When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break.”
“My father,” she replied, “you have given your word to the Lord. Do to me just as you promised, now that the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites.” [Judges 11:34-36, NIV]
The nameless, only child of Jephthah emerges from his door, his only daughter, his only progeny, his only posterity. The text allows for the daughter to learn about the vow at the moment the father utters his first words on his arrival, but there seems to be additional knowledge in the daughter’s reply: she knows about the victory over the Ammonites (Jephthah passes through Mizpah on the way to fight the Ammonites but does not make his vow until he is about to face them). It is doubtful that news arrives at Mizpah prior to Jephthah’s return in person. Moreover, she seems to know the content of the vow as well, hence her request for a period of mourning.
The defeat of the Ammonites is essentially a foregone conclusion. Jephthah and his ruthless band of the vain roll over their enemy in a blitzkrieg. Who is Jephthah, and who are his fellow warriors?
His father was Gilead; his mother was a prostitute. Gilead’s wife also bore him sons, and when they were grown up, they drove Jephthah away. “You are not going to get any inheritance in our family,” they said, “because you are the son of another woman.” So Jephthah fled from his brothers and settled in the land of Tob, where a gang of scoundrels gathered around him and followed him. [Judges 11:1-3, NIV]
“Scoundrels” is a reasonable word selection in English for the Hebrew reyq, in its sense of worthless, wicked and morally impoverished. It would appear that Gilead’s legitimate heirs are thinking of these qualities of their half-brother and his comitatus when they enlist his services in their defense. The calculating Jephthah now has his opportunity to restore what he believes to be his birthright, and closes the deal with his estranged and distracted family:
…when the Ammonites were fighting against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to get Jephthah from the land of Tob. “Come,” they said, “be our commander, so we can fight the Ammonites.”
Jephthah said to them, “Didn’t you hate me and drive me from my father’s house? Why do you come to me now, when you’re in trouble?”
The elders of Gilead said to him, “Nevertheless, we are turning to you now; come with us to fight the Ammonites, and you will be head over all of us who live in Gilead.”
Jephthah answered, “Suppose you take me back to fight the Ammonites and the Lord gives them to me—will I really be your head?”
The elders of Gilead replied, “The Lord is our witness; we will certainly do as you say.” So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and commander over them. [Judges 11:4-11, NIV].
The Gileadites offer lordship to Jephthah, who confirms their commitment ; they in turn make Jephthah their head and commander; and the restoration of his birthright will be ratified by his victory over the Ammonites and the blood of his daughter.
The “Lord” is remarkably silent in Judges 11. The Gileadites simply acknowledge the ‘witness’ of the Lord, and Jephthah’s vow is rather unilateral. Is the victory over the Ammonites the response of the “Lord” or the result of bloodlust on the battlefield and in the home? The disenfranchised Jephthah, cast off by his family, finds his way in the company of the wicked: he becomes the leader of the worthless and violent, and apparently gains some notoriety for becoming a ruthless warrior, and the master of ruthless warriors. His vows are as vain as his company of men, and beget only more blood. What can the Gileadites expect from Jephthah, now without heir by his own doing. In the beginning his posterity was ripped from him by the sons of Gilead’s wife, in the end his posterity bleeds to death by his own hand.
A story about rightful restoration and righteous vows carried out, easily becomes a story of a lost man who loses everything twice. Traditional readings sometimes yield to readings that approach from the edges of narrative. The only righteous story, the story of Israel, goes unheeded by the Ammonites, who also are feeling somewhat disenfranchised. They share their end with their vanquisher.