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SBL e-journal

David Ben-Gad HaCohen





Jephthah’s Wandering Biblical Message to the King of Ammon





APA e-journal

David Ben-Gad HaCohen





Jephthah’s Wandering Biblical Message to the King of Ammon








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Jephthah’s Wandering Biblical Message to the King of Ammon

An ancient quote, preserved in Jephthah’s speech to the King of Ammon, gives us a clue into the methods of the Torah’s redaction and the status of pre-pentateuchal sources.


Jephthah’s Wandering Biblical Message to the King of Ammon

Jephthah sends messengers to the King of Ammon to find out why he was attacking Israel. Nicolaes Ryckmans, naar Pieter de Jode (I), 1643 Rijksmuseum (colorized)

The Dispute between Ammon and Israel

Judges 11 tells the story of Jephthah, an illegitimate son of Gilead who is appointed chieftain of his people due to his military prowess as a bandit leader. The impetus for his appointment is the Ammonite attack upon Israel.

שופטים יא:ד וַיְהִי מִיָּמִים וַיִּלָּחֲמוּ בְנֵי עַמּוֹן עִם יִשְׂרָאֵל. יא:ה וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר נִלְחֲמוּ בְנֵי עַמּוֹן עִם יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֵּלְכוּ זִקְנֵי גִלְעָד לָקַחַת אֶת יִפְתָּח מֵאֶרֶץ טוֹב. יא:ווַיֹּאמְרוּ לְיִפְתָּח לְכָה וְהָיִיתָה לָּנוּ לְקָצִין וְנִלָּחֲמָה בִּבְנֵי עַמּוֹן.
Judg 11:4 Some time later, the Ammonites went to war against Israel. 11:5 And when the Ammonites attacked Israel, the elders of Gilead went to bring Jephthah back from the Tob country. 11:6 They said to Jephthah, “Come be our chief, so that we can fight the Ammonites.”

Jephthah sends a message to the Ammonites demanding an explanation for the attack, and the king of Ammon responds by saying that he is merely taking back land that was stolen from him hundreds of years before:

שופטים יא:יג וַיֹּאמֶר מֶלֶךְ בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן אֶל מַלְאֲכֵי יִפְתָּח כִּי לָקַח יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת אַרְצִי בַּעֲלוֹתוֹ מִמִּצְרַיִם מֵאַרְנוֹן וְעַד הַיַּבֹּק וְעַד הַיַּרְדֵּן וְעַתָּה הָשִׁיבָה אֶתְהֶן בְּשָׁלוֹם.
Judg 11:13 The king of the Ammonites replied to Jephthah’s messengers, “When Israel came from Egypt, they seized the land which is mine, from the Arnon to the Jabbok as far as the Jordan. Now, then, restore it peaceably.”

The conquest of this land, from the Arnon stream to the Jabbok stream, is narrated in Numbers 21, where we are told that the Israelites took the land from Sihon king of the Amorites, not the Ammonites. This is, in fact, what Jephthah responds at the very end of his long message.

He begins by denying the charge:

שופטים יא:טו וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ כֹּה אָמַר יִפְתָּח לֹא לָקַח יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת אֶרֶץ מוֹאָב וְאֶת אֶרֶץ בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן.
Judg 11:15 He said to him: “Thus said Jephthah: Israel did not seize the land of Moab or the land of the Ammonites.”

Yet, instead of continuing this denial with a straightforward “rather we took it from the Amorites,” Jephthah delivers a long discourse on Israel’s wilderness wanderings:

*Travel through the wilderness to Kadesh

יא:טז כִּי בַּעֲלוֹתָם מִמִּצְרָיִם וַיֵּלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל בַּמִּדְבָּר עַד יַם סוּף וַיָּבֹא קָדֵשָׁה.
11:16 When they left Egypt, Israel traveled through the wilderness to Yam Suf and went on to Kadesh.

*Denied passage through Edom

יא:יז וַיִּשְׁלַח יִשְׂרָאֵל מַלְאָכִים אֶל מֶלֶךְ אֱדוֹם לֵאמֹר אֶעְבְּרָה נָּא בְאַרְצֶךָ וְלֹא שָׁמַע מֶלֶךְ אֱדוֹם
11:17 Israel then sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, ‘Allow us to cross your country.’ But the king of Edom would not consent.

*Denied passage through Moab

וְגַם אֶל מֶלֶךְ מוֹאָב שָׁלַח וְלֹא אָבָה
They also sent a mission to the king of Moab, and he refused.

*The stay in Kadesh

וַיֵּשֶׁב יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּקָדֵשׁ.
So Israel stayed at Kadesh.

*Travel through the wilderness, skirting Edom and Moab.

