Jephthah was a judge in Israel who made a problematic vow that may have led him to offer his only daughter as a human sacrifice (Judges 11). An examination of how the grace of God abounded to him in spite of the consequences of his vow provides us with some valuable lessons.
Jephthah as a Spiritually Minded Judge in Israel
During a dark period in Israel’s history, “Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty man of valor” (Judges 11:1). Because he was the son of a harlot, his brethren prevented him from inheriting a share of his father’s estate (Judges 11:1-2). Fleeing from them, Jephthah lived in the land of Tob and became the leader over a band of “vain men” who joined up with him (Judges 11:3).
When the Ammonites warred against Israel, the elders of Gilead sought him out to lead Israel in fighting against them (Judges 11:4-10). In spite of his being the son of a harlot and drawing to himself a group of worthless men, Jephthah manifested at this time both to the Israelites and to their enemies that he was a spiritually minded man.
He testified to his understanding that if he would have success in fighting with their enemies, it would be from God’s working on his behalf: “The Lord deliver them before me” (Judges 11:9). He showed that he believed in the importance of communicating publicly with God on the important occasion of his being made the head and captain over God’s people: “Jephthah uttered all his words before the Lord in Mizpeh” (Judges 11:11).
He knew correctly the spiritual nature of Israel’s prior conquests (Judges 11:15-22) and testified faithfully to it in appealing to the king of the Ammonites not to war against Israel without just cause (Judges 11:21, 23). He also had a right awareness of and appreciation for what constituted wrongful human actions against other humans: “Wherefore I have not sinned against thee, but thou doest me wrong to war against me” (Judges 11:27a).
Jephthah’s testifying this truth to his enemies in the face of the impending conflict with them shows that he desired rightfully to prevent them from waging an unjust war. He also faithfully testified to his proper understanding of the Lord as the Judge who rightly judges among people who sinfully war against one another: “The Lord the Judge be judge this day between the children of Israel and the children of Ammon” (Judges 11:27b).
Taken at face value, these many statements point to Jephthah’s being a spiritually minded judge in at least a number of ways. When, therefore, we consider the problematic vow that he made, we must take care not to allow it to so color our perspectives about him as to prevent us from forming a right overall perspective about him.
Jephthah’s Problematic Vow and Subsequent Life
After the Ammonites refused to heed Jephthah’s efforts to dissuade them from attacking the Israelites (Judges 11:28), the Holy Spirit came upon him (Judges 11:29a). He then traveled to meet the Ammonites in battle (Judges 11:29b).
At this point, Jephthah made a problematic vow that if God would give him victory over the Ammonites, he would offer up as a burnt offering to the Lord whatever would come forth out of his house to meet him (Judges 11:30-31). This vow has occasioned considerable difference of opinion among interpreters about what he actually did and why.
Since God did for him what he had spoken of in his vow, Jephthah believed that he was constrained to keep his vow (Judges 11:35-40). His doing so further testifies to his being a spiritually minded man who believed that he had to keep a vow that he made regardless of how costly it might prove to him (cf. Ps. 15:4).
Because Scripture states that Jephthah “did with her according to his vow which he had vowed” (Judges 11:39), we must hold that either he actually sacrificed his only daughter as a burnt offering to the Lord or he did something else that somehow yet fulfilled his vow. Whatever he chose to do in fulfilling his vow became the basis for a new custom of lamenting in Israel, which points to the sorrowful nature of whatever he did to fulfill his vow (Judges 11:39c).
Following the account of his fulfilling his vow and its aftermath, Scripture recounts how Jephthah handled a pressing conflict with the Ephraimites (Judges 12:1-6). The Old Testament account of his life ends with information about the length of his judging Israel and about his death and burial (Judges 12:7).
Jephthah Mentioned in Hebrews 11
If Jephthah did in fact sacrifice his only daughter, he certainly committed a heinous act. Especially in that case, were Judges 11:1-12:7 the only revelation that we had about him, we might even be justified in doubting whether he truly ever was a believer in the first place.
New Testament mention of him in Hebrews 11:32, however, indisputably shows that he was a true believer in Jehovah regardless of how he kept his problematic vow. If he did keep it by sacrificing his daughter, Hebrews 11 magnifies God’s grace to Jephthah all the more because it shows that God chose to provide us with revelation many centuries after he had already died that shows that he was a true believer in spite of his having made a problematic vow and having committed a heinous act!
Especially because of Hebrews 11:32, we must take care not to make the account of his problematic vow the sum total of our viewpoint about him. Rather, we must allow both the evidence of his being an otherwise spiritually minded judge and the mention of him in Hebrews 11 to shape aright how we regard him as a believer.
Regardless of whether he sacrificed his daughter as a burnt offering to the Lord or not, Jephthah was a true believer. We certainly will see him in heaven one day.
God’s choosing to mention Jephthah in Hebrews 11:32 magnifies His grace and instructs us that we must keep in mind that there may be people in our day whose salvation we may strongly doubt who may yet be true believers in spite of the overt wickedness of some aspects of their lives. The account of Jephthah’s vow also instructs us to be very careful in making any promises to people without thoroughly considering every possibility for how unforeseen developments might cause us to regret greatly that we made those promises.
I look forward to meeting Jephthah one day and having him provide us with a fuller account of what he actually did to keep his problematic vow.