I knew this chapter would have a lot to talk about because of Jephthah’s daughter, but wow there was even more in this than I’d thought.
First of all, the opening of this chapter contradicts the depiction of events at the end of the last one; there, the Ammonites had an eighteen-year long occupation (10:8), while here their attack is a very recent phenomenon (v 4).
But I’m used to that kind of contradiction. What becomes more interesting is the exchange between Jephthah and the King of Ammon. When Jephthah, newly appointed commander of the armies of Gilead, demands to know why Ammon is attacking Israel, the king replies, “Because Israel, on coming from Egypt, took away my land from the Arnon to the Jabbok and to the Jordan; now therefore restore it peaceably.” (v 13) Jephthah goes on to school the king in history, referencing the narratives in Numbers 20-21 about how they detoured around any nation that wouldn’t give them passage until meeting the Amorites head on. The land the Israelites are occupying in Gilead belonged to the Amorites, not the Ammonites, so they don’t have a right to it.
This sort of ignores how the land they were going to occupy was already, you know, occupied. If Canaanites came back demanding for their land, or Amorites, would Jephthah be willing to step aside? Or would he shift gears and say God gave it to them, so it’s theirs? Probably the latter, since he tells the king to be satisfied with the land that Chemosh gave him, and let Israelites have what YHWH gave them. But that’s interesting too, not just because Chemosh is actually the god of the Moabites while Molech is the god of the Ammonites (mistakes get made), but because in Deuteronomy 2:19 it was YHWH who gave everyone their own land. This indicates that Jephthah believed in multiple gods the way that later editors didn’t. He was a henotheist, not a monotheist.
And then there’s his final rebuttal to Ammon’s claim: “While Israel lived in Heshbon and its villages, and in Aroer and its villages, and in all the towns that are along the Arnon, for three hundred years, why did you not recover them within that time?” (v 26) I mean, seriously, who would lay claim to a land that they haven’t inhabited for centuries, violently driving out the people who lived there in the meantime?
….yeah, sorry for the black humor. What’s happening in Gaza right now is pretty bleak. I try to be sympathetic to Israel and the hostile environment they live in as a nation, but when you’re killing your enemies at a 25:1 ratio to what they kill you, including hundreds of civilians, it’s hard to stay an ally, at least to the people in charge.
What Jephthah is known more for, however, is his sacrifice of his daughter. He makes a vow to sacrifice “whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites” (v 31). The NOAB claims there’s some debate over whether the word should be translated as “whoever” or “whatever;” maybe Jephthah expected to run into some of his flocks first. The NCT leaves no question, using the kanji for mono that signifies a person. Ironically the Ammonite god Molech is the one most often accused of human sacrifice, and here Jephthah is the one doing it in the name of YHWH.
The Slacktivist made a good post a few years ago noting the difference between how Christians and Jews read this passage. Christians tend to read it as a warning against making rash vows that you won’t want to keep. Jewish thinkers, knowing their scriptures better than we do, point out the big flaw in this argument: Jephthah could have gotten out of his vow. The Torah makes provisions if you make a vow you later have to recant. You confess your wrong and make a sacrifice.
So writers of Jewish commentaries and midrashim could only conclude that Jephthah was an arrogant man who refused to admit he was wrong and followed through with his vow because he didn’t want to lose face. The moral there is a warning against being unwilling to admit your flaws. Follow the link through for more information.
Of course, as my NOAB notes, the fact that the spirit of the LORD was on him in the first place (v 29) guaranteed his victory already. His vow was completely unnecessary. It comes across as him showing off.
What to make of all this? I was wondering to myself whether the reason Gideon was a cautious cynic, might be a result of his brothers’ murders (the ones we don’t hear about until the end). I think Jephthah is a man with a chip on his shoulder. His mother was a prostitute, he was illegitimate, he was cast out and lived as a bandit for a while. He only agrees to come back to help in exchange not just for the command of their troops, but to be their chief (v 8-9). He feels he has to prove himself, to show up the people who unfairly rejected him because of his parentage. His humiliation has made his pride all the more important to him.
It’s his daughter who suffers for it, but that’s not how Jephthah sees it. “You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me,” he wails (v 35). Yes, in the next sentence he admits it’s because of what he said, but his first instinct is to blame her. And she willingly goes along with his vow to help him save face (v 36). There’s a reason Medieval trees of vices list “pride” as the root of all evil.
The Japanese: yoso “another place, strange parts” (v 2), narazumono “ruffian, hooligan” (v 3), shikikan “commander” (v 6), nokemono, “outcast, pariah” (v 7), ichimon ittou “answering question by question” (v 10), henkan suru “to return, to restore” (v 13), ukai suru “to detour, to circumvent,” okasu “to invade” (v 18), kunrin suru “to reign, to control” (v 19), shinogu,”to surpass, to excel,” senka “wartime fire, wartime destruction, the horror of war,” majieru “to cross swords” (v 25), futou “unreasonably, invalid,” shinbansha “judge” (v 27), tetteiteki “thorough, complete,” kuppuku suru “to surrender” (v 33), shikitari “custom, conventional practice” (v 39), itamu “to mourn, to lament” (v 40).