The man who would set Israel free was named Jephthah pronounced jef'thu. He called together the men of the tribes on the east of Jordan – Reuben, Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh, and fought against the Ammonites.
Before Jephthah went to the battle he said to the Lord, "If thou wilt give me victory over the Ammonites, then when I come back from the battle, whatever comes out of the house to meet me shall be the Lord's, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering."
This was not a wise promise, nor a right one, for God had told the Israelites long before what offerings were commanded, as oxen and sheep, and what were forbidden. But Jephthah had lived on the border near the desert, far from the house of God at Shiloh, and he knew very little about God's law.
Jephthah fought the Ammonites and won a victory, and drove the enemies out of the land. Then, as he was going back to his home, his daughter, who was his only child, came out to meet him, leading the young girls, her companions dancing and making music, to welcome his return. When Jephthah saw her he cried out in sorrow, "Oh, my daughter, what trouble you bring with you! I have given a promise to the Lord, and now I must keep it!"
As soon as his daughter had learned what promise her father had made she met it bravely, as a true daughter of Israel. She said, "My father, you have made a solemn promise to the Lord, and you shall keep it, for God has given to you victory over the enemies of your people. But let me live a little while and weep with my young friends over the death that I must suffer."
For two months she stayed with the young girls upon the mountains, for perhaps she feared that if she was at home with her father he would fail to keep his promise. Then she gave herself up to death, and her father did with her as he had promised.
In all the history of the Israelites this was the only time when a living man or woman was offered in sacrifice to the Lord. Among all the nations around Israel the people offered human lives, even those of their own children, to the idols which they worshipped.
But the people of Israel remembered what God had taught Abraham when he was about to offer up Isaac, and they never, except this once, laid a human offering upon God's altar. Perhaps if Jephthah had lived near the Tabernacle at Shiloh, he would not have given such a rash promise, for God did not desire it, and his daughter's life would have been saved.
From all these stories it is easy to see how the Israelites lived during the three hundred years while the judges ruled. There was no strong power to which all gave obedience, but each family lived as it chose. Many people worshipped the Lord, but many more turned from the Lord to the idols, and then turned back to the Lord, after they had fallen under the hand of their enemies. In one part of the land they were free, in another part they were ruled by the foreign peoples.