Jephthah and his daughter

Scripture: Judges 11


Title: Jephthah & his daughter



  • Introduction
  • Jephthah’s rejection
  • Jephthah’s vow
  • Jephthah’s daughter
  • Conclusion



On the wall here we have a picture of a piece of rock with a vein of gold running through it

–         It is the image of a precious metal mixed in common granite

–         People can be like this – a mixture of things precious and things base


This morning we continue our series on intergenerational relationships in the Bible – that is, relationships between people of different ages or generations

–         Most of the intergenerational relationships we’ve looked at so far have been positive – like Moses & Joshua, Naomi & Ruth and Eli & Samuel

–         Not all intergenerational relationships are so rosy though

–         Some are more a mixture of things precious and things base


The focus of today’s message is Jephthah and his daughter, whose name we are not told

–         Theirs is truly an intergenerational story but not in a good way

–         More in the sense of the sins of the father having a negative downstream impact on the next generation

–         Having said that the hard rock of this story is not without its veins of gold


Jephthah was one of the Judges (or leaders) of ancient Israel during the time between Joshua and the kings, Saul & David

–         The Israelites had moved into the Promised Land, after their 40 years in the wilderness, but they hadn’t yet subdued their enemies


The period of the Judges was a sad time in Israel’s history when the nation was unfaithful to the Lord (Yahweh) by worshipping the Canaanite gods

–         Generation after generation there was a repeating pattern of the people rejecting Yahweh, then being oppressed by their enemies before turning back to Yahweh for help

–         When his people repented the Lord would empower a special Judge to lead Israel against their enemies.

–         Israel would gain the victory and everything would be okay for a while until the people forgot the Lord again and began to conform to the ways of the world around them

–         Sadly with each cycle the behaviour of the next generation got worse


With this background we read the book of Judges knowing that the stories it contains are not an ideal to aspire to, but rather a cautionary tale of what happens when people don’t follow the ways of God


Jephthah came after Gideon and before Sampson

–         Like most of the Judges of that time, Jephthah was a mixture of things precious and things base


We will cover three parts of Jephthah’s story this morning…

–         Jephthah’s rejection, Jephthah’s vow, and Jephthah’s daughter


Jephthah’s rejection:

Let’s begin with Jephthah’s rejection – from Judges, chapter 11, verse 1

–         I’ll be reading from the New Revised Standard Version…


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.


After a time the Ammonites made war against Israel. And when the Ammonites made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to bring Jephthah from the land of Tob. They said to Jephthah, “Come and be our commander, so that we may fight with the Ammonites.”


But Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “Are you not the very ones who rejected me and drove me out of my father’s house? So why do you come to me now when you are in trouble?” The elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “Nevertheless, we have now turned back to you, so that you may go with us and fight with the Ammonites, and become head over us, over all the inhabitants of Gilead.”


Who can tell me what this guy on the wall is famous for?

–         His name is Dr Thomas Midgley [Wait for people to respond]

–         That’s right – Dr Midgley was a key figure in a team of chemists who put lead in petrol and produced the first chlorofluorocarbons or CFC’s

–         Lead has been taken out of petrol now because its considered too much of a health risk and CFC’s are what caused the hole in the ozone layer

–         So Dr Midgley is famous for at least two innovations which damaged the environment on a large scale


There was a saying in ancient Israel

–         “The fathers eat sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge”

–         It basically means that children often have to live with the consequences of their parents’ actions

–         Thomas Midgley died in 1944 before many of us were born but the sour grapes he ate have set our teeth on edge

–         We are still living with the ill-effects of his work – the sins of our fathers


Jephthah paid the price for the sins of his father

–         Mr Gilead got a prostitute pregnant and Jephthah was born

–         Although Jephthah was not to blame for his father’s actions his half-brothers would not accept him and forced him to leave home


Two weeks ago I showed you a tripod for holding a video camera

–         For the tripod to stand on its own it needs three legs

–         With just one or two legs the tripod will fall over and the camera will be damaged

–         Three things the human soul needs to stand are identity, belonging and purpose

–         Identity, belonging & purpose go together – they give us strength & security – a sense of wholeness and well-being or shalom


When Jephthah’s brothers rejected him and drove him away they cut off his identity & belonging in their family so that Jephthah was forced to find these things elsewhere

