The Tragedy of Rash Vows:  Jephthah’s Story

Morning Message – John Cline

Judges 10, 11 and 12

The Book of Judges is my least favourite book in the Bible because of all the troubling stories told within it, troubles caused by the continual sinning of the Israelite people. Whenever the Israelites would come to their senses about how their sins had caused them agony, they would call to YHWH God for help and He would send them a “judge”, a military leader, who would lead them to freedom from the various Canaanite people groups who were their enemies. Last week, Daniel Ofosu and I both spoke on Gideon, one of the greatest yet most disappointing of the judges. Next week, Zack Lim and I (mostly Zack) will both speak on Samson, the most infuriating of all the judges. This morning, Kehinde Olabimtan spoke on Deborah, the best of Israel’s 12 judges, and now I will speak on Jephthah, the most foolish of the judges. Why preach on these judges if they are so infuriating, you may ask? Well, other than the fact that we are preaching through the entire Bible, the apostle Paul tells us that the stories of the judges were recorded for our sake, to learn from. Thus, these series on the judges.

For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope. (Rom.15:4)

Chapters 10, 11, and 12 of the Book of Judges tell of an 18-year period around 1100 B.C. when the Philistines from the west and the Ammonites from the east had seized control of the land of Israel.

Again, the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord. They served the Baals and the Ashtoreths, and the gods of Aram, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites and the gods of the Philistines. And because the Israelites forsook the Lord and no longer served him, he became angry with them. He sold them into the hands of the Philistines and the Ammonites, who that year shattered and crushed them. For eighteen years they oppressed all the Israelites on the east side of the Jordan in Gilead, the land of the Amorites. (Judges 10:6-8)

Let’s look at a map of the area so we understand the situation:

Biblical Judges of Israel map –

Reading now from Judges 10…

The Ammonites also crossed the Jordan to fight against Judah, Benjamin and Ephraim; Israel was in great distress. Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord, “We have sinned against you, forsaking our God and serving the Baals.” The Lord replied, “When the Egyptians, the Amorites, the Ammonites, the Philistines, the Sidonians, the Amalekites and the Maonites oppressed you and you cried to me for help, did I not save you from their hands? But you have forsaken me and served other gods, so I will no longer save you. Go and cry out to the gods you have chosen. Let them save you when you are in trouble!” But the Israelites said to the Lord, “We have sinned. Do with us whatever you think best, but please rescue us now.” Then they got rid of the foreign gods among them and served the Lord. And he could bear Israel’s misery no longer. When the Ammonites were called to arms and camped in Gilead, the Israelites assembled and camped at Mizpah. The leaders of the people of Gilead said to each other, “Whoever will take the lead in attacking the Ammonites will be head over all who live in Gilead.” (Judges 10:9-18)

The people of the Benjamite tribe who were living in the city of Gilead had recognized they were in trouble and so they called to YHWH God for help, but He responded, “Don’t come to me for help. Go to the gods you have chosen and ask them to save you!” The Israelites begged Him, though, so, after they had shown Him that they were turning from their false gods and serving Him alone, YHWH agreed to help them. The Israelites had recognized that none of them were militarily savvy enough to save themselves from the Philistines or the Ammonites however, and thus, they swallowed their pride and went to a man named Jephthah, asking him to be the judge God was sending to them. This was humbling for them because earlier those same people who were going to Jephthah asking for his help, were his half-brothers who had years earlier driven him away from their family home, because they didn’t want him to gain any of their father Gilead’s inheritance once Gilead died. Those half-brothers of Gilead were sons of Gilead and his wife, their mother, but Jephthah was not, just being the son of a prostitute with whom their father had had sexual relations. Thus, they considered him to be illegitimate and thus not a full brother.

Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior. His father was Gilead; his mother was a prostitute. Gilead’s wife also bore him sons, and when they were grown up, they drove Jephthah away. “You are not going to get any inheritance in our family,” they said, “because you are the son of another woman.” So, Jephthah fled from his brothers and settled in the land of Tob, where a gang of scoundrels gathered around him and followed him. Some time later, when the Ammonites were fighting against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to get Jephthah from the land of Tob. “Come,” they said, “be our commander, so we can fight the Ammonites.” Jephthah said to them, “Didn’t you hate me and drive me from my father’s house? Why do you come to me now, when you’re in trouble?” The elders of Gilead said to him, “Nevertheless, we are turning to you now; come with us to fight the Ammonites, and you will be head over all of us who live in Gilead.” Jephthah answered, “Suppose you take me back to fight the Ammonites and the Lord gives them to me — will I really be your head?” The elders of Gilead replied, “The Lord is our witness; we will certainly do as you say.” So, Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and commander over them. And he repeated all his words before the Lord in Mizpah. (Ju. 11:1-11)

Having first been amused by his half-brother’s humiliation in having to come to him to be their leader, and then, secondly, agreeing to do so in exchange for their later naming him as their national leader, the next thing Jephthah did was attempt to gain an understanding as to why the Ammonites had attacked the Israelites in the first place. And so he sent emissaries who asked the king of Ammon that question.

Then Jephthah sent messengers to the Ammonite king with the question: “What do you have against me that you have attacked my country?” The king of the Ammonites answered Jephthah’s messengers, “When Israel came up out of Egypt, they took away my land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, all the way to the Jordan. Now give it back peaceably.” Jephthah sent back messengers to the Ammonite king, saying: “This is what Jephthah says: Israel did not take the land of Moab or the land of the Ammonites. But when they came up out of Egypt, Israel went through the wilderness to the Red Sea and on to Kadesh. Then Israel sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, ‘Give us permission to go through your country,’ but the king of Edom would not listen. They sent also to the king of Moab, and he refused. So, Israel stayed at Kadesh. Next, they traveled through the wilderness, skirted the lands of Edom and Moab, passed along the eastern side of the country of Moab, and camped on the other side of the Arnon. They did not enter the territory of Moab, for the Arnon was its border. Then Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, who ruled in Heshbon, and said to him, ‘Let us pass through your country to our own place.’ Sihon, however, did not trust Israel to pass through his territory. He mustered all his troops and encamped at Jahaz and fought with Israel. Then the Lord, the God of Israel, gave Sihon and his whole army into Israel’s hands, and they defeated them. Israel took over all the land of the Amorites who lived in that country, capturing all of it from the Arnon to the Jabbok and from the desert to the Jordan. Now since the Lord, the God of Israel, has driven the Amorites out before his people Israel, what right have you to take it over? Will you not take what your god Chemosh gives you? Likewise, whatever the Lord our God has given us, we will possess. Are you any better than Balak son of Zippor, king of Moab? Did he ever quarrel with Israel or fight with them? For three hundred years Israel occupied Heshbon, Aroer, the surrounding settlements and all the towns along the Arnon. Why didn’t you retake them during that time? I have not wronged you, but you are doing me wrong by waging war against me. Let the Lord, the Judge, decide the dispute this day between the Israelites and the Ammonites.” The king of Ammon, however, paid no attention to the message Jephthah sent him. (11:12-28)

Just as Moses had not wanted war 3-or-400 years before, neither did Jephthah want war now, but it was war he got, a war that devasted 20 Ammonite towns, and ended with Israel subduing all of Ammon. Jephthah prepared to go back home for his victory celebration and crowning as Israel’s ruler judge but before reading about those events in chapter 11, we need to move ahead to chapter 12 in the Book of Judges. As things turned out, Jephthah’s conquering army had been made up only of soldiers from his Benjamite tribe, with most of them coming from the city of Gilead alone. The other 11 tribes of Israel had not been included in the fight against the Ammonites. This insulted the soldiers of the tribe of Ephraim, for it was their tribe that lived in the area taken over by the Ammonites and thus they were the ones most affected by their actions and the ones most anxious to be freed from the Ammonites. When the Ephraimites realized that this great victory for Israel had been achieved without their help they were embarrassed and so they angrily confronted Jephthah about it.

