Jephthah: The Band On The Run

by Rabbi Jeffrey Adler

In our previous time together, we established that the book of Judges is about Adonai’s choice of working in unconventional ways through unconventional people to accomplish His ends. Last month, we saw this demonstrated through the example of D’vorah, the female judge who was also a wife and prophetess.

Today, we look at Jephthah (Hebrew, Yiphtach).

In Judges 10, the pattern of Israel’s descent into paganism and idolatry recurs. The people had again been worshiping the idols of the neighboring peoples, resulting, once again, in invasion and oppression by the very nations whose gods they were sharing. The leading offender here were the Ammonites, a people related to Israel through Lot, but, regularly unmoved by their blood relationship. God spoke rebuke to Israel, finally telling them to seek the idols they had been trusting to deliver them. Still, the heart of God is revealed in verse 16, where the text states, “His soul could not bear the misery of Israel”.

Here, in chapter 11, we pick up Jephthah. Jephthah’s father, Gilad, had had a relationship with a prostitute, resulting in the conception of Jephthah. Jephthah’s family refused to accept the illegitimacy of their brother, driving him away. He became a thug and bandit, surrounding himself with similar men, and, apparently, developing a reputation for toughness.

The leaders of Gilad went to Jephthah, imploring him to return and lead them in military operations against the Ammonite oppressors. Imagine the irony, not lost on Jephthah. They had driven him out because of a situation over which he had had no choice or control, yet, now, they were turning to him for help. He insisted on their making him their “Rosh”, or chief. Without that authority, some of the people might refuse to follow his orders because of his past. The elders agreed.

Jephthah then begins negotiations with the Ammonites. He asks their king why he was stealing Israeli land. The Ammonite king maintains that Israel had stolen the land from them while returning from Egypt. Jephthah gives the king a lesson in accurate history (Does this sound familiar?), showing that the land was legitimately Israel’s, and that the Ammonites were illegally occupying it. The Ammonites mobilized their troops and attacked.

Verse 29 gives the turning point of the entire narrative: “Then, Ruach Adonai came upon Jephthah…”. When the Spirit of the Lord takes over, everything changes. The conflict is now His. Miraculously, Jephthah and his forces march, apparently with amazing speed and endurance, through Gilad and Manasseh to confront the enemy by surprise. Jephthah, on the cusp of the battle, makes a foolish vow to God: “If You will indeed give the children of Ammon into my hand, then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return safely from the children of Ammon, it will be Adonai’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.”. Mankind tends to believe he has to bargain with God, that He will only respond to our needs if we buy His favor. What a tragic error. God is moved by love and mercy and shows kindness because He loves doing it for His own pleasure.

Once the Spirit of God is involved, the battle becomes a mere formality. Israel routs the Ammonites, defeating them decisively. He returns home a hero. But, there is the matter of his foolish vow. His only child, a daughter, runs out to join the celebration. To Jephthah’s horror, he feels he must sacrifice her. God, in the Torah forbids human sacrifice. No sinful man can atone for himself or anyone else. The act of human sacrifice becomes murder. The prophets maintain that real atonement is made only by the freewill offering of the sinless Divine Messiah. God would have absolved Jephthah of his foolish pledge, but, he and his daughter were convinced he should follow through with it. After spending months mourning her never marrying and giving him grandchildren, he sacrificed her as a burnt offering, adding a tragic ending to an erstwhile classic demonstration of God’s Power and Grace.

Rabbi Jeffrey Adler is president of the Board of HaShomer and also Rabbi of Sha’arey Yeshua in Indianapolis, IN.