One of the judges of Israel. The story of Jephte is narrated in chapters xi and xii of the Book of Judges. He was a warrior of Galaad and the son of a harlot. His father's name was Galaad, who having a wife and other children, these latter thrust out Jephte from the family and he fled to the land of Tob in Eastern Syria. Here he became the leader of a band of "needy men" and robbers who followed him as their prince. At this juncture the Israelitish territory east of the Jordan was invaded by the Ammonites, and the elders of Galaad, being in sore need of a leader to conduct the defence, saw themselves forced to go to Tob and ask Jephte to return and be their prince. After expressing surprise that they should make him such an offer, considering the treatment he had received in his native city, he yielded to their entreaties, but insisted on the condition that, should he be victorious over the Ammonites, his own countrymen would remain faithful to their word and recognize him as their prince. The elders made a solemn promise, and Jephte returned with them to the land of Galaad, where he was made chief by popular acclamation. Before beginning his campaign, Jephte made a vow to the Lord, saying: "If thou wilt deliver the children of Ammon into my hands, whosoever shall first come forth out of the doors of my house, and shall meet me when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, the same will I offer a holocaust to the Lord." After a rather long negotiation with the King of the Ammonites as to Israel's right of possession of the land of Galaad, Jephte led his forces against the invaders and "smote them from Aroer till you come to Mennith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel, which is set with vineyards, with a very great slaughter: and the children of Ammon were humbled by the children of Israel " ( Judges 11:33 ).
On his triumphant return to his home in Maspha, the first person to come forth to meet him is his only daughter, accompanied by a chorus of women. On beholding her he is stricken with alarm and dismay, remembering his rash vow, but he declares that he has opened his mouth to the Lord and cannot do otherwise than fulfil it. The daughter expresses a noble and generous resignation to her fate, but asks a respite of two months that she may "bewail her virginity " in the mountains with her companions. At the expiration of the two months "she returned to her father and he did to her as he had vowed." Whence arose a custom that from year to year the daughters of Israel used to assemble together and lament during four days the daughter of Jephte the Galaadite.
The obvious import of the narrative is that the daughter of Jephte was offered up as a human sacrifice, and in fact, such has been the unanimous interpretation of it in Jewish, as well as in early Christian, tradition. Some modern apologists, however, shocked by the idea that a judge upon whom came "the spirit of the Lord" (xi, 29) could commit so barbarous an act, have endeavoured to prove that the words of Jephte's vow should not be taken literally, but as referring to perpetual celibacy to which his daughter was to be condemned. The arguments to this effect, which are far from convincing, may be found in Vigouroux, "Dictionnaire de la Bible", s.v. They ignore the barbarous ethical condition of the Israelites at that relatively remote epoch–a condition which is evident from other narratives in the same Book of Judges (v.g. that of ch. xix). That human sacrifice was expressly forbidden by the Mosaic Law does not help the argument, for, even granting that the Law then existed at all otherwise than in embryo, which is at least very doubtful, it is plain from the historical books referring to this and subsequent periods that its prescriptions were constantly ignored by the Jewish people. That such rash vows with their dire consequences, and even human sacrifices, were not things unheard of in that stage of Israel's history, may be gathered from such passages as 1 Samuel 14:24 sqq. ; 2 Samuel 21:6-9 ; 2 Kings 16:3 ; etc.
After the conquest of the Ammonites Jephte became involved in a severe conflict with the neighbouring tribesmen of Ephraim who arrogantly complained that they had not been invited to take part in the expedition. Jephte retorted that they had been called upon to assist him but had declined, and the result was a fierce struggle between Ephraim and the men of Galaad in which the latter were victorious. They obtained strategic control of the fords of the Jordan by which the fleeing Ephraimites were obliged to return homeward, and when the fugitives appeared, each one was asked to pronounce the word "shibboleth" (an ear of corn), and if according to the Ephraimitic dialect it was pronounced "sibboleth" the man was immediately put to death. That forty-two thousand Ephraimites were slain on that occasion may be an exaggeration or possibly a change of the text. After a judgeship of six years Jephte died and was buried in his city of Galaad.
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