Judges 11 – Jephthah and the Ammonites
A. Jephthah negotiates with the Ammonites.
1. (1-3) Jephthah’s background before his rise to leadership.
Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty man of valor, but he was the son of a harlot; and Gilead begot Jephthah. Gilead’s wife bore sons; and when his wife’s sons grew up, they drove Jephthah out, and said to him, “You shall have no inheritance in our father’s house, for you are the son of another woman.” Then Jephthah fled from his brothers and dwelt in the land of Tob; and worthless men banded together with Jephthah and went out raiding with him.
a. Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty man of valor: This brave and notable man in Israel had a clouded pedigree. His mother was a harlot, a common heathen prostitute.
i. The area of Gilead was the part of Israel that lay east of the Jordan River, comprising the territory of Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh. Coincidentally, Jephthah’s father was also named Gilead.
b. Jephthah fled from his brothers and dwelt in the land of Tob: Rejected by his family because of his illegitimate ancestry, Jephthah great up in this area in what would be modern-day Syria.
i. Though rejected by his family, God blessed and used Jephthah. “Howbeit God made choice of such a one here to be a deliverer of his people; and hath registred him among other of his worthies, famous for their faith (Hebrews 11). This is for the comfort of bastards, if believers, and born of God (John 1:12-13).” (Trapp)
ii. “The one thing which we emphasize is that God did not count the wrong for which he was not responsible, a disqualification. He raised him up; He gave him His Spirit; He employed him to deliver His people in the hour of their need.” (Morgan)
iii. “Tob has been tentatively identified with the modern el-Taiyibeh, about 15 miles east-north-east of Ramoth-gilead, in the desolate area which lay just outside the eastern boundary of Israel and the northern frontier of Ammon.” (Cundall)
b. Worthless men banded together with Jephthah and went out raiding with him: Jephthah wasn’t necessarily the leader of a band of criminals. Adam Clarke explains that the term worthless men doesn’t necessarily mean a bandit: “The word may, however, mean in this place poor persons, without property, and without employment.”
i. “He and his band probably operated more in the manner of David and his group years later, protecting cities and settlements from marauders.” (Wood) David did this in the period described in 1 Samuel 25:4-8, receiving pay from those whom they helped. It is also possible that they only plundered the villages of enemy peoples, such as the Ammonites.
2. (4-8) The elders of Gilead call upon the leadership of Jephthah.
It came to pass after a time that the people of Ammon made war against Israel. And so it was, when the people of Ammon made war against Israel, that the elders of Gilead went to get Jephthah from the land of Tob. Then they said to Jephthah, “Come and be our commander, that we may fight against the people of Ammon.” So Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “Did you not hate me, and expel me from my father’s house? Why have you come to me now when you are in distress?” And the elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “That is why we have turned again to you now, that you may go with us and fight against the people of Ammon, and be our head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.”
a. The people of Ammon made war against Israel: The nation of Ammon, the Ammonites, lived to the south of Israel. They were a semi-nomadic group of people who descended from Abraham’s nephew Lot.
i. Why have you come to me now when you are in distress: “May not God justly say as much to most of us? We seldom seek to him till needs must.” (Trapp)
b. Come and be our commander, that we may fight against the people of Ammon: Because of the crisis of the Ammonites, the leaders of Gilead were desperate for an able leader, and they turned to Jephthah. They were willing to give him the authority as head over Gilead.
3. (9-11) Jephthah’s response to the leaders of Gilead.
So Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “If you take me back home to fight against the people of Ammon, and the Lord delivers them to me, shall I be your head?” And the elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “The Lord will be a witness between us, if we do not do according to your words.” Then Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and commander over them; and Jephthah spoke all his words before the Lord in Mizpah.
a. If you take me back home to fight against the people of Ammon, and the Lord delivers them to me, shall I be your head? Jephthah was only will to assume leadership in the crisis if he could also remain a leader after the crisis. He didn’t want to be rejected again as a worthless man.
b. Before the Lord in Mizpah: This was the same place where the famous agreement between Laban and Jacob was made (Genesis 31:43-50). The idea of Mizpah (“watch”) is “If you do wrong according to this promise, God will see it and may He punish.”
4. (12-13) Jephthah negotiates with the King of the Ammonites.
