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.
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 1 Chronicles 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).
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.
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.
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.
Therefore.—i.e., with the express desire to repair the old wrong.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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).
Pitched in Jahaz.—Numbers 21:33; Isaiah 15:4; Jeremiah 48:3. The site of the battle has not been ascertained.
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).
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.
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).
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.
“The good old rule
Contented him, the simple plan
That they should get who have the power,
And they should keep who can.”
(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 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 (1 Samuel 1:11). The “it will I offer” ought to be, “I will offer him.”
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.
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.
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).
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 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).
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.