Jephthah’s (Not So) Tragic Vow – Pt. 1 (Judges 10:17-12:7)

Jephthah’s (Not So) Tragic Vow – Pt. 1 (Judges 10:17-12:7)


In an article for, Taysha Murtaugh, provides several examples of modern wedding vows that couples can make in order change things up from the boring religious and traditional vows we’re so used to hearing. Murtaugh writes,

We’d expect nothing less than super-cool vows from this California couple, who threw a chic picnic-party wedding. The groom’s self-penned script included the funny phrase, “I love putting the toothpaste on your toothbrush, I’m yours for eternity.”

Honestly, after reading all ten examples, this was probably the best one… Here’s the thing, there’s nothing wrong with making a few edits here or there to modernize the language of our wedding vows. But, let’s be honest, putting “toothpaste” and “eternity” in the same sentence, does nothing but minimize the importance and value of the commitment that is being made.

In our text this morning, we come to one of the most controversial judges of all, Jephthah. The question of what he vowed, and how it was carried out, have been interpreted in vastly different ways. Regardless of where you land, no one can say that Jephthah minimized the importance and value of the commitment he made. He certainly didn’t take his vow lightly. 

One indication of a believer’s maturity is their willingness to uphold their lawful vows.

That is true whether you think Jephthah is mature or immature. If he is immature, then the vow he makes in this passage is one you will likely interpret as unlawful. If he is-as I think-a mature believer, then an indication of that is his willingness to uphold this vow-despite the great loss it was to the longevity of his personal heritage.

› Before we read our passage of Scripture this morning, let’s ask the Lord for his help in understanding it.

Judges 10:17–11:28 ESV

Then the Ammonites were called to arms, and they encamped in Gilead. And the people of Israel came together, and they encamped at Mizpah. And the people, the leaders of Gilead, said one to another, “Who is the man who will begin to fight against the Ammonites? He shall be head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.” 

Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior, but he was the son of a prostitute. Gilead was the father of Jephthah. And Gilead’s wife also bore him sons. And when his wife’s sons grew up, they drove Jephthah out and said to him, “You shall not have an inheritance in our father’s house, for you are the son of another woman.” Then Jephthah fled from his brothers and lived in the land of Tob, and worthless fellows collected around Jephthah and went out with him. 

After a time the Ammonites made war against Israel. And when the Ammonites made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to bring Jephthah from the land of Tob. And they said to Jephthah, “Come and be our leader, that we may fight against the Ammonites.” But Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “Did you not hate me and drive me out of my father’s house? Why have you come to me now when you are in distress?” And the elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “That is why we have turned to you now, that you may go with us and fight against the Ammonites and be our head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.” Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “If you bring me home again to fight against the Ammonites, and the Lord gives them over to me, I will be your head.” And the elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “The Lord will be witness between us, if we do not do as you say.” So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and leader over them. And Jephthah spoke all his words before the Lord at Mizpah. 

Then Jephthah sent messengers to the king of the Ammonites and said, “What do you have against me, that you have come to me to fight against my land?” And the king of the Ammonites answered the messengers of Jephthah, “Because Israel on coming up from Egypt took away my land, from the Arnon to the Jabbok and to the Jordan; now therefore restore it peaceably.” Jephthah again sent messengers to the king of the Ammonites and said to him, “Thus says Jephthah: Israel did not take away the land of Moab or the land of the Ammonites, but when they came up from Egypt, Israel went through the wilderness to the Red Sea and came to Kadesh. Israel then sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, ‘Please let us pass through your land,’ but the king of Edom would not listen. And they sent also to the king of Moab, but he would not consent. So Israel remained at Kadesh. 

“Then they journeyed through the wilderness and went around the land of Edom and the land of Moab and arrived on the east side of the land of Moab and camped on the other side of the Arnon. But they did not enter the territory of Moab, for the Arnon was the boundary of Moab. Israel then sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, king of Heshbon, and Israel said to him, ‘Please let us pass through your land to our country,’ but Sihon did not trust Israel to pass through his territory, so Sihon gathered all his people together and encamped at Jahaz and fought with Israel. And the Lord, the God of Israel, gave Sihon and all his people into the hand of Israel, and they defeated them. So Israel took possession of all the land of the Amorites, who inhabited that country. And they took possession of all the territory of the Amorites from the Arnon to the Jabbok and from the wilderness to the Jordan. So then the Lord, the God of Israel, dispossessed the Amorites from before his people Israel; and are you to take possession of them? Will you not possess what Chemosh your god gives you to possess? And all that the Lord our God has dispossessed before us, we will possess. Now are you any better than Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab? Did he ever contend against Israel, or did he ever go to war with them? While Israel lived in Heshbon and its villages, and in Aroer and its villages, and in all the cities that are on the banks of the Arnon, 300 years, why did you not deliver them within that time? I therefore have not sinned against you, and you do me wrong by making war on me. The Lord, the Judge, decide this day between the people of Israel and the people of Ammon.” But the king of the Ammonites did not listen to the words of Jephthah that he sent to him.

1. Jephthah’s  Character  (10:17-11:28) 

Jephthah’s Background (10:17-11:11)

The leaders of Gilead offer a proposal of headship to anyone willing to lead their army against the Ammonites.

Jephthah’s brief family history follows in which we learn that he was a mighty warrior (Gideon), butthe son of Gilead and a prostitute (Abimelech). When Gilead’s other sons grew up they drove Jephthah away so he would not receive any of the inheritance. He wasn’t on speaking terms with the Gileadites because his brothers drove him out. We also learn that he hung out with “worthless men”, reminiscent of Abimelech.

Judges 9:4 ESV

And they gave him seventy pieces of silver out of the house of Baal-berith with which Abimelech hired worthless and reckless fellows, who followed him.

