The Foolishness of Jephthah

Published by DonDavidson on

Jephthah lived in about the 12th century B.C., almost 100 years before the time of King Saul, Israel’s first king. The Ammonites, who lived east of the Jordan River, were oppressing the Israelites. So they turned to Jephthah to deliver them.

Jephthah was a tough son of a gun. He was from Gilead, which was an area east of the Jordan River, within territory occupied by the tribes of Gad and Manasseh. Jephthah’s father had a lot of sons with his wife, but Jephthah was not one of them. His mother was a prostitute, and he was illegitimate. When the legitimate sons grew up, they drove him away, and he fled north to the land of Tob. There he became the leader of a gang of “worthless men,” according to Judges 11:3. I think of Jephthah kind of like the leader of a motorcycle gang nowadays—tough, mean, and not entirely law-abiding. He certainly must have acquired quite a reputation for the Israelites to seek him out as their leader.

Jephthah traveled to Mizpah, where he made this infamous vow to God:

If You will indeed hand over to me the sons of Ammon, then whatever comes out the doors of my house to meet me when I return safely from the sons of Ammon, it shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering. (Judges 11:30-31)

The Bible doesn’t tell us what Jephthah thought was going to come out to meet him—probably an animal, like a dog, a sheep, or a goat (animals were frequently kept indoors at night in those days, for both their warmth and their own protection).

I’m pretty sure it never occurred to him that it might be his own daughter.

Before we go any further, let’s be clear about something—God had absolutely forbidden human sacrifice. Leviticus 18:21 says: “You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, nor shall you profane the name of your God; I am the Lord.” Similarly, Leviticus 20:2-5 and Deuteronomy 18:9-10 prohibited human sacrifice. And while the prophets would come later, several of them condemned human sacrifice as an abomination.

Furthermore, Jephthah was in no way required to make such a vow—or any vow at all. Deuteronomy 23:22 is very clear that not making a vow is not a sin.

Jephthah was obviously foolish to make the vow he made. We can speculate about what God would have done if Jephthah had reneged on his promise. Personally, I think God would have preferred that he break that particular vow. But we will never know for sure, because Jephthah didn’t renege. God gave him the victory over the Ammonites, and when he returned home his daughter, his only child, ran out to greet him. Two months later, he carried out his vow and killed her.

As I said, Jephthah was foolish to make such a reckless vow.

The Bible is very clear that we are not to be so foolish. Proverbs and Ecclesiastes have many references to the importance of wisdom, such as Proverbs 2:2:

Make your ear attentive to wisdom;
Incline your heart to understanding.

When Jesus sent the 12 apostles out to heal and preach, he cautioned them to “be as wary as serpents, and as innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16) In Matthew 24:21-27, when Jesus was talking about the Great Tribulation, he implicitly told his followers to be wise and discerning when he warned them not to be misled by false christs and false prophets who would perform signs and wonders “so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect.” (Matthew 24:24)

Paul talks quite a bit about wisdom. For example, in Ephesians 5:15-17, he told the Ephesians:

So then, be careful how you walk, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.

And in 1 Corinthians 14:20 he says: “Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature.” He says something similar in Ephesians 4:14-15:

We are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of people, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, that is, Christ.

When someone suggests that we should hate or steal or cheat, we must be wise enough to recognize such talk as foolishness, for God’s word says otherwise.

And if you ever find yourself in need of wisdom, remember what James 1:5 says: “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.”

If only James and Paul had been around in Jephthah’s time, I’m sure things would have turned out much better for his poor daughter.


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