Among the most difficult stories to understand in the Bible is the story of Jephthah. Though an obscure figure in the Bible, Jephthah attained honor to be mentioned in the heroes of faith. However, if we read the life of Jephthah and the seemingly harsh sacrifice of her daughter, we might immediately question the wisdom of Paul for having him listed in Hebrews 11. Some critics of the Bible would even seize the life of Jephthah as an example of God’s unreasonable sense of justice and mercy.
For these reasons, we need to take a deeper look at the story of Jephthah. Did Jephthah really have a very sinful life that should have disqualified him from entering the Kingdom of God? Did his story really reveal God as a God who is bloodthirsty and devoid of mercy? Let’s find out today as we learn the lessons from the life of Jephthah.
Lesson no. 1: Keeping your word
Jephthah’s story is found in Judges 11 to 12. He is a Gileadite mighty warrior and a son of a harlot. Because of the manner of his conception, he was driven out from his family and lived with a gang of worthless men.
There came a time when the Israelites are about to fight the Ammonites. The Israelites requested Jephthah to fight for them and Jephthah accepted their request.
Jephthah recognized the strength of the Ammonite army. Because of this, he made a vow to God. He said:
“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” (Judges 11:30-31).
God granted Jephthah’s request and the Israelites won against the Ammonites. Now, it is time for Jephthah to fulfill his vow to God.
When Jephthah arrived home, to his shock, his daughter is the first one who come out of his house. Obviously, Jephthah did not expect his daughter to meet him. The decision to keep the vow has been very hard for Jephthah since his daughter is his only child. This means that his lineage would not continue anymore. This is a very tragic situation for any Israelite at that time.
Jephthah told her 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” (Judges 11:35).
As difficult and heartbreaking this has been to Jephthah, he still chose to keep his vow to God.
As Christians, there is a vital lesson that we must learn from this story. Many years later, King David talks about those characteristics of people who will dwell with the LORD.
“Lord, who may abide in Your tabernacle? Who may dwell in Your holy hill? … He who swears to his own hurt and does not change” (Psalms 15:4).
One of the characteristics of the people who would dwell with the LORD are the people who keep their words. This is certainly what describes Jephthah and this should also be the same thing that should be said about us, Christians.
Never make promises that you are not able to fulfill. When you don’t keep your word, you lose credibility.
God holds us accountable for the words we say. Jesus Christ strongly instructs us to seriously take the words we are going to say. He said:
“But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the Day of Judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37).
Christians are expected to be keepers of their word. Never make a promise that you are not able to keep. If you cannot keep it, then don’t make any promises at all. Jesus Christ said, “Let your ‘Yes’, be ‘Yes’, and your ‘No’, ‘No’. For whatever is more than these is from the evil one” (Matthew 5:37).
Can people trust us with our words?
Are they able to believe us when we say something?
Are we truthful with the words we say?
The Bible speaks about the importance of keeping our word. If you say you will do something, make sure you follow through. This is what you call being responsible and mature. No one will believe someone who cannot keep his words. If you want to be a Christian who wants to serve as a light of the world so that people will be driven to worship God the Father, then you have to become a man of your word.
Christians are supposed to be a living testimony and example to unbelievers and believers alike. If our words and actions do not coincide, how would we be able to influence others? How will they see the character that God wants us to develop? How will they seriously take the truths we say?
It is very clear that God expects us to truthful. Not keeping our word is tantamount to lying and you know what the Bible say about lying? Liars will not be part of God’s Kingdom (Revelation 21:8).
Therefore, before you speak, make sure you have thought about it. Just like Jephthah, though he made a hasty vow, he still has the faith to keep his word. Though it may hurt him and other people around him, he still kept his promise. The same resolve and tenacity are expected from us, Christians, today.
Lesson no. 2: Jephthah did not sacrifice his daughter as a burnt offering
Most skeptics and enemies of the scripture use the story of Jephthah to prove that we are serving an illogical and unreasonable God. The sad thing about this passage in Judges is that even believers of the Bible don’t even know how to explain this verse. They don’t have a clue and would rather skip this portion of the verse because of its difficulty.
However, we can be certain that not because a passage is difficult to explain doesn’t mean that we cannot really understand it. A quick examination and deeper investigation will reveal to us the real truth about Jephthah’s sacrifice. What we thought to be a story of human sacrifice is actually a story of man full of faith in God’s mercy and justice.
