Question: "Who was Jephthah?"
Answer: Jephthah served as a judge over Israel for six years following the leadership of Jair. His account is recorded in Judges 11:1—12:7.
First, Jephthah was a Gileadite but was born of a prostitute. Though a mighty warrior (Judges 11:1), he was driven away from the family as an adult because he was considered an illegitimate child. Verse 3 records that he moved to the land of Tob and lived among “a gang of scoundrels.”
Later, the Ammonites came against Israel in war. The Israelites sent for Jephthah, asking for his help. The elders of Gilead offered to serve Jephthah if he helped them defeat their enemy. Jephthah accepted their offer and then sent a message to the Ammonite king in an attempt to avoid war.
The Ammonite king rejected Jephthah’s message, and war was inevitable. Jephthah made a vow to God, saying, “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering” (Judges 11:30–31). Jephthah then defeated the Ammonites and returned home to Mizpah (Judges 11:32–34).
When Jephthah arrived at home, his daughter, an only child, was the first to come out of his house (Judges 11:34). Jephthah evidently expected an animal to exit, but this unexpected event caused him to tear his clothes in mourning. When he told his daughter of his vow, she surprisingly accepted the consequences, only asking for two months to mourn beforehand (Judges 11:37–38). The event was so well-known among the Israelites that it became a custom for the daughters of Israel to mourn the event each year for four days.
After Jephthah’s actions to defeat the Ammonites, the people of Ephraim were angry with him for attacking without their help. They threatened to burn his house over him with fire (Judges 12:1). This led to a battle between the tribes of Ephraim and Gilead. Gilead won, killing 42,000 Ephraimites (Judges 12:6).
What lessons can be learned from Jephthah? First, God can use us regardless of our background. We cannot change where we came from, yet God can use us in great ways despite our past. Second, we are not to make rash commitments or promises to God. In Jephthah’s case, he lost his only child over such an action. Third, even when we do the right thing, we may have to endure hardship from others. Jephthah certainly had to endure trouble from the people of Ephraim despite his being empowered by God’s Spirit to free Gilead from the Ammonites.