The Ephraimite forces were called out, and they crossed over to Zaphon. They said to Jephthah, “Why did you go to fight the Ammonites without calling us to go with you? We’re going to burn down your house over your head.” Jephthah answered, “I and my people were engaged in a great struggle with the Ammonites, and although I called, you didn’t save me out of their hands. When I saw that you wouldn’t help, I took my life in my hands and crossed over to fight the Ammonites, and the Lord gave me the victory over them. Now why have you come up today to fight me?” Jephthah then called together the men of Gilead and fought against Ephraim. The Gileadites struck them down because the Ephraimites had said, “You Gileadites are renegades from Ephraim and Manasseh.” (Judges 12:1-4)

This war of words and bruised egos stupidly resulted in a civil war within Israel between the Ephraimites and the Benjamites of Gilead. At this point, the story takes a Monty Pythonish comic sketch turn. It seems that the Ephraimites, in their dialect, did not have the ability to say a “shhh” sound – they said it with a lisp, “sss”. It is like the wonderful people of Japan cannot say an “L”, but instead say words that contain the letter “L” with an “R”. I have even seen in Japan English language maps of the world that have written out, “Rondon, Engrand”, and “Ruxembourg City, Ruxembourg”. They can’t help it. Their language does not have the letter “L”. There are certain words I can’t say because I am English Canadian, such as any French word that has a rolling “R” within it. I simply cannot properly such a word. In the same way, Ephraimites could not linguistically say, “shh” but said “sss”, instead, thus “sibboless” with a lisp, not “shibboleth”. , Now, the Benjamite/Gileadites had taken control of the ford on the Jordan River that led to a narrow path that was the only way to the land of Ephraim. The Ephraimites realized that the only way for them to get back into their homeland was to pass themselves off as Benjamite/Gileadites but the when the Benjamite/Gileadites realized this attempted ruse, and because it was during war, a civil war, they acted without mercy to any Ephraimite pretending to be one of them.

The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a survivor of Ephraim said, “Let me cross over,” the men of Gilead asked him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he replied, “No,” they said, “All right, say ‘Shibboleth.’” If he said, “Sibboleth,” because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time. (Ju. 12:5,6)

Please remember that God would not have approved of this event. Murder is murder and is against the Ten Commandments. The author of the Book of Judges was an historian who recorded all that happened, good or bad, without comment. Because of their inability to make the “shhh” sound, the Ephraimites who were trying to sneak back into their tribal area of Ephraim by pretending to be Benjamite/Gileadites were found out when they said, “Sibboless” instead of “Shibboleth” and the Benjamite/Gileadites without mercy or compassion made them pay the ultimate price for their deceit.

Now, a bit of McLaurin history about this passage which I preached on only once before, way back in 1994. The decade prior to that sermon, I was in seminary, and there, we seminarians learned that the word “shibboleth” in the English language stands for a thing that a person had better think twice about before saying. It is the proverbial “elephant in the room” that one dares not state unless one is willing to be slaughtered for having done so. We were warned that there are “shibboleths” in every local church and that we should say them out loud only if we were prepared to be slaughtered for doing so. Well, it 1994 and I was young and foolish. I had moved to McLaurin Memorial Baptist Church in 1993 and in that first year, I taken in many comments from people outside our church that the first word “McLaurin” was confusing in that it sounded similar to the better-known and bigger and geographically-understandable “McKernan Baptist Church”. I was told that the second word “Memorial” confused people into wondering if our church was some sort of funeral home or memorial society. The third and fourth words, “Baptist Church”, no one questioned. And, so I innocently stated in that 1994 sermon my “shibboleth/sibboless”, that our church should follow the lead of other Baptist churches in Edmonton, churches such as Ellerslie Road Baptist Church, West Meadows Baptist Church, and Central Baptist Church which had all changed their names, and, heck, even follow our own lead in that the name of our own church had earlier been Allendale Baptist Church name when our building was located in that part of that city, but had been changed after the location change in the early 1960’s. The result of me stating that shibboleth/sibboless? I was slaughtered and my suggestion went nowhere! But, 28 years later, I still contend that if we want our church name to be easily understandable to the 99.99999% of Edmontonians who have no idea what or what a McLaurin is, and if we want people to know where we are located that we should have within our church name some reference to Southgate, as it is a very recognizable geographical area to Edmontonians. In any case, leaving that aside, the amusing yet tragic shibboleth/sibboless story was the second-to-last act of his life.