After the Ammonites attacked, and no one accepted the proposal of Gilead’s leaders, they asked Jephthah. Here we learn that the elders of Gilead are Jephthah’s half-brothers, the same one’s who drove him away. Despite their prior rejection, Jephthah accepts their offer to become head, also similar to Abimelech. However, Jephthah does give credit to the Lord for any victory they might achieve (9). And he repeats his oath before the Lord (10). These are significant examples of Jephthah’s religious religious values.

Although there are several parallels with Abimelech, there are just as many parallels with God. The dialogue between Jephthah and Gilead demonstrates the relationship between Israel and God. Identical themes are found in 10:6-16 and 11:1-11. Dale Ralph Davis points out the following parallel themes between these two passages: 

• Gilead’s rejection of Jephthah (11:2) is like Israel’s rejection of the Lord in their turning to numerous false gods (10:6) > 

• Gilead experiences distress under the oppression of the Ammon (10:17-18; 11:4-5a) just as Israel experienced earlier (10:7-9) > 

• Gilead goes to Jephthah in what somewhat sounds like repentance (11:5b-6) much like Israel’s own quasi-repentance (10:10) > 

• Just as the Lord raises an objection to Israel’s cry (10:11-14), so Jephthah questions the sincerity of Gilead’s repentance (11:7) > 

• The elders of Gilead appeal to Jephthah twice (11:5-6, 8) just as Isreal did in the previous chapter (10:10, 15-16a) > 

• But finally there is an acquiescence to the request by Jephthah (11:9-11), just as the Lord had done for Israel (10:16b).

These similarities also apply to Jesus, one despised and rejected by his own people. 

Isaiah 53:3 ESV

He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

John 1:11 ESV

He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.

Both Jephthah and Jesus were valued only for their immediate usefulness. They were desired mostly for their ability to provide military victory.

We rightly shake our heads at the way Gilead’s elders treated Jephthah. They rejected him, ensuring he would have no part of their father’s inheritance, then when no one else was willing to risk their lives in leading their military they lure Jephthah with the proposition of headship. They come across as thoroughly disingenuous. And, yet…

How often are we guilty of putting our own interests first? What can we learn from Philippians 2:3-7?

Philippians 2:3–7 ESV

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.

Reconciliation is never easy, but if it’s going to be successful, it must begin with the genuine intentions of working out all the aspects of true repentance. And that’s only possible where a Christ-like humility is valued over self-preservation.

› Considering his background, we wouldn’t expect Jephthah to be capable of delivering a history lesson to the king of the Ammonites, but that’s exactly what he does.

Jephthah’s Knowledge (11:12-28)

In his first act as head of Gilead, Jephthah reaches out to the king of the Ammonites seeking an explanation for their attack. The king responded that Israel had stolen his land when they came out of Egypt, and that he wanted it back.

Jephthah sends back a lengthy history lesson that shows not only his interest in the nation of Israel, but his agreement with their Scripture’s interpretation of history. Isreal only took what God had given to them, which did not include Ammonite territory.

Deuteronomy 2:18–19 ESV

‘Today you are to cross the border of Moab at Ar. And when you approach the territory of the people of Ammon, do not harass them or contend with them, for I will not give you any of the land of the people of Ammon as a possession, because I have given it to the sons of Lot for a possession.’

God had instructed Israel to leave Ammon alone. So they did. It was the territory of the Amorite’s that Israel took possession of, as Jephthah would explain. Simply put, the land that the current King of Ammonites was claiming Israel took from them, was not their land when Israel arrived.

We won’t spend time analyzing his explanation, but it should suffice to show that he believed God’s revelation as recorded by Moses (Num. 20-24; Deut. 2-3)! His response proves his knowledge of Scripture. Think about that. At a time when generation after generation was forgetting the Lord and forsaking the worship of him, Jephthah represents someone who knew quite a bit about divine revelation.

If Jephthah were a rash individual as so many interpret him to be, why would he send messengers to negotiate peace with Ammon, not once, but twice! Jephthah was not rash in becoming Gilead’s head, nor was he rash to enter into war.

That should go a long way in reforming our opinion of the man’s character. Yes, he comes from a questionable background that causes us to raise our eyebrows, but this section shows the man was no Abimelech.

Now, of course, I realize it’s possible to have a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures, and yet remain unchanged in moral practice. But, from my perspective, Jephthah was a man with great strength, poise, and patience. His past was not pristine, but it does not have to define his actions as we move forward in the narrative.

Does anyone presently possess the level of maturity they had when they were younger?

To answer that in the affirmative is to admit immaturity. Believer’s, especially, should be able to see the growth they’ve experienced not only in their knowledge of the Scriptures, but in their application of that knowledge in their lives.

Jephthah’s Character shows that a man with questionable experiences in the past can grow in his knowledge of the Scripture and become useful to God. Tonight we will see that this includes the work of the indwelling Spirit.

› Whatever we conclude about Jephthah’s character is going to inform how we interpret everything that follows…

2. Jephthah’s  Commitment  (11:29-40)

3. Jephthah’s  Conflict  (12:1-7)

If you are unable to join us next week, you will be able to access the sermon online.

Without giving away too much of next week’s sermon, I need to at least affirm that I believe the deliverance Israel received under Jephthah’s reign draws a straight line to Jesus Christ. Whereas several weeks ago, we considered Abimelech to point to Christ by way of contrast, I believe Jephthah’s exemplary faith points to Christ by way of parallel themes. We saw one of those themes already (despised and rejected). We will consider another one tonight. 

However, there is one example of contrast as well. Jephthah is not perfect, the conclusion of his narrative, much like Gideon’s has a blemish. But I don’t believe it is as marred as so many often portray it to be.