Judges 11
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

1-3. Expulsion of Jephthah from his home. Judges 11:4-11. The Gileadites offer him the headship of their tribe if he will lead them in war. Judges 11:12. His embassy to the Ammonites. 13. Their untenable claims refuted. Judges 11:14-27, by Jephthah on historical and legal grounds. Judges 11:28. Their refusal of peace. Judges 11:29-31. Jephthah’s vow. Judges 11:32-33. His victory over the Ammonites. Judges 11:34-35. His daughter comes forth to meet him. Judges 11:35-40. Fulfilment of his vow.

Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty man of valour, and he was the son of an harlot: and Gilead begat Jephthah.
(1) The son of an harlot.—The words are so rendered in all the versions, and can hardly have any other meaning. If an inferior wife had been meant, the word used would not have been zonah, but pilgesh, as in Judges 8:31. The word may, however, be used in the harsh sense of the brethren of Jephthah, without being strictly accurate. (Comp. 1Chronicles 2:26.)

Gilead begat Jephthah.—We are here met by the same questions as those which concern Tola and Jair. That Gilead is a proper name, not the name of the country mythically personified, may be regarded as certain. But is this Gilead the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, or some later Gilead? or does begat” mean “was the ancestor of?” The answer to these questions depends mainly upon the insoluble problem of the chronology; but we may note (1) that since no other Gilead is mentioned, we should naturally infer that this is the grandson of Manasseh; and (2) that the fact referred to in the obscure genealogy of 1Chronicles 7:14-17 seems to show that the family of Manasseh had Syrian (Aramean) connections, and Jephthah’s mother may have been an Aramitess from the district of Tob. The name Jephthah means “he opens” (the womb).

And Gilead's wife bare him sons; and his wife's sons grew up, and they thrust out Jephthah, and said unto him, Thou shalt not inherit in our father's house; for thou art the son of a strange woman.
(2) They thrust out Jephthah.—This was in perfect accordance with the law (Deuteronomy 23:2-3), and with family rules and traditions. Abraham had sent the son of Hagar and the sons of Keturah to found other settlements (Genesis 21:10; Genesis 25:6).

Then Jephthah fled from his brethren, and dwelt in the land of Tob: and there were gathered vain men to Jephthah, and went out with him.
(3) Dwelt in the land of Tob.—A Syrian district on the north-east of Peræa (2Samuel 10:6). It is referred to in 1 Maccabees 5:13; 2 Maccabees 12:17. The name means “good,” but lends no sanction to the idle allegories which have been based upon it.

Vain men.Judges 9:4.

Went out with him.—Jephthah simply became a sort of Syrian freebooter. His half-heathen origin, no doubt, influenced his character unfavourably, as it had done that of Abimelech.

And it came to pass in process of time, that the children of Ammon made war against Israel.
(4) In process of time.—Marg., after days, implying the time between Jephthah’s expulsion in early youth and his mature manhood.

The children of Ammon made war.—The fact that this is introduced as a new circumstance, though it has been fully related in Judges 10:8-9; Judges 10:17-18, probably arises from the use of some new, and probably Gileadite, document in these two chapters.

And it was so, that when the children of Ammon made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to fetch Jephthah out of the land of Tob:
(5) When the children of Ammon made war.—The allusion is to some special threat of invasion (acriter instantibus, Vulg.) at the close of the eighteen years of oppression (Judges 10:9).

To fetch Jephthah.—Because by this time he had made himself a great name as a brave and successful chieftain of marauders, who would doubtless come with him to lead the Gileadites.

And they said unto Jephthah, Come, and be our captain, that we may fight with the children of Ammon.
(6) Our captain.—The word used is katzin (Joshua 10:24; Isaiah 1:10; Isaiah 22:3), which is specially a leader in time of war; but Jephthah demands something more—namely, to be their “head” (rosh) in time of peace also.

And Jephthah said unto the elders of Gilead, Did not ye hate me, and expel me out of my father's house? and why are ye come unto me now when ye are in distress?
(7) Did not ye hate me?—The elders of Gilead must at least have permitted his expulsion by his brethren.

Therefore.—i.e., with the express desire to repair the old wrong.

