Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, June 16th, 2024
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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Bible Commentaries
Judges 11

Garner-Howes Baptist CommentaryGarner-Howes

Verses 1-11

Judges - Chapter 11

Jephthah Disowned and Recalled, vs. 1-11

In the last verse of the foregoing chapter the Israelites, particularly those of Gilead, had come together at Mizpeh determined to fight against the Ammonites, but found they had no capable leader. Now, in chapter 11, there is introduced a man, Jephthah, who is one of them insofar as that he was a Gileadite also. but he was an outcast and compelled by his people to live a life of brigandage. He was the son of a great man of the country, who was named Gilead, but he had the misfortune to be the product of his father’s loose living with a harlot. Because his mother was a harlot the other sons of Gilead refused to allow Jephthah a portion of the father’s inheritance.

So Jephthah had to flee from his brothers, and went to the land of Tob. Tob was an area east of Gilead, a kind of borderland between Gilead and Ammon. Here Jephthah gathered a band of men, whom the Bible calls "vain men". The Hebrew word is sometimes also translated "worthless", so they were ne’er-do-wells, who had nothing better to do. Probably they preyed on the Ammonites as well as the Israelites, in which case they might possess a certain amount of usable knowledge about the Ammonite enemy.

Now that the Ammonites came against Israel in war, the Gileadites needed a leader, and their minds went to Jephthah as the most capable man they could get. So they sent messengers into the land of Tob to propose to Jephthah that he be captain of the people to lead them in their war. Jephthah reminded them that they had driven him to the life he was living, wanting nothing to do with him, but now when they are in trouble they send pleading for him to come to their aid. The elders of Gilead frankly admitted that they were in distress, and that this was the reason they desired the leadership of Jephthah.

The message went back from Jephthah seeking full assurance that he would not again be driven out after the campaign, if God should grant him deliverance in the war with the children of Ammon. The elders were ready to give him the strong assurance he sought and swore with the Lord as their witness that Jephthah would indeed continue to be their captain in any case. So Jephthah came down to Mizpeh and the Gileadites installed him as their captain.

Verses 12-28

Attempted Diplomacy, vs. 12-28

Jephthah was an interesting character. The Scriptures make it quite clear that he worshipped the Lord, even when he was an outlaw. His dealing with the king of Ammon also demonstrates his faith in the Lord. Furthermore, Jephthah was well versed in the Scriptures and history of Israel, as is revealed in these words. Jephthah was a shrewd and intelligent diplomat. The case he made for Israel to the Ammonite king could not be answered, and that king made no attempt to answer it.

Jephthah began his diplomacy by getting a firm answer as to the cause for the Ammonite invasion. The charge came back to Jephthah that it was because Israel had taken the lands of Ammon when they came out of Egypt. Now he demanded that Israel restore those lands peaceable. The land in question lay between the Arnon, the very southern border of the tribe of Reuben, and the Jabbok, which bisected the tribe of Gad. It was the land which had been taken from Sihon, the king of the Amorites, by Israel under Moses, as they approached Canaan after the forty years in the wilderness (Numbers 21:21­-30).

Jephthah replied to this charge with a detailed account of Israel’s approach to the land of Canaan. They had been encamped at Kadesh, west of the Arabah, southwest of the Dead Sea. They appealed to Edom to allow them to traverse the land in coming to Canaan, but were refused, and God would not allow them to force their way through (Numbers 20:14-21). Neither did the Lord allow Israel to invade the land of Moab, the brother nation of the Ammonites (both were descended from Lot, the nephew of Abraham), who often allied themselves in their wars. So Israel had been compelled to traverse the horrible desert • in bypassing these lands, and going up on their east side they came to Arnon.

At the Arnon the Israelites had confronted Sihon, the mighty king of the Amorites. His capital was at Heshbon, a city which at some previous time had been possessed by the Moabites, but was now securely in the hands of Sihon. They applied to Sihon that they might traverse his land in peace also, but he refused and belligerantly mobilized his army to oppose them. The Lord allowed Israel to defeat Sihon and the Amorites at the Battle of Jahaz, by which the land under dispute by the king of Ammon with Jephthah came into the possession of Israel.

Jephthah considered that it was the Lord who had dispossessed Sihon, and who had therefore given Israel its possession. The Ammonites worshipped the false god, Chemosh, and if they considered their god had given them a land they would certainly possess it. By the same token, then, Israel would certainly possess what the Lord their God gave them.

And now Jephthah continued to sound a warning to the king of Ammon, by recalling the mistake of Balak, the king of Moab. The Moabites and Ammonites had coveted this land ever since Israel had possessed it. Before Israel could cross the Jordan Balak had sent for the false prophet and soothsayer, Balaam, to curse Israel and help him to get possession of the land which God had given them. (Read Numbers, chapter 22-25). This is mentioned that the Ammonite king might consider what had happened to Balak when he attempted to wrest the same territory from Israel. Furthermore, if Ammon had any claim on the land they had been very tardy in asserting it. Israel had already possessed the land for three hundred years, and Ammon had not previously laid such a claim.

