The Book of Judges takes place at the beginning of the Iron Age in the Middle East. At this time there is a great movement of peoples in the Middle East. The mighty Minoan, Hittite and Mycenaean empires are crumbling.
The wandering tribes of Israel have just entered Canaan (later called Israel).
Now, for the next two or three centuries, they are led first by Joshua and then by a series of ‘judges’, perhaps better described simply as ‘leaders’.
His tough background, Judges 11:1-3
1 Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior, but he was the son of a harlot. Gilead was the father of Jephthah.
2 And Gilead’s wife also bore him sons; and when his wife’s sons grew up, they thrust Jephthah out, and said to him, “You shall not inherit in our father’s house; for you are the son of another woman.”
3 Then Jephthah fled from his brothers, and dwelt in the land of Tob; and worthless fellows collected round Jephthah, and went raiding with him.
Jephtah an admired leader, Judges 11:4-11
Early Greek body armor; Jephtah and his men were not as well armed as this
4 After a time the Ammonites made war against Israel. 5 And when the Ammonites made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to bring Jephthah from the land of Tob; 6 and they said to Jephthah, “Come and be our leader, that we may fight with the Ammonites.”
7 But Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “Did you not hate me, and drive me out of my father’s house? Why have you come to me now when you are in trouble?”
8 And the elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “That is why we have turned to you now, that you may go with us and fight with the Ammonites, and be our head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.” 9 Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “If you bring me home again to fight with the Ammonites, and the LORD gives them over to me, I will be your head.” 10 And the elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “The LORD will be witness between us; we will surely do as you say.”
11 So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and leader over them; and Jephthah spoke all his words before the LORD at Mizpah.
Jephtah’s vow, Judges 11:29-36
29 Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manas’seh, and passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites.
30 And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD, and said, “If thou wilt give the Ammonites into my hand, 31 then whoever comes forth from the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the LORD’s, and I will offer him up for a burnt offering.”
32 So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them; and the LORD gave them into his hand. 33 And he smote them from Aro’er to the neighborhood of Minnith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel-keramim, with a very great slaughter.
So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel.
Jephthah Greeted By His Daughter, Erasmus Quellinus
34 Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances; she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter.
35 And when he saw her, he rent his clothes, and said, “Alas, my daughter! you have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me; for I have opened my mouth to the LORD, and I cannot take back my vow.”
36 And she said to him, “My father, if you have opened your mouth to the LORD, do to me according to what has gone forth from your mouth, now that the LORD has avenged you on your enemies, on the Ammonites.”
Jephtah’s daughter dies, Judges 11:37-40
The Lament of Jephtah’s Daughter by George Elgar Hick
37 And she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me; let me alone two months, that I may go and wander on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my companions.” 38 And he said, “Go.”
And he sent her away for two months; and she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains.
39 And at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had made. She had never known a man.
And it became a custom in Israel 40 that the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year.
‘Jephtah came from the bottom of the heap. His mother was a prostitute, and when his father died and the inheritance was divided, Jephtah’s legitimate half-brothers drove him off. He lived like a bandit, gathering thugs and thieves as his henchmen.’