And the elders of Gilead said unto Jephthah, Therefore we turn again to thee now, that thou mayest go with us, and fight against the children of Ammon, and be our head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.
And Jephthah said unto the elders of Gilead, If ye bring me home again to fight against the children of Ammon, and the LORD deliver them before me, shall I be your head?
(9) Shall I be your head?—We must not be surprised if Jephthah does not display a disinterested patriotism. He was only half an Israelite; he had been wronged by his father’s kin; he had spent long years of his manhood among heathens and outlaws, who gained their livelihood by brigandage or mercenary warfare. “As Gideon is the highest pitch of greatness to which this period reaches,” says Dean Stanley. “Jephthah and Samson are the lowest points to which it descends.” Since, then, we have marked elements of ferocity and religious ignorance and ambition even in the noble character of Gideon, we must remember that we might naturally make allowance for a still lower level of attainment in one who had been so unfavourably circumstanced as Jephthah. Apart from the Syrian influences which had told upon him, the whole condition of the pastoral tribes on the east of the Jordan was far below that of the agricultural western tribes.

And the elders of Gilead said unto Jephthah, The LORD be witness between us, if we do not so according to thy words.
(10) The Lord be witness.—Rather, be hearing (Dominus, qui haec audit ipse Mediator ac testis sit, Vulg.).

Then Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and captain over them: and Jephthah uttered all his words before the LORD in Mizpeh.
(11) The people made him head and captain.—The people ratified the promise of the elders, and solemnly inaugurated him as both the civil and military leader of the Trans-jordanic tribes.

Uttered all his words.—It probably means that he took some oath as to the condition of his government.

Before the Lord in Mizpeh.—Some have supposed that this must mean that the oath was taken before the Tabernacle or Ark, or Urim and Thummim, because the phrase has this meaning elsewhere (Exodus 34:34; Joshua 18:8; and infra, Judges 20:26; Judges 21:2);—and consequently that the scene of this covenant must be the Western Mizpeh, in Benjamin (Joshua 18:26; 1 Maccabees 3:46, “for in Maspha was the place where they prayed aforetime in Israel”). There are, indeed, no limits to the possible irregularities of these disturbed times, during which the priests seem to have sunk into the completest insignificance. The Ark may therefore have been transferred for a time to Mizpeh, in Benjamin (Judges 20:1), as tradition says. But if that Mizpeh had been meant, it would certainly have been specified, since the Mizpeh of our present narrative (Judges 10:17) is in Gilead. Nor is it at all likely that the High Priest would have carried the sacred Urim into the disturbed and threatened Eastern districts. “Before Jehovah” probably means nothing more than by some solemn religious utterance or ceremony; and Mizpeh in Gilead had its own sacred associations (Genesis 31:48-49).

And Jephthah sent messengers unto the king of the children of Ammon, saying, What hast thou to do with me, that thou art come against me to fight in my land?
(12) What hast thou to do with me?—Literally, What to me and to thee? (Joshua 22:24; 2Samuel 16:10, &c.). Jephthah speaks in the name of Israel, as an acknowledged prince. His message resembles the preliminary negotiations of the Roman generals when they sent the Fetiales to proclaim the justice of their cause (Liv. i. 24).

And the king of the children of Ammon answered unto the messengers of Jephthah, Because Israel took away my land, when they came up out of Egypt, from Arnon even unto Jabbok, and unto Jordan: now therefore restore those lands again peaceably.
(13) Because Israel took away my land.—This was a very plausible plea, but was not in accordance with facts. The Israelites had been distinctly forbidden to war against the Moabites and Ammonites (Deuteronomy 2:9; Deuteronomy 2:19); but when Sibon, king of the Amorites, had refused them permission to pass peaceably through his land, and had even come out to battle against them, they had defeated him and seized his territory. It was quite true that a large district in this territory had originally belonged to Moab and Ammon, and had been wrested from them by Sihon (Numbers 21:21-30; Joshua 12:2; Joshua 12:5); but that was a question with which the Israelites had nothing to do, and it was absurd to expect that they would shed their blood to win settlements for the sole purpose of restoring them to nations which regarded them with the deadliest enmity.