–         Acceptance is the way to strengthen identity & belonging

–         Had his brothers accepted him I think Jephthah’s story would have had a very different outcome


Jephthah was a leader so he soon attracted other outcasts and became a force to be reckoned with


When Israel’s enemies threaten, the leaders of Gilead come cap in hand to ask Jephthah for help

–         Their approach is quite self-serving – they don’t really care about Jephthah, they just want to save their own necks

–         Jephthah agrees but only if they accept him as their leader

–         They have offered Jephthah purpose but he wants identity and belonging as well – he is hungry for their acceptance

–         The deal is done


In some ways Jephthah’s treatment at the hands of his brothers is a parable (in miniature) of Yahweh’s experience with Israel

–         Through no fault of His own the Lord is rejected by Israel and then, when Israel find themselves in trouble, they repent and ask for help

–         Israel doesn’t really care about Yahweh – they are desperate and are using the Lord for their own ends

–         Although Yahweh doesn’t need Israel’s acceptance (like Jephthah did) the Lord is still in a difficult position

–         He knows Israel is using him and will reject him again but he can’t turn his back on the people he loves


Once he has been made leader of the Gileadites, Jephthah approaches the king of the Ammonites (Israel’s enemies) and seeks a diplomatic solution

–         This shows wisdom and good leadership on Jephthah’s part

–         Unfortunately it doesn’t work

–         Israel is in a weaker position so the Ammonites choose war


In his exchange with the king of the Ammonites, Jephthah has his finest hour

–         From verse 27 of chapter 11 Jephthah says…


27 It is not I who have sinned against you, but you are the one who does me wrong by making war on me. Let the Lord, who is judge, decide today for the Israelites or for the Ammonites.” 28 But the king of the Ammonites did not heed the message that Jephthah sent him.


Although Israel is in a weaker position from a military point of view, Jephthah has the faith to say publicly that the Lord God (Yahweh) is the ultimate judge and he will decide who is right and who gets the land

–         There is real gold in what Jephthah says here but the gold soon runs out and Jephthah’s finest hour is turned to stone


Jephthah’s vow:

29 Then the spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh. He passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. 30 And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, 31 then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering.”


Jephthah is making a solemn deal with the Lord

–         If God gives him victory he will kill (as a human sacrifice) the first person who comes out of his house to meet him


Steve Hansen has been on the telly lately advertising Arnott’s biscuits

–         The ads imagine Steve Hansen (coach of the All Blacks) riding on a motorbike through a post-apocalyptic wasteland

–         Steve then recreates the events which led to the destruction of the world

–         Essentially it involves one of the All Blacks eating someone else’s biscuits (either their Shapes or their Tim Tams)

–         Then the person who has lost their biscuits over reacts, triggering a series of misunderstandings which lead to nuclear war

–         The moral of the story is, “Never, ever lose your biscuit.”


To ‘lose your biscuit’ means to lose your cool or lose your perspective

–         ‘Never lose your biscuit’, therefore, means stay calm

–         Don’t be afraid, don’t stress out, don’t over react because you don’t know what disaster may come from it


Unfortunately Jephthah did lose his biscuit

–         In public Jephthah was full of confidence that God, the righteous judge, would give him the victory

–         But in private Jephthah was that scared little boy who had never been properly accepted – who longed to be identified with his father’s family, to be counted as belonging with his brothers


Jephthah had been called by men to fight the Ammonites – but God had not spoken to him yet

–         God had spoken to other leaders in the past, either through an angel (as he did with Gideon) or through a prophet (as he did with Barak)

–         But in Jephthah’s case, Yahweh had been strangely silent


Certainly the Lord had sent his Spirit on Jephthah enabling him to go through various towns to rally support

–         The presence of God’s Spirit on Jephthah should have given him confidence that he had God’s support – but it didn’t

–         Perhaps Jephthah wasn’t aware of the Spirit’s empowering presence – perhaps he mistakenly thought he was doing this in his own strength

–         Or maybe he was aware of God’s Spirit with him but didn’t make the connection that this implied the Lord’s support


Whatever the reason, on the eve of battle Jephthah was not able to stand the awful silence of God and he lost his biscuit, making a rash and unnecessary vow