Clearly Jephthah perceived that the purported claim to the land was only a ploy on the king’s part in an attempt to intimidate Jephthah to cede the land without war. But Jephthah and his people were clear in the matter, and the Ammonites at fault in seeking war against Israel. Jephthah left the outcome in the hands of the divine Judge, with apparent confidence that he would win the victory, (Proverbs 3:5-6). Of course, the king of Ammon did not hearken to all this.

Verses 29-33

Jephthah’s Vow and Victory, vs. 29-33

In verse 29 is seen an instance of Old Testament enduement of the Holy Spirit. In contrast to the constant enduement of the Lord’s churches by the Spirit today, the Holy Spirit in Old Testament times endued individuals on specific occasions for specific purposes. This does not mean that Jephthah was not saved, or a servant of the Lord before, but that he was God’s man to lead Israel against the Ammonites, and the Spirit came on him to insure the victory.

The Spirit moved Jephthah to go about the lands of Gilead and Manasseh gathering together the men he would need in the battle. The point of embarkation for the battle was Mizpeh in Gilead, where the meetings had been held. It was at this point that Jephthah swore the vow to the Lord which is the thing for which he is most often remembered. The vow was to offer up as a burnt offering whatever first came out from his house when he returned victorious over the Ammonites. More will be said about this below.

The Lord gave Jephthah and Israel a total victory. The Ammonites were smitten from Aroer, down on the Arnon river in southern Reuben, all the way to Minnith, in Ammon itself, the exact location of which is now unknown. Twenty cities were smitten, and there was a great slaughter of Ammonites to the plain of the vineyards, which is the translation of a place name in Hebrew. The Ammonites were totally subdued.

Verses 34-40

Vow Fulfilled, vs. 34-40

Triumphant over his enemies Jephthah returned to Gilead. His only child, a daughter, came out with instruments of music to celebrate the victory. Remembering his vow Jephthah was immediately smitten with remorse. He tore his clothing in sorrow and mournfully remarked to his daughter that she had brought him low by the vow he had made. When the daughter learned what it was all about she acquiesced in his vow, in view of the great victory the Lord had given him. There could be no thought of not fulfilling it, (Numbers 30:2).

Jephthah’s daughter requested a period of mourning for her virginity before the vow was accomplished and was granted it. She and her several companions then went into the mountains for two months bewailing for her virginity. At the end of the time she returned and Jephthah carried out his vow with regard to his daughter. It became a custom in Israel that the young ,Israelite girls went each year into the mountains and mourned four days for Jephthah’s daughter.

The ages-long question comes again, "Did Jephthah give his daughter as a burnt sacrifice?" Great Bible students have come down on both sides of the question, and it will never be settled unless the Lord settles it in eternity. The personal conviction of this author is that Jephthah did not give his daughter as a burnt sacrifice. The evidence seems very strong for the negative view.

We may begin with the concession that Jephthah made a foolish vow. With the Spirit moving him it seems impossible that he may not have been assured of victory. Let us also concede that Jephthah probably expected a person to that which would come out of his house first to meet him. We cannot think that he would have expected a sacrificial animal to come out of the "doors" of his house. Then arises another question, "Was Jephthah planning to make a human sacrifice?" I cannot believe that he was. The piety and knowledge of Jephthah has been seen, and this would preclude his being an idolatrous sacrificer of human beings.

The Hebrew original which is translated "I will offer it up for a burnt offering," might have been translated also, "I will offer it up as a burnt offering," or "like a burnt offering." That is, wholly given to the Lord, like a burnt offering was given. Also note that it was as an "offering", not as a "sacrifice." It would seem that Jephthah’s daughter was given as a lifelong servant of the tabernacle, who could not be married. Therefore, she could never marry and bear children, and for this wailed. That there were such dedicated women serving the tabernacle is clear from 1 Samuel 2:22.

Consider further that such a sacrifice as would have required the slaughter of Jephthah’s daughter was totally repugnant to the Lord. Such a vow would not have come from the mouth of a godly man, and it must be concluded that Jephthah was a godly man, for he is listed in the roster of the heroes of faith (Hebrews 11:32). The Lord would have repudiated his oath and Jephthah as well. Jephthah, so diplomatic and wise in handling the Ammonites, was guilty of a foolish mistake in his vow. He felt compelled by the severity of the law to carry it out, but surely not to slay his daughter.

Let it be learned from this chapter 1) unfortunate circum­stances of one’s birth does not bar him from acceptable service for the Lord; 2) a good knowledge of God’s word will stand one in good stead in just about any situation; 3) there is no way to reason with the world and its rulers; 4) before making a vow to the Lord the consequences should be thoroughly weighed; 5) careless promises may hinder one for an entire lifetime; 6) it is not to be expected that the Lord will respect an ungodly vow.

Bibliographical Information
Garner, Albert & Howes, J.C. "Commentary on Judges 11". Garner-Howes Baptist Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ghb/judges-11.html. 1985.
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