From Arnon even unto Jabbok.—The space occupied by Gad and Reuben. The Arnon (“noisy” ) is now the Wady Modjeb. It was the southern boundary of Reuben, and its deep rocky ravine separated that tribe from Moab. The Jabbok (“pouring out”) was originally the “border of the children of Ammon” (Deuteronomy 3:16; Numbers 21:24). It is nearly midway between the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee, and is now called the Wady Zurka.

And Jephthah sent messengers again unto the king of the children of Ammon:
(14, 15) And Jephthah sent messengers again.—Jephthah disputes the king of Amnion’s facts, and supports his denial of them by an historic retrospect (Judges 11:16-24).

And said unto him, Thus saith Jephthah, Israel took not away the land of Moab, nor the land of the children of Ammon:
(15) Took not away the land of Moab . . .—What they took was the territory of Sihon, which they had never been forbidden to take, and had indeed been forced to take by Sihon’s attack on them. It was not likely that they could enter into discussion as ‘to the previous owners of the land.

But when Israel came up from Egypt, and walked through the wilderness unto the Red sea, and came to Kadesh;
(16) When Israel came up from Egypt.—Compare with this narrative Numbers 20, 21.

Walked through the wilderness.—In the second year of the wanderings (Deuteronomy 1:19).

Unto the Red sea.Numbers 14:25. The name for this sea in the Old Testament is Yam sooph, “the sea of weeds.” They reached Kadesh Barnea from Ezion Geber (“the Giant’s backbone”), in the Gulf of Akaba (Numbers 33:36).

To Kadesh.Numbers 20:1; Numbers 33:16.

Then Israel sent messengers unto the king of Edom, saying, Let me, I pray thee, pass through thy land: but the king of Edom would not hearken thereto. And in like manner they sent unto the king of Moab: but he would not consent: and Israel abode in Kadesh.
(17) Unto the king of Edom.—As narrated in Numbers 20:14, seq. Even if Jephthah had no written documents before him to which he could refer, the events which he recounts were not so distant as to have been forgotten.

Unto the king of Moab.—This is not recorded in the Pentateuch, but the Israelites did not enter the territory of Moab (Deuteronomy 2:9; Deuteronomy 2:36). The Arnon bounded Moab from the Amorites (Numbers 21:13), and Israel encamped upon its banks.

Abode in Kadesh.—“Many days” (Deuteronomy 2:1). Probably they were encamped at Kadesh during a great part of the forty years (Deuteronomy 2:14).

Then they went along through the wilderness, and compassed the land of Edom, and the land of Moab, and came by the east side of the land of Moab, and pitched on the other side of Arnon, but came not within the border of Moab: for Arnon was the border of Moab.
And Israel sent messengers unto Sihon king of the Amorites, the king of Heshbon; and Israel said unto him, Let us pass, we pray thee, through thy land into my place.
(19) Unto Sihon.Numbers 21:21; Deuteronomy 2:26-29 (where see the Commentary).

The King of Heshbon.—He was king of the Aniorites by birth, but king of Heshbon only by conquest. The town was assigned to Reuben (Numbers 32:37).

Into my place.—The conquest of the territories of Reuben, Gad, and half-Manasseh had not entered into the original plan of Israel, but had been providentially determined by the hostility of Sihon and Og (Deuteronomy 2:29). The Vulg. renders it “unto the river (usque ad fluvium).

But Sihon trusted not Israel to pass through his coast: but Sihon gathered all his people together, and pitched in Jahaz, and fought against Israel.
(20) Trusted not Israel.—Sihon did not believe their promise to pass peacefully through his land.

Pitched in Jahaz.Numbers 21:33; Isaiah 15:4; Jeremiah 48:3. The site of the battle has not been ascertained.

And the LORD God of Israel delivered Sihon and all his people into the hand of Israel, and they smote them: so Israel possessed all the land of the Amorites, the inhabitants of that country.
(21) The Lord God of Israel.—This is evidently a cardinal point in the mind of Jephthah. The God of Israel has decided against the gods of Ammon.

All the land of the Amorites.—All the land, therefore, which they took from the Amorites was theirs by. the immemorial law of nations, irrespective of any who had been its previous owners (Grot., De Jure Belli, 3:6, § 7).

