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ELECTION OF JEPHTHAH, Judges 11:1-11.
This chapter should have begun with Judges 11:17 of the preceding chapter, where the history of Jephthah properly begins.
1. Gileadite Like Jair, Jephthah was a native of the land of Gilead, and, what is noticeable also, his father’s name was Gilead. He was probably a descendant of Gilead, the grandson of Manasseh. Numbers 26:29. We see no sufficient reason to take Gilead here as the name of the country, or a tribal name used in place of an unknown personal name.
A mighty man of valour Distinguished for great physical strength, skill in the use of arms, and boldness of character.
2. They thrust out Jephthah Their father, Gilead, was a man of wealth and power, and they were unwilling that the son of a strange woman and a harlot should share with them the paternal inheritance. Compare Genesis 21:10; Genesis 25:6. The law placed a bastard on the same footing with an Ammonite or a Moabite. Deuteronomy 23:2-3. Neither could enter the congregation of the Lord until the tenth generation. Mark that he who by the law was placed in the same category with the Ammonites was called to be the conqueror of those incestuous sons of Lot.
Strange woman Hebrew, another woman. “Other is here to be taken in a bad sense, as in the expression other gods. As those are spurious gods, so another woman is a spurious wife.” Cassel.
3. Fled Violence and abuse were apparently used in thrusting him out.
Land of Tob A district lying northeast of Gilead, and apparently between the Syrians and Ammonites. Compare 2 Samuel 10:6. It has not been identified with any modern name.
Vain men Loose and desperate characters like those whom Abimelech made his friends.
Judges 9:4. These eastern deserts were the common resort of such characters. See note on 2 Samuel 13:37. Jephthah’s mode of life during this period has been aptly compared to that of David when he fled from the court of Saul, and gathered round him a company of lawless characters, (1 Samuel 22:2,) and also to that of a Scottish border chieftain in the Middle Ages, and that of Robin Hood in England.
5. Elders of Gilead went These were doubtless delegates from the assembly of princes of Gilead, mentioned Judges 10:18. There the question was raised, Who shall be our leader against Ammon? and this verse shows that their choice had fallen on Jephthah. His fame as a bold and warlike chieftain was doubtless the reason of this choice.
7. Did not ye hate me Jephthah treats all the Gileadites as partakers in the abuse and violence which expelled him from his father’s house. Probably the act of Gilead’s sons in thrusting out Jephthah was generally approved by the elders, for in the next verse they seem to acknowledge their wrong.
8. Therefore Inasmuch as we did thee wrong, we turn again to thee now to repair, as far as possible, that wrong by electing thee our head, that is, our captain and chief.
9. Shall I be your head Better to make this a positive declaration, I will be your head; for the response of the elders in the next verse is not so much an answer to a question, as an expression of submission to Jephthah’s will.
10. The Lord be witness A solemn oath and covenant.
According to thy words We will accede to thy wish. See on Judges 11:9.
11. The people made him head and captain The elders made the choice, and the people confirmed it by a public election. The distinction between head and captain, if any, is that between civil and military leader and chief. The people chose him to be not only their leader in this war with Ammon, but their judge and ruler after the war was over.
Jephthah uttered all his words Publicly stated the terms and conditions on which he accepted his new position, and the vows and oaths by which both he and the people bound themselves to be governed.
Before the Lord Not before the ark, for that was at Shiloh; but by a solemn appeal to Jehovah as witness of the vows they all took upon themselves. This whole transaction was done as if all realized that they were in the very presence of Jehovah. On Mizpeh see note, Judges 10:17.
JEPHTHAH’S MESSAGE TO AMMON, Judges 11:12-28.
12. Sent messengers He would know the ground and reasons on which the Ammonites pretended to wage war with Israel. “This is highly interesting, because it shows that even in that age a cause for war was judged necessary no one being supposed to war without provocation.” Kitto.
Me… my land The messengers speak in the name of the nation, as represented by the chosen leader.
