The Forgotten Man Named Jephthah

Title: The Forgotten Man Named Jephthah

Bible Book: Hebrews 11 : 32

Author: David E. Owen

Subject: Redemption; Forgiveness



For a few weeks now, we have been looking at a list of biblical figures that are found in Hebrews 11:32. There the Bible says, “And what shall I more say? For the time would fail me to tell of Gedeon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthae; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets.”

The title of our series is “Unlikely Heroes,” and as we begin to study the lives of these six individuals in Hebrews 11:32, we learn that “Unlikely Heroes” is exactly what these six are.

Thus far, we have focused on the first name in the listing as we studied “The Fearful Man Named Gideon.” We looked at the second name in the listing as we studied “The Feeble Man Named Barak.” And we looked at the third name in this listing as we studied “The Fleshly Man Named Samson.”

Today, we’re looking at the fourth name in this listing, and it is the name Jephthah. In a recent email newsletter from Leadership Journal, Scot McKnight, who is professor of religious studies at North Park University in Chicago said, “For some reason of late, I have become fascinated with the portions of the Bible we don’t tend to read, passages like the story of Jephthah.” Now I’m curious. How many of you have ever heard of Jephthah? How many of you have ever heard a sermon on Jephthah?

Arthur Miller’s best-known play and winner of the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for drama, Death of a Salesman, tells the sad story of an aging man named Willy Loman who, after he is fired, tries to understand why he has failed as a traveling salesman, as a father, and as a husband. In one scene, he is going out for the evening with his son. And before they leave, Willy’s wife Linda says, “Be kind to your father, Son; he is only a little boat looking for a harbor.”

In the book of Judges, we find this man who, like the other judges, fought to deliver Israel from the continuing oppression and opposition of the Canaanites. However, other characters in Israel’s history overshadow the name of Jephthah, and what we do know of his associations and his actions have sometimes caused us to think of him in a negative way. He seems to be a small personality, forgotten in the great scheme of things. Like “a little boat looking for a harbor,” he struggles to find his place in life.

For most of you, Jephthah is probably the unknown or unfamiliar name in this listing in Hebrews 11:32. And for that reason, I am calling him, “The Forgotten Man Named Jephthah.” One evangelist that I know found himself in an embarrassing situation when he forgot the name of the pastor for whom he was preaching a revival. He thought that he came up with a clever way to rectify the problem when he asked the pastor, “Brother, how do you spell your first name?” And with a quizzical look on his face, the pastor said, “B-O-B.”

Certainly, in this list of well known names in Hebrews 11:32, names like Samson and David and Samuel, and even Gideon, it is easy to forget about Jephthah. For much of his early life, his own brothers wished that they could have forgotten about Jephthah. Not because of any flaw in his character, but because of the circumstances of his birth (specifically, the fact that his mother was a harlot), he was the black sheep of the family.

Harold Willmington said that one of the great spiritual lessons that we learn from the life of Jephthah is that “A person’s background does not in the least prevent God from working greatly in his or her life.” I think we need to remember this in church experience. Someone reminded me yesterday that Christians are the only army that buries their wounded. How easy it is to be critical of those whose lives and backgrounds are flawed in some way.

Jephthah was a forgotten man, and in many respects he was a flawed man. But because we find him listed in Hebrews 11, we can also say that Jephthah was a faithful man. In the truest sense, Jephthah was an unlikely hero.

The name Jephthah means “whom God sets free,” or “the breaker through.” Another possible meaning of this name is “opened,” or “opener,” probably signifying the idea that “Jehovah will open.” His name reminds us that God used this overlooked man to deliver his people from the oppression of the Amorites.

As we study the life of Jephthah, there are several important elements in his story that we should mention. And in order to better understand Jephthah and his unlikelihood as a hero, we must look in Judges chapter 10 thru chapter 12.

Just in an introductory way, it will be helpful in understanding Jephthah’s story to see The Disobedient Factor in Judges chapter 10.

