Character Study: Jephthah


One of my favorite ways to study the Bible is to look at the various people God used throughout Israel’s history. Jephthah provides such a rich learning experience for us, even today (Judges 11:1–12:7).

In Judges, we often see how God “raises up” a judge to guide Israel through a difficult time in their history. Jephthah is an exception to this. There is no mentioning of Jephthah being “raised up”, but rather a quick introduction is given of him in Judges 11:1: He was a mighty warrior, the son of a prostitute and an adulterous man named Gilead.

Prior to the introduction of Jephthah, God had poured out His anger on Israel for once again serving the false gods of the Canaanites (Judges 10:11) and left them facing a fierce battle without anyone to lead them.

As Gilead had legitimate sons with his wife, Jephthah was told he would have no inheritance, and thus ran away and surrounded himself with other misfits (Judges 11:2-3). It was this band of brothers that were called upon by the people to lead Israel in battle against the Ammonites. What is interesting to note is that God was nowhere in this decision. The people commissioned Jephthah, not God.

While God remained faithful to Israel despite the foolishness of men, he used Jephthah to defeat the Canaanite clans. But Jephthah made a horrible utterance, which displayed a clear lack of faith: He made a vow, common for those who worship Baal, to offer the first thing that comes out of his house as a sacrifice if he would be victorious in battle. 

The tragedy of this is that it was Jephthah’s daughter who rushed out of the house first upon his arrival from battle; and thus it was his only child, his daughter, that was to be sacrificed (Judges 11:39). While scholars debate the ultimate fate of Jephthah’s daughter—burnt sacrifice or perpetual virginity—the more important takeaway is the foolishness of Jephthah for making such a vow.

Jephthah was used by God for such a great purpose, yet he stumbles mightily in fulfilling his duty. It was his lack of understanding of who God is that was at the heart of this tragedy.

We can see ourselves in this if we look hard enough. How many times in moments of utter hopelessness or extreme duress have we cried out to God to just deliver us from this turmoil and give us peace? We scarcely draw on Scripture that is full of verses that indicate that it is in these times of trials that we are to learn and grow, that the Lord will test us from time to time (Romans 5:3-4; Hebrews 12:6; 1 Peter 5:10; James 1:12).

So we should not be asking for deliverance, without any contemplation on our part to learn from the process. We are reminded not to see these difficult times as periods of mourning, but rather accept them with joy (James 1:2-4).

Whenever we react in such a way, we also are exhibiting a lack of knowledge of who God really is, just like Jephthah. Such times expose our superficial relationship with Him and should cause us to re-examine how prominent we place God’s Word in our lives. As believers, we certainly have a had direction on this matter (Deuteronomy 6:5; Matthew 22:37), yet how true is this in our heart and in our actions?

What can we learn from Jephthah and his tragic mistake? Know God. Truly know Him. Every single one of us has some calling to do as a Christian and if we do not even know God, how can we expect to be faithful to His purpose for our lives?