Jephthah, depicted here in Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum of Guillaume Rouillé
|Born||11th century BCE|
|Died||11th century BCE|
Judges in the Bible
|Italics indicate individuals not explicitly described as judges|
|Book of Joshua|
|Book of Judges|
|First Book of Samuel|
Jephthah (pronounced //; Hebrew: יפתח Yip̄tāḥ), appears in the Book of Judges as a judge over Israel for a period of six years (Judges 12:7). According to Judges, he lived in Gilead. 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, made a rash vow to sacrifice whatever would come out of the door of his house first. As his daughter exited the house, he immediately regretted the vow, which would mean sacrificing his daughter to God. Because of the ambiguity of the text, it is disputed whether or not this vow was carried out. Traditionally, Jephthah is listed among major judges on the ground of the length of the biblical narrative referring to him, but his story also shares commonalities with the minor judges, for instance only six years duration of his office as judge.
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 ...".
Jephthah, having been born illegitimately, is driven out by his half-brothers and takes up his dwelling in Tob, east of Gilead. "Outlaws collected around Jephthah and went raiding with him." 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:
". . . and whatever [footnote: 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 [footnote: Or him] up for a burnt offering.
- —Judges 11:31, English Standard Version
The victorious Jephthah is met on his return by his only child, a daughter. 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". The girl asks for two months' grace, "...that I may go up and down on the mountains and weep for my virginity". And so Jephthah "did with her according to his vow that he had made". 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".
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).
Jephthah's sacrifice 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 intervened and stopped the sacrifice. There was no intervention in the case of Jephthah's daughter who was sacrificed to God as instructed.
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. Of course, the barbarism of the Israelites says nothing about why the god of the bible would accept a child sacrifice. 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. Solomon Landers believed that the absence of express judgement implies that the sacrifice was not acceptable to God, notwithstanding the fact that the sacrifice nevertheless happened. The Book of Judges has been seen as teaching a cycle of pride associated with rejection of God's law and subsequent suffering of the people.
Pseudo-Philo's Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum gives a name for Jephthah's daughter, Seila. Her character is elaborated and emphasized;  "the author has done his utmost to put this woman on the same level as the patriarchs, in this case especially Isaac." 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 Jephthah's daughter was perpetual virginity or solitary confinement. Rashi also quotes the medrash rabba saying that he was punished for not going to the high priest to get the vow annulled and was afflicted with an illness that caused his limbs to decompose off of his body at which point it would be buried where it fell thereby explaining the verse that said he was buried in the cities as opposed to city of Gilead.
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.
Israel Finkelstein has suggested that the story of Jephthah's vow may have been added into the story as late as the Hellenistic period.
Possible origins of the Jephthah story
Israel Finkelstein has suggested that behind multiple and large-scale Deuteronomistic and post-Deuteronomistic additions and redactions, there may lie an oral story which reflects a conflict on the boundary between Israelite and Ammonite settlements in Transjordan, around the towns of Gilead and Mizpah. It may have been first written down in the 8th century BCE, when the Northern kingdom of Israel (Samaria) began to collect its heroic tales, royal stories, and foundation myths.
- Historia di Jephta, an oratorio by Giacomo Carissimi.
- Jephtes, sive votum, a tragedy by George Buchanan (1554).
- Jefta, een offerbelofte, a play by Joost van den Vondel (1659), translation of the play of Buchanan.
- Two Treatises of Government, A political and theological book John Locke (1689) challenging the divine right of kings, using Jephthah to demonstrate his "appeal to heaven" for changing government by the use of force in the absence of an earthly authority to petition to. See Book II, section 21. This concept is extremely important in first amendment jurisprudence, and is one of the strangest arguments against temporary restraining orders that enjoin speech, also known as a prior restraint, because of how dangerous they are. See for example Milk Wagon Drivers v. Meadowmoor Dairies, Inc. 312 U.S. 287,293 (1941).
- Jephté, an opera by Michel Pignolet de Montéclair (1732).
- Jephtha, the oratorio by George Frideric Handel (1751).
- Songs from Oratorio of Jephtha by John H. Hewitt (1845).
- Jephtas Gelübde, an opera on the story by Meyerbeer.
- The Vow, an opera by Colin McAlpin.
- 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."
- The 2015 winner of the BP Portrait Award, Annabelle and Guy by Matan Ben-Cnaan was inspired by the story of Jephthah and his daughter.
- The 2008 novel Ever by Gail Carson Levine is based on the story of Jephthah's daughter; Judges 11:34 is quoted in the foreword, and the plot follows the story of a girl in a Bronze Age Middle Eastern-inspired society whose father promises to sacrifice to his god the first person who congratulates him on his wife's recovery from an illness.
- "Daughter of Jephthah: Bible - Jewish Women's Archive".
- "The "Minor Judges"- A Re-evaluation". Alan J. Hauser. 1975. Retrieved 2015-03-27.
- Judges 10:6–7, English Standard Version
- Judges 11:3
- 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".
- Judges 11:35, English Standard Version
- Judges 11:37, English Standard Version
- Judges 11:39, English Standard Version
- Judges 11:40
- "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.
- Philip Alexander (1988), "Retelling the Old Testament", in It Is Written: Scripture Citing Scripture, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire: Cambridge.
- Frederick Murphy (1993), Pseudo-Philo: Rewriting the Bible, New York: Oxford.
- Pieter Van der Horst (1989), "Portraits of Biblical Women in Pseudo-Philo's Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum", Journal for the Study of Pseudepigrapha, 5, 29-46, at 42.
- "CHURCH FATHERS: Homily 14 on the Statues (Chrysostom)".
- 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.
- Staves, Susan. "Jephtha's Vow Reconsidered". 71 (4): 651–669. doi:10.1525/hlq.2008.71.4.651.
- "KNOW YOUR BIBLE".
- 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
- Israel Finkelstein (2016). "The Old Jephthah Tale in Judges: Geographical and Historical Considerations". Biblical Studies on the Web. p. 7.
- Israel Finkelstein (2016). "The Old Jephthah Tale in Judges: Geographical and Historical Considerations". Biblical Studies on the Web. p. 15.
- "BP Portrait Award 2015 - First Prize". National Portrait Gallery. Retrieved 18 June 2015., National Portrait Gallery
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