Expositor's Bible Commentary
Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty man of valour, and he was the son of an harlot: and Gilead begat Jephthah.
GILEAD AND ITS CHIEF
Jdg 10:1-18; Jdg 11:1-11
THE scene of the history shifts now to the east of Jordan, and we learn first of the influence which the region called Gilead was coming to have in Hebrew development from the brief notice of a chief named Jair, who held the position of judge for twenty-two years. Tola, a man of Issachar, succeeded Abimelech, and Jair followed Tola. In the Book of Numbers we are informed that the children of Machir son of Manasseh went to Gilead and took it and dispossessed the Amorites which were therein; and Moses gave Gilead unto Machir the son of Manasseh. It is added that Jair, the son or descendant of Manasseh, went and took the towns of Gilead and called them Havvoth-jair; and in this statement the Book of Numbers anticipates the history of the judges.
Gilead is described by modern travellers as one of the most varied districts of Palestine. The region is mountainous and its peaks rise to three and even four thousand feet above the trough of the Jordan. The southern part is beautiful and fertile, watered by the Jabbok and other streams that flow westward from the hills. "The valleys green Kith corn, the streams fringed with oleander, the magnificent screens of yellow-green and russet foliage which cover the steep slopes present a scene of quiet beauty, of chequered light and shade of uneastern aspect which makes Mount Gilead a veritable land of promise." "No one," says another writer, "can fairly judge of Israel’s heritage who has not seen the exuberance of Gilead as well as the hard rocks of Judaea, which only yield their abundance to reward constant toil and care." In Gilead the rivers flow in summer as well as in winter, and they are filled with fishes and fresh-water shells. While in Western Palestine the soil is insufficient now to support a large population, beyond Jordan improved cultivation alone is needed to make the whole district a garden.
To the north and east of Gilead lie Bashan and that extraordinary volcanic region called the Argob or the Lejah, where the Havvoth-jair or towns of Jair were situated. The traveller who approaches this singular district from the north sees it rising abruptly from the plain, the edge of it like a rampart about twenty feet high. It is of a rude oval shape, some twenty miles long from north to south, and fifteen in breadth, and is simply a mass of dark jagged rocks, with clefts between in which were built not a few cities and villages. The whole of this Argob or Stony Land, Jephthah’s land of Tob, is a natural fortification, a sanctuary open only to those who have the secret of the perilous paths that wind along savage cliff and deep defile. One who established himself here might soon acquire the fame and authority of a chief, and Jair, acknowledged by the Manassites as their judge, extended his power and influence among the Gadites and Reubenites farther south.
But plenty of corn and wine and oil and the advantage of a natural fortress which might have been held against any foe did not avail the Hebrews when they were corrupted by idolatry. In the land of Gilead and Bashan they became a hardy and vigorous race, and yet when they gave themselves up to the influence of the Syrians, Sidonians, Ammonites, and Moabites, forsaking the Lord and serving the gods of these peoples, disaster overtook them. The Ammonites were ever on the watch, and now, stronger than for centuries in consequence of the defeat of Midian and Amalek by Gideon, they fell on the Hebrews of the east, subdued them and even crossed Jordan and fought with the southern tribes, so that Israel was sore distressed.
We have found reason to suppose that during the many turmoils of the north the tribes of Judah and Simeon and to some extent Ephraim were pleased to dwell secure in their own domains, giving little help to their kinsfolk. Deborah and Barak got no troops from the south, and it was with a grudge Ephraim joined in the pursuit of Midian. Now the time has come for the harvest of selfish content. Supposing the people of Judah to have been specially engaged with religion and the arranging of worship that did not justify their neglect of the political troubles of the north. It was a poor religion then, as it is a poor religion now, that could exist apart from national well being and patriotic duty. Brotherhood must be realised in the nation as well as in the church, and piety must fulfil itself through patriotism as well as in other ways.
No doubt the duties we owe to each other and to the nation of which we form a part are imposed by natural conditions which have arisen in the course of history, and some may think that the natural should give way to the spiritual. They may see the interests of a kingdom of this world as actually opposed to the interests of the kingdom of God. The apostles of Christ, however, did not set the human and divine in contrast, as if God in His providence had nothing to do with the making of a nation. "The powers that be are ordained of God," says St. Paul in writing to the Romans; and again in his First Epistle to Timothy, "I exhort that supplications, prayers, intercessions, thanksgivings be made for all men: for kings and all that are in high place, that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and gravity." To the same effect St. Peter says, "Be subject to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake." Natural and secular enough were the authorities to which submission was thus enjoined. The policy of Rome was of the earth earthy. The wars it waged, the intrigues that went on for power savoured of the most carnal ambition. Yet as members of the commonwealth Christians were to submit to the Roman magistrates and intercede with God on their behalf, observing closely and intelligently all that went on, taking due part in affairs. No room was to be given for the notion that the Christian society meant a new political centre. In our own times there is a duty which many never understand, or which they easily imagine is being fulfilled for them. Let religious people be assured that generous and intelligent patriotism is demanded of them and attention to the political business of the time. Those who are careless will find, as did the people of Judah, that in neglecting the purity of government and turning a deaf ear to cries for justice, they are exposing their country to disaster and their religion to reproach.