First point, Jephthah is a Gileadite, a branch of the tribe of Manasseh (Numbers 26:29). For this reason, Jephthah demonstrated a detailed knowledge of the history of Israel (Judges 11:12-28). Surely, he should have known about the prohibition against child sacrifice from the books of Moses (Leviticus 18:21; 20:2; Deuteronomy 12:31-32; 18:10-12).
Second point, we read in Judges 11:29 that “the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah”. Immediately after that, he made the vow to sacrifice her daughter (verse 30). So how could a man led by the Holy Spirit be able to make a vow that intends his daughter to be burned alive?
Third point, how can a man perform a manner of worship that God, Himself, called abomination and unacceptable?
Fourth point, Jephthah’s daughter encourages his father to keep the vow and didn’t even show any fear. But rather, she voluntarily went back to Jephthah after two months for her father to keep the vow (Judges 11:36).
Fifth point, child sacrifice is a great abomination to God. Surely, this type of sin could have prevented a person from entering the Kingdom of God. However, we have seen the name of Jephthah in Hebrews 11 for showing great faith.
With all these points, it is really illogical to assume that Jephthah sacrificed his daughter. If the traditional understanding of Jephthah’s vow is wrong, then what is the right explanation? Let us examine the vow of Jephthah.
The New King James Version renders verse 31 of Judges 11 as this way:
“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.”
An understanding of the original Hebrew rendering of this verse would give us the choice of writing the word “and” as “or”. We must remember that Jephthah is making a conditional vow here. So this gives us the option that Jephthah is saying the first one who will come out of his house to meet him will be given to the Lord. If there’s no one who will come out, Jephthah would give a burnt offering instead.
Therefore, this passage can be correctly translated as:
The one who comes forth to meet me I will consecrate to the LORD, or [if no one comes out] I will offer Him a burnt offering.”
Jephthah is found here to be acting, in some degree, in faith. Instead of making a vow that he has complete control of, he gives God the option to how he will keep his vow.
As the evidence show, Jephthah really did NOT offer his daughter as a burnt offering. Instead, he offered his daughter for the service of God, just like Hannah devoting Samuel to the work of God.
The dedication of Jephthah’s daughter apparently meant that his daughter will remain a virgin as she serves in the tabernacle. This means that Jephthah will have no grandchildren.
So what can we learn from this? First of all, the Bible and its totality are the living Word of God. The Bible serves as the perfect guide book to teach humans how to live this life. Since the Bible is the direct inspiration from God (II Timothy 3:16), we can be confident that it is perfect and has no error.
Though we might find some difficult scriptures, we can be assured that there is a way to explain them. The Bible does not contradict itself and it will always defend itself if we let it. The problem with skeptics is that they read the Bible with a biased mind, looking for loopholes rather letting the Bible transform their lives.
Finally, we must have the willingness and initiative to really open our Bibles and investigate. Let us not assume that since it is a difficult scripture then let’s just leave that to blind faith. It is our Christian duty to prove all things (I Thessalonians 5:21).
Lesson no. 3: Understanding the faithfulness of Jephthah
Now that we know that Jephthah did not burn his daughter as some would falsely assume, how did Jephthah really made it to the faith chapter?
When Jephthah made the vow to God, he was not expecting that his daughter would be the first person to come out of the door. He was more likely thinking of a servant. When Jephthah saw her daughter, he tore his clothes as a sign of deep remorse and regret. He states that the situation had brought him very low (verse 35).
The vow of Jephthah would mean that his daughter would be completely consecrated to the service of God. Since she is the only child of Jephthah, he would not be able to have grandchildren.
Not having a child carries a heavy social stigma. The Israelites view barrenness as a punishment and curse from God. To make it worse, this will be the end of Jephthah’s family line. At this point in time, we can clearly see why Jephthah is very grieved at the turn of events.
The vow’s effect is not just on Jephthah but to the many people around him. His daughter mourned her virginity for two months knowing that she will never have a child and become a mother in Israel. This also abolished the chance for her to possibly be the mother of the promised Messiah. Her friends mourn with her because they recognize the importance of having children in Israel. The whole of Israel also mourn because Jephthah, their hero and deliverer, will not have any descendant.
So now we can see the depth of Jephthah’s vow. It is a very difficult vow to keep and this is where we can find the true demonstration of Jephthah’s faith.
While it is very obvious that Jephthah’s vow was hasty and unwise, he nevertheless kept his vow to God. Jephthah knows about the importance of paying one’s vow to God (Deuteronomy 23:21-23). As what was mentioned earlier, Jephthah kept his promise even it was to his own hurt (Psalm 15:4).
