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Bible Dictionaries

People's Dictionary of the Bible


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Jephthah (jĕph'thah), whom God sets free. A judge about b.c. 1143-1137. His history is contained in Judges 11:1 to Judges 12:8. He was a Gileadite, the son of Gilead and a concubine. Driven by the other sons from his father's inheritance, he went to Tob and became the head of a marauding party in a debatable land, probably belonging to Ammon. 2 Samuel 10:6. When a war broke out between the children of Israel and the Ammonites, he signalized himself for courage and enterprise. This led the Israelites to seek his aid as their commander-in-chief; and though he objected at first on the ground of their ill-usage of him, yet, upon their solemn covenant to regard him as their leader, in case they succeeded against the Ammonites, he took command of their army. After some preliminary negotiations with the Ammonites, in which the question of the right to the country is discussed with great force and ingenuity, and finding every attempt to conciliate them vain, the two armies met; the Ammonites were defeated with great loss of life, and their country scoured by the Israelites. On the eve of the battle Jephthah made a vow, that if he obtained the victory, he would devote to God whatever should come forth from his house to meet him on his return home. His daughter, an only child, welcomed his return with music and dancing. Jephthah was greatly afflicted by this occurrence; but his daughter cheerfully consented to the performance of his vow, which took place at the expiration of two months; and the commemoration of the event by the daughters of Israel was required by a public ordinance. Whether Jephthah actually offered up his daughter as a burnt-offering is a question that continues to be much disputed. Those who maintain the negative allege, that by translating the Hebrew prefix or, rendered and in our version, all difficulty will be removed. His vow will then read, "shall surely be the Lord's, or, I will offer a burnt-offering;" and not unfrequently the sense requires that the Hebrew should be thus rendered. Moreover, when Jephthah made this vow, he could not have intended to insult the Lord by promising a sacrifice of which he had expressed the utmost abhorrence, Leviticus 20:2-5; Deuteronomy 12:31; especially as it is recorded that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him when he uttered his vow. Suppose a dog had come out of the house of Jephthah, can any one suppose that he would have offered this unclean animal as a burnt-offering to the Lord? And why, then, should we suppose that he would offer a human sacrifice, which would have been so much more abominable? It is, moreover, argued that no mention is made of any bloody sacrifice of the young woman. But merely that he did with her according to his vow which he had vowed; and she knew no man; or, "she had not known man." R. V. These last words seem to convey, not obscurely, the idea that Jephthah devoted his daughter to the Lord, by consecrating her to a life of celibacy. And it should not be forgotten, that in the Epistle to the Hebrews (ch. 11), Jephthah is placed among the worthies who were distinguished for their faith. Now can we suppose that such a man would be guilty of the crime of sacrificing his own daughter? Compare Hebrews 11:32 with 2 Samuel 12:9; 1 Kings 11:5; 1 Kings 11:7. Hence, against the view that he offered his daughter as a burnt-offering, the sums of the argument are: 1. Jephthah must have known that human sacrifices were contrary to God's law. 2. That, being under the influence of the Spirit, Judges 11:29, he would be prevented from slaying his child, as Abraham was. 3. The law allowed him to redeem his daughter for 30 shekels. Leviticus 27:4. 4 No account of the bloody sacrifice is given, but another disposition of her case is intimated. 5. Jephthah is in the list of worthies named in Hebrews 11:1-40 for their faith. Those who urge the strict literal interpretation think these arguments inconclusive; and urge that Jephthah was a wild character in a rude period, and that there is not a particle of evidence that God approved his rash vow, or this part 'of his conduct. In the early period there are instances of persons guilty of some great sins, yet who were generally eminent for their piety. Josephus says: "Such an oblation was neither conformable to the law, nor acceptable to God." His next act was one of severity in dealing with the Ephraimites, who were not invited to war against the Ammonites, hence had a battle with the Gileadites, and were defeated; and the latter, seizing the fords of the Jordan, slew every Ephraimite who attempted to escape by crossing the river; and the method employed to ascertain whether they belonged to Ephraim was, to cause them to pronounce the word "shibboleth," which they sounded "sibboleth;" for, it seems that, by this time, a difference in the manner of pronouncing at least one Hebrew letter had arisen between the inhabitants on the different sides of the Jordan. On this occasion 42,000 men of Ephraim were slain; which was a punishment for commencing a war with so small a provocation. Judges 11:1-40; Judges 12:1-15. Jephthah died after judging six years, and was buried among his people, the Gileadites, in one of their cities. Judges 12:7.

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Bibliography Information
Rice, Edwin Wilbur, DD. Entry for 'Jephthah'. People's Dictionary of the Bible. 1893.

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