We are told that the Israelites of Gilead worshipped the gods of the Phoenicians and Syrians, of the Moabites and of the Ammonites. Whatever religious rites took their fancy they were ready to adopt. This will be to their credit in some quarters as a mark of openness of mind, intelligence, and taste. They were not bigoted; other men’s ways in religion and civilisation were not rejected as beneath their regard. The argument is too familiar to be traced more fully. Briefly it may be said that if catholicity could save a race Israel should rarely have been in trouble, and certainly not at this time. One name by which the Hebrews knew God was El or Elohim. When they found among the gods of the Sidonians one called El, the careless minded supposed that there could be no harm in joining in his worship. Then came the notion that the other divinities of the Phoenician Pantheon, such as Melcarth, Dagon, Derketo, might be adored as well. Very likely they found zeal and excitement in the alien religious gatherings which their own had lost. So they slipped into practical heathenism.
And the process goes on among ourselves. Through the principles that culture means artistic freedom and that worship is a form of art we arrive at taste or liking as the chief test. Intensity of feeling is craved and religion must satisfy that or be despised. It is the very error that led Hebrews to the feasts of Astarte and Adonis, and whither it tends we can see in the old history. Turning from the strong earnest gospel which grasps intellect and will to shows and ceremonies that please the eye, or even to music refined and devotional that stirs and thrills the feelings, we decline from the reality of religion. Moreover a serious danger threatens us in the far too common teaching which makes little of truth, everything of charity. Christ was most charitable, but it is through the knowledge and practice of truth He offers freedom. He is our King by His witness bearing not to charity but to truth. Those who are anxious to keep us from bigotry and tell us that meekness, gentleness, and love are more than doctrine mislead the mind of the ago. Truth in regard to God and His covenant is the only foundation on which life can be securely built, and without right thinking there cannot be right living. A man may be amiable, humble, patient, and kind though he has no doctrinal belief and his religion is of the purely emotional sort; but it is the truth believed by previous generations, fought and suffered for by stronger men, not his own gratification of taste, that keeps him in the right way. And when the influence of that truth decays there will remain no anchorage, neither compass nor chart for the voyage. He will be like a wave of the sea driven of the wind and tossed.
Again, the religious so far as they have wisdom and strength are required to be pioneers, which they can never be in following fancy or taste, Here nothing but strenuous thought, patient faithful obedience can avail. Hebrew history is the story of a pioneer people and every lapse from fidelity was serious, the future of humanity being at stake. Each Christian society and believer has work of the same kind not less important, and failures due to intellectual sloth and moral levity are as dishonourable as they are hurtful to the human race. Some of our heretics now are more serious than Christians, and they give thought and will more earnestly to the opinions they try to propagate. While the professed servants of Christ, who should be marching in the van, are amusing themselves with the accessories of religion, the resolute socialist or nihilist, reasoning and speaking with the heat of conviction, leads the masses where he will.
The Ammonite oppression made the Hebrews feel keenly the uselessness of heathenism. Baal and Melcarth had been thought of as real divinities, exercising power in some region or other of earth or heaven, and Israel’s had been an easy backsliding. Idolatry did not appear as darkness to people who had never been fully in the light. But when trouble came and help was sorely needed they began to see that the Baalim were nothing. What could these idols do for men oppressed and at their wits’ end? Religion was of no avail unless it brought an assurance of One Whose strong hand could reach from land to land, Whose grace and favour could revive sad and troubled souls. Heathenism was found utterly barren, and Israel turned to Jehovah the God of its fathers. "We have sinned against Thee even because we have forsaken our God and have served the Baalim."
Those who now fall away from faith are in worse case by far than Israel. They have no thought of a real power that can befriend them. It is to mere abstractions they have given the Divine name. In sin and sorrow alike they remain with ideas only, with bare terms of speculation in which there is no life, no strength, no hope for the moral nature. They are men and have to live; but with the living God they have entirely broken. In trouble they can only call on the Abyss or the Immensities, and there is no way of repentance though they seek it carefully with tears. At heart therefore they are pessimists without resource. Sadness deep and deadly ever waits upon such unbelief, and our religion today suffers from gloom because it is infected by the uncertainties and denials of an agnosticism at once positive and confused.