With this in mind, we can see that Jephthah’s keeping of his vow is an act of faith! He was willing to give up the hope of having grandchildren and perpetuate his lineage and endure the social stigma of having no descendants. All these for the sake of obeying God’s commandments.
We can see that Jephthah used his eyes of faith to capture the vision of a better hope of God’s promises which is GREATER than all what he had hoped for during his physical life. This is the true testimony of Jephthah’s faith and we can see here the reason why the Apostle Paul included him in the faith chapter.
Therefore, we can conclude that Jephthah lived a life of courage, faith, integrity, and vision.
Lesson no. 4: We may suffer because of the sins of others
Like what was mentioned above, Jephthah’s mother is a prostitute. This is certainly an act of infidelity on the part of his father. His father sinned and Jephthah came into the world with the fact that he is an illegitimate son. In a very young age, Jephthah has to deal with the result of his father’s sin.
When his half-brothers grew up and it was time to divide the inheritance of their father, Jephthah was driven out. His half-brothers considered him to be an illegitimate son and therefore, should not receive any inheritance.
This can be a very painful experience of Jephthah. Beginning from his childhood, he could have been the subject of ridicule from his brothers and the people around him. Just imagine how you would feel that even your own family has turned against you.
The main lesson here is that people can suffer because of the sins of others. It is wrong to automatically assume that people suffer because of their own sins. Sometimes, we become too judgmental and quick to conclude that a person is poor or sick because of his or her own wrongdoing. Of course, I don’t dismiss the possibility that it can also be their own sins or bad choices that led to the situation.
As Christians, we must always remember that our sins will not just affect us, but also the people around us. This is an important reason that should prevent us from committing a sin. We must realize that sin will lead to our own suffering and the sufferings of others.
Sometimes, God is more concern about the development of our character than our comfort.
But what will you do if you suffer because of the sin of others? God will not test us beyond our ability to overcome. God allows you to be in a position because He knows that you are able to bear that trial.
There are a lot of circumstances in our lives that we don’t have any control of. However, we can also control how we react to it.
As we look at the life of Jephthah, he did not let his past or the sin of his father direct his future. Instead of pitying himself and dreading the fact that he is an illegitimate son, he tried to compensate by accepting his weakness and building his strengths. He has become a mighty warrior and a man of valor. Most people recognize his strengths to the point that they look to him as their leader more than just a kid from a prostitute mother.
Similarly, we can all be Jephthah in this regard. Instead of lamenting the suffering we experience because of the sins of others, we need to realize that there is always hope. God allowed certain things to happen because He puts more importance on building your character instead of enjoying a comfortable life.
Let us all remember the words of the James:
“My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:2-4).
Lesson no. 5: We must be close to God not only during the bad times
We are called to develop an intimate and wonderful relationship with God. Our relationship must be constant and not conditional. We must be close to God both during the good and bad times of our lives.
In looking at the life of Jephthah, we can see how human nature works. Jephthah was an unwanted man in his family and the entire community. His brothers saw Jephthah as someone who would just decrease the potential inheritance they might acquire from their father. There is no doubt that they have treated Jephthah so bad that he was forced to leave the place he considered as home.
But when things went bad for the Gileadite, where did they turn to? That’s right. They turn to the same person whom they rejected. Just because they can’t see any benefit from having Jephthah around, they are more than happy to get rid of him. However, when the going got tough, they are so quick in calling the man who can deliver them from the hand of the Ammonites. We read their conversation in Judges 11:5-8.
“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.”
Sadly, the same attitude is very prevalent today. We see people who can easily forget God when they lack nothing. They are too proud to call on the Lord, bend their knees, and pray to God because of the many blessings they enjoy. But when things get too difficult and all else fail, they turn to God as the last resort.
God is not a spare tire that we only notice when we have a flat tire. We must have a close relationship with God to the point that He is the center of our lives. He is a powerful and majestic God and yet, He calls us His children and we can intimately cry out to Him, “Abba, Father!” This is the most magnificent and spectacular truth that we must all recognize.
It is better to live a life constantly close to God rather than just remembering Him when tragedies strike. Remember, time will come when you will seek God and He will longer be found (Isaiah 55:6).
Jephthah was a rejected son of a prostitute woman. He stepped up to the challenge and became the judge of Israel. Though his life is not perfect and we can certainly list some of his faults, God still used him to fulfill His purpose. We can be faithful like Jephthah and we can certainly be sure that God will be there in every step of the way!