|Judges in the Bible|
|Italics indicate individuals not explicitly described as judges|
|Book of Joshua|
|Book of Judges|
|First Book of Samuel|
Jephthah (pronounced //, also spelled Jephtha or Jephte; (Hebrew: יפתח, Yifthaḥ; Greek: Ιεφθάε; Latin: Iephte), appears in the Book of Judges as a judge over Israel for a period of six years (Judges 12:7). He lived in Gilead and was a member either of the tribe of Manasseh or of the tribe of Gad. His father's name is also given as Gilead and, as his mother is described as a prostitute, this may mean that his father may have been any of the men of that area. Jephthah led the Israelites in battle against Ammon and, after defeating the Ammonites, fulfilled a rash vow of his, by sacrificing his daughter.
The story of Jephthah is found in the Old Testament Book of Judges chapters 11–12. The Israelites "again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord ... they forsook the Lord and did not serve him. So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of the Philistines and into the hand of the Ammonites ..." (Judges 10:6–7).
Jephthah, having been born illegitimately, is driven out by his half-brothers and takes up his dwelling in Tob, east of Gilead. "There gathered around him some worthless ["empty"] men, and they went out with him." (Judges 11:3) The elders of Gilead ask him to be their leader in the campaign against the Ammonites, but he holds out for a more permanent and a broader position, and the elders agree that, provided Jephthah succeeds in defeating Ammon, he will be their permanent chieftain. On behalf of Israel as a whole and in reliance on the might of God the Judge, Jephthah challenges the Ammonites. Jephthah swears an oath:
Whatever (Note: Or whoever) comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord's, and I will offer it (Note: Or him) up for a burnt offering.
The victorious Jephthah is met on his return by his daughter, his only child. Jephthah tears his clothes and cries, "Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low!" but is bound by his vow: "I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow" (Judges 11:35). The girl asks for two months' grace, "...that I may go up and down on the mountains and weep for my virginity" (Judges 11:37). And so Jephthah "did with her according to his vow that he had made" (Judges 11:39). The story ends by recounting how "the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year" (Judges 11:40).
Later, Jephthah was forced to fight against the Ephraimites, who refused to aid him in his struggle against the Ammonites. The story is remembered for the killing of the fugitive Ephraimites who were identified by their accent; they said the Hebrew word shibboleth as sibboleth. "At that time 42,000 of the Ephraimites fell" (Judges 12:5–6).
This story of Jephthah and the killing of his daughter stands in stark contrast to the Binding of Isaac in the Book of Genesis, in which Abraham was about to perform a divinely-ordered sacrifice of his son, when an angel of God directly intervenes and stopped the sacrifice.
Some writers have observed that the Israelites of the time were decidedly barbarous; that Mosaic law (which forbade human sacrifice) was at this time widely disrespected; and that there are several other examples of rash vows to God with similarly terrible consequences. David Janzen argued that the story was an integral part of the Deuteronomist picture of moral decline through adoption of non-Israelitic practices such as child sacrifice. Samuel Landers believed that the absence of express judgement implies that the sacrifice was not acceptable to God. The Book of Judges has been seen as teaching a cycle of pride associated with rejection of the prophets and subsequent suffering of the people. John Chrysostom held that God allowed Jephthah to kill his daughter in order to prevent similar rash vows being made in the future and that it was for that purpose that the annual bewailing of the event took place as a constant reminder. Ambrose cited the story as an example of how it is "sometimes contrary to duty to fulfill a promise, or to keep an oath".
Since at least the 12th or 13th century, Jewish scholars, among them the compiler and summarizer David Kimhi (1160–1235) and Levi Ben Gershon (1288–1344), have taken fulfilment of Jephthah's vow as meaning that he only kept her in seclusion. This view is put forward also by Christian scholars from the 14th century and continues to be propounded today, as by Solomon Landers, who considers it most likely that the fate of Jephthath's daughter was perpetual virginity or solitary confinement.