Now Jephthah sent messengers to the king of the people of Ammon, saying, “What do you have against me, that you have come to fight against me in my land?” And the king of the people of Ammon answered the messengers of Jephthah, “Because Israel took away my land when they came up out of Egypt, from the Arnon as far as the Jabbok, and to the Jordan. Now therefore, restore those lands peaceably.”
a. What do you have against me, that you have come to fight against me in my land? Jephthah asked a simple question: why are you in the land of Israel? Perhaps the whole dispute could be solved by negotiations and diplomacy instead of warfare.
b. Because Israel took away my land when they came up out of Egypt: The king of Ammon gave a simple reply, saying that they were in Israel because it was really their own land, and Israel took it from them unjustly.
5. (14-28) Jephthah’s response to the King of the Ammonites.
So Jephthah again sent messengers to the king of the people of Ammon, and said to him, “Thus says Jephthah: ‘Israel did not take away the land of Moab, nor the land of the people of Ammon; for when Israel came up from Egypt, they walked through the wilderness as far as the Red Sea and came to Kadesh. Then Israel sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, “Please let me pass through your land.” But the king of Edom would not heed. And in like manner they sent to the king of Moab, but he would not consent. So Israel remained in Kadesh. And they went along through the wilderness and bypassed the land of Edom and the land of Moab, came to the east side of the land of Moab, and encamped on the other side of the Arnon. But they did not enter the border of Moab, for the Arnon was the border of Moab. Then Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, king of Heshbon; and Israel said to him, “Please let us pass through your land into our place.” But Sihon did not trust Israel to pass through his territory. So Sihon gathered all his people together, encamped in Jahaz, and fought against Israel. And the Lord God of Israel delivered Sihon and all his people into the hand of Israel, and they defeated them. Thus Israel gained possession of all the land of the Amorites, who inhabited that country. They took possession of all the territory of the Amorites, from the Arnon to the Jabbok and from the wilderness to the Jordan. And now the Lord God of Israel has dispossessed the Amorites from before His people Israel; should you then possess it? Will you not possess whatever Chemosh your god gives you to possess? So whatever the Lord our God takes possession of before us, we will possess. And now, are you any better than Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab? Did he ever strive against Israel? Did he ever fight against them? While Israel dwelt in Heshbon and its villages, in Aroer and its villages, and in all the cities along the banks of the Arnon, for three hundred years, why did you not recover them within that time? Therefore I have not sinned against you, but you wronged me by fighting against me. May the Lord, the Judge, render judgment this day between the children of Israel and the people of Ammon.’ ” However, the king of the people of Ammon did not heed the words which Jephthah sent him.
a. Israel did not take away the land of Moab, nor the land of the people of Ammon: Jephthah’s written response to the King of the Ammonites carefully explained why Israel had a right to the land that the Ammonites claimed was theirs.
b. Thus Israel gained possession of all the land of the Amorites, who inhabited that country: Jephthah reminded the King of the Ammonites that since the Amorites conquered the Ammonites and took control of their land. When Israel defeated the Amorites in battle, they justly took the land of the Amorites – which also happened to be the previous land of the Ammonites. The war against the Amorites was prompted by the vicious Amorite war against Israeli civilians.
c. And now the Lord God of Israel has dispossessed the Amorites from before His people Israel; should you then possess it? Jephthah argued that since God gave this land to Israel, the Ammonites had no claim over it.
d. Will you not possess whatever Chemosh your god gives you to possess? Jephthah argued that the Ammonite god Chemosh must show himself worthy to conquer the land of Israel. Since Israel held this land for three hundred years, it demonstrated that Chemosh was not greater than the God of Israel.
i. “The three hundred years is remarkably close to the total of the various figures for the judges and the periods of oppression given up to this point. The exact figure is 319 years.” (Cundall)
ii. This was an inherent challenge: “If your god is mighty enough to give you the land, then let him do it. Let us see who is stronger – Yahweh or Chemosh.”
iii. Jephthah did not see this battle as primarily between two armies, but between the God of Israel and the false god of Ammon. Jephthah showed true wisdom in seeing this as a spiritual battle first.
iv. Chemosh your god: Chemosh was traditionally the god of the Moabites, not the Ammonites. But they may have worshipped each other’s gods, and they may also have considered Chemosh and Milcom to be the same god with different names.
e. However, the king of the people of Ammon did not heed the words which Jephthah sent him: Jephthah’s logical, reasoned response was of no effect upon the King of Ammon. War was therefore inevitable.