Jephthah led Israel six years. Then Jephthah the Gileadite died and was buried in a town in Gilead. (Judges 12:7)

Having said all that, let us finally now return to chapter 11 for the story in Jephthah’s life that he is most remembered for.

Then the Spirit of the Lord came on Jephthah. He crossed Gilead and Manasseh, passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from there he advanced against the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord: “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 from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.” Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the Lord gave them into his hands. He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus, Israel subdued Ammon. (Ju. 11:29-33)

News of Jephtha’s victory had spread like wildfire, and a celebration

was planned. Now, his rash vow made with the expectation, most likely, that some sort of animal would be the first thing to come out of his house upon his arrival, was about to go tragically wrong:

When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break.”

“My father,” she replied, “you have given your word to the Lord. Do to me just as you promised, now that the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites. But grant me this one request,” she said. “Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.” “You may go,” he said. And he let her go for two months. She and her friends went into the hills and wept because she would never marry. After the two months, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin. From this comes the Israelite tradition that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite. (Judges 11:34-40)

When I first heard this story, I was 19 years of age and a new Christian. I was studying music at the University of British Columbia and my music history professor presented for us to learn the oratorio by George Frideric Handel named “Jephthah”. Handel wrote many oratorios, musicals based on bible stories, as a way of telling those stories. His most famous was the oratorio named “Messiah” in which the famous “Hallelujah Chorus” is found. At that time, operas with staging and action were thought to be irreverent to God, but oratorios in which four singers (a soprano, alto, tenor, and bass) as well as a chorus or choir, as well as an orchestra which would play the music, stood or sat in one place on a stage and told the biblical story. The oratorio “Jephthah” – Handel’s final masterpiece – was divided into three parts. As I read through its text and listened to its passionate music, I was transfixed. Here is the story, as told by Handel, and remember that the entire story is told by the soloists and chorus:

Act 1: The Israelites have been under the rule of the neighbouring Ammonites for eighteen years and have adopted many of their ways such as the worship of their gods. The Israelites face the loss of their country and their religious identity unless they rebel against their oppressors, as a man named Zebul, who lives in Gilead, tells them to do. Zebul advises them to go to his half-brother Jephthah and ask him to lead them to freedom. The Israelites vow that they will stop their sacrifices, such as child sacrifice, to the Ammonite gods Moloch and Chemosh and will worship YHWH only. Jephthah agrees to lead the Israelites in battle against their enemies on one condition: that if he is victorious, he will be proclaimed their leader afterwards. His wife, who is given the name Storgé, supports his mission to go to war against the Ammonites to win freedom for their country but she will miss him while he is away. Their only child, a daughter named Iphis, is asked by her sweetheart Hamor to marry him but she tells him that he has to first prove himself worthy of her love by joining her father and fighting valiantly for Israel. Hamor agrees to this, and the pair look forward to a happy future together once he returns. Jephthah, while alone, though, makes a vow that if he is allowed to win victory over Israel’s enemies, he will then sacrifice to YHWH the first living thing he sees upon his return after the battle. Jephthah’s wife Storgé is unaware of her husband’s rash vow, but she experiences premonitions of danger to her daughter Iphis but Iphis dismisses her mother’s nightmares as meaningless. The Israelites send an emissary to the king of the Ammonites offering peace terms, but peace is rejected. As a result, Jephthah orders the Israelites to prepare for war and off they go to war, expressing their confidence that God will aid them (end of Act 1).

