Jeph'thah (Heb. Yiphtach', יַפתָּח, opened or opener), the name of a man and also of a place. SEE JIPHTHAH-EL.
1. (Sept. Ι᾿εφθά v.r. Ι᾿εφθαέ and Ι᾿εφθάε, Josephus Ι᾿εφθής, Vulg. Jephte, N.T. Ι᾿εφθάε, "Jephthaë"), the ninth judge of the Israelites for a period of six years, B.C. 1256-1250. He belonged to the tribe of Manasseh east, and was the son of a person named Gilead by a concubine, or perhaps harlot.
After the death of his father he was expelled from his home by the envy of his brothers, who, taunting him with illegitimacy, refused him any share of the heritage, and he withdrew to the land of Tob, beyond the frontier of the Hebrew territories. It is clear that he had before this distinguished himself by his daring character and skill in arms; for no sooner was his withdrawal known than a great number of men of desperate fortunes repaired to him and he became their chief. His position was now very similar to that of David when he withdrew from the court of Saul. To maintain the people who had thus linked their fortunes with his, there was no other resource than that sort of brigandage, which is accounted honorable in the East, so long as it is exercised against public or private enemies and is not marked by needless cruelty or outrage. So Jephthah confined his aggressions to the borders of the small neighboring nations, who were in some sort regarded as the natural enemies of Israel, even when there was no actual war between them (Jg 11:1-3).
The tribes beyond the Jordan having resolved to oppose the Ammonites, to whom the Israelites had fallen under subjection after the death of Jair, in consequence of relapsing into idolatry, Jephthah seems to have occurred to every one as the most fitting leader. A deputation was accordingly sent to invite him to take the command. After some demur, on account of the treatment he had formerly received, he consented to become their captain on the condition — solemnly ratified before the Lord in Mizpeh — that, in the event of his success against Ammon, he should still remain as their acknowledged head. The rude hero commenced his operations with a degree of diplomatic consideration and dignity for which we are not prepared. The Ammonites being assembled in force for one of those ravaging incursions by which they had repeatedly desolated the land, he sent to their camp a formal complaint of the invasion and a demand of the ground of their proceeding. This is highly interesting, because it shows that, even in that age, a cause for war was judged necessary, no one being supposed to war without provocation; and, in this case, Jephthah demanded what cause the Ammonites alleged to justify their aggressive operations. Their answer was, that the land of the Israelites beyond the Jordan was theirs. It had originally belonged to them, from whom it had been taken by the Amorites, who had been dispossessed by the Israelites, and on this ground they claimed the restitution of these lands. Jephthah's reply laid down the just principle which has been followed out in the practice of civilized nations and is maintained by all the great writers on the law of nations. The land belonged to the Israelites by right of conquest from the actual possessors, and they could not be expected to recognize any antecedent claim of former possessors, for whom they had not acted, who had rendered them no assistance, and who had themselves displayed hostility against the Israelites. It was not to be expected that they would conquer the country from the powerful kings who had it in possession, for the mere purpose of restoring it to the ancient occupants, of whom they had no favorable knowledge, and of whose previous claims they were scarcely cognizant. But the Ammonites reasserted their former views, and on this issue they took the field. Animated by a consciousness of divine aid, Jephthah hastened to meet them, defeated them in several pitched battles, followed them with great slaughter, and utterly broke their dominion over the eastern Israelites (Jg 11:4-33). See Pagenstecher, Jephtes (Lemgo, 1746).
The victory over the Ammonites was followed by a quarrel with the proud and powerful Ephraimites on the west side of the Jordan. This tribe was displeased at having had no share in the glory of the recent victory, and a large body of men belonging to it, who had crossed the river to share in the action, used very high and threatening language when they found their services were not required. Jephthah, finding his remonstrances had no effect, reassembled some of his disbanded troops and gave the Ephraimites battle, when they were defeated with immense loss. The victors seized the fords of the Jordan, and, when anyone came to pass over, they made him pronounce the word "Shibboleth" (an ear of corn); but if he could not give the aspiration, and pronounced the word as "Sibboleth," they knew him for an Ephraimite and slew him on the spot (Jg 12:1-6).
The remainder of Jephthah's rule was peaceful, and, at his death, he left the country quiet to his successor Ibzan. He was buried in his native region, in one of the cities of Gilead (Jg 12:7).
