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Bible Dictionaries

Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters

Jephthah and His Daughter


'PROSPERITY,' says Bacon, 'is the blessing of the Old Testament, but adversity is the blessing of the New.' 'How many saints,' exclaims Law, 'has adversity sent to heaven! And how many poor sinners has prosperity plunged into everlasting misery! This man had never been debauched, but for his fortune and advancement; that had never been pious, but through his poverty and disgrace. She that is envied for her beauty may perchance owe all her misery to it, and another may be for ever happy for having no admirers of her person. One man succeeds in everything, and so loses all; another meets with nothing but crosses and disappointments, and thereby gains more than all the world is worth.' 'Adversity,' says Albert Bengel, 'transfers our affections to Christ. 'Caius Martius,' says Plutarch, 'being left an orphan of his father, was brought up under his mother, a widow, and he has taught us by his experience that orphanage brings many disadvantages to a child, but does not hinder him from becoming an honest man, or from excelling in virtues above the common sort.'

Jephthah the Gileadite was the most ill-used man in all the Old Testament, and he continues to be the most completely misunderstood, misrepresented, and ill-used man down to this day. Jephthah's ill-usage began before he was born, and it has continued down to the last Old Testament Commentary and the last Bible Dictionary that treats of Jephthah's name. The iron had entered Jephthah's soul while yet he lay in his mother's womb; and both his father and his brothers and the elders of Israel helped forward Jephthah's affliction, till the Lord rose up for Jephthah and said, It is enough; took the iron out of His servant's soul, and poured oil and wine into the lifelong wound. Born, like his great Antitype, under a cloud, Jephthah, like his great Antitype also, was made perfect through suffering. Buffeted about from his birth by his brothers; trampled upon by all men, but most of all by the men of his father's house; called all manner of odious and exasperating names; his mother glad to get the servants' leavings for herself and her son; when a prophet came to dine, sent away to the fields to be out of sight; My son, his mother said, as she died on her bed of straw among Gilead's oxen-My son, shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? And from that day, if earth had been hell to Jephthah before, the one drop of water that had hitherto cooled his tormented heart was now spilt to him for ever, never to be gathered up again. For his mother was dead.

If at the death of his father Jephthah had got his proper portion of his father's goods, then Jephthah might have become as great a prodigal as his brothers became. But the loss of an earthly inheritance was to Jephthah, as it has been to so many men since his day, the gaining of an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled, eternal in the heavens.

And Gilead's wife bore him sons; and his wife's sons grew up, and they thrust out Jephthah, and said unto him, 'Thou shalt not inherit in our father's house, for thou art the son of a strange woman.' Then Jephthah fled from his brethren and dwelt in the land of Tob; and there were gathered vain men to Jephthah, who went out with him. 'Vain men'; yes; no doubt. But, then, we must remember that misery has always acquainted even the best of men with strange bedfellows. David's misery acquainted him with every one that was in debt, and with every one that was in distress, and with every one that was discontented, and he became a captain over them, as did Jephthah long before David's day. You must not sit in your soft chair and shake your head over Jephthah and David. They were not all highwaymen; they were not all unmitigated freebooters either in Adullam or in Tob. They were not unlike those Armenians or Greeks who have taken to the hills in our day against the Turks. Still, we must stand to the text; and it is to Jephthah's advantage that we do so stand. Yes; fill the mountain-fastnesses of Tob as full as they can hold of vain men, and their captain's true character will only all that the better come out. Debtors, broken men, injured and outcast men, orphan and illegitimate sons, prodigal sons, and sons with whom their fathers were wearied out; with, no doubt, a sprinkling of salt here and there, as there always is among the most corrupt characters and the most abandoned men. But, bad as they were, Jephthah turned none of them away, but took them all the more into his own hand. I told you Whose type Jephthah was, and Who was his Antitype. And thus it was that he took that great rabble of refuse and of offscourings, and year after year gradually chastised them into an army of obedient and capable men. He took them to his own cave man by man, to sup with himself and to talk with himself. He listened to their story, and they listened to his. He told them what he would give them to do, and what he would give them for doing it. He made them captains over tens and over fifties and over hundreds. He trusted them, he praised them, he promoted them. And then he hurled them like a stone cut out of the mountain against the enemies of the King of Tob; till the elders of Israel in their absolute despair were compelled to approach and to beseech Jephthah to come down from his fastness and rid them of their enemies also.

