Approaching ninety, my grandmother habitually reads the newspaper obituaries, scanning for familiar people from the past who have left this earth. When she told me about her regular practice once, I was startled. But I’ve been reading obituaries lately. In the pages of Scripture. Recently I read from Judges 12 about Jephthah.
Jephthah’s history starts back in the previous chapter, where we learn he was a harlot’s son who had been dispelled from his dad’s home because of his birth. We also find that Jephthah was a natural leader—“vain men gathered themselves unto Jephthah”—Judges 11:3 reads. Likewise, Jephthah is a thinker with good reasoning abilities. He wonders why, when Ammon comes to fight against Gilead, his home area, the men of Gilead come back for him when they were the ones who had thrust him out in the first place. (Jephthah’s leadership ability is apparently so well known that these men want him as their leader and tell him so.) However, Jephthah isn’t bought easily. He makes the men of Gilead promise that he, Jephthah, will be their leader if they win the battle. It seems he’s a man of prayer too, for God’s Word explains, “and Jephthah uttered all his words before the LORD in Mizpeh” (Judges 11:11).
Another thing about this man—he knew history. Ammon’s king had only a revised version of it, but Jephthah takes thirteen verses to explain the actual account of Ammon’s encounter with Israel years before. Jephthah also firmly stands with the Lord God of Israel. Boldly, he concludes before the king of the Amorites: “So now the LORD God of Israel hath dispossessed the Amorites from before his people Israel, and shouldest thou possess it?” Then he ventures to attack the very source of the Amorites’ trust, their god Chemosh: “Wilt not thou possess that which Chemosh thy god giveth thee to possess?” And he reasons, “So whomsoever the LORD our God shall drive out from before us, them will we possess” (11:23-24).
When the Amorites fail to listen to Jephthah’s plea for peace, Jephthah gets desperate with God. He promises, “If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands, then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD’S, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.”
It was probably a rash vow, but Jepthhah gave his word, and that meant much to him, so when his daughter, his only daughter, greeted him at his house with timbrels and dances, Jephthah wept. I wonder, was he intending a pet lamb to greet him? What had he envisioned in his mind’s eye the day he gave that vow? Whatever the case, Jephthah’s daughter remained unmarried till the day she died.**
I believe Jephthah had trained his children in the admonition of the Lord, because after learning of her father’s promise to God, Jephthah’s daughter responds, “My father, if thou hast opened thy mouth unto the LORD, do to me according to that which hath proceeded out of thy mouth; forasmuch as the LORD hath taken vengeance for thee of thine enemies, even of the children of Ammon.” Jephthah’s daughter requests only that she be allowed to go for two months with her friends and bewail her virginity. Her dreams of motherhood are crushed in an instant; her hopes of a beautiful future with a man of God dash to the ground as she hears her father’s words. But with her future now handed to her as a result of her father’s vow, perhaps a rash one, she does not utter a syllable of complaint. Instead, she encourages her father to keep his vow. She rejoices with him that God has graciously allowed him to be victor that day.
In faith, Jephthah’s daughter embraces her father’s decision and makes it her own. This young woman is an amazing testimony of submission and obedience. In learning of her father’s request, she does not ask him if he can break his vow. She requests only that she have two months to bewail her virginity; then she goes on with her life and is never heard from again…only that the daughters of Israel weep for her four days a year for her. What a testimony she has in Scripture’s pages—a legacy of submission and integrity!
Later, a civil war breaks out between Gilead, Ephraim, and Manasseh over something petty. I believe we see an example of Jephthah’s rashness once again, for 42,000 Ephraimites—fellow Israelites—were killed in this conflict. James tells us, “From whence come wars and fightings among you? Come they not hence, even of your lusts which war in your members?” In just war, killing another human is justifiable. But in unjust war, murder is on one’s hands. It seems to me that, even though the men of Ephraim had threatened to burn down Jephthah’s house, this still did not give him reason to fight and kill. These were brethren. Jephthah had been wronged and hurt (the Ephraimites didn’t help Jephthah fight against Ammon when he requested it) and cast out in the past, but should he have stirred up the conflict or truly sought to make peace? Jephthah rebukes the men, reminding them it was not he who had won the victory but that the Lord had delivered the Amorites into his hand. Clearly Jephthah placed the honor where it was due, and God used Jephthah to punish even fellow Israelites for their idolatry.
It was only six years that Jephthah reigned, but he was a mighty man of valor, and his is a powerful obituary. He did something in his six years. He let God use him. He used his knowledge of history to confront a heathen king. He glorified and uplifted God’s name. He followed through on a decision he had made in desperation. He trained his only child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, so that she too responded in faith to her father’s direction for her future.
Oh, Jephthath’s name is mentioned somewhere else. In the faith chapter of Hebrews 11—we are told, “Time would fail me to tell of . . . Jephthae . . . who through faith . . . subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises . . . waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.”
Jephthah—a short-lived ruler. But a long-lived legacy—in the pages of Scripture.
*I am taking a slight detour from our "Meekness" series, as I have been pondering eternity and the legacies of individuals lately. I will plan to share some lessons from people who have gone to glory and then return to the current series on Meekness.
**There is disagreement concerning what actually happened with Jephthah’s daughter. I personally believe she remained a virgin the rest of her life, not that she was actually offered as a burnt offering. I think rather that her life symbolized a living sacrifice or burnt offering, as in Romans 12:1-2, where Christians are asked to offer their lives as living sacrifices to God.