Jair the Gileadite, who had judged Israel for twenty-two years, died in the year 2764, and gradually the Jews again reverted to the worship of idols and the neglect of the commandments of the Torah. The inevitable punishment came swiftly. The Ammonites, who lived across the Jordan, began to oppress the Jews. They crossed the Jordan and prepared to invade and conquer the whole Land of Israel.
In despair the Jews repented of their sins and turned to G‑d. Under the influence of the older and wiser people, the Jews destroyed their idols and lifted their eyes in prayer to G‑d alone. Relief came almost at once, for the Ammonites withdrew to Gilead and encamped there. This gave the Jews a chance to assemble their forces in Mitzpah. The people were eager to defend their land, but they had no leader.
Then they remembered Jephthah.
Jephthah, who had been expelled from home by his half-brothers, had gone to live in the land of Tob. He was a man of valor, and soon became the leader of a band of brave and fearless men.
The elders of Gilead sent for him and asked him to become their leader. Jephthah refused at first, reminding them of the injustice that they permitted to be done to him. But afterward he agreed to take over the leadership, provided he was acknowledged by the elders of Gilead as their chief.
Jephthah first tried to settle the dispute with the Ammonites through diplomatic channels. He sent a note to the Ammonites that they should state their grievances. In reply the Ammonites demanded the province in Transjordan between the rivers Arnon and Jabbok which the children of Israel had conquered from the two mighty Kings, Sihon and Og, because that province had belonged to the Ammonites first.
In a second note to the Ammonites, Jephthah told them that the children of Israel always tried to avoid war with them. As to the said province, Israel had conquered it from Sihon and Og and not from the Ammonites, and it was clear that G‑d had given it to the children of Israel from the miraculous way in which they defeated those mighty kings. Finally, Jephthah warned them that a similar fate awaited the Ammonites unless they withdrew from the Land of Israel peacefully.
When Jephthah saw that his notes failed, he was ready for war. He used a successful outflanking maneuver, moving his men through narrow passes in the hills, until he reached the land of the Ammonites. Meeting with little opposition there, since the main army of the Ammonites was in Gilead, Jephthah quickly captured all the strong and fortified cities of Ammon. The Ammonites were forced to withdraw to their own land, but the fate of the battle had been sealed. Jephthah’s victory was complete and overwhelming.
Shortly afterward, the tribe of Ephraim, which regarded itself as the leading tribe in Israel, voiced their complaints against Jephthah because he did not summon them to the war against the Ammonites. They were jealous of his great victory, and it hurt their pride that it had been won without their help. Nor did they like the fact that the people of Gilead, representing only the half of the tribe of Manasseh across the Jordan, selected Jephthah as the Judge of Israel without consulting them. The Ephraimites, therefore, decided to depose Jephthah through the force of arms. A bloody battle ensued, in which Jephthah was again victorious. Forty-two thousand men of the tribe of Ephraim fell in this civil war.
This was not the last unpleasant thing that Jephthah suffered even in his glory. For before Jephthah set out to fight the Ammonites, he had made a vow to sacrifice to G‑d whatever would come out first from his house to greet him, if and when he came home victorious.
Imagine his shock when upon his return from the war his one and only child, his beloved daughter, came out to greet her victorious father. Jephthah told his daughter of his dreadful vow.
“But Father! Doesn’t the Torah forbid human sacrifices?”
“Alas! I made a vow. I must keep it somehow!”
“Didn’t Jacob make a vow to give a tenth part of everything to G‑d? And yet, did he offer one of his twelve sons as a sacrifice in fulfillment of his vow?”
Jephthah, however, was sure he could find no release from his vow, and that his daughter would at least have to become a recluse for the rest of her life and devote it entirely to G‑d. (This was the only way in which his vow could be fulfilled, since it was against the law of the Torah to offer any human being as a sacrifice.)
Then Jephthah’s daughter asked for a period of two months to bewail her youth, and she retired to live in seclusion the life of a hermit. Thus Jephthah’s daughter gave up her happy and youthful life so as not to disgrace her father.
Jephthah ruled as Judge for about six years, until his death. He had no children, and after his death the tribes of Israel became disunited again. However, Jephthah had saved the people of Israel from the Ammonites, and as long as he was Judge, the people of Israel remained loyal to the Torah and to the G‑d of their fathers.