🔼The name Jephthah: Summary
- He Will Open, He Will Release
- From the verb פתח (patah), to open.
🔼The name Jephthah in the Bible
There are one man and one town named יפתח (yepta) in the Bible, but strangely enough, English translations transliterate the name of the town with Iphtah or Jiphtah and the name of the man with Jephthah. It's the very same name though.
The town named יפתח was situated in the lowlands of the territory allotted to the tribe of Judah (Joshua 15:43). The man named יפתח is the famous ninth judge of Israel, known as Jephthah of Gilead (Judges 11:1).
Jephthah is a son of Gilead but his mother is from out of town, and not Gilead's wife. When his half-brothers are old enough to distinguish the difference, they drive Jephthah out of the town of Gilead. He hides in the land of Tob, where he attracts a band of "worthless fellows"; probably similar social outcasts. It's not clear how Jephthah spends his time in the land of Tob, but when the Ammonites attack Israel, Jephthah's reputation is such that the elders of his hometown beg for him to come back and fight the enemy. Jephthah agrees, provided he become their leader, and begins his war with Ammon from a diplomatic platform. The Ammonites won't budge, and Jephthah attacks. But before he engages the enemy he makes his famously foolish vow to sacrifice as a burned offering whatever comes first out of his house when he returns.
After his victory over the Ammonites, Jephthah goes to his home in Mizpah. When his only child, a daughter, comes out to welcome him, he realizes the depth of his foolishness. God requires no payment in return for his blessing, and can't be persuaded to give victories by sacrifices. Jephthah's foolish vow shows that his theology was off kilter, and quite decidedly pagan in its sentiments, and subsequently made it impossible for God to bless Jephthah's personal life. The direct consequence of his vow was that he had set himself up for utter failure: either engage in human sacrifice (compare 2 Kings 17:31) or break his oath (Numbers 30:2).
The story ends with Jephthah doing to his virgin daughter "according to the vow which he had made" (Judges 11:39), and although it's barely possible to imagine the details of this horrendous and stupid thing, it's not entirely without precedent. Abraham, after all, also would have sacrificed his son Isaac (Genesis 22:10), and much later, the Lord himself offered Jesus, his son (John 3:16).
However, although the wording of this story seems specifically designed to have readers believe that Jephthah killed his daughter, throughout the ages scholars have urged that both the text and the bouquet of traditions under which Jephthah operated, allow for a less bloody interpretation — the apostle Paul, after all, called Jephthah (spelled Ιεφθαε, Iephthae) a hero of the faith (Hebrews 11:32). It's argued that the word for sacrifice really rather means a dedication to the Lord, and that Jephthah "gave" his daughter into a lifelong servitude of YHWH at the tabernacle.
Be that as it may, Jephthah's sacrifice was not ordained by God, nor did it do anyone any good. After his victory over Ammon, the men from Ephraim come over and threaten to burn Jephthah's house down, because he hadn't invited them to the slaughter and they were in such a fine killing mood. Jephthah and his army engage the Ephraimites and end up killing tens of thousands of them.
Jephthah himself dies after six years of judging Israel (Judges 11:7). His cardinal achievement is probably his wretched contribution to the theology of grace. Since Jephthah we know that supplications of the formula "if You do this, then I'll do that" are ineffective and miss the point of a God of Grace who gives when we ask. As he says through the words of Asaph the Psalmist: "Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it" — Psalm 81:10.
But Jephthah's lesson continues. Jesus taught that there are different kinds of murder (Matthew 5:21) and different kinds of death. How many of us haven't pursued lofty missions that we were put on by God, while at the same time neglecting the greater commission of caring limitlessly for our partners and children, who withered away behind our backs?
🔼Etymology of the name Jephthah
The name Jephthah is an active form of the verb פתח (patah), meaning to open:
The verb פתח (patah) means to open. And since the opening of lips precedes speaking, and the opening of ears precedes hearing, our verb may also mean to speak and to hear (and to see, to be hospitable, to ask for with open hands, and so on). Our verb may be applied to the opening of constricting things, which gives it the meaning of to loosen or release. This verb (or perhaps a whole separate one) may also be used to mean to engrave, although engraving and opening a surface so that the surface speaks are not that far apart.
Noun פתח (petah) means opening or doorway. Similar noun פתח (petah) means opening in the sense of an unfolding. Noun פתון (pithon) also means opening. Noun פתיחה (petiha) denotes a drawn sword (the edge of a sword was known as the "mouth" of it). A prefixed מ usually indicates place or agency and noun מפתח (miptah) means utterance and the similar masculine noun מפתח (mapteah) means key.
For a meaning of the name Jephthah, both NOBSE Study Bible Name List and Jones' Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names read He Will Open. BDB Theological Dictionary proposes the similar He [God] Openeth.