Jephthah and his vow.

A common source of controversy and euphemistic evasion amongst Evangelicals is addressed.
It has a central bearing on the legality of the Cross as a propitiatory work.


    As with his greater successor, Jepthah is a root out of dry ground. He falls easy victim to those determined to denigrate his character and actions. His mean and lowly origins, his exile, his associates form fertile ground for breeding suspicion as to his motivation during the time of his astonishing rise to eminence. This foundation stone of Gilead also provides a stumbling block to unbelieving analysis.

    That he is a man of outstanding devotion to God and His people, strict attention to detailed obedience and tremendous sanctified zeal there can be no doubt. His origin can scarcely be argued against his piety. Christ Himself condescends to take lineage through Rahab and Judah with Tamar. It forms a fitting measure of Israel's deep and brazen polytheism that God should so appoint her deliverer. His associates like David's may reflect His graciousness of character as much as his lowliness. His exile was enforced.

    The circumstances of the plea of Gilead demonstrate the fervour of their quest for God's mercy and help. In other circumstances where God initially refuses to relieve, it is to provoke a particularly deep and refined hunger. The expression of His inward grief certainly  mirrors the response of Christ to the prevailing Canaanite. Is the repentance of the elders so superficial, that He answers them with a serpent instead of a fish ?

    Jephthah shows a similar firm tenderness to Joseph in drawing his kinsman to repentance for past injustices.
    His choice of dwelling is 'the watchtower', Jacob and Laban's witness that God scrutinized their conduct. To Mizpah he returns after his dealings with the elders to sanctify and establish his plans before God.

    There's no scriptural evidence of pride or malice in the attainment of preeminence. On the contrary, he is particular to attribute to God alone the power to deliver Israel, and to appeal to Him as judge before the elders of Gilead and in his reply to the Ammonite.

    The sensitivity with which he rehearses Moses' care to treat the territory of Esau and Lot respectfully shows his sympathy with scripture's themes as well as its letter. The grounds of conquest of Amorite territory is also tactfully covered. This is no boorish warlord seeking excuse to provoke his foe, there is a genuine concern for God's honour before Ammon and Israel that the forthcoming battle should be seen to be founded on just principles, just as he does in the subsequent tragic dispute with Ephraim.

     Therefore he thoroughly demolishes Ammon's claim to the disputed territory through prior ownership with four arguments. Firstly, the land was snatched by the Amorites, from whom it was lawfully taken by the Jews. Secondly, Moab who had probably suffered greater loss from the original Amorite invasion (Numbers 21:29) had never claimed the land as their own after Israel's conquest (apparently not even under Eglon). Thirdly, for three hundred years this claim had not been made before by Ammon, raising considerable doubt as to its validity. Finally and most interestingly, he ironically demonstrates Ammon's impotence by comparing their carnal celebration of Chemosh's triumphs with Yahweh's judicial punishments in Israel's more extensive and extraordinary conquests. He also exposes their inconsistency in the same stroke by thus validating Israel's right to call the disputed territory their own. (This raises precedent for a careful use of the Quran in muslim apologetics, similar to Paul's exposure of Athen's Achilles' heel by quoting their own poets.)

      To quash any doubt as to the spirituality of Jephthah's intent and method, scripture firmly and clearly distinguishes him as godly. At the climax of his plans, on the verge of effecting his assault the Holy Spirit fills him. Like fire consecrating a prepared altar, He testifies to the scrupulousness of that which has gone on before.

    His vow is a deep well and a source of considerable differences.

    Firstly, it's helpful to consider the basis on which he undertook to deliver Gilead from the Ammonites. He of course was conversant with the great promise of Deuteronomy 30 v.1 to 8, the basis of Israel's plea in the previous chapter. He was familiar with the conditions of obedience laid upon Joshua for successful conquest of  the promised land, so tragically neglected by the succeeding tribes. He also had solid grounds for strength and a good courage. Nevertheless there were several nagging areas of doubt:

    Firstly, the polytheism of Israel had been so willful, so neglectful of previous gracious deliverance, that God had ploughed their first pleadings with the charge that they were merely seeking benefit. Knowing Israel's past record was their repentance really now genuine ? Was Jephthah perhaps partly still remembering God's warning "I will deliver you no more" ?

    Secondly, his own origin was lowly and mean. Could the Lord really mean to use such an instrument, quite contrary to worldly criteria of spirituality ?

