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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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one of the judges of Israel, was the son of Gilead by a concubine, Judges 11:1-2 . His father having several other children by his lawful wife, they conspired to expel Jephthah from among them, insisting that he who was the son of a strange woman should have no part of the inheritance with them. Like Ishmael, therefore, he withdrew, and took up his residence beyond Jordan, in the land of Tob, where he appears to have become the chief of a banditti, or marauding party, who probably lived by plunder, Judges 11:3 . In process of time, a war broke out between the Ammonites and the children of Israel who inhabited the country beyond Jordan; and the latter, finding their want of an intrepid and skilful leader, applied to Jephthah to take the command of them. He at first reproached them with the injustice they had done him, in banishing him from his father's house; but he at length yielded to their importunity, on an agreement that, should he be successful in the war against the Ammonites, the Israelites should acknowledge him for their chief, Judges 11:4-11 .

As soon as Jephthah was invested with the command of the Israelites he sent a deputation to the Ammonites, demanding to know on what principle the latter had taken up arms against them. They answered that it was to recover the territory which the former had taken from them on their first coming out of Egypt. Jephthah replied that they had made no conquests in that quarter but from the Amorites; adding, "If you think you have a right to all that Chemosh, your god, hath given you, why should not we possess all that the Lord our God hath conferred on us by right of conquest?" Jephthah's reasoning availed nothing with the Ammonites; and as the latter persisted in waging war, the former collected his troops together and put himself at their head. The Spirit of the Lord is said to have now come upon Jephthah; by which we are here to understand, that the Lord endowed him with a spirit of valour and fortitude, adequate to the exigence of the situation in which he was placed, animating him with courage for the battle, and especially inspired him with unshaken confidence in the God of the armies of Israel, Judges 11:17; Hebrews 11:32; 1 Samuel 11:6; Numbers 24:2 . Jephthah at this time made a vow to the Lord that if he delivered the Ammonites into his hand, whatever came forth out of the doors of his house to meet him when he returned should be the Lord's; it is also added in our English version, "and I will offer it up for a burnt- offering," Judges 11:31 . The battle terminated auspiciously for Jephthah; the Ammonites were defeated, and the Israelites ravaged their country. But on returning toward his own house, his daughter, an only child, came out to meet her father with timbrels and dances, accompanied by a chorus of virgins, to celebrate his victory. On seeing her, Jephthah rent his clothes, and said, "Alas, my daughter! thou hast brought me very low; for I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and cannot go back." His daughter intimated her readiness to accede to any vow he might have made in which she was personally interested; only claiming a respite of two months, during which she might go up to the mountains and bewail her virginity with her companions. Jephthah yielded to this request, and at the end of two months, according to the opinion of many, her father offered her up in sacrifice, as a burnt-offering to the Lord, Judges 11:34-39 . It is, however, scarcely necessary to mention, that almost from the days of Jephthah to the present time, it has been a subject of warm contest among the critics and commentators, whether the judge of Israel really sacrificed his daughter, or only devoted her to a state of celibacy. Among those who contend for the former opinion, may be particularly mentioned the very learned Professor Michaelis, who insists most peremptorily that the words, "did with her as he had vowed," cannot mean any thing else but that her father put her to death, and burned her body as a burnt-offering. On this point, however, the remarks of Dr. Hales are of great weight:—When Jephthah went forth to battle against the Ammonites "he vowed a vow unto the Lord, and said, If thou wilt surely give the children of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall either be the Lord's, or I will offer it up [for] a burnt-offering,"

Judges 11:30-31 . According to this rendering of the two conjunctions, ו , in the last clause, either, or, which is justified by the Hebrew idiom, the paucity of connecting particles in that language making it necessary that this conjunction should often be understood disjunctively, the vow consisted of two parts,

1. That what person soever met him should be the Lord's, or be dedicated to his service.

2. That what beast soever met him, if clean, should be offered up for a burnt-offering unto the Lord. This rendering, and this interpretation, is warranted by the Levitical law about vows. The נדר , or vow in general, included either persons, beasts, or things, dedicated to the Lord for pious uses; which, if it was a simple vow, was redeemable at certain prices, if the person repented of his vow, and wished to commute it for money, according to the age and sex of the person, Leviticus 27:1-8 . This was a wise regulation to remedy rash vows. But if the vow was accompanied with חרם , devotement, it was irredeemable, as in the following cases:

"Notwithstanding, no devotement which a man shall devote unto the Lord, [either] of man, or of beast, or of land of his own property, shall be sold or redeemed. Every thing devoted is most holy unto the Lord," Leviticus 27:28 . Here the three vaus in the original should necessarily be rendered disjunctively, or, as the last actually is in our public translation, because there are three distinct subjects of devotement, to be applied to distinct uses; the man, to be dedicated to the service of the Lord, as Samuel by his mother, Hannah, 1 Samuel 1:11; the cattle, if clean, such as oxen, sheep, goats, turtle doves, or pigeon's, to be sacrificed; and if unclean, as camels, horses, asses, to be employed for carrying burdens in the service of the tabernacle or temple; and the lands, to be sacred property. This law, therefore, expressly applied, in its first branch, to Jephthah's case, who had devoted his daughter to the Lord, or opened his mouth unto the Lord, and therefore could not go back; as he declared in his grief at seeing his daughter, and his only child, coming to meet him with timbrels and dances. She was, therefore, necessarily devoted, but with her own consent, to perpetual virginity, in the service of the tabernacle, Judges 11:36-37 . And such service was customary; for in the division of the spoils taken in the first Midianite war, of the whole number of captive virgins, "the Lord's tribute was thirty-two persons," Numbers 31:35-40 . This instance appears to be decisive of the nature of her devotement. Her father's extreme grief on this occasion, and her requisition of a respite of two months to bewail her virginity, are both perfectly natural: having no other issue, he could only look forward to the extinction of his name or family; and a state of celibacy, which is reproachful among women every where, was peculiarly so among the Israelites; and was therefore no ordinary sacrifice on her part, who, though she generously gave up, could not but regret the loss of becoming "a mother in Israel." "And he did with her according to his vow which he had vowed, and she knew no man," or remained a virgin all her life, Judges 11:34-40 . There was also another case of devotement which was irredeemable, and follows the former: "No one devoted, who shall be devoted of man, shall be redeemed, but shall surely be put to death," Leviticus 27:29 . This case differs materially from the former:

1. It is confined to persons devoted, omitting beasts and lands.

2. It does not relate to private property, as in the foregoing.

3. The subject of it was to be utterly destroyed, instead of being "most holy unto the Lord."

This law, therefore, related to aliens or public enemies devoted to destruction, either by God, by the people, or by the magistrate. Of all these we have instances in the Scriptures:

1. The Amalekites and Canaanites were devoted by God himself. Saul, therefore, was guilty of a breach of this law for sparing Agag, the king of the Amalekites, as Samuel reproached him, 1 Samuel 15:23 : and "Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord," not as a sacrifice, according to Voltaire, but as a criminal, "whose sword had made many women childless." By this law the Midianite women, who had been spared in battle, were slain, Numbers 31:14-17 .

2. In Mount Hor, when the Israelites were attacked by Arad, king of the southern Canaanites, who took some of them prisoners, they vowed a vow unto the Lord, that they would utterly destroy these Canaanites, and their cities, if the Lord should deliver them into their hand; which the Lord ratified. Whence the place was called Hhormah, because the vow was accompanied by cherem, or devotement to destruction, Numbers 21:1-3 . And the vow was accomplished,

Judges 1:17 .

3. In the Philistine war, Saul adjured the people, and cursed any one that should taste food until the evening. His own son, Jonathan, inadvertently ate a honey comb, not knowing of his father's oath, for which Saul sentenced him to die. But the people interposed, and rescued him, for his public services; thus assuming the power of

dispensing, in their collective capacity, with an unreasonable oath, 1 Samuel 14:24-45 . This latter case, therefore, is utterly irrelative to Jephthah's vow, which did not regard a foreign enemy, or a domestic transgressor, devoted to destruction, but, on the contrary, was a vow of thanksgiving, and therefore properly came under the former case.

And that Jephthah could not possibly have sacrificed his daughter, according to the vulgar opinion, founded on incorrect translation, may appear from the following considerations:

1. The sacrifice of children to Moloch was an abomination to the Lord, of which in numberless passages, he expresses his detestation; and it was prohibited by an express law, under pain of death, as "a defilement of God's sanctuary, and a profanation of his holy name," Leviticus

Judges 20:2-3 . Such a sacrifice, therefore, unto the Lord himself, must be a still higher abomination. And there is no precedent of any such under the law, in the Old Testament.

2. The case of Isaac before the law, is irrelevant; for Isaac was not sacrificed; and it was only proposed for a trial of Abraham's faith.

3. No father, merely by his own authority, could put an offending, much less an innocent, child to death, upon any account, without the sentence of the magistrates, Deuteronomy 21:18-21 , and the consent of the people, as in Jonathan's case.

4. The Mischna, or traditional law of the Jews, is pointedly against it: "If a Jew should devote his son or daughter, his man or maid servant, who are Hebrews, the devotement would be void; because no man can devote what is not his own, or of whose life he has not the absolute disposal."

These arguments appear to be decisive against the sacrifice; and that Jephthah could not even have devoted his daughter to celibacy against her will, is evident from the history, and from the high estimation in which she was always held by the daughters of Israel, for her filial duty, and her hapless fate, which they celebrated by a regular anniversary commemoration four days in the year, Judges 11:40 . We may, however, remark, that, if it could be more clearly established that Jephthah actually immolated his daughter, there is not the least evidence that his conduct was sanctioned by God. Jephthah was manifestly a superstitious and ill-instructed man, and, like Samson, an instrument of God's power, rather than an example of his grace.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Jephthah'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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