Another paganism, that of gathering and doing in the world sphere, is constantly beside us, drawing multitudes from fidelity to Christ as Baal worship drew Israel from Jehovah, and it is equally barren in the sharp experiences of humanity. Earthly things venerated in the ardour of business and the pursuit of social distinction appear as impressive realities only while the soul sleeps. Let it be aroused by some overturn of the usual, one of those floods that sweep suddenly down on the cities which fill the valley of life, and there is a quick pathetic confession of the truth. The soul needs help now, and its help must come from the Eternal Spirit. We must have done with mere saying of prayers and begin to pray. We must find access, if access is to be had, to the secret place of the Most High on Whose mercy we depend to redeem us from bondage and fear. Sad therefore is it for those who having never learned to seek the throne of divine succour are swept by the wild deluge from their temples and their gods. It is a cry of despair they raise amid the swelling torrent. You who now by the sacred oracles and the mediation of Christ can come into the fellowship of eternal life, be earnest and eager in the cultivation of your faith. The true religion of God which avails the soul in its extremity is not to be had in a moment, when suddenly its help is needed. That confidence which has been established in the mind by serious thought, by the habit of prayer and reliance on divine wisdom can alone bring help when the foundations of the earthly are destroyed.
To Israel troubled and contrite came as on previous occasions a prophetic message; and it was spoken by one of those incisive ironic preachers who were born from time to time among this strangely heathen, strangely believing people. It is in terms of earnest remonstrance he speaks, at first almost going the length of declaring that there is no hope for the rebellious and ungrateful tribes. They found it an easy thing to turn from their Divine King to the gods they chose to worship. Now they perhaps expect as easy a recovery of His favour. But healing must begin with deeper wounding, and salvation with much keener anxiety. This prophet knows the need for utter seriousness of soul. As he loves and yearns over his country folk he must so deal with them; it is God’s way, the only way to save. Most irrationally, against all sound principles of judgment they had abandoned the Living One, the Eternal to worship hideous idols like Moloch and Dagon. It was wicked because it was wilfully stupid and perverse. And Jehovah says, "I will save you no more, Go and cry unto the gods which ye have chosen; let them save you in the day of your distress." The rebuke is stinging. The preacher makes the people feel the wretched insufficiency of their hope in the false, and the great strong pressure upon them of the Almighty, Whom, even in neglect, they cannot escape. We are pointed forward to the terrible pathos of Jeremiah:-"Who shall have pity upon thee, O Jerusalem? or who shall bemoan thee? or who shall turn aside to ask of thy welfare? Thou hast rejected me, saith the Lord, thou art gone backward: therefore have I stretched out my hand against thee, and destroyed thee: I am weary with repenting."
And notice to what state of mind the Hebrews were brought. Renewing their confession they said, "Do thou unto us whatsoever seemeth good unto Thee." They would be content to suffer now at the hand of God whatever He chose to inflict on them. They themselves would have exacted heavy tribute of a subject people that had rebelled and came suing for pardon. Perhaps they would have slain every tenth man. Jehovah might appoint retribution of the same kind; He might afflict them with pestilence; He might require them to offer a multitude of sacrifices. Men who traffic with idolatry and adopt gross notions of revengeful gods are certain to carry back with them when they return to the better faith many of the false ideas they have gathered. And it is just possible that a demand for human sacrifices was at this time attributed to God, the general feeling that they might be necessary connecting itself with Jephthah’s vow.
It is idle to suppose that Israelites who persistently lapsed into paganism could at any time, because they repented, find the spiritual thoughts they had lost. True those thoughts were at the heart of the national life, there always even when least felt. But thousands of Hebrews even in a generation of reviving faith died with but a faint and shadowy personal understanding of Jehovah. Everything in the Book of Judges goes to show that the mass of the people were nearer the level of their neighbours the Moabites and Ammonites than the piety of the Psalms. A remarkable ebb and flow are observable in the history of the race. Look at some facts and there seems to be decline. Samson is below Gideon, and Gideon below Deborah; no man of leading until Isaiah can be named with Moses. Yet ever and anon there are prophetic calls and voices out of a spiritual region into which the people as a whole do not enter, voices to which they listen only when distressed and overborne. Worldliness increases, for the world opens to the Hebrew; but it often disappoints, and still there are some to whom the heavenly secret is told. The race as a whole is not becoming more devout and holy, but the few are gaining a clearer vision as one experience after another is recorded. The antithesis is the same we see in the Christian centuries. Is the multitude more pious now than in the ago when a king had to do penance for rash words spoken against an ecclesiastic? Are the churches less worldly than they were a hundred years ago? Scarcely may we affirm it. Yet there never was an age so rich as ours in the finest spirituality, the noblest Christian thought. Our van presses up to the Simplon height and is in constant touch with those who follow; but the rear is still chaffering and idling in the streets of Milan. It is in truth always by the fidelity of the remnant that humanity is saved for God.