And they possessed all the coasts of the Amorites, from Arnon even unto Jabbok, and from the wilderness even unto Jordan.
So now the LORD God of Israel hath dispossessed the Amorites from before his people Israel, and shouldest thou possess it?
(23) Shouldest thou possess it?—Is it likely that Israel would fight battles solely to benefit Ammon and Moab?

Wilt not thou possess that which Chemosh thy god giveth thee to possess? So whomsoever the LORD our God shall drive out from before us, them will we possess.
(24) Chemosh thy god.—The expression shows the close connection between Ammon and Moab. Chemosh was distinctively the god of Moab, and Moloch of Ammon; but the two nations were of kindred blood and allied institutions (Judges 3:12-13). The name Chemosh means “subduer,” and there is here, perhaps, a tacit reference to the wild popular song of triumph over the conquest of Heshbon, in which Chemosh is taunted by name (Numbers 21:29; comp. Jeremiah 48:7). The clause might be rendered, “Whatever Jehovah our God hath dispossessed before us, that take we in possession.”

And now art thou any thing better than Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab? did he ever strive against Israel, or did he ever fight against them,
(25) Art thou anything better than Balak?—Literally, Are you the good, good in comparison with? It is one of the Hebrew ways of expressing the superlative. Jephthah here argues from prescriptive right, which even the contemporary king Balak had not ventured to challenge, showing, therefore, that he admitted the claim of Israel, deadly as was his hatred against them.

Did he ever fight against them?—This may seem at first sight to contradict Joshua 24:9. There “Balak the son of Zippor arose and warred against Israel”; and we might infer that it was in some Moabite battle that Baalam had been slain (Numbers 31:8; Joshua 13:22). But this would not affect Jephthah’s argument. Balak had fought against Israel out of pure hatred, not from any pretensions to claim their conquests from them.

While Israel dwelt in Heshbon and her towns, and in Aroer and her towns, and in all the cities that be along by the coasts of Arnon, three hundred years? why therefore did ye not recover them within that time?
(26) While Israel dwelt in Heshbon.—See Numbers 21:25. This is an argument from undisputed possession.

In Aroer and her towns.—These had been assigned to the tribe of Gad (Numbers 32:34).

In all the cities that be along by the coast of Arnon.—The LXX. read Jordan.

Three hundred years.—There is an almost insuperable difficulty in making out any reasonable scheme of chronology even by accepting this as a round number, because it is difficult to reconcile with nine or ten genealogies which have been preserved to us, and which represent the period between the conquest and David by seven or eight generations. Now the period covered by these genealogies includes the judgeship of Samuel and the reign of Saul—at least seventy years; and seven or eight generations cannot possibly span 370 years. The hypothesis that in all these genealogies—even the four times repeated genealogy of David—generations are always omitted is very improbable. The chronology of the Jews is confessedly loose and uncertain, and it seems quite possible that “three hundred years” may be a marginal gloss which has crept into the text. What makes this more probable is that the words not only create an immense chronological difficulty, but (1) are quite needless to Jephthah’s argument, and (2) actually conflict with the rest of the sentence, which refers to Balak alone; the argument being, If Balak, “at that time” (as the words should be rendered), did not advance any claim, what right have you to do so now? If, however, in spite of these difficulties, the clause be genuine, and if there has not been one of the clerical errors which are so common where numerals are concerned, it seems possible that 300 years may be counted inclusively, e.g., 100 full years since the death of Joshua and nominal completion of the conquest of Canaan, with parts of a century before and after it. Certainly this is a recognised mode of reckoning time among the Jews. For instance, if a king began to reign on December 30, 1879, and died on January 2, 1881, they would say that he had reigned three years. Whatever explanations we may adopt, there is nothing but conjecture to go upon. (See Introduction.)

Within that time.—This is a mistranslation, due probably to the perplexity caused by the “three hundred years.” The Hebrew has “in that time,” i.e., at that crisis. It was obvious, without special mention, that they had remained in possession ever since Balak’s day, and in the most ancient times it was admitted that lapse of time secured possession (Isocr. Ep. ad Aechid., p. 121; Tac. Ann. vi. 31).

