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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature


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Jeph´thah (opener), ninth judge of Israel, of the tribe of Manasseh. He was the son of a person named Gilead by a concubine. After the death of his father he was expelled from his home by the envy of his brothers, who refused him any share of the heritage, and he withdrew to the land of Tob, beyond the frontier of the Hebrew territories. It is clear that he had before this distinguished himself by his daring character and skill in arms; for no sooner was his withdrawal known than a great number of men of desperate fortunes repaired to him, and he became their chief. His position was now very similar to that of David when he withdrew from the court of Saul. To maintain the people who had thus linked their fortunes with his, there was no other resource than that sort of brigandage which is accounted honorable in the East, so long as it is exercised against public or private enemies, and is not marked by needless cruelty or outrage.

Jephthah led this kind of life for some years during which his dashing exploits and successful enterprises procured him a higher military reputation than any other man of his time enjoyed.

After the death of Jair the Israelites gradually fell into their favorite idolatries, and were punished by subjection to the Philistines on the west of the Jordan, and to the Ammonites on the east of that river. The oppression which they sustained for eighteen years became at length so heavy that they recovered their senses and returned to the God of their fathers with humiliation and tears; and He was appeased, and promised them deliverance from their affliction (B.C. 1143).

The tribes beyond the Jordan having resolved to oppose the Ammonites, Jephthah seems to occur to everyone as the most fitting leader. A deputation was accordingly sent to invite him to take the command. After some demur, on account of the treatment he had formerly received, he consented. The rude hero commenced his operations with a degree of diplomatic consideration and dignity for which we are not prepared. The Ammonites being assembled in force for one of those ravaging incursions by which they had repeatedly desolated the land, he sent to their camp a formal complaint of the invasion, and a demand of the ground of their proceeding. Their answer was, that the land of the Israelites beyond the Jordan was theirs. It had originally belonged to them, from whom it had been taken by the Amorites, who had been dispossessed by the Israelites: and on this ground they claimed the restitution of these lands. Jephthah's reply laid down the just principle which has been followed out in the practice of civilized nations, and is maintained by all the great writers on the law of nations. The land belonged to the Israelites by right of conquest from the actual possessors; and they could not be expected to recognize any antecedent claim of former possessors, for whom they had not acted, who had rendered them no assistance, and who had themselves displayed hostility against the Israelites. But the Ammonites re-asserted their former views, and on this issue they took the field.

When Jephthah set forth against the Ammonites he solemnly vowed to the Lord, 'If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into my hands, then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord's, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.' He was victorious. The Ammonites sustained a terrible overthrow. He did return in peace to his house in Mizpeh. As he drew nigh his house, the one that came forth to meet him was his own daughter, his only child, in whom his heart was bound up. She, with her fair companions, came to greet the triumphant hero 'with timbrels and with dances.' But he no sooner saw her than he rent his robes, and cried, 'Alas, my daughter! thou hast brought me very low;… for I have opened my mouth unto the Lord, and cannot go back.' Nor did she ask it. She replied, 'My father, if thou hast opened thy mouth unto the Lord, do to me according to that which has proceeded out of thy mouth; forasmuch as the Lord hath taken vengeance for thee of thine enemies, the children of Ammon.' But after a pause she added, 'Let this thing be done for me: let me alone two months, that I may go up and down upon the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my fellows.' Her father of course assented; and when the time expired she returned, and, we are told, 'he did with her according to his vow.' It is then added that it became 'a custom in Israel, that the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite three days in the year.'

The victory over the Ammonites was followed by a quarrel with the proud and powerful Ephraimites on the west of the Jordan. This tribe was displeased at having had no share in the glory of the recent victory, and a large body of men belonging to it, who had crossed the river to share in the action, used very high and threatening language when they found their services were not required. Jephthah, finding his remonstrances had no effect, re-assembled some of his disbanded troops and gave the Ephraimites battle, when they were defeated with much loss. The victors seized the fords of the Jordan, and when any one came to pass over, they made him pronounce the word Shibboleth [an ear of corn], but if he could not give the aspiration, and pronounced the word as Sibboleth, they knew him for an Ephraimite, and slew him on the spot.

Jephthah judged Israel six years, during which we have reason to conclude that the exercise of his authority was almost if not altogether confined to the country east of the Jordan.

Volumes have been written on the subject of 'Jephthah's rash vow;' the question being whether, in doing to his daughter 'according to his vow,' he really did offer her in sacrifice or not. The negative has been stoutly maintained by many able pens, from a natural anxiety to clear the character of one of the heroes in Israel from so dark a stain. But the more the plain rules of common sense have been exercised in our view of biblical transactions, and the better we have succeeded in realizing a distinct idea of the times in which Jephthah lived and of the position which he occupied, the less reluctance there has been to admit the interpretation which the first view of the passage suggests to every reader, which is, that he really did offer her in sacrifice. The explanation which denies this maintains that she was rather doomed to perpetual celibacy; but to live unmarried was required by no law, custom, or devotement among the Jews: no one had a right to impose so odious a condition on another, nor is any such condition implied or expressed in the vow which Jephthah uttered. The Jewish commentators themselves generally admit that Jephthah really sacrificed his daughter; and even go so far as to allege that the change in the pontifical dynasty from the house of Eleazar to that of Ithamar was caused by the high-priest of the time having suffered this transaction to take place.

It is very true that human sacrifices were forbidden by the law. But in the rude and unsettled age in which the judges lived, when the Israelites had adopted a vast number of erroneous notions and practices from their heathen neighbors, many things were done, even by good men, which the law forbade quite as positively as human sacrifice.

Again, Jephthah vows that whatsoever came forth from the door of his house to meet him 'shall surely be the Lord's, and I will offer it up for a burnt-offering,' which, in fact, was the regular way of making a thing wholly the Lord's. Afterwards we are told that 'he did with her according to his vow,' that is, according to the plain meaning of plain words, offered her for a burnt-offering. Then follows the intimation that the daughters of Israel lamented her four days every year. People lament the dead, not the living. The whole story is consistent and intelligible, while the sacrifice is understood to have actually taken place; but becomes perplexed and difficult as soon as we begin to turn aside from this obvious meaning in search of recondite explanations.

Professor Bush, in his elaborate note on the text, maintains with us that a human sacrifice was all along contemplated. But he suggests that during the two months Jephthah might have obtained better information respecting the nature of vows, by which he would have learned that his daughter could not be legally offered, but might be redeemed at a valuation (). This is possible, and is much more likely than the popular alternative of perpetual celibacy; but we have serious doubts whether even this meets the conclusion that 'he did with her according to his vow.' Besides, in this case, where was the ground for the annual 'lamentations' of the daughters of Israel, or even for the 'celebrations' which some understand the word to mean?





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Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Jephthah'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature".

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