The Jephthah-Jesus Connection

Why there is more to Jephthah than meets than eye

It was not that long ago that I realized the Jephthah-story and the Jesus-story were basically the same story. Sounds crazy, I know. But here is a one-paragraph synopsis of both:

The people of God have gone their own way, chasing after other gods, and have become brutally oppressed by the enemies of God’s people. A man is born in Israel who is rejected by his brothers because of his mother’s promiscuity. After the initial rejection, he is followed by many of society’s cast-offs. Ultimately, he is seen as a leader by many who can overcome their greatest enemies but it will require swearing full allegiance to him. With the Spirit of God on him, he defeats all enemies who were against those which are now devoted to him, but at the same time the victory costs the leader the devastating emotional loss of a line of offspring that could have formed a kingly lineage. Finally, he is accused by his Israelite brothers of going about his triumph in the wrong way, not having called them for help. Yet he asserts to them plainly that he did call, but they never responded and ultimately he establishes a means for dividing between all people who seek to cross into the promise land, since the crossing is now under his control.

There is the Jephthah-Jesus connection.

That Jephthah displays a remarkable number of similarities in his life and calling to Jesus is not something readily known to most who ever open a Bible. Judges is a difficult book for many Christians of modern sensibilities. It is harsh on many levels, with even he who has been called by God and empowered to deliver his people seeming more flawed than exemplary.

In Jephthah’s case, we see a violent, arbitrary-sounding military commander. A promise of sacrifice(?) for victory in battle leads to the end of his own family line (cf. Judges 11:37-39). Then the final scene involves his use of an accent to determine whether or not many are put to death as enemies before crossing the border to peace or are executed summarily (Judges 12:4-6).

But what if there is something much deeper going on? Something related to Luke 24:27? Could it be that even this story is about Jesus? Augustine says about the incident with Jephthah’s daughter, “The Scriptures never approve nor disapprove of the act explicitly but let the matter stand, to be evaluated and contemplated after consulting the righteousness and law of God.”1 Surely, he is correct and it will take a good bit of Spirit-led evaluation and contemplation to arrive at any kind of satisfactory deduction.

The text begins with God’s people in terrible trouble facing foreign oppressors because of their own fickle hearts (Judg. 10:6-9). Yahweh has handed them over to their evil longings telling them to ask their gods for help (Judg. 10:14). The people eventually destroy their foreign idols and turn to Yahweh (Judg. 10:16). By Judges 10:18, the people of Gilead are ready to appoint a new leader who can defeat the Ammonites. Enter Jephthah.

Surely this is the same situation of so many who cry out to God even now. We are oppressed, either spiritually or physically or both. We have rejected our previous desires. We cry with our hearts and he hears from heaven and sends a new Leader for us (Rom. 5:6-10).

Certainly, this is what happened in Jesus’ day on earth, also. Israel, as a whole, had gone its own way once again. They chose their own paths and wound up in a place far from his love, enslaved by selfish desires. It was at that time, God sent his son to be the perfect (yet unconventional) deliverer through which He would save his people.

Now back to Jephthah. When he first appears, it is to a notably cold reception. His mother’s immoral lifestyle leads to his brothers’ rejection of him. Jesus was rejected by his kinsmen, also—those from his own household as well as those among his people, Israel, as a whole (Mark 3:21; John 5:43; 7:5; esp. 8:41; cp. Judges 11:2).

This rejection leads to Jesus’ greater interaction with undesirables—prostitutes, tax collectors, the unclean, Gentiles, and sinners. As with Jesus, societal misfits flock to Jephthah, as well (Judg. 11:3; cp. Matt. 15:22; Mark 2:15; Luke 7:39; 15:1; et. al.).

Eventually, the leaders of Gilead who previously rejected him now come to Jephthah, knowing of his reputation as a mighty warrior. They swear allegiance of all Gilead if he will overcome their enemies. After being clear that the commitment to his headship is genuine, he agrees.

Surely in this, too, we hear the foreshadowing of Jesus’ own call. He will be our leader but it will cost our full allegiance (Matt. 7:21-23; John 3:15, 16, 18; Rom. 10:9; et. al.).

Jephthah tells the Ammonite king that no one will take that which is apportioned to Gilead/Israel by the hand of the Lord and Jesus uses similar language. Jesus claims unequivocally that not one of whom God has given him will be snatched away (John 10:28). Jephthah says that the Lord gave Sihon’s territory to Israel and, therefore, the Israelites possess only what came to them rightly from God (Judg. 11:21-23). He trusts that God will keep it for them should war be the necessary outcome.

At this point our story takes its strangest turn. It is one that has left many Bible students stunned for millennia. It has to do with child sacrifice(?) and its practice by Jephthah, even without the Lord’s condemnation or his intervention at all.

