Jephthah, a Hero of Faith
Haftarah for Chukat, Judges 11:1–33
By Dr. Vered Hillel, Netanya, Israel
The haftarah for Chukat contains one of the most perplexing stories in the Bible, the tale of Jephthah, the judge who vowed to sacrifice the first thing that exited his house upon his safe return from war against the Ammonites.
The haftarah, however, actually stops in the middle of the story, informing us of Jephthah’s victory over the Ammonites, but making no mention of his return home or of the fulfillment of his vow (vv. 30–31). The first thing that comes out of his house upon his return is his daughter, his only child (vv. 34–35). This is most perplexing. Does Jephthah actually fulfill his vow by sacrificing his only daughter, or does she simply live her life as a virgin dedicated to God? To be sure the answer is complex, but no matter what we conclude about Jephthah’s fulfillment of his vow, he was a hero and man of faith. Samuel, in his farewell speech, includes Jephthah among the leaders who, like himself, acted as God’s agents to deliver Israel from her enemies (1 Sam 12:11), and Hebrews chapter 11 includes Jephthah among the heroes of faith alongside Gideon, Barak, and Samson, as well as David and Samuel (v. 32).
Such a comparison of Jephthah with other heroes of faith is astonishing.
Jephthah appears to be the antithesis of a leader. Not only is his vow questionable, but so is his early life. He is of dubious birth and lineage. His father was Gilead and his mother a prostitute without proper lineage (Judg 11:1). Although he is the eldest son, he was born to a mother other than the mother of his brothers, and therefore denied any inheritance. Consequently, he is ostracized by his family and community. He is an outcast living on the periphery of society, a powerful figure, a brigand, who gathers around him worthless and reckless men (compare Judges 9:4 to 11:3). Yet, he does not usurp power or threaten society. It is these qualities that draw the elders to him when the Ammonite becomes overwhelming. The historical setting of this controversy between the Israelite and non-Israelite populations of Gilead is summarized in Judges 10:6–18: Israel abandons Hashem, serves other gods, and is punished by oppression from the Philistines and Ammonites (10:6–9). Eventually Israel repents, removes the foreign gods, and serves Hashem (10:10–16). In the meantime, the Ammonites muster their troops for war.
The last verse of Judges 10 records a conversation between the troops and the officers in Gilead in which they ask one another, “Who is willing to begin the fight against the Ammonites? He will become the leader of all who live in Gilead.” Immediately after this statement, Jephthah is introduced into the story as a brave warrior. He arises out of nowhere as if in answer to their plea. As the narrative progresses Jephthah moves from an outcast to the accepted leader of the Gileadites. Later in Judges 12:7, we learn that he ruled Israel for six years.
Central to the narrative are the two negotiations between the elders of Gilead and Jephthah and between Jephthah and the Ammonite leaders. Through these negotiations we learn that the battle is not just between the Israelites and Ammonites, but between their God/gods. In his negotiations with the Ammonites, Jephthah recites Israelite history, repeatedly crediting Hashem with the victory over the Amorites and with driving them out from before Israel. It is important to note that a portion of the land that the Ammonites claim to be theirs had actually been lost many years earlier to the Moabites, who in turn lost it to the Amorites, who in turn were conquered by the Israelites (Josh 13:25, Num 21:26–31). Thus Israel had not conquered the land in Gilead from either Ammon or Moab, but from the Amorites.
Building on this fact, Jephthah tells the Ammonites that they can have all the land that Chemosh their god gives them, but the Israelites will take the land that Hashem, their God, gives them. Jephthah’s statement is dripping with irony. Chemosh was the god of the Moabites, not the Ammonites (Num 21:29). If the Ammonites are claiming Moabite land, then they must also worship the Moabite god. Chemosh, however, had not been able to save the Moabites from the Amorite conquest, so how can Chemosh save the Ammonites? He can’t. The God of Israel has proven himself to be the most powerful through the conquests he has given to Israel. Jephthah further stresses his point by asking why the Ammonites have not made a claim on the conquered lands for the last 300 years.
When the negotiations fail, Jephthah makes his foxhole vow to sacrifice “whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me” (Judg 11:31 JPS), and then attacks the Ammonites. Empowered by Hashem, Jephthah defeats the Ammonites, becomes leader of the Gileadites and goes on to lead them for six years (Judg 12:7).
Jephthah is a hero, but Hashem is actually the true hero of the narrative.
Hashem is the one orchestrating all the circumstances that lead to the victory. Hashem prepared Jephthah for his role through the circumstances of his dubious birth and through his life as an outcast and brigand. Hashem also created the answer before the crisis ever began and before the elders of Gilead sought his help. Hashem is not a respecter of persons: he orchestrates and controls all the events of history, including those that shape our destiny. We may not know what events have already occurred in our lives that will influence our future, or what that future will hold. However, we can rest assured that Hashem is sovereign and that he is in control: “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his sovereignty rules over all” (Ps 103:19).
Our beginnings and the circumstances of our lives may be ignominious, as were Jephthah’s, but we should be encouraged by Jephthah’s life, and by Paul’s words in Romans 8:28 “We know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose.”