We cannot say that when Israel repented it was in the love of holiness so much as in the desire for liberty. The ways of the heathen were followed readily, but the supremacy of the heathen was ever abominable to the vigorous Israelite. By this national spirit however God could find the tribes, and a special feature of the deliverance from Ammon is marked where we read: "The people, the princes of Gilead said one to the other, What man is he that will begin to fight against the children of Ammon? he shall be head over all the inhabitants of Gilead." Looking around for the fit leader they found Jephthah and agreed to invite him.
Now this shows distinct progress in the growth of the nation. There is, if nothing more, a growth in practical power. Abimelech had thrust himself upon the men of Shechem. Jephthah is chosen apart from any ambition of his own. The movement which made him judge arose out of the consciousness of the Gileadites that they could act for themselves and were bound to act for themselves. Providence indicated the chief, but they had to be instruments of providence in making him chief. The vigour and robust intelligence of the men of Eastern Palestine come out here. They lead in the direction of true national life. While on the west of Jordan there is a fatalistic disposition, these men move. Gilead, the separated country, with the still ruder Bashan behind it and the Argob a resort of outlaws, is beneath some other regions in manners and in thought, but ahead of them in point of energy. We need not look for refinement, but we shall see power; and the chosen leader, while he is something of the barbarian, will be a man to leave his mark on history.
At the start we are not prepossessed in favour of Jephthah. There is some confusion in the narrative which has led to the supposition that he was a foundling of the clan. But taking Gilead as the actual name of his father, he appears as the son of a harlot, brought up in the paternal home and banished from it when there were legitimate sons able to contend with him. We get thus a brief glance at a certain rough standard of morals and see that even polygamy made sharp exclusions. Jephthah, cast out, betakes himself to the land of Tob and getting about him a band of vain fellows or freebooter, becomes the Robin Hood or Rob Roy of his time. There are natural suspicions of a man who takes to a life of this kind, and yet the progress of events shows that though Jephthah was a sort of outlaw his character as well as his courage must have commended him. He and his men might occasionally seize for their own use the cattle and corn of Israelites when they were hard pressed for food. But it was generally against the Ammonites and other enemies their raids were directed, and the modern instances already cited show that no little magnanimity and even patriotism may go along with a life of lawless adventure. If this robber chief, as some might call him, now and again levied contributions from a wealthy flock master, the poorer Hebrews were no doubt indebted to him for timely help when bands of Ammonites swept through the land. Something of this we must read into the narrative, otherwise the elders of Gilead would not so unanimously and urgently have invited him to become their head.
Jephthah was not at first disposed to believe in the good faith of those who gave him the invitation. Among the heads of households who came he saw his own brothers who had driven him to the hills. He must have more than suspected that they only wished to make use of him in their emergency and, the fighting over, would set him aside. He therefore required an oath of the men that they would really accept him as chief and obey him. That given, he assumed the command.
And here the religious character of the man begins to appear. At Mizpah on the verge of the wilderness where the Israelites, driven northward by the victories of Ammon, had their camp there stood an ancient cairn or heap of stones which preserved the tradition of a sacred covenant and still retained the savour of sanctity. There it was that Jacob, fleeing from Padanaram on his way back to Canaan, was overtaken by Laban, and there raising the Cairn of Witness they swore in the sight of Jehovah to be faithful to each other. The belief still lingered that the old monument was a place of meeting between man and God. To it Jephthah repaired at this new point in his life. No more an adventurer, no more an outlaw, but the chosen leader of eastern Israel, "he spake all his words before Jehovah in Mizpah." He had his life. to review there, and that could not be done without serious thought. He had a new and strenuous future opened to him. Jephthah the outcast, the unnamed, was to be leader in a tremendous national struggle. The bold Gileadite feels the burden of the task. He has to question himself, to think of Jehovah. Hitherto he has been doing his own business and to that he has felt quite equal; now with large responsibility comes a sense of need. For a fight with society he has been strong enough; but can he be sure of himself as God's man, fighting against Ammon? Not a few words but many would he have to utter as on the hilltop in the silence he lifted up his soul to God and girt himself in holy resolution, as a father and a Hebrew, to do his duty in the day of battle. Thus we pass from doubt of Jephthah to the hope that the banished man, the freebooter, will yet prove to be an Israelite indeed, of sterling character, whose religion, very rude perhaps, has a deep strain of reality and power. Jephthah at the cairn of Mizpah lifting up his hands in solemn invocation of the God of Jacob reminds us that there are great traditions of the past of our nation and of our most holy faith to which we are bound to be true, that there is a God, our witness and our judge, in Whose strength alone we can live and do nobly. For the service of humanity and the maintenance of faith we need to be in close touch with the brave and good of other days and in the story of their lives find quickening, for our own. Along the same line and succession we are to bear our testimony, and no link of connection with the Divine Power is to be missed which the history of the men of faith supplies. Yet as our personal Helper especially we must know God. Hearing His call to ourselves we must lift the standard and go forth to the battle of life. Who can serve his family and friends, who can advance the well being of the world, unless he has entered into that covenant with the Living God which raises mortal insufficiency to power and makes weak and ignorant men instruments of a divine redemption?