In Judges 11:31, Jephthah vows that, if given victory by God, what-/whoever comes out of his house first to meet him upon his return from battle will become a “burnt offering” to the Lord (see ESV, NASB, NIV, et. al.). Although the next two verses speak of Jephthah’s military victory, the reader is now much more interested in the outcome of the vow. The text does not disappoint—at least, not literarily.

Jephthah’s first meeting upon his return is with his only child. What was a day for rejoicing has also become a day for sadness, because the victory has come at a great cost—that of an only offspring. The daughter’s willingness to accept her fate is nothing short of extraordinary as she encourages her father to fulfill the commitment he has made (11:36). She laments only that she was a virgin and, therefore, her father’s line will end with her.

James Jordan may be precisely correct in noting that our passage is not concerned with human sacrifice at all. It could easily be that this burnt offering (11:31) is actually to be read as an ascension, which is the definition of this Hebrew term when read as a verb. In two instances—I Kings 10:5 and Ezekiel 40:26—this term is used as ascending to the temple, i.e., to worship. This could very well be what is happening with Jephthah’s daughter. He has committed her to “ascend” to God’s temple, i.e., to work and serve there as a temple virgin forever.2

Of course, I understand skepticism here. But consider, as Satterthwaite says, the terms of the vow more likely refer to a human than an animal.3 Jordan states that it is even likely that Jephthah intended to offer up a young woman from his household to serve at Yahweh’s tabernacle as a virgin dedicated to Him forever since it was the custom for young women to meet returning victors from battle in celebration.4 He was surprised, however, that the first one out was his daughter.

Consider that it would be strange, indeed, if God did not intervene in such a heinous act as child sacrifice devoted to his name (esp. cp. Gen. 22:12). Certainly, the biblical authors are known for their lack of overt comment about morally ambiguous or even evil actions. But the sacrifice of children to any gods, and certainly Yahweh, is not something about which God (or the biblical authors) is known to maintain quiet indifference (cf. Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5; Deut. 12:29-32; 2 Ki. 17:17; 21:6; 2 Chr. 28:3; Psalm 106:37-41; Jer. 7:31; 32:35; Ezek. 16:20-21). But if this is an instance of devoting one’s offspring completely to the service of God’s house—even to the forgoing of a family lineage—then we have something quite different.

As strange as this text is, there is another father whose grief is associated with tragedy befalling his virgin daughter. The Lord has promised Israel in the past that if they were unfaithful to him, they would be punished by him (Lev. 26: 14ff; Deut. 28:15ff). In the destruction leading to Babylonian captivity, both the Lord and his prophets refer to the people, Israel, who are experiencing the fulfillment of God’s vow, as a “daughter” or even a “virgin daughter” (Isai. 22:4; Jer. 4:11; 6:26; 14:17; Lam. 2:13, 15; 3:48).

It is particularly Jerusalem/Zion that is in view in these passages. If Jerusalem is known as a virgin daughter in the days of its first destruction by God’s hand, could not the same be said of the next destruction in AD 70?  Couple this with the fact that the AD 70 destruction is in direct association with the great victory over evil and we have, in the Jephthah narrative, something that sounds like the perfect storm surrounding Jesus’ resurrection and ascension to the right hand of God (victory), which afterwards results in the figurative end of a mortal family line (sacrifice of what might have been).5

It may also be beneficial to tie Jephthah’s daughter to the typological theme that is found in at least two other points in Scripture. In both Leviticus 9-10 and 2 Samuel 6:16-23, we have stories of what is happening on a single day. In both cases, it is a day of incredible celebration when a great sacrifice is offered to Yahweh and his presence is fully acknowledged among the people (Lev. 9:23-24; 2 Sam. 6:16-17, 22). Yet, in both cases this same day of exulting in God’s powerful presence among his people is also a day of bittersweet gladness that is tainted by the high profile end of a potentially great lineage of high priests and kings, respectively. In both cases, the rejection brings about the end of a family line (cf. Lev. 10:2 [cp. Num. 3:4]; 2 Sam. 6:23) that initially had every opportunity to become a major force in God’s world-transforming plan.

Nadab and Abihu, on the one hand, and Michal, on the other, could step fully into God’s plan and have children that become part of it. Yet in both cases they fail to act in a way that brings glory to God and so are cut off from childbearing and, therefore, from being perpetually incorporated into Yahweh’s plan. As Jordan argues, Jephthah wanted a family line that would rule Israel as kings, yet his day of victory has become one of sorrow as his family line is cut off.6 Granted, there are deaths in the case of Nadab and Abihu, but the even greater tragedy is the loss of a chance to affect one’s family line forever. In Michal’s case, the day of sacrifice and celebration over the symbolic return of God’s presence among his people is sadly punctuated by her derision toward David. Consequently, she is rejected as the queen that might have continued the messianic line.

