By Hannah Wilkinson
“Then Adonai raised up judges…” Judges 2:16
Jephthah tossed his sword, watched it curve in the air, and then caught it again. The weight of the blade tightened a few muscles in his arm. He gripped the hilt in his hand until it settled with familiarity, each notch in the hilt reminded him of a different battle. His blood stirred at the promise of combat and his eyes brightened. He loved a good fight.
“Caleb, come at me!” Jephthah shouted with a smile. He dared the younger man to advance. He wanted to give this new recruit a chance to demonstrate courage, but not for much longer.
He watched Caleb grin and crouch lower; his earring winked in the overhead sun. The boy had a tall almost lanky frame, but his muscles were well defined, a testament to his new training since he had joined Jephthah’s nomadic band a few months ago. Only his short reddish beard gave away his youthful age.
Jephthah had just about given up waiting when Caleb sprang forward with his sword fully extended. Jephthah batted the thrust aside and hit Caleb’s unprotected shoulder with the back of his hand. Caleb fell and lay sprawled on the ground, eliciting sympathetic laughter from the men lounging around them.
“Maybe your swordsmanship will improve as your beard grows,” Jephthah called out and earned another round of laughter. He held out his hand and helped Caleb stand to his feet. Despite his loss of dignity, the young warrior swept the dirt off his sweaty skin without losing his good-natured smile. Jephthah admired Caleb’s easy nature and lack of resentfulness.
Jephthah’s head snapped toward the familiar voice. His breath caught in his chest at the sight of his daughter’s unruly curls and brown eyes. He held out his arms.
“Come, yakerati, my dear one! How I have missed you!”
She ran to him and flung her arms around his neck. Her slender frame felt so delicate in the circle of his muscular arms. When her soft lips kissed his cheek, the pride and love rising in his chest threatened to bring tears to his eyes.
He hugged her tightly and then released her. She smiled up at him in the image of her poor mother, the first woman to have truly loved him. The same love reflected in his daughter’s eyes gave him strength and confidence as it always had. She was second in his heart only to YHWH.
“Would you trade your beautiful daughter for my six sons?” Reuben shouted from his seat near their cooking fire.
“Never!” Jephthah shouted back. “I would not trade my only daughter even if you had twelve sons!”
Reuben laughed and the men cheered. Jephthah watched his daughter blush and her eyes sparkle. His chest expanded with pride to behold her loveliness and sweet nature. He did not deserve a blessing such as she.
Glancing around the camp, he noticed that some of his band returned to their work sharpening blades or whittling arrows where they sat. Others stood nearby and gazed at Jephthah and his daughter through half-closed eyes.
“Let us walk toward the house,” he suggested and clasped her elbow. “Was your journey everything you hoped?”
He guided her away from curious eyes and listening ears. At any other time, he would be grateful for the men’s company. They were his closest and most loyal friends. When he had been cast out of Gilead fourteen years ago, the land of Tob and its young warriors had welcomed him. They had made him their leader, a leader of scoundrels and soldiers. But this time, he wanted some time alone with his daughter.
“I was only gone for a few weeks, Abba,” she said and rolled her eyes. Her head turned when they passed Caleb, who gave them a short bow.
Jephthah noticed how Caleb’s eyes lingered on his daughter. He shot Caleb a warning glare and the young man dropped his gaze. The new recruit obviously had an interest in the leader’s daughter, but did she have a thought for Caleb? Despite his look otherwise, he had no objections to the young man. Caleb had proven himself both brave and dependable in a few battles.
“So is it Caleb now?” Jephthah asked and bent close to his daughter’s ear.
“No,” she protested and blushed a bright pink.
“I thought you were in love with Reuben, or was it old Shechem?” he teased, and they laughed together. He had watched her grow up with this collection of riff raff. When she was a young girl, she had developed a girlish infatuation on a seasoned warrior or two. Now most of them doted on her like fathers and gave her sweets or jewelry whenever they could.
Jephthah glanced down. His daughter’s mouth settled into a thoughtful line and her eyes were dark and full. She looked back toward Caleb, and in that look he could tell this was no mere infatuation. She was obviously drawn to the young man with a maturing love that blossomed as she did. She was a woman now, he realized with a bittersweet pang.
“Caleb would be a blessed man,” Jephthah said and lifted his daughter’s chin with his fingers. “I would not refuse him if he came to me.”