1. It is here that we see The Evil Actions Of The Jews (Judges 10:6)

2. It is here that we see The Exasperated Attitude Of Jehovah (Judges 10:7-18)


I. Let’s Notice Jephthah And His Dysfunctional Family

The term “dysfunctional” has been used in recent years to describe the family unit that cannot satisfactorily and successfully function as a family unit. The family is the oldest and most fundamental of human institutions, and generally consists of a man and woman who produces children, care for them, and help train them in the ways of their culture. This simple family structure is known as the conjugal or nuclear family, and is present in virtually all known societies. In Jephthah’s life dysfunction played a very real part, and the simple family was not so simple.

A. We See The Reproach In His Background

1. There Is The Reproach Of His Conception

(Judges 11:1) Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty man of valour, and he was the son of an harlot: and Gilead begat Jephthah.

The Bible tells us that Jephthah was “a mighty man of valour,” and the Keil and Delitzsch Commentary paraphrases this by saying, “Jephthah the Gileadite was a brave hero.” He was a valiant man, a man of powerful strength and excellence in warfare. “And he was the son of an harlot.” Some have suggested that this word “harlot” merely suggests a hostess or an inn keeper who was not a Hebrew. She was a “strange woman” (vs. 2). But the meaning behind this word “harlot” suggests that she was an adulterous woman.

Perhaps the phrase would be better rendered by saying, “But he was the son of an harlot,” for his blemished lineage certainly stands in contrast to his brave life. Jephthah was “the son of an harlot.” Whether Jephthah’s father Gilead was already married when he had this scandalous relationship with “a strange woman” (vs. 2) is not clear. In any event, he is an illegitimate child. John Wesley said, “such were not ordinarily to enter into the congregation of the Lord” (cf. Deuteronomy 23:2).

According to Hitchcock’s Bible Names Dictionary, the name “Gilead” means “the heap or mass of testimony.” So this son of an harlot would naturally diminish this heap of testimony.

2. The Reproach Of His Companions

(Judges 11:3) Then Jephthah fled from his brethren, and dwelt in the land of Tob: and there were gathered vain men to Jephthah, and went out with him.

fled – Hebrew 1272. barach, baw-rakh'; a prim. root; to bolt, i.e. flg. to flee suddenly:--chase (away); drive away, fain, flee (away), put to flight, make haste, reach, run away, shoot.

This word indicates that one day, he had just had enough, and so he suddenly ran away.

Tob – Hebrew 2897. Towb, tobe; the same as H2896; good; Tob, a region appar. E. of the Jordan:--Tob.

For Jephthah, this represented not only a “good” land, but a better place than he had at home with all of the critical brothers.

vain – Hebrew 7386. reyq, rake; empty; fig. worthless:--emptied (-ty), vain (fellow, man).

As if the reproach of his conception were not enough to have to overcome, when he gets out on his own the only friends that he can find are “vain men,” or worthless men; others who, like himself, are cast out from the mainstream of society. Because birds of a feather do flock together, Jephthah bore the reproach of his companions.

B. We See The Rejection By His Brethren

1. They Would Not Endure The Sharing Of Their Father’s Inheritance

Most wives would not be inclined to tolerate the illegitimate son of their husband and a harlot living in the same household with them. But apparently, that is exactly where Jephthah was raised. John Gill suggests that in all likelihood Gilead was dead by the time his other sons are grown and “thrust out Jephthah” (vs. 2), or he would not have allowed it, and what follows confirms that he was dead. It had come time to divide the family fortune to Gilead's heirs, but they dogmatically said, Thou shalt not inherit in our father's house (vs. 2).

2. They Would Not Endure The Stain Of Their Father’s Infidelity

For thou art the son of a strange woman (vs. 2).

strange – Hebrew 312. 'acher; properly it means hinder; generally it means next, other, etc.:-- another, next.

W. G. Blaikie said there was “no good example, no holy home, no mother’s affection, no father’s wise and weighty counsel.” Considering that he was brought up in such a flawed environment, Jephthah would have many obstacles to overcome. (Cf. Judges 12:1-4) Perhaps the sons of Gilead were made to feel like they were rejected, so when they were old enough they exerted their own power to reject their half brother.

II. Let’s Notice Jephthah And His Daughter’s Fate

Generally speaking, all people encounter two families: the family they are born into, called the family of orientation, and the family they form when they take a spouse, called the family of procreation. We know relatively little about either of Jephthah’s two family situations, but the Bible does tell us that Jephthah was the father of one daughter. “And she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter” (Judges 11:34). Neither her age nor her name seems to be important factors in this story, but what is important is what ultimately happens to her.