Our modern propensity to approach a text with a eye toward moral example finds a challenge in Jephthah’s rash vow. We wish to commend the one whose heart trusts the Lord for victory, yet his all-too-quick dedication of the life of an unidentified young lady is not something to be emulated. But the fact that the author is morally silent allows the text to speak—like so many other texts—to the New Testament reader, as well. The allegorical level of the text is now open for contemplation of deeper meaning. As Dennis Johnson has said, “The purpose of Old Testament narrative is not to teach moral lessons, but to trace the work of God, the Savior of his people, whose redeeming presence among them reaches its climactic expression in Christ’s incarnation.”7

If Jephthah’s impetuous declaration received immediate censure, the reader might feel less obliged to stick with the text and seek out a deeper meaning. It would be easy to dismiss Jephthah as a mere misguided, world-influenced Israelite; an ignorant worshiper of Yahweh and a bad father, at best. Because no such condemnation is forthcoming, however, the reader is forced to struggle with the text and ask more about what may be going on in a deeper-than-surface reading. In this way, a story emerges about a victorious, faithful leader who, in victory, brings an end to a mortal lineage that would have otherwise been considered primary.

In the Jephthah story, following the daughter’s dedication comes the Ephraimites’ displeasure with Jephthah. They take issue with his engaging the enemy in battle without summoning them (Judg. 12:1). Jephthah, however, points out quickly that he did call to them in his people’s oppression, yet they did not come. Jephthah was forced to go into battle without them (12:2-3).

The Ephraimites are determined to shed blood, however, accusing the Gileadites of being just runaway Ephraimites. In other words, they claim Jephthah and his followers are nothing more than law-breaking Ephraimites and Manassites who have tossed aside their true identity for a chance to escape any legal punishment.

Jephthah, though, is once again the victor in battle, this time against his own kinsmen who accuse and attack from within Israel. It is not a surprise that Ephraim is the primary instigator here. In the Old Testament, Ephraim often is used to represent the northern kingdom of Israel, as a whole (Isai. 7:17; 11:13; Jer. 31:9; Ezek. 37:16; Hos. 4:17; 5:13; et. al.). This was the kingdom that separated from the rightful tribe of kingship and established a rival, unordained monarchy and priesthood. They no longer recognized their proper king and quickly set up a false cultic worship center (1 Ki. 12:16-29). In this way, they represented all who leave the proper boundaries established by God in search of self-established greener pastures. They are Israel by birth, but not devotion.

Ephraim is upset when God’s plan for victory does not unfold the way they thought. That this usurping tribe would assert itself forcefully against our Jesus-type after he has done the work of freeing God’s people from evil forces is not a shock to the thoughtful Jesus-centric reader.

In the final scene, the reader is confronted with a strange identification process. Jephthah, who has now taken control of the Jordan, decides who can cross in peace and who cannot. The men under Jephthah use the Hebrew shibboleth as a distinguishing password for any wishing to cross. This word means, essentially, “to flow” and would be used to describe the flowing of a stream—something that simply happens because God has made it to happen. The word could also be used of ears of grain (cf. Job 24:24) as something that flows from the earth, ultimately under the control of God.

Obviously in Judges 12:6, the men of Ephraim are unable to pronounce shibboleth correctly and instead exchange the “sh” sound for a simple “s”—hence, sibboleth. In order to show this pronunciation difference in the original Hebrew text, the writer has chosen to exchange the ש(“sh”) with a ס(“s”). In changing the consonant, however, the writer has also changed the root of the word, turning the word into an exact duplicate of a term used only six times in the Scriptures, all of those in the first six chapters of Exodus (cf. Ex. 1:11; 2:11; 5:4, 5; 6:6, 7). The word means “burden” and speaks of the heavy toil the Israelites suffer in Egyptian bondage. This makes the contrast of the two pronunciations one between “flowing,” which happens simply because of God’s design, and “burden,” signifying the toil of one’s own effort.8)

We cannot help but wonder if there be a contrast intended in light of the Jesus story (if we can be so bold as to read backward)? Is the difference between those who cross the Jordan, back into the promised land, essentially, and those who do not, the difference between those who can pronounce “flowing” (what happens mysteriously at God’s hand), and those who can only speak of “burden-bearing” (something done through personal effort)? Original authorial intention or not, it comes across when reading through a Jesus-centered lens.

And so the story of Jephthah ends with this ongoing separation of peoples. The surface of the narrative remains disturbing, even without child sacrifice, and Jephthah remains one of the most quixotic seeming characters in scripture—impulsive and capricious and yet faithfully devoted to Yahweh and called by him as judge and vindicator of those under his leadership.