Wherefore I have not sinned against thee, but thou doest me wrong to war against me: the LORD the Judge be judge this day between the children of Israel and the children of Ammon.
(27) The Lord the Judge be judge this day.—An appeal to the arbitrament of Jehovah to decide on the justice of an appeal to arms. (Comp. Genesis 16:5; Genesis 31:53; Genesis 18:25; 1Samuel 24:15.)

These verses contain a deeply interesting specimen of what may be called ancient diplomacy, and very powerful and straightforward it is—at once honest, conciliatory, and firm. Jephthah maintains the rights of Israel on three grounds, viz., (1) Right of direct conquest, not from Ammon but from the Amorites (15-20); (2) The decision of God (Judges 11:21-23), which he supports by an argumentum ad hominem—namely, the acquiescence in this decision of the Moabite god Chemosh (Judges 11:24); (3) Undisputed possession from the first (Judges 11:25-26). He ends by an appeal to God to approve the justice of his cause.

Howbeit the king of the children of Ammon hearkened not unto the words of Jephthah which he sent him.
(28) Hearkened not.—We are not told of any counter-arguments. Probably the king of Ammon cared only for the argument of the sword—

“The good old rule

Contented him, the simple plan

That they should get who have the power,

And they should keep who can.”

Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah, and he passed over Gilead, and Manasseh, and passed over Mizpeh of Gilead, and from Mizpeh of Gilead he passed over unto the children of Ammon.
(29) The Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah.—A weaker expression is used than that which is applied to Gideon in Judges 6:34. It implies, as R. Tanchum rightly says, that he was endowed with the courage and wisdom without which success would have been impossible. The phrase no more involves a complete inspiration of Jephthah than it does in the case of Samson; nor is it meant to imply the least approval of many of his subsequent actions. It furnished the power which he needed to work out the deliverance—and that only. To hold up characters like Jephthah and Samson as religious examples, except (as is done in Hebrews 11:32) in the one special characteristic of faith displayed at memorable crises, is to sacrifice the whole spirit of Scripture to the mis-interpretation of a phrase.

(29) He passed over Gilead and Manasseh.—Rather, he went through (Vulg., circuiens). His object clearly was to collect levies and rouse the tribes—“He swept through the land from end to end to kindle the torch of war and raise the population” (Ewald).

Passed over Mizpeh.—Perhaps, as in the next clause, to Mizpeh.

Passed over unto the children of Ammon.i.e., went to attack them.

And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands,
(30) Jephthah vowed a vow.—This was a practice among all ancient nations, but specially among the Jews (Genesis 28:20-22; 1Samuel 1:11; 2Samuel 15:8; Psalm 66:13).