    Finally, he was well aware of the strictness with which, in righteousness, God had protected the borders of Edom, Moab and Ammon. Of the former He says," Meddle not with them; for I will not give you of their land, no, not so much as a foot breadth." Militarily Jephthah knew to conquer Ammon he must capture her chief strongholds. His accomplishment was to subdue Ammon before Israel, more than merely chasing off an incursion. The land that he captured from Ammon is difficult to define with certainty. It may well have included an area within Ammon's pre-conquest border (Numbers 21.24, Jos.13.25, Deut.3.16). The Aroer mentioned as the first marker of its extent is most likely the the Aroer of Joshua 13.25, before Rabbah, not the Aroer near Arnon (which Wood suggests), specifically distinguished from it in this account (cf.Jos.13.16). This would be a natural place to begin a description of the territory from, being the first to fall chronologically and closer to Ammon's heartland. Of Minnith and Abel Keramim there is less certainty, though it does seem likely that the area included territory belonging to Ammon at Moses' arrival.

This I suggest lead to a gnawing uncertainty in Jephthah's mind.  His heart was full of zeal for the vindication of Yahweh, the silencing of scornful foes, and the restoration of the land. His mind blazed with holy desires. His experience judges that a decisive military outcome requires this extended territorial  objective. His conscience stirs, reminding him of the strict divine bounds to the borders of the promise. How can he resolve the inward conflict ? In haste, he grasps at the vow. Vigorous but transiently unchecked fervour flows over into rashness. He lays out a transaction with God, parallel to the ancient promises. Himself entering as surety, he seizes at an agreement, inaccurately weighing the solemnity of the request. His vow entailing more than gratitude and praise for the victory he foresees, but also a request of purchase.

     That God should choose not only to honour but also to require the fulfilment of this dreadful oath, demands reverent consideration.

     Firstly, it is necessary to examine the nature of the offering avowed. At face value, the text speaks of the real sacrifice as a burnt offering of Jephthah's daughter. This is strenuosly argued against on several grounds:

      Primarily and most crucially it is argued that Jephtah's sacrificing of his own daughter would be a hideous breach of the Mosiac Law, and directly contrary to the holy nature of God. By mimicking the antecedent tribes Jephthah would descend into pagan savagery. The texts cited to establish this intuitively potent argument indicate that forbidden sacrifices had an idolatrous object : Molech in Lev. 18:21 and Lev. 20:2-5, the gods of the Canaanites in Deut. 12:31, and Baal in Jeremiah's anguished expostulation Jer.19:3-5. In the evil practice of the kings condemned for their disobedience to the command, Ahaz in 2 Kings 16:3 and 2 Chronicles 28:3 was engaged in worship of the Baalim, and as was Manasseh in 2 Kings 21:6 and 2 Chron.33:6, amongst his prolific apostacies. In a summary text, after  Ahaz's removal and following Hoshea's reign over Israel the northern tribes are charged less specifically with the same charge,suggesting still more widespread disobedience.

      If it is objected that these forbidden sacrifices might also be directed to Yahweh Himself, as worship in the high places sometimes was, it is important to note that the practice is only associated with advanced and entrenched godlessness. Frequently the charge is linked with sorcery, divination or the use of familiar spirits (2 Ki.16:3; 21:6 and 2 Chron.33:6) as well as idolatry. This forms the context of the only Mosaic command without explicit reference to false deities (Deut.18:10). Even these brazen idolators chose locations for the practice never directly associated with the temple. Yahweh's name is never mentioned as the object of these sacrifices. These factors indicate that the forbidden offerings were always intrinsically idolatrous.

     There is a still more solemn problem for those who see these commands as applying to all human sacrifice, as distinct from as the climax of pagan idolatry. In commanding Abraham to offer up Isaac, not only does He wonderfully foretell the offering of His own Son, but God expresses a just, pure and perfectly righteous directive. Abraham's agonies in complying with the command reconcile him to this, otherwise he has no foundation upon which to hope for God's righteous fulfilment of the promise in raising his son again. Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? It is vain to argue that God never intended Abraham to complete the action, since His command to do so was not withdrawn until it was publicly evident that Abraham would complete it. Indeed there may be implications touching on the all consummating atonement itself, if voluntary human sacrifice itself were an immediate taint upon God's holiness.