Ethelbert William Bullinger, looks at the word "and" in Jephthah's vow (Judges 11:31: "whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord's, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering"). As he explains  the Hebrew prefix "ו" that is translated in the above passage as "and" is often used as a disjunctive, and means "or", when there is a second proposition. Indeed this rendering is suggested in the margin of the A. V. Bullinger goes on to give examples from the Bible where the same word has been translated as "or". According to him, the right translation of this passage is: "whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord's, or I will offer it up as a burnt offering." Jephthah's daughter, being the first that came out of the house, was thus, according to Bullinger, dedicated to God. He also says:
In any case, it should have been unlawful, and repugnant to Jehovah, to offer a human being to Him as a burnt-offering, for His acceptance. Such offerings were common to heathen nations at that time, but it is noteworthy that Israel stands out among them with this great peculiarity, that human sacrifices were unknown in Israel.
Parallels with Greek mythology
The 18th-century French philosopher Voltaire noted the similarities between Jepththa and the Greek mythological general, Idomeneus, speculating whether one story had in fact imitated the other. Idomeneus had asked the gods to calm a storm, promising in return that he would sacrifice the first living thing he saw upon his return, which turned out to be his son.
The story of Jephthah's daughter is also sometimes compared to that of Agamemnon's daughter Iphigenia. In his play Jephthas sive votum - Jeptha or the Vow, the Scottish scholar and dramatist George Buchanan (1506–1582) called Jephthah's daughter "Iphis", obviously alluding to Iphigenia, and Handel's 1751 oratorio, Jephtha, based on Buchanan's play, uses the same name.
- Jephtas Gelübde, an opera on the story by Meyerbeer.
- Historia di Jephta, an oratorio by Giacomo Carissimi.
- Jefta, een offerbelofte, a play by Joost van den Vondel (1659).
- The story of Jephthah and his daughter is the subject of Lion Feuchtwanger's historical novel, Jefta und seine Tochter (1957), English translation, Jephta and His Daughter, also known as Jephthah and His Daughter, published 1958
- In Hamlet, Polonius tells Hamlet "If you call me Jephthah, my lord, I have a daughter I love passing well."
- Karla Bombach, "Daughter of Jephthah: Bible (Jewish Women's Archive)
- The Hebrew words (והעליתהו עולה) translated here as "I will offer it up for a holocaust" are capable of other interpretations, and the ambiguity has been the subject of much discussion – see below. For the word translated here as "holocaust" the Greek term used in the Septuagint translation is ὁλοκαύτωμα (holokautoma), which has the literal meaning of "wholly burnt", while the Hebrew עלה (`olah) literally means "ascent".
- "Jephta", Catholic Encyclopaedia
- "Why the Deuteronomist Told about the Sacrifice of Jephthah's Daughter", Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Sage Publications, p7
- Solomon Landers "Did Jephthah Kill his Daughter?", Biblical Archaeology Review, August 1991.
- John Chrysostom, "Homily 14 on the Statues", 7
- Ambrose, On the Duties of the Clergy, Book I, chapter 50: p. 141 in Schaff's edition
- "Jephthah (יפתח)" in Jewish Encyclopedia
- Carol Ann Newsom et al. (editors), Women's Bible Commentary (Westminster John Knox Press 2012 ISBN 978-0-66423707-3), p. 136
- "Did Jephthah Kill his Daughter?", Solomon Landers, Biblical Archaeology Review, August 1991.
- Jephtha's Vow Reconsidered
- Great Cloud of Witnesses in Hebrew 11 (1911) ISBN 0-8254-2247-7
- "Did Jephthah really sacrifice his daughter? An analysis of Judges 11:31".
- " "clarkejud11", Adam Clarke's Commentary
- Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary
- Debora Kuller Shuger, The Renaissance Bible: Scholarship, Sacrifice, and Subjectivity, by 1998, page 136)
- George Buchanan, Sacred Dramas
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