And Jephthah sent messengers unto the king of the children of Ammon, saying, What hast thou to do with me, that thou art come against me to fight in my land?
THE TERRIBLE VOW
AT every stage of their history the Hebrews were capable of producing men of passionate religiousness. And this appears as a distinction of the group of nations to which they belong. The Arab of the present time has the same quality. He can be excited to a holy war in which thousands perish. With the battle cry of Allah and his Prophet he forgets fear. He presents a different mingling of character from the Saxon, -turbulence and reverence, sometimes apart, then blending magnanimity and a tremendous want of magnanimity; he is fierce and generous, now rising to vivid faith, then breaking into earthly passion. We have seen the type in Deborah. David is the same and Elijah; and Jephthah is the Gileadite, the border Arab. In each of these there is quick leaping at life and beneath hot impulse a strain of brooding thought with moments of intense inward trouble. As we follow the history we must remember the kind of man it presents to us. There is humanity as it is in every race, daring in effort, tender in affection, struggling with ignorance yet thoughtful of God and duty, triumphing here, defeated there. And there is the Syrian with the heat of the sun in his blood and the shadow of Moloch on his heart, a son of the. rude hills and of barbaric times, yet with a dignity, a sense of justice, a keen upward look, the Israelite never lost in the outlaw.
So soon as Jephthah begins to act for his people, marks of a strong character are seen. He is no ordinary leader, not the mere fighter the elders of Gilead may have taken him to be. His first act is to send messengers to the king of Ammon saying, What hast thou to do with me that thou art come to fight against my land? He is a chief who desires to avert bloodshed-a new figure in the history.
Natural in those times was the appeal to arms, so natural, so customary that we must not lightly pass this trait in the character of the Gileadite judge. If we compare his policy with that of Gideon or Barak we see of course that he had different circumstances to deal with. Between Jordan and the Mediterranean the Israelites required the whole of the land in order to establish a free nationality. There was no room for Canaanite or Midianite rule side by side with their own. The dominance of Israel had to be complete and undisturbed. Hence there was no alternative to war when Jabin or Zebah and Zalmunna attacked the tribes. Might had to be invoked on behalf of right. On the other side Jordan the position was different. Away towards the desert behind the mountains of Bashan the Ammonites might find pasture for their flocks, and Moab had its territory on the slopes of the lower Jordan and the Dead Sea. It was not necessary to crush Ammon in order to give Manasseh, Gad, and Reuben space enough and to spare. Yet there was a rare quality of judgment shown by the man who, although called to lead in war, began with negotiation and aimed at a peaceful settlement. No doubt there was danger that the Ammonites might unite with Midian or Moab against Israel. But Jephthah hazards such a coalition. He knows the bitterness kindled by strife. He desires that Ammon, a kindred people, shall be won over to friendliness with Israel, henceforth to be an ally instead of a foe.
Now in one aspect this may appear an error in policy, and the Hebrew chief will seem especially to blame when he makes the admission that the Ammonites hold their land from Chemosh their god. Jephthah has no sense of Israel’s mission to the world, no wish to convert Ammon to a higher faith, nor does Jehovah appear to him as sole King, sole object of human worship. Yet, on the other hand, if the Hebrews were to fight idolatry everywhere it is plain their swords would never have been sheathed. Phoenicia was close beside; Aram was not far away; northward the Hittites maintained their elaborate ritual. A line had to be drawn somewhere and, on the whole, we cannot but regard Jephthah as an enlightened and humane chief who wished to stir against his people and his God no hostility that could possibly be avoided. Why should not Israel conquer Ammon by justice and magnanimity, by showing the higher principles which the true religion taught? He began at all events by endeavouring to stay the quarrel, and the attempt was wise.
The king of Ammon refused Jephthah’s offer to negotiate. He claimed the land bounded by the Arnon, the Jabbok, and Jordan as his own and demanded that it should be peaceably given up to him. In reply Jephthah denied the claim. It was the Amorites, he said, who originally held that part of Syria. Sihon who was defeated in the time of Moses was not an Ammonite king, but chief of the Amorites. Israel had by conquest obtained the district in dispute, and Ammon must give place.