Let me be very clear – Jephthah’s vow had nothing to do with the Spirit of God and everything to do with Jephthah’s own fear & insecurity

–         Jephthah had power from the Holy Spirit to do a particular task but having power from God is not the same thing as having a relationship with Him

–         Jephthah didn’t really have a relationship with the Lord and so he didn’t know God all that well

–         Because he had been rejected by his own family in the past, Jephthah was probably afraid the same thing might happen with God & he over reacted

–         But God is not like Jephthah’s family, the Lord is faithful


Jephthah’s vow was wrong on a number of counts

–         Firstly, it involved human sacrifice, which is against God’s Law

–         The Old Testament Law allowed animal sacrifice but human sacrifice was murder – it was absolutely forbidden

–         It stands to reason that Jephthah didn’t know this


Secondly, Jephthah’s vow was a faithless attempt to bind God

–         God is free – he won’t be placed under obligation by us, although he may of his own free choice place himself under obligation for us

–         Trying to manipulate the gods by making sacrifices is a pagan thing

–         Yahweh does not operate like that

–         The Lord operates by grace and faith

–         We don’t pay God to do things for us

–         In faith we receive from God, freely, and we respond with thankfulness


Jephthah mistakenly thought he could make a deal with God

–         The tragedy is that Jephthah already had the victory

–         He didn’t need to make a deal with God – he simply needed to trust God


As I said at the beginning of this message – the stories of the Judges are not an ideal to aspire to, they are cautionary tales, warning us of what to avoid


Okay – so far we’ve heard about Jephthah’s rejection as a youth and his rash vow as an adult

–         Now let’s consider the intergenerational impact on Jephthah’s daughter


Jephthah’s Daughter:

After winning a crushing victory over his enemies, Jephthah returns home triumphant. We pick up the story from verse 34 of Judges 11…


34 Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing. She was his only child; he had no son or daughter except her. 35 When he saw her, he tore his clothes, and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.”


36 She said to him, “My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has given you vengeance against your enemies, the Ammonites.” 37 And she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: Grant me two months, so that I may go and wander on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, my companions and I.” 38 “Go,” he said and sent her away for two months. So she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity on the mountains.


39 At the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to the vow he had made. She had never slept with a man. So there arose an Israelite custom that 40 for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.


May the Spirit of God help us to know Jesus


When Jephthah made his vow to sacrifice the first person who came out of his house to meet him he probably had in mind one of his many servants

–         I don’t think he was expecting to kill his only daughter

–         And yet, as cruel chance would have it, she was the first to meet him when he returned home


The text makes it clear that she was his only child and that she was a virgin – which means that with her death Jephthah would have no descendants

–         In that culture, to die without children or descendants was a fate worse than death – this is why Jephthah tears his clothes as a sign of grief

–         In seeking to bind the Lord with a vow Jephthah has bound himself and can see no way out of it


We shouldn’t interpret this as Yahweh’s punishment of Jephthah

–         The Lord does not punish children for their parents’ mistakes – although children are sometimes the innocent victims of their parents sins

–         In this case Jephthah actually has the audacity to blame his daughter for his own mistake saying: “You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me.”

–         It was hardly her fault though – she didn’t know about his vow


I don’t believe God wanted any person to die or suffer for Jephthah’s vow

–         I say this because God’s Law provided a way out in situations like this


In Leviticus chapter 5 we read,


If someone makes a careless vow, no matter what it is about, he is guilty as soon as he realises what he has done. When a person is guilty, he must confess the sin, and as a penalty for the sin he must bring to the Lord a female sheep or goat as an offering. The priest shall offer the sacrifice for the man’s sin.


Jephthah had made a careless and evil vow

–         Clearly God did not require Jephthah to follow through on his vow and murder his daughter – yet that is exactly what Jephthah did

–         By carrying out his vow, Jephthah made his word more important than God’s word

–         So there was no virtue in Jephthah keeping his vow – he only made things worse


Most likely Jephthah was ignorant of the fact that…

–         One, human sacrifice is unacceptable to the Lord

–         And two, if you do make a rash vow, God has provided a way out

–         All Jephthah needed to do was confess that his vow was a mistake and have a priest offer an animal sacrifice in place of his daughter

–         The biggest cost would have been to Jephthah’s pride in admitting he had made a mistake