B. Victory and a vow.
1. (29) Jephthah gathers troops and advances courageously on Ammon.
Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh, and passed through Mizpah of Gilead; and from Mizpah of Gilead he advanced toward the people of Ammon.
a. Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah: This was the source of Jephthah’s courage and can be the source of courage for us as well. When we are beset by fears and anxieties, we need to fill our lives with Jesus and be filled with the Holy Spirit.
b. He advanced toward the people of Ammon: The filling of the Spirit makes us advance. We go forward in the sense of spiritual progress and we go forward in the sense of confronting the enemies of God.
2. (30-31) Jephthah makes a rash vow, thinking it will help his cause before God.
And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, “If You will indeed deliver the people of Ammon into my hands, then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.”
a. Jephthah made a vow to the Lord: Though well intentioned, this was a foolish vow. Such vows can be attempts to manipulate God or put Him under obligation to ourselves. It is far more important to be on God’s side than to try and persuade Him to be on your side.
i. Even a Spirit-filled man can do foolish things. The Holy Spirit does not overwhelm and control us, He guides us – and that guidance can be resisted or ignored at smaller or greater points.
ii. “There is no need to bribe God’s help, as Jephthah did, by his rash promise. He will give gladly and freely out of His own heart of love the help and deliverance we need, if only our course is rightly ordered before Him.” (Meyer)
b. Whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me . . . I will offer it up as a burnt offering: Jephthah did not have a human sacrifice in mind. This is indicated by the ancient Hebrew grammar: “The masculine gender could be translated ‘whatever comes out’ or ‘whoever comes out’ and ‘I will sacrifice it.’ ” (Wolf)
i. Commentator Adam Clarke agreed that according to the most accurate Hebrew scholars, the best translation is I will consecrate it to the Lord, or I will offer it for a burnt-offering. As he wrote, “If it be a thing fit for a burnt-offering, it shall be made one; if fit for the service of God, it shall be consecrated to him.”
ii. Human sacrifice was strictly forbidden by the Mosaic Law in passages such as Leviticus 18:21 and Deuteronomy 12:31. It is almost certain that Jephthah was familiar with such passages because when he negotiated with the Ammonites he demonstrated that he knew God’s Word.
3. (32-33) God grants Israel victory over the Ammonites.
So Jephthah advanced toward the people of Ammon to fight against them, and the Lord delivered them into his hands. And he defeated them from Aroer as far as Minnith; twenty cities; and to Abel Keramim, with a very great slaughter. Thus the people of Ammon were subdued before the children of Israel.
a. And the Lord delievered them into his hands: God won a great and important victory for Israel through Jephthah. He overcame bitterness and family rejection to meet a great need. Despite his difficult past, God still wonderfully used him.
b. Thus the people of Ammon were subdued before the children of Israel: This was another victory for Israel won under the leadership of a Spirit-filled judge.
4. (34-35) A difficult vow to fulfill.
When Jephthah came to his house at Mizpah, there was his daughter, coming out to meet him with timbrels and dancing; and she was his only child. Besides her he had neither son nor daughter. And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he tore his clothes, and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low! You are among those who trouble me! For I have given my word to the Lord, and I cannot go back on it.”
a. When he saw her, he tore his clothes: Jephthah made his foolish vow sincerely, fully intending to keep it. Yet he had not seriously considered the consequences of the vow. Therefore he was grieved when his daughter was first to greet him out of his house.
b. I have given my word to the Lord, and I cannot go back on it: Jephthah’s oath was foolish, and he should not have kept it. He had no right to punish or afflict his daughter in any way because of the vow he made to God.
i. It was one thing to make and keep the vow when Jephthah believed that a cow or a sheep would come out of the house at his arrival; yet when his daughter came he should have immediately said, “I have made a foolish vow, and it would be more sinful for me to keep it than to break it. I will repent before God for my foolish vow.”