13. Israel took away my land This was probably in a certain sense tree, for, according to Joshua 13:24-25, Moses gave to the tribe of Gad half the land of the children of Ammon; and though Israel captured the land from Arnon even unto Jabbok, not of Moab nor of Ammon, but of Sihon, king of the Amorites, yet Sihon had previously fought against the king of Moab, and taken all his land out of his hand. See Numbers 21:24-26. So, though Israel strictly observed the divine order (Deuteronomy 2:9; Deuteronomy 2:19) not to disturb Moab or Ammon, they took from the Amorites lands which seem to have anciently belonged to those descendants of Lot. Israel was not to blame for conquering these lands of Sihon, and fairly owned them by the right of conquest, yet both Ammonites and Moabites might feel that they were the ancient owners. But having neglected their claim for three hundred years, (Judges 11:26,) it was idle for them to urge it now.
15. Israel took not Israel took the land in question not of Ammonites or Moabites, but of Sihon, king of the Amorites, and therefore with previous owners they had nothing to do. Jephthah’s messengers proceed to state the real facts in the case. For the facts which they state, see the passages referred to in the margin. This whole message of Jephthah is a most primitive and honest piece of diplomacy, and a weighty argument for the antiquity and genuineness of the Pentateuch.
17. In like manner they sent unto the king of Moab This fact is not recorded in the Pentateuch along with the other facts here mentioned, for it was a matter of comparatively little moment with Moses to record the refusal of Moab after he had mentioned that of Edom, but it was important for the purpose of Jephthah’s argument.
Some have wondered why so much is here said about Moab in a message to the king of Ammon; but it should be noticed that as Jephthah, who really represented only the eastern tribes of Israel, speaks as the representative of all Israel, so the king of Ammon represents the children of Lot.
23. Shouldest thou possess it Is it right for thee to seize upon possessions which our God has so signally given to us?
24. Wilt thou not The thought involved in the previous verse is here expanded in a sort of argumentum ad hominem. You yourselves, it is urged, would most earnestly insist on possessing that which your god had given into your hands; and shall not we do the same?
Chemosh The great deity of the Moabites and Ammonites. “Jewish tradition affirms that he was worshipped under the symbol of a black star; and Maimonides states that his worshippers went bareheaded, and abstained from the use of garments sewn together by the needle. The black star, the connexion with Arabian idolatry, and the fact that Chemosh is coupled with Moloch, favour the theory that he had some analogy with the planet Saturn.” Kitto’s Cyclopaedia. He is here spoken of as a local and national deity, but it is not necessary to assume that Jephthah himself believed in his real existence and divinity. He speaks with respect, however, of the religion of his foe, and this fact, together with the recent existence of Ammonitish idolatry in Israel, (Judges 10:6,) affords some ground to believe that there was still among the Israelites too much reverence for the gods of the heathen.
The Lord Jehovah. Note the antithesis. Chemosh thy god Jehovah our God. The Ammonites held both to be national deities. The more ignorant Israelites always inclined to the same view; the well-taught Israelite recognised that Jehovah was indeed the national God, but also God over all; and the truly pious held him to be sole God, all else being “a lie.”
25. Better than Balak Hast thou any better claim on these lands than Balak? The… king of Moab had even a better title to the lands than Ammon, for from him the greater part of them had been taken by the Amorites, (Numbers 21:26;) and the fact that he did not strive against Israel to recover his lost possessions was further evidence of the futility of Ammon’s claim.
26. Three hundred years This of all others was the most overwhelming refutation of Ammon’s claims. The peaceful possession of a country for such a period was of itself an all-sufficient title to possession a “statute of limitations:” “for,” says Le Clerc, “if there be no rule respecting time, and long possession is of no value, nothing could ever be safely possessed by any people, nor would there ever be an end of wars and dissensions.”
JEPTHTHAH’S VICTORY AND VOW, Judges 11:29-40.
29. Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah He was roused and fired for his warlike work by an extraordinary supernatural influence from on high. But this must not be imagined identical with the New Testament gift of the Holy Ghost, and thence twisted to show that Jephthah’s rash vow was uttered under divine inspiration, and therefore pleasing in the sight of God. Note, Judges 3:10. Passed over Gilead and Manasseh for the purpose of collecting troops and necessaries for the war. Gilead and Manasseh are here to be taken as a name for the territory of the trans-Jordanic tribes.
Mizpeh of Gilead See note on Judges 10:17. Having collected his warriors, Jephthah passed over the lofty eminence on which Mizpeh was situated, and soon came to the border of the children of Ammon, between whom and himself the Lord was to decide that day. Judges 11:27. From the heights of Mizpeh the whole camp of the enemy was visible, spread over the beautiful knolls of the undulating plateau towards Rabbah. The sight fired the soul of Jephthah, and led him to utter his rash vow.