The full account given of these messages sent by Jephthah shows a strong desire on the part of the narrator to vindicate Israel from any charge of unnecessary warfare. And it is very important that this should be understood, for the inspiration of the historian is involved. We know of nations that in sheer lust of conquest have attacked tribes whose land they did not need, and we have read histories in which wars unprovoked and cruel have been glorified. In after times the Hebrew kings brought trouble and disaster on themselves by their ambition. It would have been well if David and Solomon had followed a policy like Jephthah’s rather than attempted to rival Assyria and Egypt. We see an error rather than a cause of boasting when David put garrisons in Syria of Damascus: strife was thereby provoked which issued in many a sanguinary war. The Hebrews should never have earned the character of an aggressive and ambitious people that required to be kept in check by the kingdoms around. To this nation, a worldly nation on the whole, was committed a spiritual inheritance, a spiritual task. Is it asked why, being worldly, the Hebrews ought to have fulfilled a spiritual calling? The answer is that their best men understood and declared the Divine will, and they should have listened to their best men. Their fatal mistake was, as Christ showed, to deride their prophets, to crush and kill the messengers of God. And many other nations likewise have missed their true vocation, being deluded by dreams of vast empire and earthly glory. To combat idolatry was indeed the business of Israel and especially to drive back the heathenism that would have overwhelmed its faith: and often this had to be done with an earthly sword because liberty no less than faith was at stake. But a policy of aggression was never the duty of this people.
The temperate messages of the Hebrew chief to the king of Ammon proved to be of no avail: war alone was to settle the rival claims. And this once clear Jephthah lost no time in preparing for battle. As one who felt that without God no man can do anything, he sought assurance of divine aid; and we have now to consider the vow which he made, ever interesting on account of the moral problem it involves and the very pathetic circumstances which accompanied its fulfilment.
The terms of the solemn engagement under which Jephthah came were these:-"If Thou wilt indeed deliver the children of Ammon into mine hand, then it shall be that whatsoever" (Septuagint and Vulgate, "whosoever") "cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the children of Ammon shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it (otherwise, him) for a burnt offering." And here two questions arise; the first, what he could have meant by the promise; the second, whether we can justify him in making it. As to the first, the explicit designation to God of whatever came forth of the doors of his house points unmistakably to a human life as the devoted thing. It would have been idle in an emergency like that in which Jephthah found himself, with a hazardous conflict impending that was to decide the fate of the eastern tribes at least, to anticipate the appearance of an animal, -bullock, goat, or sheep, -and promise that in sacrifice. The form of words used in the vow cannot be held to refer to an animal. The chief is thinking of some one who will express joy at his success and greet him as a victor. In the fulness of his heart he leaps to a wild savage mark of devotion. It is a crisis alike for him and for the people and what can he do to secure the favour and help of Jehovah? Too ready from his acquaintance with heathen sacrifices and ideas to believe that the God of Israel will be pleased with the kind of offerings by which the gods of Sidon and Aram were honoured, feeling himself as the chief of the Hebrews bound to make some great and unusual sacrifice, he does not promise that the captives taken in war shall be devoted to Jehovah, but some one of his own people is to be the victim. The dedication shall be all the more impressive that the life given up is one of which he himself shall feel the loss. A conqueror returning from war would, in ordinary circumstances, have loaded with gifts the first member of his household who came forth to welcome him. Jephthah vows to give that very person to God. The insufficient religious intelligence of the man, whose life had been far removed from elevating influences, this once perceived-and we cannot escape from the facts of the case-the vow is parallel to others of which ancient history tells. Jephthah expects some servant, some favourite slave to be the first. There is a touch of barbaric grandeur and at the same time of Roman sternness in his vow. As a chief he has the lives of all his household entirely at his disposal. To sacrifice one will be hard, for he is a humane man; but he expects that the offering will be all the more acceptable to the Most High. Such are the ideas moral and religious from which his vow springs.
Now we should like to find more knowledge and a higher vision in a leader of Israel. We would fain escape from the conclusion that a Hebrew could be so ignorant of the divine character as Jephthah appears; and moved by such feelings many have taken a very different view of the matter. The Gileadite has, for example, been represented as fully aware of the Mosaic regulations concerning sacrifice and the method for redeeming the life of a firstborn child; that is to say, he is supposed to have made his vow under cover of the Levitical provision by which in case his daughter should first meet him he would escape the necessity of sacrificing her. The rule in question could not, however, be stretched to a case like this. But, supposing it could, is it likely that a man whose whole soul had gone out in a vow of life and death to God would reserve such a door of escape? In that case the story would lose its terror indeed, but also its power: human history would be the poorer by one of the great tragic experiences, wild and supernatural, that show man struggling with thoughts above himself.
What did the Gileadite know? What ought he to have known? We see in his vow a fatalistic strain; he leaves it to chance or fate to determine who shall meet him. There is also an assumption of the right to take into his own lands the disposal of a human life; and this, though most confidently claimed, was entirely a factitious right. It is one which mankind has ceased to allow. Further, the purpose of offering a human being in sacrifice is unspeakably horrible to us. But how differently these things must have appeared in the dim light which alone guided this man of lawless life in his attempt to make sure of God and honour Him! We have but to consider things that are done at the present day in the name of religion, the lifelong "devotion" of young women in a nunnery, for example, and all the ceremonies which accompany that outrage on the divine order to see that centuries of Christianity have not yet put an end to practices which under colour of piety are barbaric and revolting. In the modern case a nun secluded from the world, dead to the world, is considered to be an offering to God. The old conception of sacrifice was that the life must pass out of the world by way of death in order to become God’s. Or again, when the priest describing the devotion of his body says: "The essential, the sacerdotal purpose to which it should be used is to die. Such death must be begun in chastity, continued in mortification, consummated in that actual death which is the priest’s final oblation, his last sacrifice," -the same superstition appears in a refined and mystical form.