JEPHTHAH'S VOW. — When Jephthah set forth against the Ammonites, he solemnly vowed to the Lord, "If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into my hands, then it shall be that whatsoever cometh forth [i.e. first] 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" (Jg 11:30-31). He was victorious: the Ammonites sustained a terrible overthrow. He did return in peace to his house in Mizpeh. As he drew nigh his house, the one that came forth to meet him was his own daughter, his only child, in whom his heart was bound up. She, with her fair companions, came to greet the triumphant hero "with timbrels and with dances." But he no sooner saw her than he rent his robes and cried, "Alas! my daughter, thou hast brought me very low... for I have opened my mouth unto the Lord, and cannot go back." Nor did she ask it. She replied, "My father, if thou hast opened thy mouth unto the Lord, do to me according to that which has proceeded out of thy mouth, forasmuch as the Lord hath taken vengeance for thee of thine enemies, the children of Ammon." But, after a pause, she added, "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." Her father, of course, assented, and when the time expired she returned, and, we are told, "he did with her according to his vow." It is then added that it became "a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite three days in the year" (Jg 11:34-40).
Volumes have been written on the subject of "Jephthah's rash vow," the question being whether, in doing to his daughter "according to his vow," he really did offer her in sacrifice, or whether she was merely doomed to perpetual celibacy.
That the daughter of Jephthah was really offered up to God in sacrifice — slain by the hand of her father and then burned — is a horrible conclusion, but one which it seems impossible to avoid. This was understood to be the meaning of the text by Jonathan the paraphrast, and Rashi, by Josephus (Ant. 5, 7, 10), and by perhaps all the early Christian fathers, as Origen (in Joannem, tom. 6, cap. 36), Chrysostom (Hom. ad pop. Antiochus, 14, 3; Opp. 2, 145), Theodoret (Quoestiones in Judices, 20), Jerome (Ep. ad Jul. 118; Opp. 1, 791, etc.), Augustine (Quoestiones in Jud. 8, 49; Opp. 3, 1, 610); so also in the Talmud (Tanchuma to Bechu-Kothai, p. 171) and Midrash (R. 1, § 71), in both of which great astonishment is expressed with the dealings of the high priest. For the first eleven centuries of the Christian era this was the current, perhaps the universal opinion of Jews and Christians. Yet none of them extenuates the act of Jephthah. Josephus calls it neither lawful nor pleasing to God. Jewish writers say that he ought to have referred it to the high priest, but either he failed to do so, or the high priest culpably omitted to prevent the rash act. Origen strictly confines his praise to the heroism of Jephthah's daughter.
The other interpretation was suggested by Joseph Kimchi. He supposed that, instead of being sacrificed, she was shut up in a house which her father built for the purpose and that she was there visited by the daughters of Israel four days in each year as long as she lived. This interpretation has been adopted by many eminent men — as by Levi ben-Gerson and Bechai amongst the Jews, and by Drusius, Grotius, Estius, De Dieu, bishop Hall, Waterland, Dr. Hales, and others. More names of the same period, and of not less authority, might, however, be adduced on the other side. Lightfoot once thought (Erubhin, § 16) that Jephthah did not slay his daughter, but, upon more mature reflection, he came to the opposite conclusion (Harmony, etc.; Judges 11: Works, 1, 51).