     Leon Wood and Thomas Taylor both argue that Jephthah's respect for God and Israelite Law and practice would absolutely prevent his executing a vow of sacrifice, even once having made it. Taylor goes on to add that for his daughter to have complied would also have breached the law. Yet it was clearly not Jephthah's intention and quite out of his expectation to see his daughter first upon returning home. Perhaps he assumed that Providence would ordain an easy task. His astonished desolation demonstrates the enormity of his miscalculation: 'you are as fierce to me in this gentle greeting as my enemies in all their malice' he seems to say in v.35. The folly in the vow lies in its objective and the rashness of his entering into it, not in
the choice of the innocent victim. It is Divine superintendance not Jephthah who targets his daughter as the object of the vow, to his horror.

    As to the content of the vow, Thomas Taylor argues that since the particle 'and' (prefixed Aleph) may be disjunctive, the two elements of Jephthah's statement are alternatives. The two parts however are not distinct and not mutually exclusive, in fact close examination reveals that the latter phrase "and I will offer it up for a burnt offering" defines and describes his exact intention when in the former phrase he says it "shall be the Lord's". Here are not two possible alternatives, either of which he may chose at his convenience, a most extraordinary form of words for a solemn vow, but one whole and specific pledge to God.

    It is also argued that 'Olah' the Hebrew noun for burnt offering does not necessarily entail a blood sacrifice, therefore Jephthah's original intention was to consecrate the object of his first encounter to the Lord. Certainly the verb 'Alah' in its 5th sense in Young's carries a large diversity of meanings, however the same triliteral root used as a noun finds 266 uses as 'burnt offering', 18 as 'burnt sacrifice', one inexact verbal translation as 'to go up' Eze.40.26 and one use as 'ascent' 1 Ki.10.5. On both occaisions where it has a non-sacrificial meaning, it is used in a plain literal sense, immediately evident from the context of its use. This leaves a massive burden of proof with writers who contend the word is uniquely used in the vow in a symbolic, non-sacrificial sense. It is evidently not likely that Jephthah would have dedicated to perpetual celibacy a household animal that met him, which it seems he anticipated.

     Leon Wood argues that Jephthah's respect for God, his esteem of Israelite custom and practice would have absolutely barred him from the extraordinary act he intended. He further argues that since the only proper place for sacrifice was the temple with appointed priests officiating Jephthah could not have proceeded. Taylor argues in a similar vein that Jephthah could not have offered up an unclean household animal. Was Jephthah right to fulfill his vow of sacrifice, when he realised its terrible implications ? The answer is clearly yes, both he and his daughter regard it as a matter of honour and righteousness. To have evaded its requirements would have been disobedience. He may have sinned in vowing rashly, and also possibly in seizing Ammonite territory beyond the ordinary bounds of Israel, but to have buckled or deviated here would have tremendously compounded his fault. Providence not he had chosen the object of sacrifice, he was bound to his word.

     Clearly this was not a ceremonial religious matter, it was not within the precincts of the Sinaitic covenant as a religious observance. Though governed by righteousness expressed in the moral law, as with Abraham's command, it was not within the jurisdiction of the Levitical priesthood. Jephthah's vow now requires a direct transaction with God. The ceremonial regulations are not here relevant. Nor indeed is the right of redemption which Thomas Taylor invokes as a possible escape route, from Leviticus 27, it not being a common and ordinary ceremonial duty.

     The arguments favouring a dedication to celibacy carry little force in deviating the actual sacrificial nature of Jephthah's pledge. It was of course entirely appropriate  to mourn her virginity before the sacrifice, and rather more honourable than simply the loss of her life. The social death implicit in the loss of posterity would have been a tremendous and awful blow to Jephthah and his wife, as well as his daughter, but still doesn't justify the extremity of his grief upon first seeing her: tearing his garments, wailing his surprise, comparing the discovery with confronting his enemies, 'thou hast brought me very low'. The yearly commemmoration of the offering for a four day period has the solemnity and formality of the funeral of one departed, not a reunion of friends. It clearly does not have primary reference to the military victory.

     This extraordinary and dark event has implications and lessons for the people of God as yet obscure to me. Clearly the many wonderful and instructive applications to the folly of rashness which Thomas Taylor extracts are only intensified by the nature of the offering. Yet in some as yet mysterious manner to me, Jephthah too foreshadowed and foresaw the yet more solemn but infinitely more glorious 'olah' of the Son of God.