Perhaps it does help the reader, though to see Jephthah’s inclusion in the so-called “hall of faith” chapter of Hebrews 11. With other faithful leaders during difficult times, Jephthah, by such faith, “enforced justice, . . . became mighty in war, and put foreign armies to flight,” (cf. Heb. 11:32-34). The fact that he is included at all would mitigate against the prospect that Jephthah committed child sacrifice (to Yahweh, no less!).

If we only read of Jephthah’s courage and his battle victories with the Spirit of God upon him, we could tout his actions as something to be emulated by modern Christians. In fact, he would fit quite well with our moralistic teaching of the Old Testament. We could say, “See Jephthah’s wonderful example of faith that leads to victory? Be like Jephthah.” But, alas, we cannot do this, because as soon as we say, “Be like Jephthah,” we are undone by his rash vow and the death penalty pronouncement based on speech patterns.

And yet, the Jesus-hermeneutic (i.e., Luke 24:27, et. al.)—by which we learn that everything in the Old Testament is about Son of Man—teaches us to read even the Jephthah story in a different way. What if even Jephthah’s downfalls teach us about the ultimate way of Jesus? What if the consecration of the virgin daughter is intended to teach about God’s own consecration of his virgin daughter as it, too, is tied to the greatest victory over his people’s enemies. Like in Jephthah, so in Christ–the enemy is overcome, but not without a great cost.

This is not to say Jephthah always does right. Far from it. But God does not need us to act right to use us as pointers to his Son. He can tell the story of Jesus through the low, base, and even disturbing choices of his people, as well as the exemplary. His sovereign ability to tell the world of the Son is not hindered by our personal whims and selfish determinations. The Father uses all creation—including all people—to tell his perfect story of salvation. He hardly needs us to “act right.” It is a story exclaimed by the rocks and the trees, let alone our lives which we have because we are made in his image, like it or not.

Surely, this explains, too, why Samson dies with his arms outstretched and kills more enemies of God’s people in death that he ever defeated during his life (Judg. 16:29-30). Surely , this explains why the Lord does not require David’s life for his most heinous sins (adultery and murder), but forgives based only upon a repentant heart. Instead, the innocent Son of David suffers for David’s sin (2 Sam. 12:12-14).

Jephthah is not included in God’s Word because of perfect character. Like the rest of the Old Testament, his story contains highs and lows, great victories as well as self-inflicted tragedies. But in the midst of this, God is never unseated from his sovereign position. God tells the story of the One to come, even through the bleak circumstances of Jephthah’s life, showing how the correct view will bring out the only story that is truly worth hearing, the one that transforms even the worst of heartbreaks into stories of redemption.

When we enter into the door of the Bible, it is not moral example for which we search—certainly not primarily (the bulk of preaching and teaching notwithstanding). It was our Lord, the very Author of life, who taught us to read the Word as being all about him. For goodness sake, it ishim (John 1:1). Jephthah teaches me only in the negative about how to go about making and keeping vows to God or about making determinations between a righteous brother and a person deserving of punishment. But through Jephthah, the Word of Life who fulfills every jot and tittle (Matt. 5:17-18) takes each story, each poem, each word, and each letter, and infuses it with a brilliant light that displays his person, front and center, as the only one through whom ultimate peace from our enemies is acquired.

And so we say, “Shibboleth, Lord.” Let your mercy flow.

Eric Robinson lives in Lubbock, Texas, and is the author of Jesus in the Shadows.

References   [ + ]

1. John R. Franke, ed. Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1-2 Samuel, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 138.
2. James B. Jordan,  Jephthah’s Daughter, http://www.biblicalhorizons.com/biblical-horizons/no-86-jephthahs-daughter(June, 1996). Jordan’s explanation in this article and his commentary on Judges is thorough and has many more nuances that are not within the scope of this article which is meant primarily to display the typological connection between Jephthah and Jesus.
3. Philip E. Sattherthwait, “Judges,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, 2005), 587; cf. also CSB, CEV, GNT, NET.
4. Jordan, Jephthah’s.
5. Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension are intertwined (cf. Acts 2:22-36; Phil. 2:8-11; Heb. 2:7-9). “Coming on the clouds of heaven” is associated with Jesus’ receiving of all power (Dan. 7:13-14) and is used in concert with the destruction of Jerusalem and overcoming the current religious leadership (Matt. 24:30; Mark 13:26; 14:62; but this writer acknowledges that other opinions exist regarding the interpretation of these verses).
6. Jordan, Jephthah’s.
7. Dennis E. Johnson, Him We Proclaim (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 2007), 51.
8. Note the entry under Shibboleth in Abarim Publications for further consideration (http://www.abarim-publications.com/Meaning/shibboleth.html#.W-SvjNVKiUk