1. The advocates for the actual death of the maiden contend that to live unmarried was required by no law, custom, or devotement amongst the Jews: no one had a right to impose so odious a condition on another, nor is any such condition implied or expressed in the vow which Jephthah uttered. It is certain that human sacrifice was deemed meritorious and propitiatory by the neighboring nations, SEE SACRIFICE; and, considering the manner of life the hero had led, the recent idolatries in which the people had been plunged, and the peculiarly vague notions of the tribes beyond the Jordan, it is highly probable that he contemplated from the first a human sacrifice, as the most costly offering to God known to him (comp. the well- known story of the immolation of Iphigenia, Iliad, 9, 144 sq.). It is difficult to conceive that he could expect any other creature than a human being to come forth out of the door of his house to meet him on his return. His affliction when his daughter actually came forth is quite compatible with the idea that he had not even exempted her from the sacredness of his promise, and the depth of that affliction is scarcely reconcilable with any other alternative than the actual sacrifice. In that case, the circumstance that she "knew no man" is added as setting in a stronger light the rashness of Jephthah and the heroism of his daughter. If we look at the text, Jephthah vows that whatsoever came forth from the door of his house to meet him "shall surely be the Lord's, and [Kimchi's rendering 'or' is a rare and harsh one] I will offer it up for a burnt offering," which, in fact, was the regular way of making a thing wholly the Lord's. Afterwards we are told that "he did with her according to his vow," that is, according to the plain meaning of plain words, offered her for a burnt offering. (This circumlocutory phrase, and the omission of any direct term expressive of death, are attributed to euphemistic motives.) Then follows the intimation that the daughters of Israel lamented her four days every year. People lament the dead, not the living. The whole story is consistent and intelligible while the sacrifice is understood to have taken place, but becomes perplexed and difficult as soon as we begin to turn aside from this obvious meaning in search of recondite explanations. The Jewish commentators themselves generally admit that Jephthah really sacrificed his daughter, and even go so far as to allege that the change in the pontifical dynasty from the house of Eleazar to that of Ithamar was caused by the high priest of the time having suffered this transaction to take place. It is true, human sacrifices were forbidden by the law; but in the rude and unsettled age in which the judges lived, when the Israelites had adopted a vast number of erroneous notions and practices from their heathen neighbors (see 2Ki 3:27), many things were done, even by good men, which the law forbade quite as positively as human sacrifice. Such, for instance, was the setting up of the altar by Gideon at his native Ophrah (Jg 8:27), in direct but undesigned opposition to one of the most stringent enactments (Deuteronomy 7) of the Mosaical code. (See Kitto's Daily Bible Illustrations, ad loc.)
2. On the other hand, it has been well replied that the text expressly, and in varied terms, alludes to the obligation of the girl to lead a life of perpetual virginity (verses 37, 38, 39).
Such a state was generally considered a calamity by the Israelitish women, probably on account of the early prophecy of the incarnation (Ge 3:15). SEE BARRENNESS.
But, besides this, the celibacy of Jephthah's daughter involved the extinction of his whole house as well as dynasty, and removed from him his only child, the sole prop and solace of his declining years. For it was her duty, as the Lord's property, to dwell separately at Shiloh, in constant attendance on the service of the sanctuary (compare Lu 3:37; 1Co 7:34), far from her father, the companions of her youth, and the beloved haunts of her childhood; all this was sufficient cause for lamentation. But the idea that she was put to death by her father as a consequence of his vow shocks all the feelings of humanity, could only have horrified her as well as all other parties concerned, is inconsistent with the first principles of the Mosaic law, and was impossible from the very nature of its requisitions in several points. For instance, human sacrifices were among the abominations for which the idolatrous nations of Canaan were devoted to destruction (De 18:9-14); and the Israelites were expressly forbidden to act like them in sacrificing their sons and daughters by fire (De 12:29-31). Again, for the redemption of any person devoted to God (Ex 13:11-13), and even for the very case of Jephthah's singular vow, if understood to refer to his daughter's immolation, provision was expressly made (Le 27:2-5), so that he might, with a safe conscience, have redeemed her from death by a small payment of money. It must be remembered, too, that by the law he could not offer any victim as a burnt sacrifice except where the Lord had chosen to place his name (De 16:2,6,11,16, compare with Le 1:2-13; Le 17:3-9), that is, in the tabernacle at Shiloh: moreover, none but a Levite could kill, and none but a priest could offer any victim; and the statement of the Chaldee paraphrast (ad loc.) that the sacrifice took place through a neglect to consult Phinehas, the high priest, besides involving an anachronism, is utterly at variance with all the known conditions of the case. Moreover, none but a male victim could be presented in sacrifice in any case. It is true that if Jephthah had been an idolater he might have offered his daughter in any of the high places to a false god; but he was evidently made the deliverer of his people from the yoke of Ammon because he was not an idolater (see Jg 11:29-36; comp. Le 20:1-5); and his whole conduct is commended by an inspired apostle (Heb 11:32: comp. 1Sa 12:11) as an act of faith in the true God. Such sanction is very different from the express condemnation of the irregular and mischievous proceeding on the part of Gideon (Jg 8:27), for there is nowhere the least intimation that Jephthah's conduct was other than entirely praiseworthy, although his vow is evidently recorded as a warning against inconsiderate oaths (Jarvis's Church of the Redeemed, p. 115-117). Indeed, it is very doubtful whether he had the power to sacrifice his daughter, and it is incredible that she should have been the first to claim the fulfilment of such a vow, as well as inconceivable how she should have so readily inferred so unusual an import from the brief terms in which he first intimated to her his fatal pledge (ver. 35, 36); whereas it is altogether likely that (with her prompt consent) he had the right of dooming her to perpetual singleness of life and religious seclusion (compare 1Co 7:36-38). SEE NAZARITE. It is also worthy of note that the term employed to express his promise of devotement in this case is נֶדֶר, ne'der, a consecration, and not חֵרֶם che'rem, destruction. SEE VOW; SEE ANATHEMA. Nor can we suppose (with Prof. Bush, ad loc.) that during the two months' respite he obtained better information, in consequence of which the immolation was avoided by a ransom price; for it is stated that he literally fulfilled his vow, whatever it was (ver. 39). The word rendered "lament" in verse 40 is not the common one (בכה) translated "bewail" in verse 37, 38, but the rare expression (תנה) rendered "rehearse" in ch. 5:11, and meaning to celebrate, as implying joy rather than grief.