30. Vowed a vow unto the Lord Bound himself by a strong oath and solemn appeal to Jehovah. So Jacob did at Bethel, (Genesis 28:20,) and Hannah at the tabernacle. 1 Samuel 1:11. Although vows were not commanded in the Old Testament, they were often taken, and the law made provision for different kinds of vows. They might be pleasing or displeasing to God, according to their real character. A rash vow could never be pleasing to God, though it might be excusable from the ignorance of him that vowed.
It is not to be assumed that Jephthah uttered this vow under divine inspiration. The Spirit of the Lord came upon him, and quickened him with energy and heroism to go and conquer Ammon, but not to make this vow. It is to be noted that no sacred writer commends Jephthah’s vow.
31. Whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me Rather, whosoever comes forth. It is hardly possible to avoid the conviction that Jephthah had a human being in his mind. For what else could he expect to come out of the doors of his house to meet him? Surely not a cow, nor a sheep, nor a goat, nor a herd of these animals, for their place was not in his house, or else, as Hengstenberg remarks, “the house of the Gileadite chieftain must have been a kind of Noah’s Ark cattle and men in one room, going out and in at the same door, stall-fed alike a thing surely not to be seriously thought of. Every thing that we know of the arrangements of houses among the Hebrews is against it.” And surely not a dog, or any unclean animal. No animal, clean or unclean, would be dignified with such lofty emphasis, for “how strange it would be,” says Pfeiffer, “if some great prince or general should say, ‘O God, if thou wilt grant me this victory, the first calf that comes to meet me shall be thine!’” If he meant to offer an animal, would he not have selected the best of his flocks, and have offered, not a single victim, and the first he found, but many sacrifices? Every feature of the passage indicates that Jephthah consciously vowed the sacrifice of a human being, and the tremendous force and awful solemnity of the vow appear in the very fact that not a common but an uncommon offering is pledged, and the victim is to be taken from the members of his own household. And as the most loving and affectionate would be likely to be the first to come and meet him, he hazards even that contingency, holding nothing back, but leaving it, as it were, for the Lord to select the victim.
When I return in peace Having conquered the enemy, and thus secured a lasting peace.
Shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering Some have construed this passage so as to give the suffix pronoun it or him ( הו ) a dative sense, and refer it to the Lord. Thus, I will offer HIM (that is, to Jehovah) a burnt offering. In this case the vow is made to contemplate two distinct things, (1) a person to be consecrated to Jehovah, and (2) the additional offering of a burnt sacrifice. But such a construction would be a solecism in Hebrew. Were the sense dative, as above indicated, לו , to him, would have been used, for the suffix to the verb is always the accusative. In 2 Kings 3:27, where it is said the king of Moab took his son and offered him a burnt offering upon the wall, we have precisely the same construction. Compare also 1 Samuel 7:9. This explanation must therefore be rejected as critically untenable.
The marginal reading, OR I will offer, etc., is also untenable. According to this reading the import of the vow would be, as Kimchi and others have paraphrased it, “I will offer it for a burnt offering if it be fit for such a purpose, or, if not fit, I will consecrate it to the Lord.” But every passage in which Vav ( ו ) is supposed to be used disjunctively is capable of a different explanation. The notion that the Hebrew language is so destitute of connecting particles that Vav must be often used in a disjunctive sense is an almost inexcusable blunder, especially when it is brought to bear on the simple and positive phraseology of Jephthah’s vow. It does not appear that this vow was uttered in the heat of battle or in a moment of confusion. If Jephthah contemplated divers methods of fulfilling it, the Hebrew language did not lack words by which to express precisely his intention. If he meant to say or, there was the proper disjunctive או , which is used more than a hundred times in the Old Testament in the sense of or.
