What does Judges chapter 11 mean?Judges 11 begins the story Jephthah, one of the most complex of Israel's Judges (Judges 2:16). Depending on how one interprets his character, he could be considered a powerful warrior or a leader of gangsters. He seems to have trusted in the Lord, but also made senseless vows. He rescued Israel from oppression, but also engaged in civil war against other Israelites.
Jephthah is the oldest son of a prostitute and a man named Gilead. His father bears the same name as the region in which they live. Gilead's sons by his legitimate wife drive Jephthah away from their home when they are grown. Their goal is to keep him from sharing in their father's inheritance. Jephthah flees from Gilead to a land called Tob, where he gains his reputation as a warrior. This comes as the leader of what appears to be a group of bandits (Judges 11:1–3).
Meanwhile, the Ammonites have been oppressing Israel for many years (Judges 10:7–8). They now stage another offensive against the region of Gilead (Judges 10:17–18), on the east side of the Jordan River. The Israelites in Gilead want to fight back against the Ammonites. To do so effectively, they need an experienced leader. The elders of Gilead travel to the land of Tob to offer Jephthah the job of commander of the army (Judges 11:4–6).
Jephthah objects, blaming the leaders of Gilead for being complacent while his brothers drove him away. They insist they want him back to help in the fight against the Ammonites. The elders agree to make Jephthah head over all the people of Gilead, including themselves, if he will lead them. Jephthah agrees and returns with the elders to Mizpah, where he takes the oath and becomes the functional leader of the region (Judges 11:7–11).
The Ammonites are massed not far away from Mizpah. Before engaging in battle, Jephthah attempts to negotiate with them. He asks the Ammonite king why he is attacking their land. The king replies that the Israelites wrongly took the land of Gilead from his ancestors during the time of Moses. Jephthah responds with a long message of his own. In it, he clearly shows that the Ammonite king's claim is false. Gilead never belonged to the Ammonites. The Amorites lost it when they attacked Israel for attempting to pass through peaceably. Gilead was given to Israel by God Himself, and for three hundred years, Ammon has made no claims to it (Judges 11:12–26).
Jephthah's message concludes by insisting that Israel has never harmed the Ammonites. He firmly asks the king of Ammon not to sin against Israel by making unjust war. The king refuses to listen to these arguments. Most likely, his earlier excuse was just that: a casual lie meant to justify his aggression (Judges 11:27–28).
For the first time in this passage, the Lord's Spirit comes on Jephthah. He successfully recruits fighters from Gilead and the larger territory of the tribe of Manasseh. He then prepares to attack the Ammonites from Israel's base at Mizpah. Before the battle, however, Jephthah makes a tragically misguided vow. He promises God to offer "as a burnt offering" whatever or whomever comes to meet him if he returns in victory. The wording of this vow and Jephthah's intent are among the most debated words in the entire Bible. Jephthah attacks and utterly defeats the Ammonites, completely turning back Israel's enemy from being any further immediate threat (Judges 11:29–33).
Jephthah arrives home safely to Mizpah following this victory over Ammon. His daughter—his one and only child—comes out of his house to greet him with tambourines and dancing. Jephthah remembers his vow. He tears his clothes in grief, telling his daughter about what he has promised the Lord. Depending on what his intentions were, he was either obligated to offer her as a human sacrifice (Deuteronomy 12:31; 18:10) or devote the rest of her life to service to God. For her part, the daughter agrees that the vow must be kept. She says Jephthah must do to her as He vowed since the Lord gave victory (Judges 11:34–36).
What the daughter requests from Jephthah is among the reasons some interpreters believe she became a religious devotee, rather than a sacrifice. Her primary regret is that she will never have children, not that she will die. Rather than act immediately, Jephthah agrees to his daughter's request: two months of freedom to travel in the mountains with her friends and grieve that she will never marry or have children. Jephthah then carries out the vow—in whatever fashion that implies. For years afterward, the women of Israel would grieve for the daughter of Jephthah, for four days every year (Judges 11:37–39)