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JEPHTHAH (jĕf'tha, Heb. yiphtâh, opened or opener). Eighth judge of the Israelites. His history is given in Judg.10.6-Judg.12.7. He was the son of Gilead, a Gileadite, and of a woman who was a harlot. Because of his illegitimacy, his brothers born in wedlock drove him from the paternal home and refused him any share in the inheritance. Their action was confirmed by the elders of Gilead. He fled to the land of Tob, probably a region in Syria or the Hauran. There he made a name for himself by his prowess and gathered about him a band of men without employment, like David’s men (1Sam.22.2). He must not be thought of as just a captain of a band of freebooters, for he was a God-fearing man, with a high sense of justice and of the sacredness of vows made to God. At the time of his expulsion by his brothers, Israel had been for many years under bondage to the Ammonites. In the course of time, when these oppressors of Israel were planning some new form of humiliation, the elders of Gilead offered to anyone who was willing to accept the office of captain the headship over all the inhabitants of Gilead. When no one volunteered, the elders in desperation went to Jephthah and urged him to become a captain of Israel’s army. He accepted, and he and the elders made vows before the Lord to keep all promises. On assuming the headship of Gilead, Jephthah’s first effort was to secure the cooperation of the tribe of Ephraim, one of the most influential of the tribes during the period of the judges; but they refused to help. He then sent messengers to the king of the Ammonites, asking for the grounds of his hostile action and requesting that he desist; but the king refused to listen to reason. Endued with the Spirit of the Lord, Jephthah prepared for war. Before going out to battle, he made a vow that if he was victorious he would offer to God as a burnt offering whatever first came to him out of his house. He defeated his enemies with a very great slaughter and recovered twenty cities from them. The Ephraimites then came to him with the complaint that he had slighted them in the preparation for the Ammonite campaign, but he answered their false accusation and defeated them in battle. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed. Jephthah judged Israel for six years. Samuel cited him as one proof of God’s faithfulness in raising up deliverers for Israel in time of need (1Sam.12.11). He is listed among the heroes of faith in Heb.11.1-Heb.11.40 (Heb.11.32).

The great point of interest in his history is his vow (Judg.11.29-Judg.11.40) and the way it was fulfilled. On his return home after the victory over the Ammonites, his own daughter was the first to meet him from his house. A man of the highest integrity, he knew that he could not go back on his vow to the Lord; and his daughter agreed with him. She asked only that she and her companions be allowed to go for two months to the mountains to bewail her virginity. When she returned to her father, he “did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin” (Judg.11.39). After that she was lamented by the daughters of Israel four days every year.

How was this vow fulfilled? Did he actually sacrifice his daughter as a burnt offering, or did he redeem her with money and doom her to perpetual celibacy? The ancient Jewish authorities and the early church fathers, as well as many in modern times, like Martin Luther, hold that she was actually sacrificed, as a first reading of the narrative suggests. It is said that Jephthah was either ignorant of the law against human sacrifices or that he flagrantly violated it. While his words and those of his daughter indicate knowledge of the Mosaic Law, his involvement in human sacrifice would be part of the revelation that Judges sets out to make of the fearful deterioration of the days and the need for the perfect king. Even the best men—Jephthah, for example—were tainted.

Leviticus 27:1-8 contemplates the possibility of a someone’s vowing to give himself or some person of his household to the Lord and makes provision for the redemption of such a person by the payment of money. We know, too, from the experience of Samuel that sometimes persons coming under a vow were handed over for the service of the sanctuary (1Sam.1.11). It is, therefore, thought by some that Jephthah redeemed his daughter with money and gave her up to the service of the Lord as a perpetual virgin. That may be the meaning of her request that she be allowed to bewail her virginity for two months, and of the statement that “she knew no man” (Judg.11.39 kjv). The fact is, however, that we cannot be absolutely certain of the mode of fulfillment of Jephthah’s vow.——SB


JEPHTHAH jĕf’ thə (יִפְתָּ֥ח, he opens; LXX and NT ̓Ιεφθάε, G2650). KJV JEPHTHAE (Heb 11:32). Gileadite warrior, who as a judge delivered Israel from the Ammonites, sacrificed his daughter to fulfill his vow to God, and defeated the Ephraimites (Judg 11:1-12:7).


The Heb. (or W Sem.) name Jephthah (יִפְתָּ֥ח) also appears as a place name, Iphtah (Josh 15:43). It is a hypocorism of the longer, theophoric names such as ypth-’l and ypth-hd (“the god El opens” or “the god Hadd opens”). In fact the “valley of Iphtahel” (Josh 19:14, 27) is a valley on the border between Zebulun and Asher, prob. the modern Wadi el-Melek NW of Nazareth. The significance of the verb is either that the god mentioned opens the womb or that he frees captives.

The Ammonite oppression.