Another attempt to escape the obvious import of the vow is to take the word עולה , burnt offering, in a figurative or spiritual sense. But such a deep spiritual sense of burnt offerings as this passage would involve was alien to the age of the Judges, and no passage in the whole Old Testament can be found where the word in question has such a meaning. Every passage cited in Hengstenberg’s essay on this subject fails most signally to help his argument. Hosea 14:2; Psalms 40:7-9; Psalms 51:17; Psalms 119:108. Take, for instance, the passage oftenest quoted, Psalms 51:16-17, where the spiritual idea of sacrifices in general is expressed, and the sacrifice of a broken and contrite heart, so far from being identified with burnt offering, is put in direct opposition to it. The whole attempt to put a figurative or spiritual sense upon the word עולה , especially in our text, is a manifest striving after something which the Scriptures nowhere offer, and a prodigious effort to get rid of the common meaning of an oft-recurring word.
It follows, then, that the only translation of this verse that will bear the test of criticism is substantially the following: “Whosoever comes forth from the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, shall be for Jehovah, and I will offer him for a burnt offering.” The last sentence is not tautological nor superfluous, but epexegetical of what immediately precedes, and shows the manner in which he meant to consecrate to the Lord the first person that came to meet him on his return home. So the language of Jephthah’s vow, according to the only defensible meaning of the words, clearly involved a human sacrifice.
32. The Lord delivered them into his hands The time was full for judgment to break upon the idolatrous Ammonites, and Jephthah was the chosen instrument for this work. The penitence and reformation in Israel, and the prayers for help that touched Jehovah’s heart, (Judges 10:15-16,) soon brought them this great deliverance. Strangely have some thought that deliverance came because of Jephthah’s vow, or as a token of the divine approval of that pious act. As if his vow, at best of doubtful morality, moved God more than the reformation, prayers, and public interests of all Israel! As well might one argue that Saul’s rash oath (1 Samuel 14:24) brought victory to Israel’s arms that day when Jonathan offended. Yet Jehovah may hear a prayer, clothed in mistaken form, coming from a reverent heart. Jephthah had the faith of Abraham, willing to sacrifice his child, under the sincere supposition that it was Jehovah’s will. So that he was worthily written in the glorious roll of Hebrews 11:0.
33. Aroer See at Joshua 13:25.
Minnith A place that was noted for its wheat, (Ezekiel 27:17;) but its exact site is unknown.
Plain of the vineyards This is a literal translation of a Hebrew proper name Abel-keramim so called, probably, because of its vineyards. The place is mentioned by Eusebius as lying six miles from Rabbah, and was still rich in vineyards in his day.
For want of precise details of the battle, and from uncertainty as to the exact sites of Aroer and Minnith, we find it impossible to trace the course of Jephthah’s victory. We most naturally suppose that from the height of Mount Gilead he marched southward and encountered the Ammonites near Aroer, somewhere between Jordan and Rabbah, probably at Ayra on the Wady Nimrin. Here he put them to flight, and chased them towards the south and east, probably capturing Rabbah, their capital, among the twenty cities which fell into his hands by this great victory. See the map of Gilead, page 234.
34. His daughter came… with timbrels and with dances She had, doubtless, heard from some swift messenger of her father’s victory, and of his approach towards home, and with a band of her young female companions she went forth to celebrate the great triumph over Ammon. Such celebrations of victory were a common custom in Israel. See marginal reference.
Only child This fact is here emphasized to explain the intensity of Jephthah’s agony, which is described in the next verse.
35. Rent his clothes A sign of intense agony and grief. He had, probably, hoped to meet first some other less cherished member of his family.
Thou hast brought me very low The idea here is, that of one bent down under the pressure of an almost crushing burden.
One of them that trouble me Literally, thou art among my troublers; that is, like one whose work is to give me trouble and anguish. To sacrifice her is to end his family, since he had no other child. Judges 11:34.
I cannot go back They who took upon themselves a solemn oath were expected to keep their word, (Numbers 30:2;) but he who swore to some one’s hurt was under condemnation if he did not change, (Psalms 15:4,) and the law (Leviticus 27:0) provided for the redemption of singular vows.
36. My father Her mission and devotion were in the highest degree touching and beautiful.
Forasmuch as the Lord hath taken vengeance for thee Here was a point of view from which hers would be a sublime and enviable death. It was dying for her father, her country, and her God, inasmuch as her memory would be associated sublimely with one of Israel’s greatest national triumphs.