His vow made, the chief went forth to battle, leaving in his home one child only, a daughter beautiful, high spirited, the joy of her father’s heart. She was a true Hebrew girl and all her thought was that he, her sire, should deliver Israel. For this she longed and prayed. And it was so. The enthusiasm of Jephthah’s devotion to God was caught by his troops and bore them on irresistibly. Marching from Mizpah in the land of Bashan they crossed Manasseh, and south from Mizpeh of Gilead, which was not far from the Jabbok, they found the Ammonites encamped. The first battle practically decided the campaign. From Aroer to Minnith, from the Jabbok to the springs of Arnon, the course of flight and bloodshed extended, until the invaders were swept from the territory of the tribes. Then came the triumphant return.
We imagine the chief as he approached his home among the hills of Gilead, his eagerness and exultation mingled with some vague alarm. The vow he has made cannot but weigh upon his mind now that the performance of it comes so near. He has had time to think what it implies. When he uttered the words that involved a life the issue of war appeared doubtful. Perhaps the campaign would be long and indecisive. He might have returned not altogether discredited, yet not triumphant. But he has succeeded beyond his expectation. There can be no doubt that the offering is due to Jehovah. Who then shall appear? The secret of his vow is hid in his own breast. To no man has he revealed his solemn promise; nor has he dared in any way to interfere with the course of events. As he passes up the valley with his attendants there is a stir in his rude castle. The tidings of his coming have preceded him and she, that dear girl who is the very apple of his eye, his daughter, his only child, having, already rehearsed her part, goes forth eagerly to welcome him. She is clad in her gayest dress. Her eyes are bright with the keenest excitement. The timbrel her father once gave her, on which she has often played to delight him, is tuned to a chant of triumph. She dances as she passes from the gate. Her father, her father, chief, and victor!
And he? A sudden horror checks his heart. He stands arrested, cold as stone, with eyes of strange dark trouble fixed upon the gay young figure that welcomes him to home and rest and fame. She flies to his arms, but they do not open to her. She looks at him, for he has never repulsed her-and why now? He puts forth his hands as if to thrust away a dreadful sight, and what does she hear? Amid the sobs of a strong man’s agony, "Alas, my daughter, thou hast brought me very low and thou art one of them that trouble me." To startled ears the truth is slowly told. She is vowed to the Lord in sacrifice. He cannot go back. Jehovah who gave the victory now claims the fulfilment of the oath.
We are dealing with the facts of life. For a time let us put aside the reflections that are so easy to make about rash vows and the iniquity of keeping them. Before this anguish of the loving heart, this awful issue of a sincere but superstitious devotion we stand in reverence. It is one of the supreme hours of humanity. Will the father not seek relief from his obligation? Will the daughter not rebel? Surely a sacrifice so awful will not be completed. Yet we remember Abraham and Isaac journeying together to Moriah, and how with the father’s resignation of his great hope there must have gone the willingness of the son to face death if that last proof of piety and faith is required. We look at the father and daughter of a later date and find the same spirit of submission to what is regarded as the will of God. Is the thing horrible-too horrible to be dwelt upon? Are we inclined to say,
"‘Heaven heads the count of crimes
With that wild oath?’ She renders answer high,
Not so; nor once alone, a thousand times
I would be born and die."’
It has been affirmed that "Jephthah’s rash act, springing from a culpable ignorance of the character of God, directed by heathen superstition and cruelty poured an ingredient of extreme bitterness into his cup of joy and poisoned his whole life." Suffering indeed there must have been for both the actors in that pitiful tragedy of devotion and ignorance, who knew not the God to Whom they offered the sacrifice. But it is one of the marks of rude erring man that he does take upon himself such burdens of pain in the service of the invisible Lord. A shallow scepticism entirely misreads the strange dark deeds often done for religion; yet one who has uttered many a foolish thing in the way of "explaining" piety can at last confess that the renouncing mortifying spirit is, with all its errors, one of man’s noble and distinguishing qualities. To Jephthah, as to his heroic daughter, religion was another thing than it is to many, just because of their extraordinary renunciation. Very ignorant they were surely, but they were not so ignorant as those who make no great offering to God, who would not resign a single pleasure, nor deprive a son or daughter of a single comfort or delight, for the sake of religion and the higher life. To what purpose is this waste? said the disciples, when the pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, was poured on the head of Jesus and the house was filled with the odour. To many now it seems waste to expend thought, time, or money upon a sacred cause, much more to hazard or to give life itself. We see the evils of enthusiastic self-devotion to the work of God very clearly; its power we do not feel. We are saving life so diligently, many of us, that we may well fear to lose it irremediably. There is no strain and therefore no strength, no joy. A weary pessimism dogs our unfaith.
