God giving Jephthah victory. When the Spirit came on him there was no doubt that he would defeat the enemy. The center of the chiasm relates Jephthah bargaining with God to ensure victory. He did not need to make this vow. He had already testified that God had given His people victory in the past (Judges 11:21; Judges 11:24). Apparently his faith was not as strong as it might have been, and this weakness led him to seek a guarantee of success by making the vow.

Jephthah’s vow reveals that he had a rather unenlightened concept of Yahweh. His commitment to the Lord was strangely strong, but his understanding of God was not Scriptural. He did not know what the Law revealed about Yahweh, or he had forgotten this. His concept of God bears the marks of Canaanite influence. His belief that he needed to bargain with and bribe God to get Him to bless His people was unfortunate (cf. Jeremiah 29:11). He also believed that Yahweh took pleasure in what hurts people, that He is sadistic. This idea is also inaccurate and pagan. Furthermore he believed that God might abandon him before he finished his battle. God had promised that He would not do this as long as His people trusted and obeyed Him (Deuteronomy 28:1; Deuteronomy 28:7). Jephthah made his tragic vow because he did not have a Scriptural view of God. [Note: See Inrig, p. 195.] He should have vowed to offer the inhabitants of the cities he would conquer as sacrifices to God (Numbers 21:2).

The secret to Jephthah’s success was his essential trust in and obedience to Yahweh. This is always the key to spiritual success. His life teaches us that God can and does use people with tough backgrounds. God does not produce His instruments with a cookie cutter. Each one is different. He even uses people whom others reject because of their families and lifestyles. He prepares His tools throughout their lives and uses everything in their backgrounds to equip them to conduct a unique ministry for Himself.

Verses 34-40

The fate of Jephthah’s daughter 11:34-40

Judges 11:1-33 record Jephthah’s success. The rest of his story (Judges 11:34 to Judges 12:7) relates his failure. The writer likewise recorded Gideon’s success first (Judges 6:1 to Judges 8:23) and then his failure (Judges 8:24 to Judges 9:57). We shall find a similar pattern when we come to Samson’s story. As with Gideon and Samson, Jephthah’s failure grew out of his success. In all three of these major judges’ cases, failure resulted from ignorance of God’s Word or disregard of it.

God gave us little information about the personal lives of the first three major judges: Othniel, Ehud, and Deborah. He gave us much more personal information about the last three major judges: Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson. This selection of material helps us appreciate the deterioration that took place in Israel during the Judges Period as God’s people did what was right in their own eyes (Judges 21:25).

When Jephthah returned home from battle, his only child, a daughter, greeted him gleefully (Judges 11:34). The writer’s description of her recalls Miriam’s joy and dancing after the Lord gave the Israelites victory over their Egyptian pursuers (Exodus 15:20). But her joy became Jephthah’s sorrow (Judges 11:35). He falsely blamed her for his sorrow (cf. 1 Kings 18:17-18). Really he was responsible for it because of his vow to God (Judges 11:30-31). "Given my word" is wordplay (Judges 11:35-36). Jephthah’s name means "he opens," and "given my word" is literally "opened my mouth." Jephthah evidently believed that to go back on his vow to God would involve a denial of his integrity, his very name. He felt he would be denying everything he believed in and stood for.

Jephthah believed he could not get out of his vow (Judges 11:35). Unfortunately he did not know, or had forgotten, that God had made provision for His people to redeem things they had vowed to give Him. Leviticus 27:1-8 told the Israelites that if they vowed someone or something to God and then wanted it back they could pay a stated ransom price and buy it back. Had he obeyed the Word of God he could have avoided sacrificing his daughter. With his vow he sought to secure his present, but through it he ended up sacrificing his future. Contrast the outcome of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22). He secured a hope and a future whereas Jephthah lost both. This is yet another example in Judges of self-assertion leading to violence, in this case the abuse of a young woman.

"Although the present story ends with the death of the young girl, her father is the tragic figure, presenting a pathetic picture of stupidity, brutality, ambition, and self-centeredness. Ironically, the one who appeared to have become master of his own fate has become a victim of his own rash word. . . . The man who had tried to manipulate Yahweh to guarantee his ’peace’ (shalom) is doomed by the one whose life he was willing to sacrifice for his own well-being." [Note: Block, Judges . . ., pp. 372-73.]

The submission of Jephthah’s daughter was as commendable as it was tragic. She did not know Leviticus 27 either, but she submitted as an obedient child (cf. Genesis 22). She too believed that the Lord had given her father the victory over the Ammonites (Judges 11:36). Here is another woman in Judges who provides a good example (cf. Achsah, Deborah, Jael). Yet she ended up weeping because of the folly of her idolatrous, self-assertive father. Note the references to weeping at the beginning (Judges 2:4), middle (Judges 11:38), and end (Judges 20:23; Judges 20:26; Judges 21:2) of this book. Of all the characters in Judges, this daughter was more like Jesus than any other in that she embodies God’s experiences. [Note: McCann, p. 88.] Notice also the parallel between the death of Jephthah’s daughter and the death of six million Jews during World War II. Both were holocausts perpetrated in the name of God that the Jews determined never to forget. [Note: Ibid., p. 89.]

There are primarily two possible interpretations of the fate of Jephthah’s daughter as the record of Jephthah fulfilling his vow unfolds in this section of verses. [Note: One of the best discussions of this issue that I have found is by Robert D. Culver, "Did Jephthah Really Slay His Daughter and Offer Her Body as a Burnt Offering?" The Evangelical Christian 55:2 (February 1959):69-70.]