37. Bewail my virginity Mark, not to bewail her death, for that, by itself considered, might be regarded as a glorious end. Die she must, sooner or later, and no more honourable death could ever be her lot. But she would bewail that which gave her death its only woful pang, and was to her far worse than death itself; a thing above all others deplorable in the estimation of that age and race the fact that, in the flower of youthful womanhood, she must close life without a husband and without a child, leaving no heir to her father’s house. It is difficult for us, with our loose attachments to the coming ages, and familiar with the modern prevalent lack of interest in posterity, and the noticeable desire among multitudes of females to remain childless, to appreciate the depth of feeling on this subject among the Hebrew women. A husbandless and childless state was a reproach to any marriageable female. Keil makes a misleading assertion when he says, “To mourn one’s virginity does not mean to mourn because one has to die a virgin, but because one has to live and remain a virgin.” More truly should it be said, that the expression has as much respect to the past as to the future, but contemplates not specially life or death, but the fact of virginity. Could Jephthah’s daughter only have perpetuated her father’s house and name; could it only have been that sons and daughters survived her, to take away her reproach among women, there would have been no pang in her death.
But why, some ask, if she was doomed to death, did she not rather spend those two months at home, and enjoy all the comfort she could during the short respite of her life? To one thus appointed to death, we answer, home affords no soul comforts, and earth’s festal scenes and sociality no pleasure. It is not human, under such circumstances, to find entertainment in the common joys of home. Far more congenial to the feelings of the dying maiden would be the mountain solitudes than any thing her father’s house could furnish. Then, also, the two months were asked, not for one more round of pleasures, but for mourning her virginity; and for that purpose the solitudes of the mountains, not the peopled town, with the presence of men, were appropriate.
But if, on the other hand, she knew she was to live and remain a virgin, and be shut up in seclusion for the rest of life, what sense or object in taking those two months to mourn? And in what sense would she be more really consecrated to celibacy after than during the two months of sorrow? Much more natural, as we conceive, would it have been for her, in that case, to have said: Let me stay at home, and enjoy the scenes of common life yet a month or two, since I must give all after-life to tears and solitude.
39. Did with her according to his vow Literally, Did to her his vow which he had vowed. This plain and positive statement throws us back for the meaning of Jephthah’s act to Judges 11:31, where the language of his vow is carefully recorded. Whatever act his vow contemplated, that certainly he did. Nothing more, nothing less. He devoutly kept his word. He had opened his mouth unto the Lord, and, notwithstanding all his anguish, he went not back from his solemn oath. So, according to the previous exposition of his language, we can understand nothing else than that he offered her for a burnt offering unto the Lord.
And she knew no man This fact the sacred writer adds as that alone which, in the estimation of that age, was the sting of death to the heroic maiden. It is very natural that those expositors who seek to show that Jephthah’s daughter was not put to death at all, should regard these words as indicating the manner in which he fulfilled his vow. Why else, they ask, is this fact of her virginity again mentioned? If she was sacrificed, they affirm, the record would have been: “He did to her his vow which he had vowed, and offered her for a burnt offering.” Such an addition, we reply, was not necessary, and, after the full and careful statement of his vow in Judges 11:31, would have been superfluous. But if, as we have shown above, and as most modern scholars are constrained to admit, he contemplated a human sacrifice, and if, instead of offering her as a burnt offering, he devoted her to a life of celibacy, then plainly he did NOT according to his vow which he had vowed, but contrary to it; and the mere addition, she knew no man, would be a most inexplicably strange way of informing us that Jephthah failed to keep his word. The sacred historian uses no needless word, nor does he attempt to picture the sad spectacle of the sacrifice; but he records, not as the manner in which Jephthah fulfilled his vow, but as the most fearful knell that, in the ears of her father and companions, sounded over that daughter’s funeral pile, and sent its lingering echo into the after-times she knew no man.
It was a custom in Israel What was a custom in Israel? For fathers to sacrifice daughters, after the example of Jephthah? This no one will pretend. To offer human sacrifices to Jehovah? No; for such a custom never prevailed to any considerable extent in Israel, and least of all was it occasioned by Jephthah’s example. To consecrate young maidens to perpetual virginity? There is not a particle of evidence that such a custom prevailed after this time more than before, and no certain evidence that it was ever a custom in Israel. On the contrary, the whole tendency of Hebrew laws and civilization was against a forced celibacy on the part of either sex. What custom, then, sprang up in Israel on this occasion? Clearly, the custom described in the next verse, of the yearly celebration of Jephthah’s daughter. The Hebrew is, She became a custom in Israel; that is, her heroism and sublime submission to be sacrificed made such an impression on the daughters of Israel that they instituted a yearly celebration of her memory.