“Oh, Abba,” she whispered and flung her arms around him again. He could not help but think the years had passed too quickly. Only twelve years ago, she was a small bundle in his arms, and now she was of marriageable age. He did not want to let her go.
“Jephthah! Come quickly. Dust rises from the west!” the lookout cried.
Jephthah tensed and reluctantly broke from his daughter’s embrace. He ran toward the lookout.
“Get into the house. Tell the other women and children to stay out of sight,” he shouted over his shoulder. Around him, men were moving. He could hear the last few scrapes of stone on sword and the thud of spears on the ground. There was something comforting in the sound of battle preparation.
Jephthah halted near the sloping edge of the plateau. His men formed a half circle behind him. He put his hand over his eyes and squinted, but could not tell if the approaching people came for purposes of peace or war.
When they drew closer, he could tell they were Gileadites. His kin. The word gave him no pleasure.
The Gileadites approached the slopes to the plateau and found the path that slowly wound up to his camp.
“Jephthah, Son of Gilead, let us approach in peace,” one of the Gileadites called out.
Jephthah nodded to his warriors, and they relaxed their stances. They held the swords and spears loosely, but looked no less ready to kill.
Caleb strode down to meet them. “You may approach,” he said.
Jephthah studied the Gileadites as they filed up the slope and began to assemble on his plateau. Some came on horses though many had walked. Each haggard face contained drooping eyes and a forehead lined with worry and fear. They must all be the elders of Gilead, for next to his young and muscular warriors, they looked wrinkled and worn.
“Bring them water,” he ordered, and the lowest-ranking young boys dashed off to obey. He stood with his arms folded and his eyes narrowed. Despite an outward calm, his insides churned. Why did they come? The unexpected arrival made him uneasy. Only the warriors, who formed a line of defense behind him, gave him confidence and strength.
“Shalom, people of Gilead. What brings you to the land of Tob?” Jephthah asked. The Gileadites had assembled a group that looked to be about thirty elders.
The elders all exchanged glances until one man stepped out before the rest. He had long gray hair and a strangely robust body for a man of his age. Jephthah searched the elder’s weather-beaten features but could summon no name from memory. He hoped he would not find any familiar faces in this lot, especially those of his half brothers. They would never be welcome anywhere near his land.
“Shalom, Jephthah, Son of Gilead.” The old man punctuated his words with a kind of bow. “I am Oded, Son of Jair, here to bring tidings of Israel. We have suffered for eighteen years at the hands of the Philistines and now the Ammonites, because we turned our backs on Adonai and worshipped idols. We come before you to ask that you become our general and lead us into battle to defeat our oppressors.”
Jephthah laughed and shook his head at Oded’s plea. “And why should I help you?” he asked. He saw Oded’s brows rise. Oded must not have expected this reaction, but Jephthah had no pity for him. Oded should have known what his response would be.
“We are your kin,” Oded replied. “You are still your father’s son and a Gileadite.”
“My kin?” Jephthah sneered. The anger began to smolder in his heart again, even after fourteen long years. “My kin, my own half-brothers, threw me out of Gilead and stole my inheritance. My father turned his back on me.”
“Surely you will forgive us. We need you to fight for us,” the old man’s voice cracked. “We need a good warrior to lead us to victory.”
“Why did you not go to my brothers?” He spat the word. Any memory of his father’s other sons included hatred and pain. He could never forget the way they often shoved him to the ground and beat him or threw rocks at his back for sport. When he had learned to defend himself, they made him look a fool in front of their father with cunning words. Manasseh, Baanah, Hadar, even little Tubal: each one intent on making his life a torturous existence, and all because they did not share a mother.
“They are dead,” Oded stated flatly and interrupted Jephthah’s poisoned memories.
“Good,” Jephthah said, but the word tasted bitter. The news brought little joy or relief to the ache in his heart. He thought his new life had healed the wound, but the return of the Gileadites revealed that the wound had only festered in darkness and quiet, simmering below the surface.
“You must help us,” Oded pleaded. “The men of Ammon raid at night, stealing our women, and killing our children. They burn our homes and take our animals. Our army falls before them each day that passes. But your battle experience is legendary. You could lead us into triumph.”
Jephthah scoffed and hardened his heart against the rising pity. His pain had lasted too long to be erased so quickly. Even the possibility of another battle could not sway him.