It was a bitter pill to those elders of Israel. Some of the prouder stomachs among them would have died rather than swallow it. The stone which the builders had refused was become the head stone of the corner; and it broke every bone in their body to lift that stone up into its place. You know how you hate and fear and shrink back from meeting, not to speak of being beholden for your life to, the man or woman you once greatly injured. You will know, then, what it was to be an elder in Israel in that day and among the hills of Tob. Their hearts were as black as hell with remorse and with terror as they approached Jephthah's dreadful den and saw his naked savages glowering at them through their spears. Look at that poor elder of Israel of eighty. His old face is as white as his old hair. An old man like that should not be out on an errand like this. He drinks at every stream. He falls down with fear at every breath of wind. Who, you ask, is that so venerable figure they have placed at the head of the sacred deputation? Oh, that, you must know, is the ruling elder, to whose door Jephthah went in his despair when his mother was dying in Gilead's stable. That is the hand, so helpless today, that shut the door so sternly in Jephthah's face that day. That is the mouth, so dry today, that was so full of such evil names at Jephthah that day. And he would never have got through his mission to Tob that day unless Jephthah had made his daughter spread out some venison on a shelf of a rock and pour out some of the old wine of their mountains. That old elder's sin found him out that day, when the sweetest woman-child he had ever seen washed his feet, and anointed his head, and kissed his outstretched and deprecating hand, Jephthah's daughter shall never wash my feet! the old man had said; but she both washed his feet and kissed them too, in her beautiful honour to old age. Jephthah would have been more than a mere man, as, indeed, he sometimes was, if he had not reminded those elders of the old days. Only, if the deputation had had any sense; if they had not been so many idiots; if all their tongues had not been cleaving to the roofs of their months over Jephthah's hospitality and his daughter's devotion, they would surely have taken the upbraiding words out of his mouth. What a pity it is that Jephthah did not hold himself in to the end of the interview! What a lesson he would then have been to us in the New Testament art of taming an injured tongue! But let him who has always tamed his own tongue in Jephthah's opportunity cast the first stone at Gilead's disinherited and cast-out son. At the same time, Jephthah soon put a bridle on his mouth, and that lest his old wrongs should set sudden fire to what he knew was only waiting the match in the hearts of his men. And he was very glad when he got all those elders of Israel safely out of Tob and back again within the borders of their own land. He was angry with himself all down the long hill-road that he had ever told those wild men one word about the days of his youth. But by quick marchings and by strict orders Jephthah got his bodyguard held in till all danger was past.

The Lord dwelt in those days at Mizpeh; The Lord had a house and an altar at Mizpeh; and Jephthah opened all that was in his heart; past injury, present opportunity, and future surrender and service before the Lord at Mizpeh, This is what we mean by masterly writing, sacred or profane. This: 'Jephthah uttered all his words before the Lord in Mizpah.' The truly masterly part was in Jephthah himself. But it is not every masterly part that gets such a masterly reporter, 'Before the Lord,' I am much afraid, is only so much pen and ink to you even when it stands in these reader-arresting capitals. But, to Jephthah, Mizpeh was all that the Mount was to Moses when the Lord descended there with His great Name. Tob, and Mizpeh, and all, were full of the Lord and all His Attributes to Jephthah. I expect to read in The Athenæum or The Academy some Saturday night soon that the land of Tob has been discovered and identified, and Jephthah's headquarters in it, with Exodus thirty-fourth and sixth and seventh still legible on its doorpost. Perhaps Dryasdust will then begin to open his eyes over his ordered article on Jephthah. Only, if they had been made to open they would surely have opened long ago at the last clause of the eleventh verse of the eleventh chapter of Jephthah's history. Time has failed me to make an exhaustive induction over the whole of the Old Testament, but I have a conviction that The Name of the Lord occurs oftener in Jephthah's history than it does in the history of any other Old Testament saint, at any rate between the days of Moses and those of David. If the Name and Presence of the Lord is the supreme distinction in any man's life and history, Old Testament or New, prosperity or adversity, then he that runs might surely have read in that Jephthah's character and Jephthah's standing in the true Israel. How I wish this fine narrator had taken time to tell us down to every jot and tittle all that Jephthah said and did when he uttered all his words before the Lord at Mizpeh! Were this sacred writer on the earth in our day, and were he recasting his Judges in the light of the New Testament, I feel sure he would give us all Jephthah's words before the Lord at Mizpeh, and that verbatim too, even if he had to leave out the Levite and his concubine. But this sacred writer knew his own business, and I can well believe it of him that he buried Jephthah's words before the Lord at Mizpeh out of sight in order that we might have to dig for those words as for hid treasure-the hid treasure of the kingdom of heaven, as Jephthah had been taught by his mother about that kingdom, and had already taken, and will soon still more take, that kingdom by force.