1. Jephthah offered her as a human sacrifice (burnt offering) to Yahweh. [Note: Advocates of this view include Josephus, 5:7:10; several early church fathers; Davis, p. 147; F. F. Bruce, "Judges," in New Bible Commentary, p. 250; Cundall and Morris, p. 148; Bright, p. 159; Davis and Whitcomb, p. 128; Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, 2:197; Wolf, p. 456; Lewis, p. 68; J. Gray, p. 319; Block, Judges . . ., pp. 367-68; McCann, p. 84; Howard, p. 117; Robert B. Chisholm Jr., "The Ethical Challenge of Jephthah’s Fulfilled Vow," Bibliotheca Sacra 167:668 (October-December 2010):404-22; et al.]

The more important arguments in favor of this interpretation are as follows.

a. Jephthah’s desolation when his daughter greeted him points to an ultimate sacrifice (Judges 11:35).

b. The fact that she received a two-month reprieve before Jephthah carried out his vowed action suggests that she died (Judges 11:37-38).

c. The institution of a four-day annual feast in Israel as a result of her fate argues for her death (Judges 11:40).

d. Until the Middle Ages this was the uniform interpretation of the commentators.

e. The writer said the Israelites worshipped the gods of Ammon and Moab (Judges 10:10), and the leaders of these nations sacrificed children (2 Kings 3:27).

The rebuttals to these points are these.

a. Jephthah naturally would have been very sorry that his daughter met him rather than some animal. He had only one heir, and she could not now perpetuate his family in Israel.

b. The two-month reprieve would have been appropriate if she left his home from then on for a life of perpetual service at the tabernacle. She mourned because she would live as a virgin, not die a virgin.

c. The Israelites established the feast because she so admirably submitted to the will of her father and God. Moreover she was the daughter of a famous judge in Israel.

d. The antiquity of an interpretation does not guarantee its accuracy.

2. Jephthah dedicated her to the service of Yahweh at the tabernacle where she ministered from then on as a virgin. [Note: Advocates of this view include Keil and Delitzsch, p. 338; Feinberg, p. 6; Wood, Distressing Days . . ., p. 288-95; et al.]

Some of the stronger arguments in favor of this view are these.

a. The text allows this possibility. The words and expressions used do not require a human sacrifice.

b. God specifically forbade human sacrifice in the Mosaic Law and called it an abomination in His sight (Leviticus 18:21; Leviticus 20:2-5; Deuteronomy 12:31; Deuteronomy 18:10). That a judge in Israel such as Jephthah would have practiced it is unthinkable.

c. There is no record that the Israelites made human sacrifices until the godless kings Ahab and Manasseh introduced them many years later.

d. The writer did not picture Jephthah as a rash person who would impetuously or desperately promise God such a sacrifice (cf. Judges 11:9-27).

The responses to these arguments that critics of this view have made are as follows.

a. Human sacrifice is the normal implication of the terms used in the passage.

b. Jephthah violated the Mosaic Law, as did other of Israel’s judges (e.g., Gideon’s multiple marriages, Samson’s violations of his Nazirite vow, etc.).

c. This could be the first human sacrifice the Israelites offered that God recorded in Scripture. The king of Moab later offered his crown prince as a human sacrifice to assure victory in battle, so this pagan practice may have influenced Jephthah (cf. 2 Kings 3:27).

d. Jephthah’s background suggests that he was a rash person. He might have resorted to such an extreme measure to secure victory and acceptance by the Gileadites (cf. Judges 11:1-3).

I believe Jephthah offered his daughter as a human sacrifice. What Jephthah did to his daughter may have been acceptable to Molech, but it was not to Yahweh. A few years later Saul also made a foolish vow and almost slew his son Jonathan (1 Samuel 14:39; 1 Samuel 14:44-45). The only thing that prevented that tragedy was the intervention of the Israelites. Ignorance or disregard of God’s Word is not only unfortunate, but it is also dangerous.

"Long neglect of the Mosaic law had left the Israelites with many mistaken notions about God’s will." [Note: Wolf, p. 381.]

Jephthah may have known God’s will but simply chose to disregard it.

"If God’s mind can change for the sake of graciously allowing people to live, why cannot Jephthah change his mind [about slaying his daughter]? At other places in the Old Testament, God even breaks the Torah in order to allow the people to live-for instance, inviting an adulterous people to return instead of killing them (see Jeremiah 3:11-14), and allowing Israel, the disobedient child, to be spared rather than stoned (see Hosea 11:1-9). In Jephthah’s case, Jephthah could actually have appealed to the Torah as support for not sacrificing his child. But he does not. Where are the imaginative diplomatic skills of Judges 11:12-28, where Jephthah shows detailed awareness of Numbers 21, a Torah narrative?" [Note: McCann, pp. 84-85.]

Why do the fortunes of women decline as the Book of Judges proceeds, beginning here? Following the execution of Jephthah’s daughter, things got worse for women in Israel. A Levite’s concubine was raped, killed, and dismembered (ch. 19), 400 young virgins from Jabesh-gilead were abducted (Judges 21:12), as were the young women of Shiloh (Judges 21:21). One of the primary indications of moral confusion and social chaos in any society is the abuse of women. The writer revealed the confusion and chaos in Israel by recording these instances of the abuse of women.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Judges 11". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/judges-11.html. 2012.
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