Jephthah was Gideon’s son through a harlot. At an early age, he was driven away from home to a place called Tob by other brothers, who were legitimate. There he engaged in raids with men of poor character.
Despite the nature of his activities, he must have made a name for himself as a leader of some stature. For when the people of Ammon made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to retrieve Jephthah from Tob and asked him to lead an army against the people of Ammon. Jephthah eventually agrees to do this, but only if he be granted command should he win in victory over the people of Ammon.
So Jephthah contacts the people of Ammon via messengers and after a lengthy exchange, during which the story of how Israel came to possess the Ammonites’ land is told, he tells them to leave the land and cease with the threat of fighting Israel. But the people of Ammon do not heed Jephthah.
The Spirit of the Lord came to Jephthah and he was invigorated to fight the people of Ammon. Jephthah advanced upon the Ammonites and made a vow to God: If Jephthah was to be successful in battle, he would sacrifice whatever came out of his doorway first when he returned home successful.
Jephthah is ultimately victorious and it is his only child, a daughter, that comes out of his doorway upon his return home. She is celebrating with musical instruments as she comes out of the doorway. After she learns of her father’s vow, she accepts her fate. Jephthah fulfills his vow and it became a custome in Israel that the daughters of Israel would lament her fate for four days each year.
Throughout this chapter, Jephthah reveals himself as a man of faith. He deals justly with Gideon’s elders and with the Ammonites, citing God as the director of early events and the decision-maker. But does Jephthah go too far, considering the vow he makes?
The answer is yes. God did not need Jephthah’s vow in order for the Israelites to be successful over the Ammonites. I am sure the spirit of the vow from Jephthah’s point of view was noble, but the drama that the vow evoked was not necessary. The entire vow situation has more to do with teaching Jephthah and us a lesson than it does with Jephthah showing God how deep his allegiance ran.
It is almost as if God was teaching Jephthah a lesson. As if to say – If you are going to be so reckless as to make a vow for which the sacrifice is determined by chance or happenstance, then I will make it the most difficult of sacrifices to be made.
Indeed, Jesus warned against vows during the sermon on the mount. After all, if we compare the effects of our vows with the powers of God, how can we support our vows as a proof of faith in light of the powers of the Lord?
“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.” Matthew 5:33-37
As to whether or not Jephthah killed his own daughter to satisfy the sacrifice, that is a matter of debate even today. The chapter tells us that he did offer up his daughter as a sacrifice, but it does not say that he killed her. Consider that the daughter took care to go to the mountains for two months with her friends to mourn her virginity. In verse 39, after it is said that Jephthah carried out his vow, and the next statement reveals that his daughter knew no man. So it is reasonable assume that she was not killed as a sacrifice to God, but that her life was given in service to God and that she never married.
Also consider that a human sacrifice to God would have been an abomination and would have certainly precluded mention of Jephthah’s name among the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11.
Strong faith as Jephthah had can surprise even us, if we have it and if it is strong enough. Faith such as this moved Jephthah to keep an oath involving the life of his only child.
Is my faith as strong as Jephthah’s? Even though I do not swear to the Lord, do I live my life in a way that shows such faith? Do I make decisions in accordance with God’s designs on my life?