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.
(31) Whatsoever cometh forth.—The true rendering undoubtedly is, Whosoever cometh forth (LXX., ὁ ἐκπορευόμενος; Vulg., quicunque). Nothing can be clearer than that the view held of this passage, from early Jewish days down to the Middle Ages, and still held by nearly all unbiased commentators, is the true one, and alone adequately explains the text: viz., that Jephthah, ignorant as he was—being a man of semi-heathen parentage, and long familiarised with heathen surroundings—contemplated a human sacrifice. To say that he imagined that an animal would “come forth of the doors of his house to meet him” on his triumphant return is a notion which even St. Augustine ridicules. The offer to sacrifice a single animal—even if we could suppose an animal “coming forth to meet” Jephthah—would be strangely inadequate. It would be assumed as a matter of course that not one, but many holocausts of animals would express the gratitude of Israel. Pfeiffer sensibly observes (Dub. vexata, p. 356): “What kind of vow would it be if some great prince or general should say, ‘O God, if Thou wilt give me this victory, the first calf that meets me shall be Thine?’” Jephthah left God, as it were, to choose His own victim, and probably anticipated that it would be some slave. The notion of human sacrifice was all but universal among ancient nations, and it was specially prevalent among the Syrians, among whom Jephthah had lived for so many years, and among the Phœnicians, whose gods had been recently adopted by the Israelites (Judges 10:6). Further than this, it was the peculiar worship of the Moabites and Ammonites, against whom Jephthah was marching to battle; and one who had been a rude freebooter, in a heathen country and a lawless epoch, when constant and grave violations of the Law were daily tolerated, might well suppose in his ignorance that Jehovah would need to be propitiated by some offering as costly as those which bled on the altars of Chemosh and Moloch. Human sacrifice had been “the first thought of Balak in the extremity of his terror” (Micah 6:7), and “the last expedient of Balak’s successor” (2Kings 3:27)—Stanley, i. 358. If it be urged that after the great lesson which had been taught to Abraham at Jehovah-jireh the very notion of human sacrifice ought to have become abhorrent to any Israelite, especially as it had been expressly forbidden in the Law (Leviticus 18:21; Deuteronomy 12:31, &c), one more than sufficient answer is that even in the wilderness Israel had been guilty of Moloch-worship (Ezekiel 20:26; Jeremiah 49:1; Melcom, Amos 5:26; Acts 7:43). The Law was one thing; the knowledge of it and the observance of it was quite another. During this period we find the Law violated again and again, even by judges like Gideon and Samson; and the tendency to violate it by human sacrifices lasted down to the far more enlightened and civilised days of Ahaz and Manasseh (2Chronicles 28:3; 2Chronicles 33:6). Indeed, we find the priests expressly sanctioning, even in the palmiest days of David’s reign, an execution which, to the vulgar, would bear an aspect not far removed from human sacrifice, or (rather) which might easily be confused with the spirit which led to it (2Samuel 21:1-9). If, again, it be said that the possibility of Jephthah’s being guilty of so rash and evil a vow is excluded by the phrase that “the Spirit of the Lord came upon him,” such reasoning is to substitute idle fancies for clear facts. The Spirit of the Lord “clothed” Gideon, yet he set up an illegal worship. The “Spirit of the Lord” came upon Saul (1Samuel 19:23), yet Saul contemplated slaying his own son out of regard for no less foolish a vow (1Samuel 14:44). The “Spirit of the Lord” came upon David from that day forward” on which Samuel anointed him (1Samuel 16:13), yet he could sink into adultery and murder. The phrase must not be interpreted of high or permanent spiritual achievement, but of Divine strength granted for a particular end.

And I will offer it up for a burnt offering.—The margin gives the alternative reading or instead of and. This is due to the same feeling which made our translators adopt the rendering “whatsoever.” They are practically following R. Kimchi in the attempt to explain away, out of deference to modern notions, the plain meaning of the Bible. It is true that vau, “and,” is sometimes practically disjunctive (or, rather, is used where a disjunctive might be used), but to take it so here is to make nonsense of the clause, for if any person or thing was made “a burnt offering” it was necessarily “the Lord’s” (Exodus 13:2, &c.), so that there can be no alternative here. The “and” is exactly analogous to the “and” between the two clauses of Jacob’s (Genesis 28:21-22) and of Hannah’s vow (1Samuel 1:11). The “it will I offer” ought to be, “I will offer him.”

So Jephthah passed over unto the children of Ammon to fight against them; and the LORD delivered them into his hands.
(32) So.—Rather, And. The clause does not refer in any way to Jephthah’s vow, but merely resumes the narrative.

And he smote them from Aroer, even till thou come to Minnith, even twenty cities, and unto the plain of the vineyards, with a very great slaughter. Thus the children of Ammon were subdued before the children of Israel.
(33) To Minnith.—According to Eusebius and Jerome, this is Maanith, four miles from Heshbon (Ezekiel 27:17).

Unto the plain of the vineyards.—Rather, unto Abel-ceramim. The place is either Abela, a few miles beyond Maanith, or another Abela, twelve miles from Gadara (Euseb., Jer.).

Were subdued before.Judges 3:30; Judges 8:28.

And Jephthah came to Mizpeh unto his house, and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances: and she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter.
(34) Behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances.—As Miriam went to meet Moses (Exodus 15:20), and the women to meet Saul and David (1Samuel 18:6-7).

His only child.—This is added because the narrator feels the full pathos of the story. (Comp. Genesis 22:2; Jeremiah 6:26; Luke 9:38.) The term used (yechidah) is peculiarly tender. The “beside her” is, literally, beside him; but this is only duo to a Hebrew idiom, which is also found in Zechariah 8:10.

And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he rent his clothes, and said, 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.
(35) He rent his clothes.—Comp. Joshua 7:6. By one of the curious survivals which preserve customs for centuries after the meaning is gone out of them, every Jew on approaching to Jerusalem for the first time has to submit to the kriei.e., to a cut made in his sleeve, as a sort of symbol of rending his clothes.