40. Went yearly Went, probably, into the solitudes of the mountains. Those that lived near Mizpeh would naturally go to the same mountains where Jephthah’s daughter had bewailed her virginity.
To lament the daughter of Jephthah So all the ancient versions, but, doubtless, incorrectly. The word is better rendered rehearse, as in Judges 5:11; that is, to commemorate, to celebrate, to praise. After her death they ceased to bewail her virginity, and only celebrated the sublime heroism which led her, as she and they conceived, to die for God, her country, and her sire. Before her death she and her friends went to the mountains and bewailed all that they thought lamentable in her lot; and two months were deemed enough to mourn the dark side of her history, and that mourning they would have before her death, so that afterwards they need speak only of the bright side, and commemorate her lofty devotion.
It has been sometimes asked: “If she were really put to death, is it not strange that the fact of her death is not once spoken of?” The fact of her death, we answer, is sufficiently indicated in the statement, “He did to her his vow which he had vowed;” and as for the silence of the other parts of Scripture on this subject, that is no more strange than its silence on a hundred other things. With more show of reason may we ask, How is it, if she were not slain, that we have no mention of her subsequent life? The marginal reading, to talk with, is certainly untenable. It was natural for the daughters of Israel to go yearly and celebrate the sublime devotion and lofty heroism that haloed around the memory of the saintly maiden; but if she were still alive, it is inexplicably strange that no intimation of that fact is given.
Another exposition of Jephthah’s vow, at war with that presented in the foregoing notes, has largely prevailed among both Jews and Christians. It maintains that the maiden was not put to death at all, but was consecrated to a life of celibacy. Most of the arguments by which it is supported, and the objections and difficulties which it raises against our exposition, have been as fully met and answered in the foregoing notes as the limits of this work will allow. For more full and thorough discussion of the subject the reader is referred to the author’s article in the Methodist Quarterly Review for April, 1873. It remains for us to notice in this place the arguments; and objections which, for the sake of unity and clearness, we omitted to notice above.
The great objection against the literal interpretation is, that the offering of a human sacrifice was incompatible with Jephthah’s faith, piety, and knowledge of the law. But how is this to be shown? It is alleged that an inspired writer of the New Testament, in Hebrews 11:32, commends Jephthah’s faith. But be it noted that he does not commend Jephthah’s vow. Mark his words: “The time would fail me to tell of Gideon, and Barak, and Samson, and Jephthah; David also, and Samuel, and the prophets.” What parts or acts of their lives, now, shall we suppose this verse commends? All they ever did, or said, or were? Then must we include Barak’s cowardice, and Gideon’s idolatry and polygamy, and Samson’s lewdness with Delilah, and David’s lies, and adultery, and murder of Uriah! The six verses following, through which the writer to the Hebrews goes on to specify particular instances of faith, which distinguished those ancient worthies, contain no allusion which can with any rational probability be made to mean the consecration of one’s daughter to perpetual celibacy. Did it ever occur to the advocates of this consecration theory that for a father to doom his daughter, in the bloom of her youthful beauty, to a life of seclusion and celibacy, and thus rob her of the honour and joys of Hebrew womanhood, could scarcely be the ground of an apostle’s commendation? The faith which the inspired writer praises in the ancient worthies is not to be confounded with all the acts which, because of ignorance, may have sometimes sprung from their faith. It is well to observe that the faith of the harlot Rahab, ex-tolled by the same sacred writer, was compatible with what the ethics of the New Testament would pronounce a life of shame and an act of falsehood. Jephthah’s vow, as we view it, was an act at once of mighty faith and fearful ignorance. Our Christian instinct revolts both from the vow and the fulfilling of it. But we must not ignore and deny the spirit of exalted faith and piety from which his action sprang. The correctness of one’s doctrinal opinions is no sure criterion of his heart’s faith in God. The Lord Jesus found among the Gentiles a faith unparalleled in Israel.