ii. “He had made a rash vow, and such things are much better broken than kept. If a man makes a vow to commit a crime his vow to do so is in itself a sin, and the carrying out of his vow will be doubly sinful. If a man’s vowing to do a thing made it necessary and right for him to do it, then the whole moral law might be suspended by the mere act of vowing, for a man might vow to steal, to commit adultery, or to murder, and then say, ‘I was right in all those acts, because I vowed to do them.’ This is self-evidently absurd, and to admit such a principle would be to destroy all morality.” (Spurgeon)
iii. Ecclesiastes 5:1-2 and 5:4-6 speak of the danger of making foolish vows. This passage makes it clear that it is better to not make vows at all than to make foolish vows. This does not mean that vows are bad – they can be good. It means we must take them seriously. Christians need to take seriously the sin of broken vows, and when we see them we must either repent and keep them or repent of the foolishness in ever making the vow, and seek God’s release from the vow.
c. I have given my word to the Lord, and I cannot go back on it: At the same time, on the sake of principle only, there was something wonderful about the spirit of Jephthah’s willingness to keep his vows, even when it cost him something. In the specific vow he was foolish and should not have kept it, but the tenacity of character that says, “I have given my word to the Lord, and I cannot go back on it” is glorious and should be the word of every follower of Jesus Christ.
i. As followers of Jesus Christ, Jephthah’s statement reminds us of what we have done: I have given my word to the Lord.
· We have confessed our faith in Jesus Christ.
· We have declared ourselves as followers and disciples of Jesus Christ.
· We have praised God with our songs and words.
· We have proclaimed our part together with God’s people.
ii. As followers of Jesus Christ, Jephthah’s statement reminds us of what we cannot do: I cannot go back on it.
· We cannot go back for the sake of being persecuted.
· We cannot go back for the sake of being mocked.
· We cannot go back, even a little ways.
· To go back might show that our faith was always false.
· To go back would disgrace the work of Jesus on the cross.
· To go back would forsake heavenly reward.
· To go back would make no sense.
5. (36-40) Jephthah fulfills his vow to God.
So she said to him, “My father, if you have given your word to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, because the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the people of Ammon.” Then she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: let me alone for two months, that I may go and wander on the mountains and bewail my virginity, my friends and I.” So he said, “Go.” And he sent her away for two months; and she went with her friends, and bewailed her virginity on the mountains. And it was so at the end of two months that she returned to her father, and he carried out his vow with her which he had vowed. She knew no man. And it became a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went four days each year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.
a. He carried out his vow with her which he had vowed: Some think that Jephthah did really offer his daughter as a burnt offering. If he did, this was clearly an example of misguided zeal for God, because God never asked him to make such a foolish vow or to fulfill it so foolishly.
i. Later in their history, Israel began to serve a terrible pagan god named Molech, who was appeased with child sacrifice in the most terrible way imaginable. God never asked to be served in this terrible way, and therefore it can’t be blamed on God.
b. She went with her friends, and bewailed her virginity . . . She knew no man: These words indicate that it is more likely that Jephthah set his daughter aside for the tabernacle service according to the principle of Leviticus 27:2-4, where persons set apart to God in a vow were not required to be sacrificed (as animals were) but were “given” to the tabernacle in monetary value.
i. We know that there were women who were set apart for the tabernacle service; they were called the women who assembled at the door of the tabernacle of meeting (Exodus 38:8; 1 Samuel 2:22). It is likely that Jephthah’s daughter became one of these women who served at the tabernacle.
ii. His daughter and her friends were rightly grieved that she was given to the tabernacle service before she was ever married. Probably most the women who assembled at the door of the tabernacle were older widows.
iii. By sending his unmarried, only daughter to the service of the tabernacle for the rest of her life, it shows how seriously both Jephthah and his daughter took his promise to God.
iv. Many commentators object and see no other option than to say that Jephthah horribly fulfilled his vow by the human sacrifice of his own daughter. “The attempt to commute the sentence of death to one of perpetual virginity cannot be sustained.” (Cundall)
v. Yet her committal to be one the women who assembled at the tabernacle still seems like the best explanation because Jephthah is listed as a hero of the faith (Hebrews 11:32). It is hard to think of him as doing something so contrary to God’s ways as offering his daughter as a human sacrifice and still being mentioned as a man of faith in Hebrews 11.
©2013 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission