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Bible Commentaries

Arthur Peake's Commentary on the Bible
Judges 11

 

 

Verses 1-17

Judges 11:1-11. Jephthah's Youth.—Jephthah (God opens the womb) is the Othello of Israelitish history, a splendid barbarian, "little blessed with the soft phrase of peace," familiar with "moving accidents by flood and field," who by his valour delivers his country, and by a mysterious fate sacrifices a life dearer to him than his own. A great warrior, he was handicapped in the race of life, and persecuted by his own flesh and blood, because he came into the world with the cruel stain of illegitimacy. All the greater honour will be his if he can "burst his birth's invidious bar." Tradition did not preserve the real name of the hero's father, who is simply called Gilead, which was properly the name of a district or its people (see Judges 10:3). Like Ishmael, another "unwanted" son, Jephthah was driven from his home and cast upon a cold world. But he found his way to the land of Tob ("good"), which proved a good land to him, a land where a brave youth could carve his way to fortune. (It is mentioned again in 2 Samuel 10:6-8; district unknown.) For a time he was, like young David, a free-booter; he and his comrades "went out"—a well-understood term, meaning went out on raids. In this way he got himself ready to be the deliverer of his country—from raiders! He had the chance of his lifetime in his country's day of peril. The elders (sheikhs) of Gilead—some of his own brothers perhaps among them—came to Tob to beg him to come home. Gilead was in need of a military leader to break the power of the enemy. The hour was come, and Jephthah was the man. Desiring to be sure of his position, he put to the elders some awkward questions, which they evaded. Note their solemnly in consequent "therefore," a touch of comedy on the writer's part. Jephthah did not think the word of the elders as good as their bond, and would not budge an inch without their adjuration, "Yahweh be witness between us."

Judges 11:11 b scarcely makes sense here, and many scholars think its right place is after Judges 11:31. Such errors frequently occurred in the copying of MSS.


Verses 12-28

Judges 11:12-28. Jephthah's Negotiations with the King of Ammon.—As generally happens, there was a war of diplomacy before the war of swords. The history of 300 years was reviewed in an attempt to settle a present question of meum and tuum. Jephthah speedily acquainted himself with the rights and wrongs of the case, and would not have it said that he made no effort to settle matters amicably. But he argued in vain. Perhaps he was not sorry when the solemn palaver was over, and the hour come for the stern arbitrament of war. He was essentially a soldier, only incidentally and reluctantly a politician.

Judges 11:14-28. The point of the long speech of Jephthah's messengers is that the Israelites, in their journey from Egypt, scrupulously respected the neutrality of Ammon. They failed to obtain a transit through either Edom or Moab, and rather than trespass on forbidden ground they "compassed" both these lands. The only territory which they seized to the east of Jordan was that of Sihon, king of the Amorites. (These facts are stated in Numbers 20:14-18; Numbers 21:21-24, only there is no reference to an embassy to Moab.) It will be observed that from Judges 11:15 onwards there is a flaw in the argument of the messengers, who reason as if they were negotiating with Moab instead of Ammon; and the error becomes most apparent in Judges 11:24, where they speak of "Chemosh thy god." Chemosh was the god of Moab, Milcom of Ammon. The Israelites speak as men who have a national deity, Yahweh, to men who have a national deity, Chemosh. While they devoutly worshipped the one, they did not question the reality of the other. The truth of monotheism had not yet dawned on even the greatest minds in Israel.


Verses 29-33

Judges 11:29-33. Jephthah's Vow, and his Campaign against Ammon.

Judges 11:29 b is probably an editorial note, "a somewhat unskilful attempt to fasten the new cloth (Judges 11:12-28) into the old garment" (Moore.) Jephthah's vow was made at the holy place of Mizpah in Gilead, like Jacob's at Bethel (Gen. 28:24f., Genesis 31:13). In hope of victory, or dread of disaster, men vowed, or devoted, to Yahweh something very precious—it might even be a human life—believing they would thus propitate His favour and secure His aid.

Judges 11:31. "Whatsoever" is entirely wrong; read "whosoever" (mg.). Jephthah intended a human sacrifice. To suggest that he thought of an animal—say a sheep or a goat—crossing his path when he neared his home, is to trifle with tragedy.

Judges 11:33. Aroer is not the city of that name on the Arnon (Judges 11:26), but another near the ancient Rabbah, which is the modern Ammn (Joshua 13:25). Minnith was probably near Heshbon. Abel-cheramim, "Vineyard-meadow," is unknown.

Judges 11:34. Read "came to his home at Mizpah." Like Miriam at the Red Sea (Exodus 15:20), and the women who welcomed home Saul and David (1 Samuel 18:6), Jephthah's daughter came forth to meet her father with timbrels and dances. This implies that she had companions (cf. Judges 11:37), but the poignant fact was that she, as the conqueror's daughter, was leading the dance.

Judges 11:34 b is unsurpassable in its pathos; equalled only by Genesis 22:2. The sacrifice of an only child—what sorrow can compare with that? (cf. Jeremiah 4:26, Amos 8:10, Zechariah 12:10). "What is a victory, what are triumphal arches, and the praise of all creation, to a lonely man?" (Mark Rutherford).

Judges 11:35. Read "thou hast stricken me, thou (emphatic) art one that bringeth disaster upon me."

Judges 11:36. The pure and innocent maiden whose life was to be sacrificed is known only as Jephthah's Daughter, and she was worthy, more than worthy, of that name. With her father's heroic spirit, she had a still nobler nature There is nothing in all literature finer than her answer in this verse. No wonder that her words have inspired poets. Tennyson paraphrases them in "My God, my land, my father," and Byron in "Since our country, our God—oh, my sire."

Judges 11:37. She asks for a respite of two months. "Life is sweet, brothers, who would wish to die?"

Judges 11:39. But Jephthah "did to her as he had vowed to do." That is the last act of the tragedy. It is only suggested. No angel of the Lord interposed, as in the story of Isaac, with an injunction "Lay not thine hand on the maiden" (cf. Genesis 22:12). No prophet had yet arisen to ask, "Shall I give the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?" (Micah 6:7). From the Christian point of view we may, with Dante, think Jephthah was wrong

"Blindly to execute a rash resolve,

Whom better it had suited to exclaim

‘I have done ill,' than to redeem his pledge

By doing worse."

But his blindness detracts nothing from the heroism of his daughter, who gave herself, without a murmur, to her people and her God; who was led to the altar, not as a bride adorned for her husband, but as a virgin-martyr; whose love of life was less than her love of her country and its freedom. Did not Byron rightly divine that she smiled as she died? [The view that she was not put to death but doomed to remain unwedded, is almost certainly incorrect, though it has been recently revived by Benzinger.—A. S. P.]

 


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Bibliography Information
Peake, Arthur. "Commentary on Judges 11:4". "Arthur Peake's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pfc/judges-11.html. 1919.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, November 11th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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