Jephthah's father, Gilead, had a wife and numerous children when he met the mother of Jephthah, a woman that the Bible does not name, but calls a harlot (Judges 11:1). Gilead had a brief affair with her. She may have been a cult temple worker, or simply a prostitute. When Jephthah was born, his father Gilead took him to raise him. The name Jephthah means “he will open” in Hebrew. Perhaps in naming his son, Gilead believed that God would open passages for him through difficult situations and times ahead. The boy was raised in Gilead's home with the rest of his family, in the land east of the Jordan River.
Some sources assert that Jephthah's mother was a pagan temple prostitute. The Hebrew word for such a prostitute is
When Gilead died, his legitimate sons went to Jephthah and told him to leave. They had never accepted him as their brother, and did not desire to share any of their inheritance with him. It seems reasonable to believe that Jephthah's mother may have been banished from Gilead's family home as well, though the Bible does not say Gilead had ever taken her in, or that she had any further contact with their son. Jephthah's path would lead to greatness, but also to great sadness.
Jephthah Becomes a Powerful Warrior
Jephthah sought refuge in the wilderness. There, he eventually developed friendships with others who were societal outcasts. Jephthah must have developed strong survival skills, because he became a fierce warrior in Tob. Eventually, the elders of Gilead went searching for Jephthah. They asked him to return to be their leader in a fight against the invading Ammonites. Jephthah asked them why they wanted him when they had previously cast him from his father's home. They more or less dismissed his question, and convinced him that if he would return they would make him their military leader and commander.
He Makes a Promise to God
Jephthah agreed and attempted to resolve the dispute with the Ammonites through a dialogue with their king. However, failing that, he prayed to God to grant him a victory over the aggressors. In return, he would give a burnt offering of the first thing he saw coming out of his door to meet him when he returned home. Of all of the people dwelling in that home, who did Jephthah think would come to meet him: His stepmother? His brothers who had banished him? His own mother? What Jephthah saw caused his heart to sink, and he tore his clothes in sadness.
Jephthah Keeps His Vow
His virginal daughter (born of a wife that the Bible doesn't name) came dancing out of the door with timbrels in her hands. “And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he rent his clothes, and said, Alas, my daughter! thou hast brought me very low, and thou art one of them that trouble me: for I have opened my mouth unto the Lord, and I cannot go back” (Judges 11:35). Jephthah's daughter, his only child, begged him to let her spend two weeks in the mountains with her female companions before he sacrificed her, a request that he honored.
The Bible doesn't say if Jephthah's own mother was involved in raising him, if she knew about his leadership abilities, his victory over the Ammonites, or his vow to God to sacrifice her granddaughter. Perhaps his mother had already passed away, or had long ago taken up with another man. She may not have been around to witness the unfolding of events in her son's life, but Jephthah, like her, made certain choices and became bound by them. He became a judge for Israel and a strong leader; some sources called him a deliverer of the Israelites.