Along with Jephthah we have Jephthah's father, and his mother, and his brothers, and the elders of Israel, and the King of Ammon, and Jephthah's daughter, and the daughters of Israel-but we have not one word about Jephthah's wife. Richard Owen, the great anatomist, from a few inches of fossil bone constructed a complete creature of a long past and forgotten world, and made it live and go about again before us. And from a few words of her daughter I can see and understand that nameless princess of the land of Tob better than I can see and understand some men and women who live next door to me. I conclude the long-dead mother from a single glimpse of her noble daughter. I see the mother of Jephthah's daughter the light of Jephthah's eyes in the dark cave of Tob. Those terrified elders owed their life that day to her. It was her love and her life and her death that so softened and so reconciled her husband, 'Yes,' she said to her father, after Jephthah had delivered her father's city,-'Yes, I will go with this man.' And when her daughter was born in Adullam that finished her work on her husband's savage soldiers. Always lions in war, they were now lambs in peace. 'My father,' said her daughter, long after her mother was dead and buried among her father's hills,-'My father, if thou hast opened thy mouth unto the Lord, do to me according to that which hath proceeded out of thy mouth,' No, there can be no doubt at all about the mother of Jephthah's daughter. Moses had laid down a law that Jephthah was never to get a wife out of any family in Israel, nor was he ever to be let worship God in the same house with the virtuous elders of Israel. But men like Jephthah are above all such laws, and they break through them all as a lion breaks through a hedge. For Jephthah got of the Lord in Tob a better wife and a better daughter too, than were to be seen in all Israel from Dan to Beersheba. And as for their tabernacle, he took it by storm, or, if not it, then that temple not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. Pericles' mother dreamed one night that she was brought to bed of a lion. And Jephthah's mother again and again had the same dream.

After all that, it does not at all upset me to read that Jephthah built an altar and offered up his daughter. That was their terrible way sometimes in those twilight, uncivilised, and unevangelical ages. What God bade Abraham and Isaac do on Moriah, that Jephthah and his daughter actually did at Mizpeh. No doubt, had God sent an angel and provided a ram, Jephthah and his daughter would have returned home together willingly enough. But God did better for Jephthah and his daughter than He did for Abraham and Isaac, and both Abraham and Isaac in their old age would have been the first to admit it. The finished work of this earthly life of fathers, and mothers, and sons, and daughters, is to hold them all as not ours but God's. It is really of little consequence in what age of the world, or in what dispensation of providence, patriarchal, Mosaic, pagan, or Christian, or just in what way, and just among what things, the mind and the heart and the will of Jephthah and Jesus Christ are worked out within us-If only they are worked out within us.

The one question is, Am I or am I not my own? Am I bought with a price or am I not? In all that do I not sin, nor charge God foolishly? In all that do I say, Lo, I come, in the volume of the book it is written of me? You take a right step. You take up a holy calling. You enter a holy covenant. You open your mouth to the Lord, and you put your hand to His holy plough. And, come what may, you never go back. You only all the more say, I will pay my vow. Thy will be done. My times are in Thy hand. The cup, shall I not drink it? All I have is Thine, said Jephthah. I had nothing. I had not even a name to be known by. No man would let me sit at his table. No mother would let me look at her daughter. No elder in Israel but spat in my face. It is all Thine. I am Thy servant, and the son of Thine handmaid; Thou hast loosed my bonds. Take it all back again if Thou seest good; only let me redeem Thy people Israel. And God took Jephthah at his word, till wherever the Book of the Judges of Israel is read this that Jephthah and his daughter did shall be told for a memorial of them. And it was a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went to that altar once every year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year. And they came back from that altar to be far better daughters than they went out. They came back softened, and purified, and sobered at heart. They came back ready to die for their fathers, and for their brothers, and for their husbands, and for their God. Weep not for me, Jephthah's daughter said to them from off her altar and from out of heaven. Weep for yourselves and for your children.

And that the very fragments of such a history may be gathered up, and may not be lost, we are let read this on the margin-That though Jephthah had neither wife, nor son, nor daughter of his own any more, yet his palace at Mizpeh was only all that the more replenished and full of people. Old soldiers from the fastnesses of Tob were pensioned in that palace; prodigal sons worked in its fields; illegitimate sons sat at its table; foundling children played upon its doorsteps; nephews of its owner, the debauched sons of the rich brothers of his youth, became honest men-what between their uncle's house and the house of the Lord beside it. Long ago, when Jephthah first uttered his words before the Lord at Mizpeh, he read these words on the wall of that altar. These words: The Lord your God regardeth not persons, nor taketh rewards. He doth execute the judgment of the fatherless and the widow; He loveth the stranger, and giveth him food and raiment. Love ye, therefore, the stranger, for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt. And many of the sons of the elders of Israel ate the fat and drank the sweet at Jephthah's orphaned table, because of what Jephthah had read long ago on the Lord's wall at Mizpeh. For six years this life for others went on with Jephthah. He buried his grief as much as he might in warfare for Israel and in labours in her seat of judgment and among her outcasts, till he died in Mizpeh in midtime of his days. For he said, They shall not return to me, but I shall go to them, and so died.

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Bibliography Information
Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'Jephthah and His Daughter'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. 1901.

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