“You want to make me your leader and yet you are eager to forget the past,” Jephthah said through clenched teeth. “To forget the reason I was cast out of my own family, abandoned by my father, and forced out of my homeland. You were all against me.” He jabbed his hand toward Oded and the elders behind him.
The fury built inside his chest until he shook with rage. They knew the circumstances surrounding his forced exit, but would not speak of it. He opened and closed his fists in an attempt to contain himself.
“Now you come to me. Begging for my help.” Jephthah stalked before them, hurling his words like daggers to the shamefaced elders. “And yet I remain as I always have been. I AM THE SON OF A WHORE!” he shouted and the veins bulged in his forehead. His voice quivered with agony and he wiped a trembling hand across his eyes. He tried to breathe deeply but his chest tightened. He wanted to weep as he had never done before, but his men were watching.
“You are prepared to forget it and welcome me back to Gilead as your leader,” Jephthah added when his anger cooled and he could speak calmly. He glanced at the elders with hard eyes. “But I do not want you to EVER forget it.”
“Adonai has chosen you to lead His people regardless of your…mother,” Oded said with a pause. “You will be our general and our judge. We will follow your orders.”
Jephthah’s eyes flicked to the old man. Oded knew how to tempt a man. He could not deny that a part of him wanted to return to his homeland and rule it as his father could not. The other part of him rankled at Oded’s certainty that YHWH had chosen him. How could the elder be certain?
“I do not know that I even want to be your leader,” Jephthah said and turned away. He noticed the graceful form of his daughter as she made her way toward him with cautious eyes.
“I beg of you, Jephthah, Son of Gilead,” Oded said to Jephthah’s back. To the elders, he called out, “Kneel!”
Jephthah turned in surprise to hear the power and authority in the old man’s voice. The elders, some reluctant and some feeble, sank to their knees with heads bowed in the posture of humility. Jephthah’s chin rose and he gazed over the kneeling elders. A sense of pride grew in his chest. He stood tall above the Gileadite elders who had always towered over him when he was young. YHWH had given him justice at last.
He glanced around him at Rueben and Shechem, Caleb and the rest. They nodded in answer to his unspoken question. Before he faced the elder, he looked at his daughter. Her eyes brimmed with tears at the piteous sight.
“Very well,” Jephthah said and held out his hand. Oded grasped it and staggered to his feet. Jephthah held the old man’s shoulder and steadied him. “I will lead Gilead to victory. I give you my word.”
Jephthah dug his heels into his mount and galloped ahead of the soldiers marching slowly forward. Many of his own men were mounted also, issuing orders and keeping the rest of the Gileadites in line. They had marched across Gilead and Manasseh, and left their women and children back in Mizpah of Gilead. He could tell the men were restless for battle and he shared their anticipation. Halting on a hill, he surveyed the Ammonite lines. Their tents and fortifications were set up on higher ground; they reserved the uphill advantage for themselves.
He cursed under his breath but the anger only spurred his determination to defeat the enemies of Adonai. Yanking the reins, he turned his horse back the way he came. His men rode to meet him with expectant faces.
“What is your plan of attack? How many come against us? Are we outnumbered?” Caleb asked, betraying his anxious excitement.
Reuben and Shechem exchanged meaningful smiles from years of battle experience.
“Caleb, my boy, we are always outnumbered,” Shechem reminded him with a smirk. “We like a good challenge now and then. It keeps us young.”
“We are outnumbered,” Jephthah admitted. The usual banter did not raise his spirits. “The Ammonites have grown strong, much stronger than I thought, and they have the higher ground.”
He hated the gnawing uncertainty in his chest. Numbers had never mattered to him before, but now he led an unfamiliar army. At least with his own men, he knew their strengths and weaknesses, but he had never seen the men of Gilead fight. Would they rise to the challenge before them?
He tilted his head up to the sky and closed his eyes. “Baruch Hashem,” he said in earnest prayer. “Fight for us this day, Adonai!”
“I am sure He does,” Shechem said, but his words did not comfort Jephthah. He needed to do more and convince Adonai to give them victory. But what could he do? He had no time to sacrifice a burnt offering now.
“Adonai,” Jephthah called out and his voice rose with every word. “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, then whatever comes out of the door of my house…whatever comes to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be yours. I will sacrifice it…as a burnt offering of celebration!”
“Baruch Hashem!” his men shouted in answer and raised their weapons.
Jephthah shivered. He had just made a vow to YHWH. A vow of life or death for him. The idea had darted through his mind so quickly that he spoke without thinking.
