A Judge of Ancient Israel

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Why is he important?

Jephthah was one of ancient Israel's eighteen Judges who sporadically governed God's people from the time of Joshua (who became the first Judge in 1398 B.C.) to the anointing of Saul as king (1050 B.C.). The Lord used him to free Israel from eighteen years of Ammonite oppression. Some believe that he sacrificed his only daughter to God due to a vow he made.

Who was he?

Jephthah was the illegitimate son of a man named Gilead and a whore. The Bible refers to him as a 'mighty man of valor' (Judges 11:1).

Where did he live?

He was born in the land of Gilead, which lies east of the Jordan River. When he grew up his half-brothers chased him out of the land. Jephthah fled to live in the land of Tobit, which lies north of Gilead (Judges 11:2 - 3). He soon gathered to himself "vain men" (verse 3) who followed him as a military chief.

What was his occupation?

He was a soldier, then a Judge of ancient Israel (east of the Jordan River) from 1087 to 1081 B.C.

Primary Biblical References

Judges 11 - 12, 1Samuel 12:11, Hebrews 11:32

God allowed the Ammonites, because of Israel's sins, to oppress his people (Judges 10:7 - 8). When they finally declared war on Israel, the elders of Gilead personally visited Jephthah to ask him to lead their army against the invaders (verses 5 - 6). His initial response was sharp and to the point.

"Have you not hated me and thrown me out of my father's house? Why have you come to me now when you are in trouble?" (verse 7, HBFV unless otherwise stated)

It is likely that he was willing to lead them in the war against the Ammonites, but first he wanted to make them sting for their heartless treatment of him. In return for leading the Gileadites into battle they had to agree, if they were victorious, to make him their governor (verses 8 - 11).

Timeline of the Old Testament
Map showing division of promised land
Map of Palestine at the time of Israel's Judges
Map showing location of Old Testament events

Most people will try to resolve differences with others through peaceful means before taking measures that are more drastic. Jephthah, hoping to avoid a fight, sent messengers to the king of Ammon asking why he was coming to fight against God's people. The king sent word that Israel took away the Ammonite land when they came out of Egypt. As any good politician is wont to do, the king chose to leave out some vital information regarding how the Israelites came to possessive territory that was formerly theirs (verses 12 - 22). After explaining the history behind how the land changed hands, Jephthah said that it did not make any sense for the Ammonites to claim ownership of land God gave to his people, as they had possessed it for roughly three hundred years (verses 23 - 26).

Unfortunately, the Ammonite King did not agree that Israel had a divine right to own their former lands (verse 28). Therefore, guided by God’s mighty spirit, Jephthah led his army into Ammonite territory and won a resounding victory (verses 32 - 33).

Did he sacrifice his only child?

Even the most courageous leaders sometimes make poor and impulsive decisions. Just before he went to war with the king of Ammon, Jephthah made a vow to God the meaning of which has been debated by Bible scholars and students for hundreds of years.

30 Jephthah promised the LORD: 'If you will give me victory over the Ammonites (who were descendants of Lot's son he bore through incest with his youngest daughter), 31 I will burn as an (burnt) offering (to you) the first person that comes out of my house to meet me . . . ' (Judges 11:30 - 31, TEV)

The first person who came through the door after winning the war against the Ammonites was his virgin daughter (verses 32 - 34). Did he keep his vow or not? Did he offer up his ONLY child as a human sacrifice before the Lord? For an in-depth discussion regarding this vow and the ultimate fate of his daughter, please read our article entitled 'Did Jephthah really SACRIFICE his only daughter to God?'

Contention after victory

After the awesome victory over the Ammonites, some of the men in the Israelite tribe of Ephraim criticize Jephthah for not including them in the war (Judges 12:1). After threatened by the tribe, he reminds them that their help WAS requested but that they refused (verses 2 - 3). He then launches an attack against Ephraim whereby the tribe loses 42,000 men (verse 6). He dies after serving six years as a Judge in the eastern part of Israel (verse 7).

Additional Study Materials
Kings of Ancient Israel and Judah
What does THOU SHALL NOT KILL mean?
Map showing where Ammonites are located
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