The pattern of the episodes in the Book of Judges is cyclical. The people of Israel lapsed into idolatry and disobedience of God’s commands. God punished them by surrendering them to one of the surrounding nations who oppressed them. In their misery, the Israelites repented of their apostasy and cried out for forgiveness and deliverance. God sent a leader (called a “judge”) through whom He gave victory over the enemy oppressor.

The background of the Jephthah story, therefore, is an Israelite lapse followed by oppression from the Ammonites (Judg 10:6-9). The duration of the Ammonite oppression was eighteen years (10:8). It consisted of two phases. First, the Ammonites exerted direct and sustained pressure on the Israelites settled in Gilead to the E of the Jordan, in the land formerly controlled by the two Amorite kings—Og, king of Bashan, and Sihon, king of Heshbon (Deut 2; 3). Second, Ammonite raiding parties crossed over the Jordan to plunder and harass settlements in the territories of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Judah (Judg 10:9). This twofold campaign caused intense suffering and misery among the Israelites, who confessed forsaking Yahweh to serve the local Baals (10:10, 15) and removed the idols of foreign gods from their midst to show their sincere determination to return to the God of their fathers (10:16).

Jephthah the judge.

Jephthah was the son of a man named Gilead. Some scholars have supposed that the real name of his father was unknown, so he was reputed to be the son of an eponymous hero who had given his name to the territory of Gilead. But since Gilead (gl’d) occurs as the name of an ordinary citizen in Ugaritic tablets from c. 1250 b.c., only a cent. before Jephthah, it seems unreasonable to refuse the possibility that a real man named Gilead was Jephthah’s father, regardless of the relationship of that man with the place name Gilead. Jephthah’s mother was a harlot, for which the word used is Heb. zonā. Some have considered her to have been a temple prostitute, but the word for this is qedesha. The LXX renders it gyne porne “(common) harlot.” Because he was not born of Gilead’s legitimate wife, Jephthah was excluded from his father’s inheritance by his half-brothers (11:1, 2). To make a living, Jephthah gathered a group of comrades in arms and formed a robber band, which operated out of Tob on the Euphrates to the NE of Ramoth-gilead. When the Ammonite crisis arose, the leaders (Heb. sarīm, 10:18) of Gilead, also called “elders” (ziqnē Gil’ad, LXX presbyteroi), traveled to the land of Tob to secure the services of the robber baron against the Ammonites. The elders offered to make him their temporary “leader” (Heb. qasīn) in battle against the Ammonites and following the successful defeat of the enemy their permanent chieftain (Heb. rōsh). The contract was solemnly entered at Mizpah, accompanied by the exchange of oaths (11:9-11). The term “judge” (Heb. shōfet) was employed by neither of the two parties. It was applied to him in retrospect by the inspired author-editor of Judges, who saw Jephthah as a member of the larger group of “judges” whose stories are told in this book.

Jephthah defeats the Ammonites.

In Judges 11:12-28 is recorded an exchange of indictments between Jephthah and the Ammonite chief much in the spirit of the charges and counter-charges exchanged before battle by later kings (Abijah and Jeroboam 1 in 2 Chron 13:2-20; Amaziah and Jehoash, in 2 Kings 14:8ff. and 2 Chron 25:17; cf. also the exchange of challenges before battle in 1 Sam 17:41ff.). Some scholars insist that this is unhistorical and the adornment of a Deuteronomic editor, apparently unaware that such indictments were exchanged through envoys before most battles in the ancient Near E (cf. many examples in the Annals of the Hitt. King Mursili II). Indeed, in modern times, no nation goes to war before first attempting to seek redress of wrongs through diplomatic channels. Other scholars judge this section (Judg 11:12-28) irrelevant to the Jephthah story, since it deals with Israel’s seizure of the land from the Amorites and the Moabites, not the Ammonites. They also point to Jephthah’s identification of his enemy’s god as Chemosh (11:24), who was the national god of Moab, whereas Ammon’s god was Milcom. But Jephthah recounted the story of the Israelite conquest, singling out Moab and the Amorites, because the Ammonites had accused Israel of taking their land when they took the territory of Gilead. Jephthah’s reply was to point out that Israel took it from the Amorites (Og and Sihon), and not from either Ammon or Moab. His second argument was that a people should keep what its god gives to it. The mention of Chemosh (LXX Khamōs) may be explicable in that Ammonites and Moabites venerated one another’s gods, as was often the practice in polytheistic societies.

When negotiation failed (11:28), the case was submitted to a trial by battle. God would decide the case by granting victory to the party in the right (11:27). Jephthah apparently did not feel sufficiently secure in the knowledge of the justness of his people’s cause. He made a vow that, if Yahweh would grant him victory over the Ammonites, he would make a human sacrifice to God of whoever came forth from the doors of his house to meet him (11:31). Because of Jephthah’s consternation (11:35) when his daughter came forth to meet him, some have supposed that he anticipated an animal. But an ordinary sacrificial animal (ox, sheep, goat) would hardly come forth to meet him from his own house. A pet dog would hardly have been an acceptable sacrifice to any god. The entire context rather suggests that he contemplated human sacrifice from the beginning. The battle took place near Mizpah of Gilead and was a total victory for Jephthah (11:32, 33).

