And Jephthah vowed a now unto the LORD, and said, 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 Amman, shall surely be the LORD’s and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.
The king of Ammon refused at the reasoning of Jephthah to withdraw his forces from the oppression of Israel; and the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah. From him went forth the call to all of Israel to come and fight the battle of the Lord against Ammon; but from the tribes west of the river he received no answer. Only in Gilead with the tribes of Manasseh, Reuben, and Gad was there any sympathy for his calling. Thus Jephthah went back and forth through the land east of the Jordan gathering together an army against Ammon.
At last what force he could gather was ready, and he marched with it toward the strongholds of Ammon. As they went Jephthah was very conscious of the foolishness of this action from a human point of view. His force was small, especially in comparison with the Ammonites, while Amman had the experience which he and his men did not. He and his men had only one thing upon which to rely, the power with which Jehovah their God was able to work through them. Struggling with his own weaknesses and doubts, Jephthah knew where to go; he went to the Lord in prayer. It was then, to demonstrate how seriously he felt the need of God to bless them, that Jephthah made a vow. The vow which he made before God was this, “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 is well that we should examine this vow more closely, for it is easily misunderstood.
In the first place, we should note what was the basic idea of the burnt-offering. The burnt-offering was a sacrifice of complete consecration unto God. In it the object offered was given completely to God, with nothing being left over for the service of man. Thus in the burnt-offering of the tabernacle the carcass of the victim offered was burned until it was completely consumed. It was an offering that was presented in a person’s awareness of his weakness and of his sinful nature. The animal was for him in the nature of a substitute. Through it the offerer confessed that hi life should be given in complete consecration to God, even as the carcass of the animal was completely consumed with fire.
In the second place, it was evident, however, that Jephthah in his vow had in mind nothing so common as an ordinary animal of his flock. He vowed to present to the Lord “whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me.” There has always been, of course, a tendency to interpret this to mean that Jephthah expected that the first to come out to meet him upon his return from battle would be some animal that he kept around the house. But a little thought quickly brings out the impossibility of this. Such animals as were suitable for sacrifices in the Old Testament times were not such as one would keep in the house; nor could they be expected to come out to greet one on his return. Neither would it constitute much of a promise to vow to offer such a sacrifice. That would be expected of anyone returning victoriously from battle. Jephthah’s vow was exceptional in that he promised to present unto the Lord, not a substitionary animal, but a member of his own household in complete consecration unto Him. Even more, it would be that member of his house which would come forth first from his house in recognition of the victory that God would give unto him. He surely must have realized that it might well be his only daughter, whom he loved dearly, or his wife, if she was still living, or else one of his servants.
Thus, finally, it could not have been his intent to present this sacrifice through the shedding of blood upon an altar. This was the manner of presenting an animal to the Lord because it was the only manner in which a non-rational creature could be of service in the worship of God; but it could not be used in the presentation of a rational, moral person. The shedding of human blood upon the altar was indeed the custom of certain heathen nations in the utter depths of their depravity; but before the Lord such practices were the greatest of abominations. This Jephthah knew, for he was perfectly familiar with the law of God as he had revealed in his communications with the king of Ammon. In the service of Jehovah there was a much higher function which a living person could fill: it was the sacrifice of all earthly pleasures for a life of complete dedication to the service of God and of His tabernacle. There is ample evidence in the Old Testament that such lives of complete sacrifice to the service of God were not uncommon, as the life of the Nazarites, and even of a small boy, such as Samuel, in the tabernacle. It was undoubtedly a sacrifice such as this which Jephthah had in mind.
There is perhaps one more question which we should consider at this point. That is how Jephthah could promise such a sacrifice of life for a person other than himself. One thing should first be remembered, namely, that Jephthah was not excusing himself, for his life was already dedicated to the service of God. He had received the office of judge in Israel and would continue to serve in that office as long as he lived. That which he was promising, therefore, was a sacrifice from his own household in addition to that which he was already making. In doing so he must have been completely confident in the willingness of every member of his household to make this sacrifice which he was promising. He had worshipped with them often, and he knew their hearts and the love of God which they held. He felt able to speak as the spiritual head of his household, knowing that every member would be ready to abide by his promise.