Act 2: Hamor brings Iphis the welcome news that her father has vanquished the Ammonites. The Israelites celebrate this victory and Hamor, having proven himself in the battle, hopes that Iphis will now marry him. Before answering him, though, Iphis leads a procession of young girls singing and dancing to welcome her father upon his return but Jephthah is horrified when he sees that it is his daughter who is the first living thing exiting his house to greet him. He orders her to leave him and Iphis does so. Jephthah’s vow to God requires him to sacrifice his only child, but he would prefer to die himself. He explains to his wife Storge, to his half-brother Zebul, and to Iphis’ boyfriend Hamor that having made this rash vow he must keep it and kill his daughter. Storge rejects this horrific act while Hamor pleads to be allowed to die in Iphis’ place. Zebul, Storge, and Hamor all implore Jephthah not to carry out his vow but he insists that he has no choice. Iphis returns, having now heard of her father’s vow, and she accepts that she must now be killed by the hand of her father. Jephthah is deeply anguished but still feels he must fulfill his vow (end of Act 2).

Act 3: In intense distress, Jephthah prepares to take his beloved daughter’s life and prays that she may be received into heaven. Iphis is resigned to her fate and the assembled priests preach submission to the divine will of God. As Jephthah lifts the sacrificial knife however, heavenly music is heard and an angel appears, declaring that human sacrifice is not pleasing to God (as is taught in Deuteronomy 29 and prefigured in the earlier horrible scene in the Bible wherein Abraham had tried to sacrifice his son Isaac before an angel stopped him from doing so). In exchange for the bodily sacrifice of Iphis not happening, she must be dedicated to God’s service, though, and stay a virgin throughout her life, never marrying, Jephthah determines, living the rest of her life in service to YHWH. The priests praise God’s mercy. The rest of Jephthah’s family come in and Zebul proclaims that Iphis’ faith and courage will be remembered. Storgé is relieved and happy that her daughter will not be put to death and Hamor is glad Iphis will be safe, though he mourns the fact that she can never be his wife. Iphis hopes that Hamor will find another love as she dedicates herself to serve God alone throughout her life. All express their joy in the closing chorus, “Joys triumphant crown thy days” (and the oratorio ends).

Now, Handel’s hopeful suggestion that Jephthah’s vow was changed from child sacrifice to merely a life without marriage or children while in service to God is still adhered to today by some Christians. Point of fact, the Bible doesn’t actually state that Jephthah kills his daughter but merely that he “did to her as he had vowed”. Unfortunately, the hard truth in Judges 11 is that it doesn’t support such a softening of that rash vow. Nevertheless, however one chooses to understand what his vow was about, are there lessons we learn from Jephthah? Yes.

  1. He triumphed over the rough start to his life.

Jephthah’s being born to a prostitute did not define who he was, nor does our past define who we are.

  1. He triumphed over the rejection he experienced.

That rejection was from his family. We can also triumph over any rejection we experience by others.

  1. He became a “mighty warrior”.

Jephthah used his wits and natural skills to his advantage, and others, including God saw it. Likewise, others and God see our abilities and skills. Let us use them as God would have us do so.

  1. He was filled with God’s Spirit and used by the Lord.

As Christians, we are similarly filled with the Holy Spirit and thus can be used by God to bring down the enemies of God.

  1. He kept his vow to God (even though it was stupid and rash).

Let’s not make any rash vows to God or to others but with those vows we do make, let us take them seriously. In closing, we need to know:

Jephthah was identified as being among the greats of the faith in both the Old Testament (in 1 Samuel 12:11) and in the New Testament (in Hebrews 11:32).

For all of his inconsistencies and weaknesses, the Lord used him and honoured Jephthah. May God use us and honour our efforts for Him, as well.

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