The story of Jephthah begins with a theological introduction to the second half of the book that reiterates themes from 2:11-23 in order to highlight the worsening conditions that will ultimately result in the utter chaos of chapters 17-21 (10:6-16). Here the familiar cyclical framework begins with Israel's apostasy, God's response in the form of Canaanite oppression, and Israel's cry for help (vv. 6-10). This time, however, God refuses to provide a deliverer (v. 13), despite the new wrinkle of Israel's actual repentance, and even sarcastically invites them to seek help from their chosen deities (v. 14). God's decision to deliver them (v. 16b), following yet another confession of sin and amendment of life, says more about God's compassion than the genuineness of Israel's repentance.
In the next round of Israel's apostasy, the Ammonites and the Philistines become the oppressors du jour. Jephthah will engage the Ammonites and Samson will do battle with the Philistines. Despite Jephthah's unfortunate lineage as the son of a prostitute, resulting in his disinheritance (11:2-3), Jephthah's superior skill as a warrior and commander, forged as the head of a band of outlaws, led the Israelites to choose him as commander of the army (qatsin) in the face of Ammonite incursion. Jephthah reminds them of their earlier rejection and offers to lead the troops if they will make him "head" (rosh) of Gilead, a concession the leaders of Gilead are only too glad to make (11:4-11). Again, this "deliverer" of Israel is not raised up by God as a charismatic leader. He attains his office through devices of self-interest. It should be said, however, that Jephthah's skill in negotiation will figure prominently in the following material, though with less than successful results.
The actual story of Jephthah is told in three scenes. In the first (11:12-28), Jephthah seeks a diplomatic solution to the problem of Ammonite incursion. His negotiations, offered in rebuttal of the Ammonites' demand that the land east of the Jordan be returned to them, take the form of an historical review, summarizing Numbers 20-24 and trying to make the theological point that, since God had defeated Ammon's god Chemosh, the land was theirs. The Ammonite rejection of Jephthah's argument made war unavoidable.
The second scene relates the heart-wrenching story of Jephthah's vow (11:29-40). Though Jephthah was not appointed by God as deliverer, nevertheless when faced with the actual battle God endows him with his spirit (v. 29). The actual war with Ammon fades into the background as the story focuses upon Jephthah's hasty, unnecessary, and carelessly worded vow and its tragic consequences. In exchange for victory, Jephthah promises to sacrifice as a burnt offering to God whomever comes out to meet him upon his return (vv. 30-31). Tragically, upon his return, Jephthah is met by his only child as she comes out to greet him. Following a two-month period in which his daughter mourns her virginity, Jephthah sacrifices her (vv. 34-39). The horror of this story is palpable. True, father and daughter are depicted as complying with the provisions of an unnecessary and foolish oath. True, the women commemorate Jephthah's unnamed daughter's integrity. But these wisps of decency are overshadowed by the divine silence regarding the pointless sacrifice of a child.
The third scene is somewhat of an appendix (12:1-7). Fellow tribe Ephraim is enraged at not being asked to participate in Jephthah's earlier defeat of the Ammonites (and the spoil?). Again, Jephthah seeks to negotiate, claiming that he did summon them. When these negotiations break down, war ensues and Jephthah rather handily defeats the Ephraimites, killing 42,000 of their numbers. The story is best remembered for a sidebar regarding the word "shibboleth," which means "ear of grain." Ephraimites trying to return to their own territory were required to correctly pronounce this "password." In their dialect this was impossible for them to do, and all they could manage would be "sibboleth," a dead giveaway that they were the enemy.
The story of Japheth closes without the usual mention of peace/rest. This alteration in the recurrent pattern is a silent witness to the spiraling decline since the tragic rule of Gideon.
6 The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, worshipping the Baals and the Astartes, the gods of Aram, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites, and the gods of the Philistines. Thus they abandoned the Lord, and did not worship him. 7So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of the Philistines and into the hand of the Ammonites, 8and they crushed and oppressed the Israelites that year. For eighteen years they oppressed all the Israelites that were beyond the Jordan in the land of the Amorites, which is in Gilead. 9The Ammonites also crossed the Jordan to fight against Judah and against Benjamin and against the house of Ephraim; so that Israel was greatly distressed.
10 So the Israelites cried to the Lord, saying, We have sinned against you, because we have abandoned our God and have worshipped the Baals. 11And the Lord said to the Israelites, Did I not deliver you* from the Egyptians and from the Amorites, from the Ammonites and from the Philistines? 12The Sidonians also, and the Amalekites, and the Maonites oppressed you; and you cried to me, and I delivered you out of their hand. 13Yet you have abandoned me and worshipped other gods; therefore I will deliver you no more. 14Go and cry to the gods whom you have chosen; let them deliver you in the time of your distress. 15And the Israelites said to the Lord, We have sinned; do to us whatever seems good to you; but deliver us this day! 16So they put away the foreign gods from among them and worshipped the Lord; and he could no longer bear to see Israel suffer.
17 Then the Ammonites were called to arms, and they encamped in Gilead; and the Israelites came together, and they encamped at Mizpah. 18The commanders of the people of Gilead said to one another, Who will begin the fight against the Ammonites? He shall be head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.