Thou hast brought me very low.—Literally, crushing, thou hast crushed me.

I have opened my mouth unto the Lord.—A vow was not deemed binding unless it had been actually expressed in words (Numbers 30:2-3; Numbers 30:7; Deuteronomy 23:23). There were two kinds of vows among the Hebrews—the simple vow, neder (Leviticus 27:2-27), and the “devotion,” or “ban,” cherem (Leviticus 27:28-29). Anything devoted to Jehovah by the cherem was irredeemable, and became “a holy of holies(kodesh kadashim) to Him, and was to be put to death (Leviticus 27:29).

I cannot go back.Numbers 30:2. Jephthah had not understood until now the horror of human sacrifice. He would neither wish nor dare to draw back from his cherem (Ecclesiastes 5:4-5; Matthew 5:33; Jonah 2:9; Pss. 72:25, Psalm 26:11) merely because the anguish of it would fall so heavily upon himself. The Hebrews had the most intense feeling about the awfulness of breaking an oath or vow, and they left no room for any mental reservations (Leviticus 27:28-29). Saul was determined to carry out his ban even at the cost of the life of his eldest son, and even Herod Antipas felt obliged to carry out his oath to Herodias, though it involved a deep pang and a haunted conscience. It is clear that not for one moment did it occur to Jephthah to save himself from the agony of bereavement by breaking his ‘ban” (cherem) as a mere redeemable vow (neder). The Jews shared in this respect the feelings of other ancient nations. Thus the Greeks believed that the house of Athamas were under an inexpiable curse, because when the Achæans had been bidden to offer him up for a sacrifice for compassing the death of Phryxus, Kytissorus, the son of Phryxus, had intercepted the sacrifice (Herod. vii. 197, § 3; Plat. Minos, 5). It must be remembered that though his cherem had taken an unusual and unlawful (though far from unknown) form, the notion of such a vow would come far more naturally to a people which in very recent times, as well as afterwards, had devoted whole cities—men, women, children, cattle, and goods—to absolute destruction (Numbers 21:2-3).

And she said unto him, 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.
(36) And she said unto him.—To explain this the LXX. add the words, “I have opened my mouth to the Lord against or concerning thee.” There is, however, no need for the addition. His words would fatally explain themselves, even if he added nothing more.

If thou hast opened thy mouth unto the Lord.—The needless and incorrect insertion of the if in the English Version a little weakens the noble heroism of her answer.

Do to me according to that which hath proceeded out of thy mouth.—While Jephthah, living in times of ignorance which “God winked at,” must not be judged for that terrible ignorance of God’s nature which led him to offer a sacrifice which, as Josephus says, was “neither lawful nor acceptable to God,” we may well rejoice in the gleam of sunlight which is flung upon the sacred page by his faithfulness in not going back from his vow, though it were to his own hurt (Psalm 15:4), and in the beautiful devotion of his daughter, cheerfully acquiescing in her own sacrifice for the good of her country. Compare the examples of Iphigenia; of Macaria (Pausan. i. 32); of Au-churus, the son of Midas; of Curtius; of the Decii; of Marius offering his daughter for victory over the Cimbri; and of the Romans during more than one national panic. Our modern poets have happily seized this aspect of the event (see Dante, Parad. v. 66):—

“Though the virgins of Salem lament,

Be the judge and the hero unbent;

I have won the great battle for thee,

And my father and country are free.”—Byron.

“When the next moon was rolled into the sky,

Strength came to me that equall’d my desire.

How beautiful a thing it was to die

For God and for my sire! “—Tennyson.

“It was not a human sacrifice in the gross sense of the word, not a slaughter of an unwilling victim, but the willing offering of a devoted heart, to free, as she supposed, her father and her country from a terrible obligation . . . The heroism of father and daughter are to be admired and loved in the midst of the fierce superstition round which it plays like a sunbeam on a stormy sea.”

And she said unto her father, Let this thing be done for me: let me alone two months, that I may go up and down upon the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my fellows.
(37) Let me alone two months.—There was nothing which forbade this postponement for a definite purpose and period of the fulfilment of the vow. For the phrase “let me alone,” see Deuteronomy 9:14; 1Samuel 11:3.