For a full discussion of the question, see the notes of the Pictorial Bible, and Bush's Notes on Judges, ad loc.; comp. Calmet's Dissertation sur le Voeu de Jephte, in his Comment. Littéral, tom. 2; Dresde, Votum Jephthoe ex Antiq. Judaica illustr. (Lips. 1767, 1778); Randolf, Erklärung d. Gelübdes Jephtha, in Eichhorn's Repertorium, 8, 13, Lightfoot's Harmony, under Judges 11, Erubhin, cap. 16, Sermon on Jg 11:39; Bp. Russell's Connection of Sacred and Profane History, 1, 479-492; Hales's Analysis of Chronology, 2, 288-292; Gleig's edition of Stackhouse, 2, 97; Clarke's Commentary, ad loc.; Rosenmüller, ad loc.; Hengstenberg's Pentat. 2, 129; Markii Dissert. phil. theol. p. 530; Michaelis, Mos. Recht, 3, 30; Ziegler, Theolog. Abhandl. 1, 337; Paulus, Conservat. 2, 197; Vatke, Bibl. Theolog. p. 275; Capellus, De voto Jeph. (Salmur. 1683); Dathe in Doderlein's Theolog. Bibl. 3, 327; Jahn, Einleit. 2, 198; Eckermann, Theolog. Beitr. 5, 1, 62; Reland, Antiq. sacr. 3, 10, 6, p. 363; Vogel in Biedermann's Act. scholast. 2, 250; Georgi, De voto Jephtoe (Viteb. 1751); Heumann, Nov. sylloge dissert. 2, 476; Bernhold, De voto per Jiphtach. nuncupato (Altd. 1740); Schudt, Vita Jepht. (Groning. 1753), 2, 77; Bruno in Eichhorn's Repertor. 8, 43; Buddaei Hist. V.T. 1, 893; Hess, Gesch. Jos. u. der Heerführer, 2, 156; Niemeyer, Charakt. 3, 496; Ewald, Isr. Geschichte, 2, 397; Selden, Jus nat. et gent. 1, 11; Anton, Comparat. libror. V.T. cet. pt. 2, 3; F. Spanheim, De voto Jephthoe, in his Dissert. theol. hist. p. 135-211; H. Benzel, De voto Jepth. incruento (Lond. 1732); Rathlef's Theol. for 1755, p. 414; Seiler, Gemeinnütz. Beitr. 1779, p. 386; Hasche, Ueber Jeph. u. s. Gelübde (Dresd. 1778; see in the Dresden Anzeig. 1787); Pfeiffer, De voto Jephthoe, in his Opp. p. 591; Tieroff, id. (Jena, 1657); Munch, id. (Altd. 1740); Bib. Repos. Jan. 1843, p. 143 sq.; Meth. Quart. Rev. October, 1855, p. 558 sq.; Universalist Review, Jan. 1861; Evangelical Rev. July 1861; Cassel, in Herzog's Encykl. s.v.; also the works cited by Darling, Cyclop. col. 284.
2. SEE JIPHTAH.