Having made his vow, Jephthah went on to battle. The account of this battle is very brief, telling us little more than that Jephthah was given a great victory, overthrowing twenty cities and subduing the Ammonites completely. Thus Israel was saved once again from its enemies.
The more detailed narrative takes up again with the return of Jephthah to his home. The news of his great victory had gone before him. As he approached his home, his only daughter, who was very dear to him, burst forth from the door of the house singing and dancing as she came to meet him. Her timbrels were in her hands, and joy radiated from her face. It was then that the full impact of the vow he had made hit Jephthah. It was now this daughter whom he would have to present as a living sacrifice unto the service of God. To him and his home she was lost forever. Struck with anguish he cried out, “Alas, my daughter! thou hast brought me very low, and thou art one of them that trouble me: for I have opened my mouth unto the LORD, and I cannot go back.”
It must have been a sad and touching scene which took place there before the house of Jephthah. There was the father, tattered, weary and haggard from the battle; and the daughter, just coming to maturity, with all of the freshness and sparkle of youth. Slowly and gently he must have explained to her the vow which he had made before the Lord, why he made it, and what it would mean for her. Henceforth she would have to leave her home and live a life of complete dedication to God, without marriage, and without many of the pleasures of life which most people enjoy.
Most painful of the results of this vow for both Jephthah and his daughter was the fact that henceforth it would be impossible for her to marry and therefore to bring forth seed. Particularly in the nation of Israel was this difficult. Israel was a nation that lived always with its eye to the future. As a nation it was founded upon a promise, and lived by faith in that promise. All that took place was only preparatory to the day when the promised son of Abraham would appear and the true and spiritual kingdom of Israel would be established forever. Every true Israelite lived in anticipation of that day. And then as each generation came to maturity, and as yet the promise was not realized, that generation would look to the next to maintain its name and position in the nation until the coming of the Messiah, But now Jephthah’s daughter was all that was left of his family and name, and in consequence of his vow she could not marry nor bear seed. It was Jephthah’s own name and position in the Israel of de future that was being sacrificed.
It speaks of the greatness of love and depth of feeling that existed between Jephthah and his daughter that she answered him as she did. Speaking without complaint or a trace of bitterness, she said, “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 Amman.” This was the voice of a child who was no longer a child; she had arrived at spiritual maturity before God. She showed complete respect and obedience to the vow of her father and to the name of the Lord before whom it was made.
Neither was it that Jephthah’s daughter was without natural feeling or mature judgment with which to evaluate the importance of what was asked of her. She realized full well and grieved for it. This is evident from the request she addressed to her father, “Let this thing be done for me”: she asked, “Let me alone two months, that I may go up and down upon the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my fellows.”
With a heart too heavy to say more, Jephthah answered merely, “Go.”
A more touching scene than the procession which left the village the next morning to make its way up the mountain could hardly be imagined. These were young girls, usually gay and light-hearted; but now a special burden weighed upon their hearts. One of their number was leaving them to meet with them no more. It was not through the usual way of marriage, for then they would have rejoiced in her behalf; she had so often dreamed and planned with them concerning the weddings, husbands, and families they hoped to have. That was why, as now they went; they mourned. Jephthah’s daughter was sacrificing all of this for the service of Jehovah. They were going with her to mourn that which now she would never have. Modesty forbade that it should be done publicly in de village before the men. For two months they went together into the quiet of the mountains to bewail the virginity of their sister.
When finally they returned, Jephthah’s daughter was ready. We do not know what manner of service it was that she rendered; but even as he had vowed, so Jephthah gave his daughter to the service of Jehovah. The result was that it did more to establish his name in Israel than anything else. Jephthah himself continued to live and labor for a short six years longer; but his daughter was remembered by the daughters of Israel unto many generations, and yearly they went forth to praise the memory of the sacrifice which she had made.