Judges 11-12
(Jephthah the Outcast)

March 16th

Produced by The Listening for God Ministry
Copyright 2016

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Please refer to one or more Bible versions of your choice to read this section. We recommend that you read at least two versions for added understanding. For your convenience, we have provided six links below, each of which takes you directly to today's chapters in a specific version:

Key Verse

Now Jephthah the Gileadite, the son of a prostitute, was a mighty warrior. Gilead was the father of Jephthah. Gilead’s wife also bore him sons; and when his wife’s sons grew up, they drove Jephthah away, saying to him, “You shall not inherit anything in our father’s house; for you are the son of another woman.” Then Jephthah fled from his brothers and lived in the land of Tob. Outlaws collected around Jephthah and went raiding with him.

- Judges 11:1-3 (NRSV)

Summary of Chapters

Judges 11-12 tells the story of the rise of Jephthah, an outcast from eastern Manasseh who rose from exile to lead the Israelite people to victory over the Ammonites. The Ammonites were a neighboring nation that had been threatening them. Jephthah's brothers and the community rejected him because he was an illegitimate son of his father and a prostitute. Despite that, when a crisis arose, the town leaders begged him to come to their rescue. They agreed to install him as their overall leader if he succeeded in defeating the Ammonites.

Jephthah was restored, renewed, and redeemed with the approval of the community and the blessings from the Spirit of the LORD. He sought first to negotiate a peace with the Ammonites by explaining that the disputed land was actually taken from the Amorites and no one has complained for hundreds of years. He also mocked the Ammonites during the negotiation: "Are you going to try to take it back? You can keep whatever your god Chemosh has given you. But we are going to keep everything that the LORD, our God, has given us (Judg 11:24 - GNB)."

After diplomacy failed Jephthah received the Holy Spirit and led a military victory over the aggressors. Most people would believe that the other Israeli tribes would have been grateful for the defeat of the common enemy by the men from Manasseh. Instead, the people from the tribe of Ephraim were angry and jealous because they had been left out of the war party. The conflict escalated, resulting in the death of 42,000 Ephraimites.

The loss of their brethren was a national tragedy, but Jephthah also experienced a personal tragedy when he had to sacrifice his own daughter to God because of a rash vow he made before the battle, as described in the passage below.

    God's Spirit came upon Jephthah. He went across Gilead and Manasseh, went through Mizpah of Gilead, and from there approached the Ammonites. Jephthah made a vow before God: "If you give me a clear victory over the Ammonites, then I'll give to God whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in one piece from among the Ammonites, I'll offer it up in a sacrificial burnt offering."

    Then Jephthah was off to fight the Ammonites. And God gave them to him. He beat them soundly, all the way from Aroer to the area around Minnith as far as Abel Keramim - twenty cities! A massacre! Ammonites brought to their knees by the People of Israel.

    Jephthah came home to Mizpah. His daughter ran from the house to welcome him home - dancing to tambourines! She was his only child. He had no son or daughter except her. When he realized who it was, he ripped his clothes, saying, "Ah, dearest daughter - I'm dirt. I'm despicable. My heart is torn to shreds. I made a vow to God and I can't take it back!"

    - Judges 11:31-35 (MSG)

Jephthah led the Israelites for six years after squashing the Ephraimite rebellion. He served until his death, and was succeeded by Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon. They are considered part of the set of minor judges because there is not much information recorded regarding their period of rule.

Reflection and Application

There are three main lessons for our own lives that can be drawn from this story:

  1. Even if we feel like an outcast, we can serve God. There is a plan for us
  2. Try to negotiate before going to battle, just as Jephthah did
  3. Even though it was painful for Jephthah, he had to keep his promise to God. So we must also be true to the promises we make.

God again picks another unlikely candidate in today's reading, which demonstrates his mercy and vision. The people in Jephthah's village may have been surprised by God's choice but the decision was consistent with God's story and therefore it should not be hard for us to accept and understand. However, there may be other parts of this story that are difficult to accept.

How could God allow Jephthah to sacrifice his one and only child? As described many times in the Old Testament, this is against God's laws and is specifically forbidden. Why did God give Jephthah the blessing of the Spirit when he knew about the vow and knew who would be the first to greet Jephthah after the battle? If Jephthah had already received God's spirit then why did he feel a need to promise a sacrifice in case of victory? God provided a substitute for Isaac, so why didn't he provide one here - and if he did, why didn't the author make note of it? With so many questions it is hard to provide a satisfactory answer. One general assumption is that Jephthah did not expect his daughter to be the first to greet him. Maybe he expected an animal or a servant (which would not have been good either). Another theory is that the sacrifice meant that the daughter would have to serve the LORD for life, like the Levites, but others claim that the Bible clearly indicates that Jephthah put her to death.

The second sub-plot that is disturbing is the civil war between Jephthah's men and the Ephraimites. Was it really necessary to decimate their population this way? Was there an evil streak that had to be eliminated? Perhaps so, as there seemed to be a pattern of envy and jealously, even when broader goals were achieved. The consequence was that Ephraim became weakened relative to the other Israeli tribes, and would not have the opportunity to produce great leaders. Instead, Judah would eventually become the strongest tribe.

There are mysteries in the Bible that we may not understand until we see God face-to-face, but instead of fretting over those we can focus on the lessons that can be learned: Nobody is unredeemable or unusable for God's plan, better to negotiate first, and follow through on your promises (or don't make ones that you can't keep).

There have been many artistic commemorations of Jephthah and his daughter. One of these is an oratorio by the German composer George Frederic Handel (February 23, 1685 - April 14, 1759). This oratorio includes a poetic description of the LORD's victory:

    His mighty arm, with sudden blow,
    Dispers'd and quell'd the haughty foe.
    They fell before him, as when through the sky
    He bids the sweeping winds in vengeance fly.
    His mighty arm.

    - "Jephtha" Act 2, Scene 2, 31. Air

This joy is followed by the sorrow of Jephthah when he sees his daughter greeting him on his return. The Handel oratorio has a happy ending as an angel intervenes to save her, like the story of Abraham and Isaac and implying that Handel interpreted this alternate version of events. The whole piece concludes with a chorus of Israelites praising God and noting that those who fear the LORD are blest (1)

You can click the objects below to hear two portions of the oratorio:

"Jephtha - No more to Ammon's God and King," performed by the Botkyrka Motet Choir

"Jephthah - Doubtful Fear," performed by the Botkyrka Motet Choir

Questions and Prayers for Further Reflection

    Related Questions
    1. Other than the Bible, what is one of your favorite stories of an outcast who becomes a hero or leader?
    2. Who are the outcasts in the culture in which you live?
    3. What promises have you made that are difficult to keep?
    Recommended Prayer
    Father, we acknowledge that what you can achieve your plans through anyone, because our weakness becomes a strength in your hands. Help us to be inclusive and value the skills and presence of the so-called outcasts.

    Suggested Prayer Concerns
    Social Outcasts


    (1) "Jephtha," http://opera.stanford.edu/iu/libretti/jephtha.htm, 3/15/12

    Looking Ahead

    Tomorrow's reading:Judges 13-16 (Samson and Delilah)

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