Jephtah is just one of a list of judges who led the nation of Israel in the time between Joshua and king Saul. None of the judges of Israel were perfect, and their many misdeeds are chronicled well within the book.
However, even among these other flawed leaders, Jephthah stands out as a particularly tragic figure. We read about him in Judges 11 and 12. He is an illegitimate son of warrior and a prostitute. When his brothers grow up, they run him out of Israel, not wanting him to take any part of their inheritance. Since he is illegitimate, he has no recourse, and moves to the land of Tob, which is east of Israel, on the other side of Galilee.
While he is there he attracts a crowd of worthless men. He seems to be a natural leader, and the land of Tob appears to be a place where outlaws and disenfranchised people live. He becomes the leader there. He is clearly a natural leader because he is able to lead a gang of malcontents, but the fact that he attracted this sort of person is probably a warning sign of his rough nature.
After a while, the Ammonites grow in power, and suddenly the people of Gilead (who are facing the brunt of the Ammonite attack) are in desperate need of a leader. They think of Jephthah, and call on him. He accepts their invitation to lead their army on the condition that they allow him to be their leader after the war is over. They accept his counter offer, and Jephthah immediately gets to work facing the Ammonites.
After an attempt at diplomacy fails, Jephthah prepares for war. We learn in 12:29 that the Spirit of the LORD came upon him and he mustered the forces to fight. However, he is suddenly overcome with doubt, and makes a terrible pledge.
He swears to God that if God helps him win the fight, he will sacrifice whatever comes out of his house to meet him after the war.
There should be no sugar coating this oath. The whole purpose of this oath was for Jephthah to sacrifice something of tremendous value. He was offering to kill a member of his own family. He knew what he was saying, and he said it anyway. Who else would be in his house and come out to meet him? It would be a family member.
The question is why.
Why would he make such an evil pledge? In the previous verse, just a single sentence before his oath, the Bible tells us that the Spirit of God came upon him. Why, having the spirit of God, would he say such a thing?
The answer is strikingly realistic. He felt the need to secure and validate God’s power. He knew he had a gifting from God, but feared he would lose it unless he did or said something drastic. He did not understand God’s free gift. He felt he had to put down a security deposit in order to be assured of it.
Of course it was his daughter that came out, and he followed through with his pledge and sacrificed her. There is some debate over whether he was right to follow through with his oath or not, but there really is no room for debate. Is God honored by human sacrifice? No. Of course not. The oath was evil. Following through with the oath did not make it better. It made it worse.
From that moment on, Jephthah’s rule is marked with bloodshed and destruction. After sacrificing his daughter he faces a civil war in which 42,000 men of Ephraim are killed. He only ruled as judge for six years before his own death.
He had potential. God gifted him with a spirit of leadership and bravery in battle, but he squandered it by not fully trusting in God. He felt the need to earn God’s favor by giving up something valuable, rather than simply accepting God’s gift with humility.
Ask yourself this question: Which requires more humility? To accept God’s gift freely with no pledge attached to it, or to earn it? Jephthah took the prideful course of action and spent the last short years of his life in tragedy.