The Jephthah Saga – An Introduction
The rather strange often misunderstood saga of Jephthah begins at the end of Judges 10, in verses 17 and 18, continues in chapter 11, and ends in the middle of chapter 12, in verse 7. Seven things are worth noting:
While many people like to believe that God manipulated biblical events and continues to do so today, Y. Kaufman stresses that the Jephthah tale is a realistic natural event. God, angels, and prophets are not mentioned, and there are no miracles or unusual events.
The numbers three and seven are used frequently in Scripture, as we saw in past chapters. Olam Hatanach sees the Jephthah story composed of seven parts:
- The Israelites face an imminent attack by non-Israelite forces.
- The people appoint Jephthah to lead the Israelite army.
- Jephthah tries to avert war by negotiating with the enemy.
- He fails and war ensues.
- Jephthah makes a foolish oath and his fulfillment of the oath.
- Jephthah’s war with the tribe of Ephraim.
Jephthah is introduced to Bible readers as a son of a prostitute “and Gilead begot Jephthah.” Gilead is a large area in Trans-Jordan. The verse may be telling readers that Jephthah’s mother was so sexually promiscuous that anyone in Gilead could have been his father. We also read how in his early days, Jephthah formed a band comprised of vain fellows “and they went out with him,” presumably doing bad things such as robbery. How could a person with such a background be chosen as a judge? Christian tradition states the messiah will be a descendant of King David, and David had an inglorious past and acted in an improper manner.
David’s history begins when the patriarch Abraham’s nephew Lot had sexual intercourse with his two daughters. They had two sons: Moab (meaning, from my father) and Ammon (my people). Moab’s descendant was Ruth the Moabite who married Boaz, about whom I will discuss shortly. The Moabites acted improperly with the Israelites during the days of Moses and the Torah punished their descendants by saying no Moabite can join the Israelite nation. However this rule was later changed to allow the entry of Moabite women.
Boaz was a descendant of Judah. Judah’s son was conceived by Judah and his daughter in law Tamar who Judah thought was a prostitute when he had sex with her.
Like Jephthah, Ruth and Boaz’s descendant David was a brigand and a robber before he became king, and afterwards an adulterer with Bat Sheba and a murderer of Bat Sheba’s husband, for which the Bible states God punished him by killing his first son with Bat Sheba. Yet, tradition states that King David was a wonderful person and is the progenitor of the messiah.
The Bible is teaching that we should not judge people by their ancestor’s acts or even their own past bad behavior as long as the people change.
There are several indications in the Jephthah story that Jephthah and the Israelites had no knowledge of Moses’s Torah.
- Jephthah’s brothers expel him from their home in violation of Deuteronomy 21:16 which states that families must treat all children equally.
- Jephthah’s vow that as a thanksgiving burnt offering he will offer “whatsoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me,” indicates he intended to make a human sacrifice, not an animal, for animals did not live in his house and come out of his doors to meet him. Human sacrifice is forbidden in the Torah.
- In recounting the history of Israelite encounters with Moab and Ammon, Jephthah mentions that Moses sent messengers to Sihon king of Moab requesting permission to go through his land toward Canaan. This story is not in the Torah.
- The story is introduced by God stating the Israelites will be punished because they worshipped idols, but there is no mention here or anywhere in this book that they were punished for violating the commands, such as the sabbath, which are in the Torah.
The story of a father sacrificing his daughter is not unique to the Bible. In Homer’s Iliad, which most likely predates the writing of Judges, Idomeneus king of Crete vowed to the god Poseidon during a storm at sea that if he returns home safely he will sacrifice to him the person who greets him first when he lands. His son meets him and he sacrificed him. The Iliad also tells about the leader of the expedition to Troy, King Agamemnon, who vowed to sacrifice his daughter before the battle with Troy if Poseidon would stop the winds that stopped his ships from sailing. These similarities led some scholars to claim that Jephthah’s tale is a copy of these earlier stories and the Jephthah events never happened.
We have no idea why the author of Judges included this bizarre tale of a human sacrifice. It is possible that he wanted to cause Israelites to sympathize with Jephthah’s daughter and prompt them to cease copying the heathen practice.
The tribe of Ephraim complained to Jephthah that he failed to call them to engage in the Battle against Ammon, probably because they wanted to share in the spoils. This is the second time they did so; the first time was their similar complaint against Gideon. Unlike Gideon, Jephthah did not appease Ephraim with words, and unlike his own engagement with Ammon, he did try to avoid war by negotiations, but started a brutal civil war. This together with his sacrifice of his daughter led many to consider Jephthah bad.
 Some readers will find it strange and will ask, should the story have been placed in a single chapter? The answer is that the chapter divisions were not made by Jews but by well-meaning Christians who wanted to make it easier to find biblical writings. All one had to do after the creation of chapter and verse divisions is to say, for example, the Jephthah story begins in Judges 10:17. The problem with the division is that the person or persons who divided the chapters did not do so in a reasonable manner, as seen here. The classical example of this problem is the division between Genesis 1 and 2. Chapter one should have included the creation of the seventh day, but the divider placed it in chapter 2.
 Nachmanides called this belief the greatest secret of the Torah. Maimonides was convinced that the opposite is true.
 Another of many examples of this is the biblical book of Esther. But despite the absence of indicia of divine intervention, many people see hints in the texts showing divine intervention aiding the Israelites.
 As usual in the book, “Israelites” is a hyperbole; actually the events happen to half of the twelve tribes.
 In 11:1.
 Gilead in this verse could be the name of Jephthah’s father or refer to the Trans-Jordan area.
 12:7 states he judged Israel for six years.
 Genesis 19.
 Ruth 7:13.
 Deuteronomy 23:4.
 The rabbis homiletically say that Ruth converted to Judaism, but conversion did not exist at that time, Ruth did not go through any ceremony to make her Jewish, and she was always called Ruth the Moabite. Furthermore, the books of Ezra and later Nehemiah state that the two men criticized the Judeans for marrying non-Israelites and insisted that these husbands send their wives away. If conversion existed at the time (many centuries after Ruth) the non-Israelite wives could have converted and Ezra and Nehemiah would not have required that they leave their husbands.
 Ruth 4:13-22.
 Genesis 38.
 I Samuel 22.
 II Samuel 11 and 12.
 Noted by Y. Elitzur and Olam Hatanakh. See also Genesis 22 and Jeremiah 7:31.
 In chapter 8.
 However, Radak, Abarbanel, Gersonides, and others claimed Jephthah did not kill his daughter; he required her to isolate herself and never marry, similar to how Roman Catholic nuns act.