And bewail my virginity.—The thought which was so grievous to the Hebrew maiden was not death, but to die unwedded and childless. This is the bitterest wail of Antigone also, in the great play of Sophocles (Ant. 890); but to a Hebrew maid the pang would be more bitter, because the absence of motherhood cut off from her, and, in this instance, from her house, the hopes which prophecy had cherished. Josephus makes the expression mean no more than “to bewail her youth,” neoteta (Jos. Antt. v. 7, § 10).

And he said, Go. And he sent her away for two months: and she went with her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains.
And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she knew no man. And it was a custom in Israel,
(39) Who did with her according to his vow.—In this significant euphemism the narrator drops the veil—as though with a shudder—over the terrible sacrifice. Of course, “did with her according to his vow” can only mean offered her up for a burnt offering” (Judges 11:31). “Some,” says Luther, “affirm that he did not sacrifice her; but the text is clear enough.” The attempt, first started by Rabbi Kimchi, to make this mean “kept her unmarried until death”—i.e., shut her up in a sacred celibacy—is a mere sophistication of plain Scripture. That he did actually slay her in accordance with his cherem is clear, not only from the plain words, but also for the following reasons:—(1) The customs of that day knew nothing about treating women as nuns.” If there had been any institution of vestals among the Jews we should without fail have heard of it, nor would the fate of Jephthah’s daughter been here regarded and represented as exceptionally tragic. (2) There are decisive Scriptural analogies to Jephthah’s vow, taken in its most literal sense—Abraham (Genesis 23:3), Saul (1Samuel 14:44), &c. (See on Judges 11:31.) (3) There are decisive Pagan analogies, both Oriental (2Kings 3:27; Amos 2:1) and classical. Thus Idomeneus actually sacrificed his eldest son (Serv. ad Æn. iii. 331) in an exactly similar vow, and Agamemnon his daughter Iphigenia. (4) The ancient Jews, who were far better acquainted than we can be with the thoughts and customs of their race and the meaning of their own language, have always understood that Jephthah did literally offer his daughter as “a burnt offering.” The Targum of Jonathan adds to the words “it was a custom in Israel” the explanation, “in order that no one should make his son or his daughter a burnt offering, as Jephthah did, and did not consult Phinehas the priest. Had he done so, he would have redeemed her with money”—i.e., Phinehas would have decided that it was less crime to redeem such a cherem than to offer a human sacrifice. It is curious to find that another legend (hagadah) connects Phinehas with this event in a very different way. It says that Phinehas sanctioned, and even performed the sacrifice, and that for this very reason he was superseded by the indignation of the Israelites, which is the reason they offer for the fact that Eli was of the house, not of Phmehas, but of Ithamar (Lightfoot, Works, i. 12-18). In the same way Idomeneus, after sacrificing his eldest son, is punished by the gods with plague and by his citizens with banishment. Josephus agrees with these Jewish authorities, and says that Jephthah offered (holokautôsen) his daughter (see on Judges 11:31); and so does Rabbi Tanchum. The opinion was undisputed till a thousand years after Christ, when Rabbi Kimchi invented the plausible hypothesis which has pleased so many commentators who carry their own notions to the Bible ready made, and then find them there. Ewald contents himself with saying that this “timid modern notion needs no refutation.” It is remarkable that we find a similar vow as late as the sixth century after Christ. Abd Almuttalib, grandfather of Mohammed, vows to kill his son Abd Allah if God will give him ten sons. He had twelve sons; but when he wishes to perform his vow the Koreish interfere, and Abd Almuttalib, at the bidding of a priestess, gives one hundred camels as a ransom (Weil, Mohammed, p. 8).

It was a custom.—Or, ordinance—namely, to lament Jephthah’s daughter. Probably the custom was local only, for we find no other allusion to it.

That the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year.
(40) To lament.—Rabbi Tanchum makes it mean “to praise,” or “celebrate.” The feelings of the Israelites towards Jephthah’s daughter would be much the same as that of the Romans towards Claelia, and of other nations towards heroines whose self-sacrifice has helped them to victory.

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers


Judges 10
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