To Jephthah and his daughter the vow was sacred, irrevocable. The deliverance of Israel by so signal and complete a victory left no alternative. It would have been well if they had known God differently; yet better this darkly impressive issue which went to the making of Hebrew faith and strength than easy unfruitful evasion of duty. We are shocked by the expenditure of fine feeling and heroism in upholding a false idea of God and obligation to Him; but are we outraged and distressed by the constant effort to escape from God which characterises our age? And have we for our own part come yet to the right idea of self and its relations? Our century, beclouded on many points, is nowhere less informed than in matters of self-sacrifice; Christ’s doctrine is still uncomprehended. Jephthah was wrong, for God did not need to be bribed to support a man who was bent on doing his duty. And many fail now to perceive that personal development and service of God are in the same line. Life is made for generosity, not mortification; for giving in glad ministry, not for giving up in hideous sacrifice. It is to be devoted to God by the free and holy use of body, mind, and soul in the daily tasks which Providence appoints.
The wailing of Jephthah’s daughter rings in our ears, bearing with it the anguish of many a soul tormented in the name of that which is most sacred, tormented by mistakes concerning God, the awful theory that He is pleased with human suffering. The relics of that hideous Moloch worship which polluted Jephthah’s faith, not even yet purged away by the Spirit of Christ, continue and make religion an anxiety and life a kind of torture. I do not speak of that devotion of thought and time, eloquence and talent to some worthless cause which here and there amazes the student of history and human life, the passionate ardour, for example, with which Flora Macdonald gave herself up to the service of a Stuart. But religion is made to demand sacrifices compared to which the offering of Jephthah’s daughter was easy. The imagination of women especially, fired by false representations of the death of Christ in which there was a clear divine assertion of self, while it is made to appear as complete suppression of self, bears many on in a hopeless and essentially immoral endeavour. Has God given us minds, feelings, right ambitions that we may crush them? Does He purify our desires and aspirations by the fire of his own Spirit and still require us to crush them? Are we to find our end in being nothing, absolutely nothing, devoid of will, of purpose, of personality? Is this what Christianity demands? Then our religion is but refined suicide, and the God who desires us to annihilate ourselves is but the Supreme Being of the Buddhists, if those may be said to have a god who regard the suppression of individuality as salvation.
Christ was made a sacrifice for us. Yes: He sacrificed everything except His own eternal life and power; He sacrificed ease and favour and immediate success for the manifestation of God. So He achieved the fulness of personal might and royalty. And every sacrifice His religion calls us to make is designed to secure that enlargement and fulness of spiritual individuality in the exercise of which we shall truly serve God and our fellows. Does God require sacrifice? Yes, unquestionably-the sacrifice which every reasonable being must make in order that the mind, the soul may be strong and free, sacrifice of the lower for the higher, sacrifice of pleasure for truth, of comfort for duty, of the life that is earthly and temporal for the life that is heavenly and eternal. And the distinction of Christianity is that it makes this sacrifice supremely reasonable because it reveals the higher life, the heavenly hope, the eternal rewards for which the sacrifice is to be made; that it enables us in making it to feel ourselves united to Christ in a divine work which is to issue in the redemption of mankind.
There are not a few popularly accepted guides in religion who fatally misconceive the doctrine of sacrifice. They take man-made conditions for Divine opportunities and calls. Their arguments come home not to the selfish and overbearing, but to the unselfish and long-suffering members of society, and too often they are more anxious to praise renunciation-any kind of it, for any purpose, so it involve acute feeling-than to magnify truth and insist on righteousness. It is women chiefly these arguments affect, and the neglect of pure truth and justice with which women are charged is in no small degree the result of false moral and religious teaching. They are told that it is good to renounce and suffer even when at every step advantage is taken of their submission and untruth triumphs over generosity. They are urged to school themselves to humiliation and loss not because God appoints these but because human selfishness imposes them. The one clear and damning objection to the false doctrine of self-suppression is here: it makes sin. Those who yield where they should protest, who submit where they should argue and reprove, make a path for selfishness and injustice and increase evil instead of lessening it. They persuade themselves that they are bearing the cross after Christ; but what in effect are they doing? The missionary amongst ignorant heathen has to bear to the uttermost as Christ bore. But to give so-called Christians a power of oppression and exaction is to turn the principles of religion upside down and hasten the doom of those for whom the sacrifice is made. When we meddle with truth and righteousness even in the name of piety we simply commit sacrilege, we range ourselves with the wrong and unreal; there is no foundation under our faith and no moral result of our endurance and self-denial. We are selling Christ, not following Him.