Michael S. Heiser
The story of Jephthah and his tragic vow is paralleled by other stories—including a New Testament story that subverts it.
After the brief judgeship of Jair (a man from Gilead), the people of Israel fell into idolatry by worshipping foreign gods (Judg 10:6). God then allowed a foreign enemy to oppress the Israelites as punishment. This time it was the Ammonites, who lived on the other side of the Jordan in a place also known as Gilead. The people immediately called on God for deliverance. Ironically, God responded by calling Jephthah, another judge from Gilead.
In Judges 11, Jephthah sends a message to the king of the Ammonites. He wonders why the king is not content with the land that his god Chemosh had given to the Ammonites. Jephthah’s plea is flawed: Milkom was the chief deity of Ammon—not Chemosh. It won’t be the last time he makes a theological blunder.
When Jephthah leads Israel against Ammon, the Spirit of the LORD comes upon him for battle. Just before the fight, he utters his horrible vow: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering” (11:30–31). Upon his victorious return, it is his only child, his daughter, who greets him.
The Story Behind the Story
The ancient Israelites believed that geographical areas and nations were under the dominion of other gods, put there by Yahweh, the God of Israel, who had rejected the nations as His people (Deut 4:19–20; 32:8–9). The Jephthah episode reflects that worldview.
Judges 11:10–11 tells us that the Israelites worshipped other gods, including Milkom. Human sacrifices were made to Milkom. Through his own theological ignorance, Jephthah wound up performing a human sacrifice, per Ammonite Milkom worship, to fulfill his foolish vow to Yahweh. He had Yahweh in view, but his perspective on worship was warped. Remember, at this time there was no king, no spiritual leadership, and no centralized system of worship.
The Story Repurposed
The tragedy of Jephthah is repurposed in the New Testament story of Jesus raising the daughter of Jairus (Luke 8:40–56). The details are subtle but theologically powerful.
Jephthah’s only daughter
Preceded as judge by Jair (spelled in the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, as Ιαϊρ)
Land of Jephthah = Gilead (Judg 11:1)
Land of Jair = Gilead (Judg 10:3–5)
Gilead = east of the Jordan, ruled by the Ammonites in Jephthah’s day
Jairus’ only daughter (Luke 8:42)
Jairus (spelled in Greek as Ιαϊρος)
Jairus encounters Jesus on the shore of the sea of Galilee, after Jesus’ return from Gerasa/Gadara = Gilead in the Old Testament
An Israelite leader who worships Yahweh in the manner of false gods
Selfish vow results in the human sacrifice of his daughter
An Israelite girl is sacrificed to a foreign god
A Jewish leader who embraces Jesus
Unselfishly pleads to Jesus for the life of his daughter
A Jewish girl is raised by the true God incarnate
Daughter raised to life
As was the case in the original Jephthah story, this repurposing is about which god is king, and what territory is his rightful domain. Jesus is showing that Gilead is being taken back by the true God.
Immediately before the Jairus story in Luke’s account, Jesus casts out an unclean spirit in Gerasa/Gedara. In Old Testament times, this place was called Gilead. In Jephthah’s day, this was the territory of the Ammonites who worshipped Milkom, devourer of children. This is also the only Gospel event in which Jesus is addressed as “son of the Most High”—the title of God referenced in the Old Testament when the nations were divided and their people were put under other gods (Deut 32:8–9). The casting out of demons marked the onset of the kingdom of God in the Gospels (Matt 12:28). By casting out these demons in what used to be Gilead, Jesus is asserting His kingly dominion over that place.
On His way back from accomplishing that mission, Jesus meets Jairus, whose daughter has died. Seeing his faith, Jesus raises his daughter. The gospel writer is, in literary terms, reversing the other horror of Gilead: the human sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter.
All biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).