Jephthah sacrifices his daughter.

Jephthah and the Ephraimites.

The Ammonites during their period of harassment had raided Ephraimite territory to the W of Jordan (Judg 10:9). Jephthah had not recruited in Ephraim (12:1; cf. 11:29), apparently feeling more secure with troops from his own country, perhaps many of them members of his robber band. Indeed Jephthah says that he did call upon Ephraimites (12:2), although stressing at the same time that feud with the Ammonites was his and his people’s. The entire provocation may have grown out of a long-standing hostility felt by the Ephraimites W of Jordan and the Gileadites to the E, the former sarcastically labeling the latter as “fugitives from Ephraim.” The fighting broke out to the E of Jordan and soon went badly for the Ephraimites. When many attempted to flee across the Jordan to safety, they were put to a linguistic test by the Gileadite guards at the fording places. Since the two dialects of Heb. treated the sibilant in the word shibboleth differently, it was a simple matter for the Gileadite guards to detect Ephraimites (12:5, 6). Forty-two thousand Ephraimites failed the test and were slain.

Jephthah emerges from these chs. as a man of faith (Heb 11:32), who overcame the disadvantages of his disreputable birth, was chosen by God and his people in their hour of need, led God’s people to victory over the Ammonite foe, and secured them against further threat from that quarter until the days of Saul. He was firm with himself, refusing to hold back his only child from God. As such he was long remembered in Israel (1 Sam 12:11) and in the early Christian communities (Heb 11:32). When judged by the standards of the Christian community of the 20th cent., Jephthah may appear crude, insensitive, and bloodthirsty. But the Spirit of God saw fit to use him (Judg 11:29), and the Word of God honors him.


G. F. Moore, Judges, ICC (1895), 275-310; M. Noth, Die israelitischen Personnamen (1928), 28, 29, 179, 200; C. F. Burney, Judges (1930), 293-334; H. Lewy, Orientalia, IX (1940), 262ff.; H. H. Rowley, BASOR, LXXXV (1942), 28ff.; A. Alt, Kleine Schriften, I (n.d.), 190f.; C. A. Simpson, Composition of the Book of Judges (1957), 45-53, 99, 100, 112, 113, 128, 129, 142-145; Y. Kaufmann, Sefer Shōfetīm (Heb., 1962), 217ff.; C. H. Gordon, Ugaritic Textbook (1965), 471, glossary entry 2130; A. E. Cundall, Judges, Tyndale OT Commentaries (1968), 137ff.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

Ninth judge of the Israelites. His antecedents are obscure. Assuming Gilead to be the actual name of his father, his mother was a harlot. He was driven from home on account of his illegitimacy, and went to the land of Tobit in Eastern Syria (Jud 11:2,3). Here he and his followers lived the life of freebooters.

The Israelites beyond the Jordan being in danger of an invasion by the Ammonites, Jephthah was invited by the elders of Gilead to be their leader (Jud 11:5,6). Remembering how they had expelled him from their territory and his heritage, Jephthah demanded of them that in the event of success in the struggle with the Ammonites, he was to be continued as leader. This condition being accepted he returned to Gilead (Jud 11:7-11). The account of the diplomacy used by Jephthah to prevent the Ammonites from invading Gilead is possibly an interpolation, and is thought by many interpreters to be a compilation from Nu 20-21. It is of great interest, however, not only because of the fairness of the argument used (Jud 11:12-28), but also by virtue of the fact that it contains a history of the journey of the Israelites from Lower Egypt to the banks of the Jordan. This history is distinguished from that of the Pentateuch chiefly by the things omitted. If diplomacy was tried, it failed to dissuade the Ammonites from seeking to invade Israel. Jephthah prepared for battle, but before taking the field paused at Mizpeh of Gilead, and registered a vow that if he were successful in battle, he would offer as a burnt offering to Yahweh whatsoever should first come from his doors to greet him upon his return (Jud 11:29-31). The battle is fought, Jephthah is the victor, and now his vow returns to him with anguish and sorrow. Returning to his home, the first to greet him is his daughter and only child. The father’s sorrow and the courage of the daughter are the only bright lights on this sordid, cruel conception of God and of the nature of sacrifice. That the sacrifice was made seems certain from the narrative, although some critics choose to substitute for the actual death of the maiden the setting the girl apart for a life of perpetual virginity. The Israelite laws concerning sacrifices and the language used in Jud 11:39 are the chief arguments for the latter interpretation. The entire narrative, however, will hardly bear this construction (11:34-40).

Jephthah was judge in Israel for 6 years, but appears only once more in the Scripture narrative. The men of Ephraim, offended because they had had no share in the victory over the Ammonites, made war upon Gilead, but were put to rout by the forces under Jephthah (Jud 12:1-6).