He glanced at the confident expressions of his fellow warriors. They had faith in YHWH and faith in him their leader. Why shouldn’t he? He was no stranger to the battlefield. Fighting at a disadvantage had never kept him down in Gilead; it had only made him stronger. He smiled at the thought and a new certainty soothed his mind.
“Let us ride!” Jephthah shouted. He kicked his horse forward and felt his pulse accelerate for the coming battle. It was time for war.
Jephthah plunged his blade deep into the chest of a bearded Ammonite. Blood splattered down his sword and trailed across his arm, as the life drained out of the man he killed. Over and over again, he blocked and lunged. He settled into a rhythm and cut down Ammonite after Ammonite beside his comrades. The Spirit of YHWH flowed through his limbs and gave him new strength and power to destroy the evil of Ammon. There was a strange joy in performing YHWH’s will, a conviction he had never felt before.
Morning after morning, he woke with an unearthly vigor and advanced over the bodies of fallen Ammonites. He knew without a doubt that YHWH had given him the victory he had requested. Ammon would fall and Gilead would rise again.
“Adonai has given us victory over the Ammonites!” Jephthah called out from atop his thundering stallion. He waved his sword above his head as the Gileadites of Mizpah laughed and danced together in celebration.
They chanted his name over and over and he relished the sound. He swung his sword once more and galloped through the town toward his designated house. His precious daughter was already there, waiting for his return. He longed to see her and discover how she had made the new house their home.
Caleb rode up beside him and Jephthah smiled at the young warrior’s impatience.
“Caleb, my friend, it is good to be back!” Jephthah said. He laughed with a joy almost unfamiliar in its intensity. Thank you Adonai, he prayed silently.
“Yes, it is,” Caleb answered. He halted his mount beside Jephthah.
When Jephthah looked upon his new home, tears sprang unbidden to his eyes. He vowed that this structure would be a place of retreat and refuge. Here it would not matter that he was the son of a whore. He had his own family: the memory of a loving wife, a beautiful daughter, and the possibility of a future son-in-law.
His eyes lifted to the doorway when the sound of a tambourine issued forth. A smiling young woman appeared, a face that only increased his joy and hope for the future.
“Jephthah!” Caleb hissed. He squeezed Jephthah’s arm with a deathly grip. “Your vow!”
Jephthah’s eyes widened. His mouth twisted in horror. Whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me, the words came back to haunt him. He shook his head in disbelief. I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.
He closed his eyes and clenched his teeth. A lump formed in his throat, and he tried to choke down the tears, but they fell from his eyes, hot and bitter. It was difficult to draw breath with the weight of despair crushing his chest. My child, my only child! A towering wave of agony crashed over him. He wished he could drown in it, forget his rash vow, and return to the peace he knew only moments ago. But the words echoed through his mind, harsh like the screams of the men he had killed in battle, digging into his skull like the talons of an eagle.
“Oh Adonai,” Caleb said and jumped from his horse. “Jephthah, your own daughter!”
Jephthah dismounted like an old man. He staggered when he landed on the ground, but caught himself before he fell. Blood pounded in his ears and his stomach heaved. He tasted the bile of his thoughtlessness and pride.
“What is the matter, Abba?” she asked, her eyes wide. “You have returned victorious. This is cause for celebration, is it not?”
Jephthah watched Caleb stare at the young woman and then began to blink rapidly. The young man covered his face with his hands. “Not her, Adonai, not her.”
Jephthah leaned against his horse. His legs could not support him yet. He tried to steel himself against the pain of Caleb’s words, but they shattered his heart again. What he would not give for the strength of YHWH flowing through him again. In battle he had felt YHWH’s purpose and holy direction, but now he felt dizzy and helpless. YHWH was no longer with him.
“What vow, Abba?” she asked. She glanced at Reuben, who stood for the first time without Shechem.
“Your father vowed to Adonai that if he returned in triumph, whatever came out of his doorway to greet him…would be a sacrificial burnt offering.” Reuben’s voice broke and he turned away, weeping loudly.
Jephthah walked forward with unsteady steps. He stood before his beloved daughter and forced himself to watch the tears well up in her eyes. His own had not ceased to fall. They trailed down his cheeks and gathered in his beard.
“You must do…what you promised,” she said. She sounded strong, but her lips quivered. “Adonai gave you victory…so you must do to me…just as you promised.”