But the main strength of the consecration hypothesis lies in the supposition that a judge in Israel must needs have been acquainted with the law against human sacrifices, (Leviticus 18:21; Leviticus 20:2; Deuteronomy 12:31; Deuteronomy 18:10.) But let it be observed that this is only a supposition; it has no positive evidence to support it, and may be opposed by considerations which make the very contrary supposition much more probable. First, the fact, which the Book of Judges makes no secret, that that was a lawless and degenerate period of Hebrew history. “Every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” Judges 17:6; Judges 21:25; Judges 2:16-19. Then consider Jephthah’s early exile from his father’s house, and the fact that about the time of his expulsion the multiplied idolatry described in Judges 10:6.
must have been at its height in Israel. They had even gone so far as to serve “the gods of Moab and the gods of the children of Am-mon.” To what extent they worshipped Chemosh and Moloch we are not told; but let the impartial student of history judge whether it is safe to affirm, that while they shamefully apostatized from the Lord and openly served those gods whose most signal honour was a human sacrifice, they could never, even in a single instance, be supposed to have shown them such signal honour.
And how natural for the youthful Gileadite, under all the circumstances of his lot, to suppose that the substance and methods of religion were about the same among all the nations; and, since human sacrifices were offered by some, and he had possibly known of instances even in Israel, they entered into and helped to form his notions of what would be most specially noble and pleasing in the sight of God. What supposable opportunities did his wild border life afford him for becoming acquainted with the law of Moses? It there was great ignorance of the law in the very heart of Israel, and near to Shiloh, the seat of the tabernacle, what greater ignorance must have prevailed far off on the border of Ammon! These considerations lead us to conclude that, so far from being absurd or impossible, it was both natural and probable that Jephthah’s knowledge of the law was exceedingly meagre and confused, and that the savage discipline of his border life, often in contact with the Ammonites, had led him to suppose that the sacrifice of a human being was the noblest possible offering to God.
The hypothesis of Bush demands a passing notice. He supposes that during the two months’ mourning the affair became notorious throughout the land, and the subject of great lamentation and discussion. He imagines that when the vow passed Jephthah’s lips it had more of the character of a devotement ( cherem, Leviticus 27:28) than of a vow, ( neder,) but that he was subsequently instructed by the priests that a burnt offering was incompatible with the nature of a devoted thing, “and that the law having made no provision for the latter being substituted for the former, he was even, according to the very terms of his vow, rightly understood, not only released, but prohibited from performing it. Accordingly, he conceives that Jephthah executed his vow by devoting his daughter to perpetual celibacy “a mode of execution which did not, in the first instance, enter his thoughts.” The one and all-sufficient answer to this hypothesis is that from beginning to end it is a tissue of conjectures, and can claim no support from the sacred narrative. It may do for poets and romancers to weave such fancies around the facts of Scripture, but not for a commentator sagely to give us such conjectures for exposition.
Some have been puzzled to know by whose hand Jephthah’s daughter could have been sacrificed. It would have been unlawful, they urge, for Jephthah to have done it, for he was not a priest, and the priests at Shiloh would surely have not polluted the tabernacle with a human sacrifice. This difficulty is all imaginary. A reference to Judges 6:19-20; Judges 6:26-27; Judges 13:19, will show that in that age it was no uncommon thing for persons to offer sacrifices without the aid of priests, and at places far from the tabernacle. And a man who, like Jephthah, thought that a human sacrifice would be pleasing to God, would not be likely to scruple over forms; and to suppose that between the time he was made judge and the time he performed his vow he must have become acquainted with the regulations of the Levitical priesthood, is to suppose what has no evidence in Scripture. The same remarks will apply to the objection that none but a male victim could be offered in sacrifice, according to the law. Is it assumed, then, that Jephthah might have legally offered his son, if he had had one?
Finally, it is said that our exposition enables the oppugners of a divine revelation to urge a capital objection against the morality of the Bible. But how is this possible when the Bible nowhere approves or sanctions Jephthah’s vow? Must we accept as sanctioned of God every action in Bible history that is not specifically condemned by some sacred writer? Or will it be pretended that the Bible anywhere sanctions human sacrifices? Amazingly shallow are they who presume to oppugn divine revelation with such logic, or they who seriously fear the attacks of such objectors. We shudder at Jephthah’s ignorance and superstition, and revolt from his bloody deed: but with the daughters of Israel, who lived in that darkest of historic ages, we cannot but commemorate the mighty faith and zeal of Jephthah, and the sublime devotion of his daughter.
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Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Judges 11". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 7 / Ordinary 12