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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Jephthah

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JEPHTHAH . Spoken of simply as ‘the Gileadite,’ and as being a ‘mighty man of valour.’ In Judges 11:1 it is said that he was ‘the son of a harlot,’ for which cause he was driven out from his home in Gilead by his brethren. Hereupon he gathers a band of followers, and leads the life of a freebooter in the land of Tob. Some time after this, Gilead is threatened with an attack by the Ammonites, and Jephthah is besought to return to his country in order to defend it; he promises to lead his countrymen against the Ammonites on condition of his being made chief (king?) if he returns victorious. Not only is this agreed to, but he is forthwith made head of his people ( Judges 11:4-11 ).

In the long passage which follows, Judges 11:12-28 , Israel’s claim to possess Gilead is urged by messengers who are sent by Jephthah to the Ammonite king; the passage, however, is concerned mostly with the Moabites (cf. Numbers 20:1-29; Numbers 21:1-35 ), and is clearly out of place here.

The ‘spirit of the Lord’ comes upon Jephthah, and he marches out to attack the Ammonites. On his way he makes a vow that if he returns from the battle victorious, he will offer up, as a thanksgiving to Jahweh, whoever comes out of his house to welcome him. He defeats the Ammonites, and, on his return, his daughter, an only child, comes out to meet him. The father beholds his child, according to our present text, with horror and grief, but cannot go back upon his word. The daughter begs for two months’ respite, in order to go into the mountains to ‘bewail her virginity.’ At the end of this period she returns, and Jephthah fulfils his vow (an archæological note is here appended, Judges 11:40 , concerning which see below). There follows then an episode which recalls Judges 8:1-3; the Ephraimites resent not having been called by Jephthah to fight against the Ammonites, just as they resented not being called by Gideon to fight against the Midianites; in the present case, however, the matter is not settled amicably; a battle follows, in which Jephthah is again victorious; the Ephraimites flee, but are intercepted at the fords of Jordan, and, being recognized by their inability to pronounce the ‘sh’ in the word Shibboleth , are slain. Jephthah, after continuing his leadership for six years, dies, and is buried in Gilead, but the precise locality is not indicated.

Whether the story of the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter be historical or not, its mention is of considerable interest, inasmuch as it bears witness to the prevalence among the early Israelites of practices which were widely recognized among ancient peoples as belonging to the essentials of religion. In the story before us we obviously must not expect to see the original form; it is a compilation from more than one source, and has been worked over in the interests of later religious conceptions; that two totally distinct practices have, therefore, got mixed up together need cause no surprise. The first of these practices was the sacrifice of a human being at times of special stress (the sacrifice of the firstborn belongs to a different category); the second is that known as the ‘Weeping for Tammuz.’ Among early peoples there were certain rites which represented the death and resurrection of vegetation, in connexion with which various myths arose. In their original form (in which human sacrifice played a part) these rites were intended, and believed, to be the means of assisting Nature to bring forth the fruits of the earth. Among such rites was that known as ‘the Weeping for Tammuz’ (= Adonis), cf. Ezekiel 8:14; the rite was based on the myth that Tammuz, a beautiful youth, was killed by a boar; Tammuz was the personification of the principle of vegetation, and represented the Summer, while the boar represented the Winter. This death of Tammuz was celebrated annually with bitter wailing, chiefly by women ( Judges 11:40 ); often (though not always, for the rite differed in different localities) his resurrection was celebrated the next day, thus ensuring by means of imitative magic the re-appearance of fresh vegetation in its time.

The ‘bewailing of virginity’ (Judges 11:37 ), and the note, ‘she had not known a man’ ( Judges 11:39 ), are inserted to lay stress on the fact that if Jephthah’s daughter had had a husband, or had been a mother, her father would have had no power over her; since, in the one case, her husband would have been her possessor, and in the other, she could have claimed protection from the father of the child, whether the latter were alive or not.

W. O. E.Oesterley.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Jephthah'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdb/j/jephthah.html. 1909.

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