He opened his mouth to tell her how sorry he was and how much he hated himself at this moment. He choked again and clenched his teeth against the rising tide of emotion. He did not want to hear her courage and devotion to YHWH and to him. He wanted to hear her hatred, her horror, and her revulsion. He deserved it all and more.
She stared at him with red eyes. He could see the anger, the betrayal, and the painful agony in their depths. But the longer she looked at him, the more her eyes filled with pity and love. She stepped closer and rested her head against his shoulder like she did when she was a child.
He closed his mouth against the sobs, but his chest shook with the effort. Wrapping his arms around her, he buried his face in her hair and kissed the top of her head. His precious daughter, his yakerati, his little girl. His sobs beat against his chest until his lungs felt like they would burst. He sucked in air like a man drowning in the sea. How could this be one of the last times he would feel her arms around him? Feel the dampness of her tears against his chest? Or kiss the top of her beautiful head? What had he done?
“Abba, please allow me this request,” she whispered.
“Anything, yakerati, my precious child,” he answered and found it difficult to catch his breath. He held her an arm’s length away.
“Give me two months,” she said and her voice wavered. “I want to…mourn with my friends for two months. For I will never…marry.” She glanced quickly at Caleb and the action drove a dagger into Jephthah’s chest. He shuddered at the new pain and knew he was in danger of collapsing.
He watched his daughter turn away from him. Her hand slid through his grasp. Never marry. She would never marry because she would die. He clutched his hair and dropped to the ground. She would die.
“Adonai!” he cried out and tore his shirt with shaking fists. “What can I do? What can I do?”
“You must sacrifice her,” Oded said and forced his way through the gathered crowd. “You made a vow to Adonai and you cannot break it.”
Jephthah wrapped his arms around his chest and rocked back and forth. Adonai, he mouthed over and over again.
“How can he sacrifice his own child?” Reuben asked. “Adonai detests child sacrifice. He told Moses that it is a profanation of His name, and would defile us all.”
Jephthah remained on his knees and listened through his tears. Perhaps they would find a way that his daughter could be saved, but he had little hope. He had given his word.
“Any Israelite who sacrifices his children is to be put to death by stoning,” Reuben shouted. “Adonai will set his face against any man who does such a despicable thing.”
“May she not be dedicated to Adonai as a Nazirite and live out her life in His service?” Another elder came forward to join the discussion. “It would still be considered a sacrificial offering, but she would live.”
Caleb marched toward Jephthah’s place on the dirt. “Why doesn’t Jephthah break his vow? Adonai will give him what he deserves,” he spat.
Jephthah recoiled from the hatred in Caleb’s voice, but he could not blame the young man for his fury. He sat in silence, weary and numb, with his head bowed.
“Be silent, young one,” Oded growled. “Jephthah has been chosen by Adonai to be our judge, to lead Israel back to Him since we have strayed off the path. He must not invoke Adonai’s wrath by breaking his vow!”
“At what price?” Jephthah asked and his voice trembled. “The life of my daughter?”
“You set the price,” Oded reminded him and proved that he would not yield. “Adonai commands that if a man makes a vow to the Lord, he must not break his word. You made the vow freely, and you cannot be slow to fulfill it, or you will be guilty of sin.”
“Better to be guilty of that sin than to murder your daughter,” Caleb snarled. Jephthah could hear the underlying agony in the young man’s voice voice. Each word, coming from a young man who once looked up to him, stung like an arrow’s point against his flesh.
“Be a man, and take the sin upon yourself. Do not make your innocent daughter take your place,” Caleb shouted in desperate madness. “You are not worth it. I will kill you if you touch her!”
“You must choose,” Oded said to Jephthah, “but think of Israel’s future.”
Jephthah sat and stared at the back of his hands. How could he think of the future? What future? He had none. He faced separation from his daughter at every turn whether he dedicated his daughter as a Nazirite or sacrificed her on the alter. If he did not fulfill his vow, then he faced separation from YHWH forever, a fate worse than death. His life was already over. How could he choose between honoring YHWH and protecting his daughter?
He turned his hands over. They were clean, but he remembered the way they were stained with the blood only days ago. Would that be his legacy? Death and destruction?
He covered his face with his hands. He had given his word. He was past redemption.
Oh Adonai, he wept.
“After the two months, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin. From this comes the Israelite tradition that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.”
Hannah Wilkinson lives in McAlester, Oklahoma with her husband, writing novels by day and banking by night.