Jephthah was a gunslinger in what might have been known in his day as the ‘Wild East’. Gilead was east of the Jordan, and so at a distance from neighbouring Israelite tribes, and vulnerable to the takeover of the pagan nations who lived in the vicinity. Frontier life was always colourful, and rarely safe. Jephthah’s family wasn’t straightforward, either, and you can imagine the tensions which existed between him, a prostitute’s son, and his half-brothers, until they finally kicked him out (v.2). Little wonder that this man was a strong personality and a strong fighter, who led a bunch of renegades (vv.1, 3).
Jephthah might not have been the sort of man you could easily trust, but I bet he was the sort of man you would want beside you in a fight. The Gilead elders recognise that when the Ammonites attacked them, and they go to him and asked him to lead their forces (vv.4-6). Well, wouldn’t you? Jephthah hasn’t got over his rough treatment at their hands, though (v.7). Maybe these were actually his step-brothers. If that’s so, how glad would Jephthah have felt, that they came cap-in-hand back to him? A bargain is struck, and Jephthah is recognised as leader. Let battle commence.
But it doesn’t. Jephthah sends messengers to the Ammonite king, asking why he has a quarrel with the Gileadites. Is Jephthah being a bit obtuse? His people have, afterall, taken Ammonite land in the Conquest. The Ammonite king tells him as much (vv.12-13), and then Jephthah gives him his own history lesson in return: ok, he may have to go back 300 years into the historical records, but Jephthah’s contention is that Jehovah gave His People the land (vv.21-22). The Ammonites have enough for themselves. If they continue to flex their muscles, then the Lord Himself will judge (vv.24-27).
The Amonite king doesn’t climb down, so the Lord comes down, in the power of His Spirit on Jephthah. He gathers his army, and the victory is swift and decisive. The Lord gave it to them, and ‘Israel subdued Ammon’ (vv.32-33). And all of the Israelites lived happily ever after.
Sort of. All, that is, except Jephthah’s daughter. And her family, and her friends. Jephthah had vowed to offer a sacrifice to the Lord, of whatever or whoever should meet him when he returned victorious from battle (vv.30-31). What was he thinking, in making the vow, and in insisting that the vow could not be broken, when it was his daughter who ran to him with a victory song (vv.34-36)?
The attempts to justify (or, at least, to excuse) Jephthah’s behaviour are as many as the tears of his daughter. Some say that he knew he would meet a person (citing that the verb ‘to meet’ always implies a person, not an animal), so he definitely never intended this to be a human sacrifice, as such a thought and vow would be unthinkable. Others point out that there is no record of the weeping daughter being sacrificed, so this never took place. Others defend Jephthah’s integrity, that having made this vow, he has the integrity to keep it (oh, please). And some crown their efforts to defend our hero by pointing out that, as he was led by the Lord’s Spirit, he couldn’t have made a foolish vow.
He did. There is no way around seeing this whole episode as one foolish promise, made all the more wretched by Jephthah’s commitment to seeing it through. No, we don’t hear of the sacrifice, but it is clear in the mind of our historian that this girl was mourning for more than a lost marriage (v.37). And what else might ‘he did to her as he had vowed’ mean (v.39)?
I think that the wretched truth of the matter is that this leader Jephthah, for all of the work of the Spirit on him, is another hero with feet very much of clay. An abusive childhood, a probably violent career, a sudden rise to power, and it was all too much for him. He was desperate for success, so desperate, that he made a desperate vow. Zeal for himself consumed his house. How unlike Another, about whom it was said that zeal for God’s house consumed Him. Like Jephthah, He was rejected by his own, and a leader of people who were on the margins, and a servant of God led by the Spirit of God. Unlike Jephthah, He was a man of wisdom who vowed to give His own life as an offering. And all who discover His victory over oppression sing a victory song which will never be silenced.