Judges 11 – “The War with the Ammonites; Jephthah Sacrifices His Only Daughter”

Hebrew-English Text
I. Summary
Jephthah becomes the leader of the Gileadites. When the Ammonites cause trouble, he vows to sacrifice the first person he sees when he returns from war. After lecturing and defeating the Ammonites, his daughter is the first person to greet him. Jephthah offers his daughter as a sacrifice.

II. Photo
Jephthah does the unthinkable: “And Jephthah made the following vow to the LORD: ‘If you deliver the Ammonites into my hands, then whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be the LORD’s and shall be offered by me as a burnt offering.’… When Jephthah arrived at his home in Mizpah, there was his daughter coming out to meet him, with timbrel and dance! She was an only child; he had no other son or daughter.“ (vv 30-31, 34)

III. Important Verses
vv 24-25: Do you not hold what Chemosh your god gives you to possess? So we will hold on to everything that the LORD our God has given us to possess. “Besides, are you any better than Balak son of Zippor, king of Moab? Did he start a quarrel with Israel or go to war with them?
vv 30-31, 34: Jephthah has to do the unthinkable: “And Jephthah made the following vow to the LORD: ‘If you deliver the Ammonites into my hands, then whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be the LORD’s and shall be offered by me as a burnt offering.’… When Jephthah arrived at his home in Mizpah, there was his daughter coming out to meet him, with timbrel and dance! She was an only child; he had no other son or daughter.
vv 35-40: On seeing her, he rent his clothes and said, “Alas, daughter! You have brought me low; you have become my troubler! For I have uttered a vow to the LORD and I cannot retract.”  “Father,” she said, “you have uttered a vow to the LORD; do to me as you have vowed, seeing that the LORD has vindicated you against your enemies, the Ammonites.” She further said to her father, “Let this be done for me: let me be for two months, and I will go with my companions and lament upon the hills and there bewail my maidenhood.” “Go,” he replied. He let her go for two months, and she and her companions went and bewailed her maidenhood upon the hills. After two months’ time, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. She had never known a man. So it became a custom in Israel for the maidens of Israel to go every year, for four days in the year, and chant dirges for the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.

IV. Outline
1-3. Jephthah is driven out from the house of Gilead
4-11. When the Ammonites attack Jephthah is made chief of Gilead
12-28. Jephthah lectures the Ammonite king about Israel’s right to the land
29-31. Jephthah’s vow
32-33. The Ammonites are routed
32-39a. Jephthah kills his daughter to fulfill his vow
39b-40. Israelite practice

V. Comment
Chapter 11 has two simultaneous plots: Jepthah’s defeat of the Ammonites, and Jephthah’s vow. In regards to the latter, Collins writes: “Jephthah makes a vow to the Lord that ‘whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return victorious from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up as a burnt offering’ (11:31). There is no doubt in the context that human sacrifice is meant. It would have been absurd to offer the first animal he met, whether fit for sacrifice or not. In the context of ancient Israel, such a vow was an extreme measure, indicating both the extremity of the crisis and the intensity of Jepththah’s devotion to [the Lord]. He evidently did not anticipate that the person in question would be his only daughter. Unlike Abraham, he is given no reprieve. Jephthah is often criticized for making a rash vow, but this criticism is not made in the text, where he appears to act under the influence of the spirit of the Lord… The text is unambiguous that he ‘did with her according to the vow that he had made’ (Judg 11:39). The medieval commentator David Kimhi [Radaq] held that Jephthah did not kill his daughter, but dedicated her to a life of virginity (she asks for a time to bewail her virginity, not her early death). A small minority of scholars still holds to this view, but most accept that the daughter’s fate is all to clear. While the story in Judges certainly appreciates the tragedy of the outcome, there is no hint that Jephthah did wron either by making the vow (for which he was rewarded victory) or in fulfilling it.” (210) For another case of child sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible, see Jeremiah 7:31: “And they have built the shrines of Topheth in the Valley of Ben-hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in fire — which I never commanded, which never came to My mind.”

VI. Works Used
(see “Commentaries” page)
Trent C. Butler, “Judges” (Word Biblical Commentary vol. 8; Nashville: Nelson, 2009).
Collins, John J. “Introduction to the Hebrew Bible,” Word Biblical Commentary vol. 15 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004).
Photo taken from http://www.southasianlife.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/20-second-chances.jpg

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