Heart of the Story: Jephthah promised that if God gave him victory over the Ammonites, he would sacrifice whatever came out of his door first when he returned home. The first person out of the door to welcome Jephthah home was this only daughter.
What Happened: The three Israelite tribes that settled east of the Jordan River were Reuben, Gad and half the tribe of Manasseh. Collectively this area was known as Gilead. At the time of this story, Gilead was overrun by the Ammonite who had suppressed the eastern tribes for 18 years. Although the Bible identified Jephthah as a judge over Israel, he wasn’t appointed initially by God. Instead of praying and asking God for a judge to lead them, the Gileadites negotiated with Jephthah to lead them.
Jephthah’s father was Gilead, a member of Manasseh. Although his mother was a prostitute, Gilead reared Japhthah in his home. At some point perhaps after Gilead died, Jephthah’s half-brothers expelled him from the family home. Jephthah went to Tob, Syria where he became the leader of a group of adventurers.
Unable to find anyone to lead their army against the Ammonites, the Gileadites went to Tob and asked Jephthah to be their commander. Jephthah agreed, but only when the Gileadites promised Jephthah would be both the army commander and leader over them in peace time. He wasn’t about to have his brother’s throw him out again after he fought the Ammonites for them.
Before Jephthah engaged the Ammonites in battle, he promised God: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph will be the Lord’s. I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering” (Judges 11:31). After his victory over the Ammonites, Jephthah returned home. The first person out his door was his beloved daughter.
Analysis of Jephthah’s and daughter’s relationship: The Bible didn’t name Jephthah’s daughter; however, she was Jephthah’s only child. Probably, she was in her early to mid-teens. She was not betrothed and a virgin. Seeing her father returning, Jephthah’s daughter ran out the door and danced toward her him playing a tambourine. Jephthah realized his daughter was the first person out of his door. He remembered his vow to God. Immediately, Jephthah was filled with anguish; he tore his clothes in grief.
Notably, Jephthah cried out that his daughter made him miserable and wretched because of his vow to God. At no point did Jephthah demonstrate remorse for making a vow that included human sacrifice, an action deplorable to God. His misery and wretchedness was because his beloved daughter would be the sacrifice. Japhthah had no sons. His daughter was the only means for him to establish multi-generation leadership over the Gilead region.
Jephthah’s daughter didn’t blame her father for his vow to God even though it would result in her death. Instead she averred that Japhthah must keep his promise to God. Her only request was that Jephthah allow her two months to roam the hills and weep with her friends because she would never marry. After two months Jephthah’s daughter returned from the hills. Jephthah sacrificed his daughter as he promised God.
More recent Bible commentators suggested that Jephthah didn’t sacrifice his daughter by killing her; but by gaving her as a living sacrifice to God. As such, she would have remained unmarried throughout her life.
Conclusion: Undeniably, both father and daughter loved each other. At the same time, Jephthah’s attempted to manipulate God into giving him a victory over the Ammonites by making a rash vow of sacrifice. As a result, Jephthah lost his only child and the opportunity to secure a dynasty of leadership over Gilead and his old adversaries.
Copyright: Carolyn A. Roth 3/14.