The crisis began with a part of Jephthah’s story that we have not yet mentioned. His brethren apologetically returned to Jephthah to persuade him to lead them in the war with the Ammonites. After some reluctance, Jephthah agreed to be their captain. He attempted to negotiate the matter peacefully, but when war became unavoidable, in order to ensure divine intervention in the battle, Jephthah made what many believe to have been a rash vow. He promised to offer to the Lord whatever came first out of his house to meet him after the battle. (Judges 11:8-31). “And, behold, his daughter came out to meet him” (Judges 11:34).

A. There Was A Controversial Promise That Affected Jephthah’s Daughter

1. It Is Controversial When We Think About The Necessity Of It

It was not necessary for Jephthah to make his vow in order to secure a God-given victory.

a. He Had The Confirmation Of The Historical Summary (vs. 12-27)

b. He Had The Confirmation Of The Holy Spirit (vs. 28-29)

F. B. Meyer said…

There is no need to bribe God’s help, as Jephthah did, by his rash promise. He will give gladly and freely out of His own heart of love the help and deliverance we need, if only our cause is rightly ordered before Him. “Who delivered, and doth deliver; He will yet deliver” (2 Corinthians 1:10). When we are right with our fellow men, we can confidently count on God’s almighty helpfulness.

2. It Is Controversial When We Think About The Nature Of It

(Judges 11:30-31) And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands, {31} Then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD'S, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.

Did Jephthah’s vow involve his daughter’s (a) death or her (b) dedication to the Lord? Says Adam Clarke, “Several of the rabbis, and many very learned Christian expositors, believe that Jephthah’s daughter was not really sacrificed, but that her virginity was consecrated to God, and that she separated from all connection with the world; which indeed seems to be implied in the sacred historian’s account: ‘And she knew no man’ (Judges 11:39).” On the other hand, there are just as many commentators and preachers who believe that because Jephthah had been exposed to a pagan environment in Tob, he was fully prepared to offer up a human sacrifice.

I am personally of the opinion that Jephthah’s vow carried with it the stipulation that if it was a thing fit for a burnt offering, it should be thus offered. “Besides,” as Adam Clarke reminds us, “human sacrifices were ever an abomination to the Lord.”

Cf. (Deuteronomy 12:29-31) When the LORD thy God shall cut off the nations from before thee, whither thou goest to possess them, and thou succeedest them, and dwellest in their land; {30} Take heed to thyself that thou be not snared by following them, after that they be destroyed from before thee; and that thou inquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise. {31} Thou shalt not do so unto the LORD thy God: for every abomination to the LORD, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods.

B. There Was A Conclusive Path That Affected Jephthah’s Daughter

Long before the advent of the “promise keepers” movement there was a father who kept his promise and in anguish told his daughter, “I have opened my mouth unto the LORD, and I cannot go back” (11:35). We further learn that he “did with her according to his vow which he had vowed” (11:39).

1. Her Father’s Decision Dramatically Impacted Her Future

W. A. Criswell in a sermon entitled “The Faithful Jephthah” said…

The sorrow that was involved with this consecration was this, you see, Jephthah did not have a boy. And he did not have any other child. He did not have any other son. He did not have any other daughter. And this daughter was his only child and for her not to be married and for her not to have a family, meant that the line of Jephthah ended. It died. … And for this daughter to be denied the home and the privilege, and the happiness of being a mother, meant to Jephthah and to his child the death of the family—the end of the line. So when the father said to her, “I made this vow to the Lord”; she said, thou hast made the vow, “do to me according to that which has proceeded out of thy mouth;” only, she said, Let me weep, especially two months, that the family dies in us, and that I shall never have a home and never have a child. And the father said, “Go … and she knew no man.” (

2. Her Father’s Decision Drastically Influenced Her Friends

(Judges 11:38-40) And he said, Go. And he sent her away for two months: and she went with her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains. {39} And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she knew no man. And it was a custom in Israel, {40} That the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year.

lament – Hebrew 8567. tanah, taw-naw'; a primary root word [rather identified with H8566 through the idea of attributing honor]; to ascribe (praise), i.e. celebrate, commemorate:--lament, rehearse.

The Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary says…

[That the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament] – to rehearse her doings; i.e., to praise her for the religions life she led. It might be that this anniversary was observed only during the lifetime of Jephthah’s daughter, and chiefly by the women of the Gileadite district who were acquainted with her, or cognizant of the circumstances connected with her pious self-sacrifice.

Life would never be the same for Jephthah or his daughter. And how many of us have made decisions that have negatively impacted our children?

Isn’t there more to Jephthah than just an unfavorable past and an unfortunate promise? Doesn’t his story reveal something more notable and desirable? The answer is a resounding “Yes!”

III. Let’s Notice Jephthah And His Documented Faith

Jephthah did not make his vow in the name of the Phoenician deity, Baal, nor did he move toward victory trusting in Molech, the chief deity of the Ammonites. He twice mentions “the Lord God of Israel” to the Ammonites (Judges 11:21, 23). And he claims a personal affiliation as he says, “The Lord our God” (11:24). Jephthah is undeniably a man of faith.

A. His Faith Is Recorded In The Bible

1. His Faith Is Revealed Through His Accomplishments

(1 Samuel 12:11) And the LORD sent Jerubbaal, and Bedan, and Jephthah, and Samuel, and delivered you out of the hand of your enemies on every side, and ye dwelled safe.

(Judges 11:29-30) Then the spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah, and he passed over Gilead, and Manasseh, and passed over Mizpeh of Gilead, and from Mizpeh of Gilead he passed over unto the children of Ammon. {30} And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands,

He was dependent upon God to do the work.

The Bible also reminds us that he was used of God as a judge in Israel…

(Judges 12:7) And Jephthah judged Israel six years. Then died Jephthah the Gileadite, and was buried in one of the cities of Gilead.

2. His Faith Is Revealed Through His Association

This is not his association with the vain men of Judges 11:3 but with the virtuous men of Hebrews 11. His association with the other heroes in Hebrews 11 reminds us of the faith of Jephthah.

B. His Faith Is Reflected In His Baby

I have to believe that Jephthah shared his faith with his daughter. Ephesians 6:4 says, “And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord,” and apparently Jephthah had instilled in his child what he knew about the Lord God of Israel.

1. Notice Her Submission To Her Father’s Vow

(Judges 11:36a) And she said unto him, My father, if thou hast opened thy mouth unto the LORD, do to me according to that which hath proceeded out of thy mouth...

2. Notice Her Statement About Her Father’s Victory

(Judges 11:36b) ... forasmuch as the LORD hath taken vengeance for thee of thine enemies, even of the children of Ammon.

Her faith in God certainly reflects favorably upon Jephthah.


For a couple of days now, I have struggled to find some closing illustration or story or personal account that would cement the truth that God can take those who have flaws and failures in their background and turn them into a hero of faith. But no single story came to mind, and I could find no account that I felt adequately conveyed this truth. But then, I began to think about all the people who would be here today. And I expect that just about everyone in this room has some flaw in their background or some stain in their family history. Some of you may have been born out of wedlock. Some of you had an abusive or drunken parent. Some of you grew up with a façade of normalcy, but beneath the surface there was dysfunction.

I also expect that just about everyone in this room has made some bad or hasty decision in life; in some cases, decisions that negatively impacted your children and your family. Some of you may have made a poor decision the first time you got married, and that marriage ended in divorce. Some of you have made financial decisions that have put you in economic and emotional bondage and it has ultimately put a strain on your marriage. Some of you make decisions each week that reflect a lack of commitment in your relationship to God. How is that affecting your children? What kind of disciples will they be considering the path that you have them on?

Friend, I want to tell you that regardless of the past circumstances and the poor choices in your life, God can work redemptively and forgivingly in your life. And He can make your life more than it has been.

Are you an unlikely candidate for God to use? We all are…

(1 Corinthians 1:26-31) For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: {27} But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; {28} And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: {29} That no flesh should glory in his presence. {30} But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption: {31} That, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.

We have called Jephthah “the forgotten man.” I believe though, that here is a man worth remembering. If God can bring a little boat like Jephthah into the harbor of faith, I must put the mistakes of the past behind me and reach toward the future, believing that in spite of my shortcomings God can use me for His glory!

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