11Now Jephthah the Gileadite, the son of a prostitute, was a mighty warrior. Gilead was the father of Jephthah. 2Gileads wife also bore him sons; and when his wifes sons grew up, they drove Jephthah away, saying to him, You shall not inherit anything in our fathers house; for you are the son of another woman. 3Then Jephthah fled from his brothers and lived in the land of Tob. Outlaws collected around Jephthah and went raiding with him.
4 After a time the Ammonites made war against Israel. 5And when the Ammonites made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to bring Jephthah from the land of Tob. 6They said to Jephthah, Come and be our commander, so that we may fight with the Ammonites. 7But Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, Are you not the very ones who rejected me and drove me out of my fathers house? So why do you come to me now when you are in trouble? 8The elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, Nevertheless, we have now turned back to you, so that you may go with us and fight with the Ammonites, and become head over us, over all the inhabitants of Gilead. 9Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, If you bring me home again to fight with the Ammonites, and the Lord gives them over to me, I will be your head. 10And the elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, The Lord will be witness between us; we will surely do as you say. 11So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and commander over them; and Jephthah spoke all his words before the Lord at Mizpah.
12 Then Jephthah sent messengers to the king of the Ammonites and said, What is there between you and me, that you have come to me to fight against my land? 13The king of the Ammonites answered the messengers of Jephthah, Because Israel, on coming from Egypt, took away my land from the Arnon to the Jabbok and to the Jordan; now therefore restore it peaceably. 14Once again Jephthah sent messengers to the king of the Ammonites 15and said to him: Thus says Jephthah: Israel did not take away the land of Moab or the land of the Ammonites, 16but when they came up from Egypt, Israel went through the wilderness to the Red Sea* and came to Kadesh. 17Israel then sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, Let us pass through your land; but the king of Edom would not listen. They also sent to the king of Moab, but he would not consent. So Israel remained at Kadesh. 18Then they journeyed through the wilderness, went around the land of Edom and the land of Moab, arrived on the eastern side of the land of Moab, and camped on the other side of the Arnon. They did not enter the territory of Moab, for the Arnon was the boundary of Moab. 19Israel then sent messengers to King Sihon of the Amorites, king of Heshbon; and Israel said to him, Let us pass through your land to our country. 20But 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. 21Then the Lord, the God of Israel, gave Sihon and all his people into the hand of Israel, and they defeated them; so Israel occupied all the land of the Amorites, who inhabited that country. 22They occupied all the territory of the Amorites from the Arnon to the Jabbok and from the wilderness to the Jordan. 23So now the Lord, the God of Israel, has conquered the Amorites for the benefit of his people Israel. Do you intend to take their place? 24Should you not possess what your god Chemosh gives you to possess? And should we not be the ones to possess everything that the Lord our God has conquered for our benefit? 25Now are you any better than King Balak son of Zippor of Moab? Did he ever enter into conflict with Israel, or did he ever go to war with them? 26While Israel lived in Heshbon and its villages, and in Aroer and its villages, and in all the towns that are along the Arnon, for three hundred years, why did you not recover them within that time? 27It is not I who have sinned against you, but you are the one who does me wrong by making war on me. Let the Lord, who is judge, decide today for the Israelites or for the Ammonites. 28But the king of the Ammonites did not heed the message that Jephthah sent him.
29 Then the spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh. He passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. 30And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, 31then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lords, to be offered up by me as a burnt-offering. 32So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them; and the Lord gave them into his hand. 33He inflicted a massive defeat on them from Aroer to the neighbourhood of Minnith, twenty towns, and as far as Abel-keramim. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel.
34 Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing. She was his only child; he had no son or daughter except her. 35When he saw her, he tore his clothes, and said, Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow. 36She said to him, My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has given you vengeance against your enemies, the Ammonites. 37And she said to her father, Let this thing be done for me: Grant me two months, so that I may go and wander* on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, my companions and I. 38Go, he said and sent her away for two months. So she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity on the mountains. 39At the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to the vow he had made. She had never slept with a man. So there arose an Israelite custom that 40for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.
12The men of Ephraim were called to arms, and they crossed to Zaphon and said to Jephthah, Why did you cross over to fight against the Ammonites, and did not call us to go with you? We will burn your house down over you! 2Jephthah said to them, My people and I were engaged in conflict with the Ammonites who oppressed us* severely. But when I called you, you did not deliver me from their hand. 3When I saw that you would not deliver me, I took my life in my hand, and crossed over against the Ammonites, and the Lord gave them into my hand. Why then have you come up to me this day, to fight against me? 4Then Jephthah gathered all the men of Gilead and fought with Ephraim; and the men of Gilead defeated Ephraim, because they said, You are fugitives from Ephraim, you Gileaditesin the heart of Ephraim and Manasseh.* 5Then the Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. Whenever one of the fugitives of Ephraim said, Let me go over, the men of Gilead would say to him, Are you an Ephraimite? When he said, No, 6they said to him, Then say Shibboleth, and he said, Sibboleth, for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand of the Ephraimites fell at that time.
7 Jephthah judged Israel for six years. Then Jephthah the Gileadite died, and was buried in his town in Gilead.*
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org