–         But there is less shame in admitting you are wrong and stopping evil than insisting you are right and fulfilling it


Whether he was aware of God’s law or not Jephthah didn’t need to kill her


This is what Jesus had to say about oaths and vows…


“You have heard that people were told in the past, ‘Do not break your promise, but do what you have vowed to the Lord to do.’ But now I tell you: do not use any vow when you make a promise. Do not swear by heaven, because it is God’s throne; nor by earth, because it is the resting place for his feet; not by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great King.  Do not even swear by your head, because you cannot make a single hair white or black. Simply let your ‘Yes’, be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No,’ be ‘No’. Anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”    


Jephthah’s vow came from the evil one


Thinking about our granite rock with a ribbon of gold in it – the response of Jephthah’s daughter is something very precious

–         She is far more gracious and courageous than her father

–         She doesn’t blame him for his mistake, even though he unfairly blames her – nor does she try to negotiate her way out of it

–         Instead she asks for two months to grieve with her friends in the hills

–         This is a wise move by Jephthah’s daughter – it creates a period of grace

–         Who knows what might happen in that grace period

–         Perhaps someone from the community will intervene and persuade her father to change his mind – or maybe God will intervene


When Abram was about to sacrifice his son Isaac, an angel of the Lord intervened to stop Abram and God provided a ram as a substitute

–         Also, when Saul made a rash vow which could have cost his son Jonathon his life, the men around Saul intervened to save Jonathon


Sadly there is no intervention for Jephthah’s daughter, divine or otherwise

–         No one thinks to inform Jephthah of the way out and God remains silent

–         The two months pass and Jephthah kills his only child



When we put it altogether this is such a tragic story

–         We have Jephthah’s painful rejection as a young person

–         His unnecessary vow – made out of fear and insecurity

–         And then his failure to find redemption for his only child


Hebrews 11 mentions Jephthah as one of the heroes of the faith, which is surprising given his faithless vow & ignorance of God’s ways

–         The fact that he makes it in is more a testament to God’s grace than anything else – Jephthah is a cautionary tale, not an ideal to follow

–         I think his daughter is more the hero, for she reminds us of Jesus who accepted his Father’s will in going to the cross for our redemption


Jephthah’s daughter also reminds us of the millions of innocent children who are sacrificed in our world today, through child abuse, slavery, war or blind ambition and neglect

–         As John Hamlin puts it…


Jephthah sacrificed his daughter because of his own anxieties and ambitions. Today parents who have a driving ambition to achieve security, wealth or fame may, through neglect, unwittingly sacrifice the welfare of their own children. We might also look at nations whose drive for power or wealth or security is so strong that a whole generation of its youth may be lost in war, while the after effects may lead many to drugs or crime. [1]


We may not be that different to Jephthah

–         We may be disturbed by the reality that God seems to remain silent in the face of this child abuse

–         Perhaps we should be more concerned with our own silence

–         Humanity is more culpable than God

–         That said, God doesn’t always intervene to save those most vulnerable

–         I don’t have an adequate answer for this – I can’t see the whole picture

–         All I have is my one or two pieces of the puzzle


I do believe in resurrection though – that those innocents who are sacrificed (like Jephthah’s daughter) are given abundant life in heaven

–         God is just and merciful – he makes all things new in the end


I also believe, there is a redeemer

–         A redeemer for those who have been condemned by the sins of their parents

–         And a redeemer for those who have lost their biscuit and over reacted – causing others to suffer

–         The name of this redeemer is Jesus, God’s own Son



Let us pray…


–         For those children in our world today who are sacrificed or abused in various ways – for God’s healing grace and redemption

–         For those who are parents – that the sins of the parents would not be passed on to their children (this may involve asking God to forgive our own parents)

–         Forgiveness for those times when we ‘lose our biscuit’ or over react causing others grief


Out Takes

It is probable that Jephthah was not well acquainted with God’s law

–          He had lived much of his life as an outlaw among pagans, therefore he wasn’t exposed to a lot of teaching about God’s ways

–          But I’m not sure living in ancient Israel would have helped him that much either

–          The time of the Judges was a time when people largely ignored God’s law anyway and did whatever seemed best in their own eyes



[1] E. John Hamlin, “Judges, At Risk in the Promised Land”, page 124.