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.
The life of Jephthah began when he was born the illegitimate son of a man named Gilead and a whore.
Jephthah grew up in a family who lived in the land of Gilead, which lies east of the Jordan River. When he reached an unknown age his half-brothers chased him away from home. He fled to live in the land of Tobit, which lies north of Gilead (Judges 11:2 - 3).
He soon gathered to himself "vain men" (Judges 11:3) who followed him as a military chief. Biblical references to the exploits of Jephthah are found in Judges 11 - 12, 1Samuel 12:11 and 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, "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?" (Judges 11:7, HBFV).
Although his initial response was harsh, it is likely that Jephthah was more than willing to lead the people in war against the Ammonites. He first wanted to, however, make them feel guilty 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 (Judges 11:8 - 11).
Most people will try to resolve differences with others through peaceful means before taking measures that are more drastic. Messengers were sent to the king of Ammon asking why he was coming to fight against God's people. Word was sent back that the Ammonites felt the need to go to war because the Israelites had stolen their land after they came out of Egypt.
In their message, however, the Ammonites left out some vital information regarding why their land was taken by Israel (Judges 11:12 - 22). Jephthah responded by stating the true history behind how the land changed hands and that it did not make any sense for the Ammonites to claim ownership to it after the Israelites 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 the land that was once possessed by them (Judges 11:28). Guided by God’s mighty spirit, Jephthah led his army into Ammonite territory and won a resounding victory (verses 32 - 33).
Even the most courageous leaders sometimes make poor and impulsive decisions. Jephthah, just before he went to war, made a vow to God that is misinterpretred by most people. The vow concerns his daughter which, on the surface, suggests that he promised to offer her as a human sacrifice to the Eternal should he be victorious in battle. For an in-depth discussion on this topic please read our article on his vow and the fate of his daughter's life.
Jephthah was first a soldier, then a military commander and lastly a Judge of ancient Israel (east of the Jordan River) from 1087 to 1081 B.C. The Bible refers to him as a 'mighty man of valor' (Judges 11:1). After the awesome victory over the Ammonites, some of the men in the Israelite tribe of Ephraim criticized him for not including them in the war (Judges 12:1).
Jephthah, after being threatened by Ephraim, reminds them that their help was requested but that they refused (Judges 12:2 - 3). He then launches an attack against Ephraim whereby the tribe loses the life of 42,000 men (verse 6). He dies after serving six years as a Judge in the eastern part of Israel (verse 7).