M. J. Spence

The victories of Gideon, the most significant experienced by the Israelites since the time of Joshua, had obtained for them a long period of quiet, which lasted from the death of Gideon until the end of the regime of Jair, the eighth Judge. So peaceful had the tenor of life become to the people that Jair was enabled to maintain his family in a most dignified and even luxurious manner, his 30 sons having white asses to ride upon and having dominion each over a city of Gilead, cities which long retained the name of "the villages of Jair."

As had previously happened in the history of Israel, a period of quiet and freedom from attack meant, so far as the lives of the people were concerned, a serious falling off of their adherence to Jehovah. Indeed, so marked was this that we find Israel serving all the gods except Jehovah — "Baalim and Ashtraroth, and the gods of Syria, of Zidon, of Moab, of the Beni-Ammi, and of the Philistines." Jehovah, we read, they utterly forsook and served not.

However, there came a time when Israel was sore distressed. Two neighbouring nations, the Philistines and the men of Ammon, led their forces against Israel on the west and on the east. The attack of the Ammonites, which concerns us most in considering the life of Jephthah, culminated in the oppression of the land of Gideon, on the east of Jordan, an oppression that lasted for 18 years. Nor were the other parts of Israel left unmolested, for the Ammonites passed the Jordan and fought also against the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Ephraim.

To deal with the situation that had now arisen, it was deemed necessary that there should be a decisive encounter with the enemy. Accordingly, the Israelites gathered their forces together at Mizpeh, while the Ammonites assembled in Gilead. Only a captain to lead the men of Israel was wanting, and the elders of Gilead proclaimed their need for one, offering to make the man who would lead them to victory against the Ammonites supreme in all the land of Gilead.

Now, Jephthah, the son of Gilead by a concubine of the lowest class, had at this time made for himself a reputation as a man of valour. Upon the death of his father he had been forced to leave his home, and he had taken up his dwelling in the land of Tob. Here, at the head of a band of freebooters, he lived the rough life of one who gained his livelihood by preying upon the neighbouring peoples. It so happened, too, that his valour as a warrior was not unknown to the Ammonites, for these people had often suffered from his predatory raids.

When, therefore, it was necessary to find a suitable man to lead the armies of Israel against the Ammonites, it is not altogether surprising that the elders of Gilead should have called upon Jephthah. He did not at first acquiesce, and it was not until the men of Gilead had consented to put it on oath that he would be made their chief in case of victory, that he finally agreed to be made their leader.

On assuming command, Jephthah's first action was to send messengers to the king of Ammon demanding to know by what right he made war on Israel. The Ammonite monarch replied that he desired the recapture of his land along the Jordan wrongfully taken from him, he averred, by the Israelites. Jephthah declared the land in dispute had been given to Israel by Jehovah, and that was it was the intention of his armies to retain it.

It was at this time that Jephthah made that rash vow, by which he engaged himself to sacrifice as a burnt-offering to Jehovah whoever should first come forth out of the door of his house to meet him if he returned victorious over the enemy.

Jephthah's victory over the Ammonites was complete. As many as 20 cities came under the subjection of Israel, and so remained from that time until the rein of Saul. Jephthah now returned home to claim fulfillment of the oath to make him head over all the people of Gilead, and also to pay his vow to Jehovah — a vow the payment of which was to cause him so much anguish. How little had he imagined that the first welcoming one to come to meet him from his house should be his only child, his daughter. But so it was. His daughter, like Miriam of old, gathered all her maidens together, and, with timbrels and dances, came out to meet her victorious father. No sooner did Jephthah recognise the significance of this encounter that he cried out in anguish, "Alas, my daughter! Thou has brought me very low, and thou art one of them that trouble me; for I have opened my mouth unto Jehovah and I cannot go back." In words of sublime resignation, which have made of Jephthah's daughter one of the heroines of history, the maiden replied that she was willing that her father should do unto her as he had vowed unto Jehovah. She did not even seem to begrudge the sacrifice even of herself in celebration of the victories gained over the enemies of her people, begging only that she be granted a respite of two months that she might roam through her beloved mountains of Gilead with her companions. There she bewailed, not the life she was going to lose, but the loss of all hope of offspring, and so of all hope of being the mother of the Messiah. At the end of the two months she returned, and Jephthah "did with her according to his vow which he had vowed." Out of this tragedy arose the custom with women of Israel of going out for four days every year to lament the daughter of Jephthah, the Gileadite.

The victory of Jephthah over the Ammonites, just as in the case of Gideon's over the Midionites, was the case of much ill-feeling on the part of the men of Ephraim, who were jealous because they had not been called upon to share in the enterprise. And the rough warrior, not having Gideon's diplomatic skill in turning aside their wrath, was threatened by them with the burning down of his house, and the men of Gilead were taunted as being outcasts from the tribe of Joseph, in allusion, apparently, to the past life of Jephthah and his followers. The Ephramites seem to have had great pride in themselves as the representatives of Joseph, and while often withholding themselves from participation in enterprises, were yet bitterly jealous of the success of those of their brethren who took part.

In an engagement with the men of Gilead, the Ephramites suffered complete defeat. The men of Gilead got possession of the fords of the Jordan, and as a means of discovering the identity of those attempting to cross the fords, set that curious test by means of which the fugitive Ephramite was forced through difference in dialect to betray himself. Each man who demanded to be allowed to go to the west over Jordan was asked, "Are you an Ephramite?" If he said, "No", he was required to pronounce Shibboleth (a stream or flood), and on his betraying himself by saying "Sibboleth" he was put to death. In this quarrel there were slain of the men of Ephraim "forty and two thousand."

The rule of Jephthah, the ninth Judge of Israel, came to an end after six years, and he was buried in Mount Gilead.

Reprinted from The Square, Feb. 1924