יא:יח וַיֵּלֶךְ בַּמִּדְבָּר וַיָּסָב אֶת אֶרֶץ אֱדוֹם וְאֶת אֶרֶץ מוֹאָב וַיָּבֹא מִמִּזְרַח שֶׁמֶשׁ לְאֶרֶץ מוֹאָב וַיַּחֲנוּן בְּעֵבֶר אַרְנוֹן וְלֹא בָאוּ בִּגְבוּל מוֹאָב כִּי אַרְנוֹן גְּבוּל מוֹאָב.
11:18 [Israel] traveled on through the wilderness, skirting the land of Edom and the land of Moab. They kept to the east of the land of Moab until they encamped on the other side of the Arnon; and they never entered Moabite territory, since Moab ends at the Arnon.

After this tangent, Jephthah continues with an overly detailed description of the conquest of the land from the Arnon to the Jabbok:

יא:יט וַיִּשְׁלַח יִשְׂרָאֵל מַלְאָכִים אֶל סִיחוֹן מֶלֶךְ הָאֱמֹרִי מֶלֶךְ חֶשְׁבּוֹן וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל נַעְבְּרָה נָּא בְאַרְצְךָ עַד מְקוֹמִי.יא:כ וְלֹא הֶאֱמִין סִיחוֹן אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל עֲבֹר בִּגְבֻלוֹ וַיֶּאֱסֹף סִיחוֹן אֶת כָּל עַמּוֹ וַיַּחֲנוּ בְּיָהְצָה וַיִּלָּחֶם עִם יִשְׂרָאֵל.
11:19 “Then Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, the king of Heshbon. Israel said to him, ‘Allow us to cross through your country to our homeland.’ 11:20But Sihon would not trust Israel to pass through his territory. Sihon mustered all his troops, and they encamped at Yahatz; he engaged Israel in battle.
יא:כא וַיִּתֵּן יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת סִיחוֹן וְאֶת כָּל עַמּוֹ בְּיַד יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיַּכּוּם וַיִּירַשׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֵת כָּל אֶרֶץ הָאֱמֹרִי יוֹשֵׁב הָאָרֶץ הַהִיא. יא:כב וַיִּירְשׁוּ אֵת כָּל גְּבוּל הָאֱמֹרִי מֵאַרְנוֹן וְעַד הַיַּבֹּק וּמִן הַמִּדְבָּר וְעַד הַיַּרְדֵּן.
11:21 But YHWH, the God of Israel, delivered Sihon and all his troops into Israel’s hands, and they defeated them; and Israel took possession of all the land of the Amorites, the inhabitants of that land. 11:22 Thus they possessed all the territory of the Amorites from the Arnon to the Yabbok and from the wilderness to the Jordan.

In short, Jephthah sends a long message that contains irrelevant information (vv. 16-18) as well as an overly detailed description of the conquest of Sihon’s territory (vv. 19-22). Why didn’t he simply say: “When we arrived, the land was not ruled by Ammonites but by the Amorites, and we took it from them, and thus, it is now ours”?

Ammonites or Moabites?

Even though Jephthah is speaking to the Ammonites, he keeps mentioning Moabites and issues related to Moabites. For example, he opens his defense of Israel’s actions with:

שופטים יא:טו …לֹא לָקַח יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת אֶרֶץ מוֹאָב וְאֶת אֶרֶץ בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן.
Judg 11:15 “…Israel did not seize the land of Moab or the land of the Ammonites.”

From a purely narrative context, there seems little reason for Jephthah to suddenly mention Moabites here. The problem is only exacerbated by v. 24, which references Kemosh, the god of Moab, as opposed to Milcom, the god of Ammon,[1] and then v. 25, which talks about Balak, king of Moab, as opposed to a predecessor king of Ammon.

Other than Jephthah’s opening statement that Israel did not take land from Moabites or Ammonites, he never discusses the history of the land from the Arnon to the Jabbok as being related to Ammonites in any way at all.

The Sihon Story in Numbers

Jephthah’s message may be in tension with its narrative context, but its details well with Numbers, in which the Israelites bypass Moab and enter the territory north of the Arnon, which, the text points out, is Amorite not Moabite territory (Num 21:13).

Numbers then quotes a text from the book of the Wars of YHWH, which testifies to the fact that the Arnon was the official border between the Amorites and the Moabites (Num 21:14-15). Later, the text clarifies that the Amorite King Sihon took the land from Moab in battle before Israel ever appeared on the scene (Num 21:26).

Insofar as the Ammonites, Numbers 21:24 does clarify that the Israelites stopped their conquest at the Ammonite border (as does Deut 2:37), but there is no implication that Sihon’s land was ever considered to be Ammonite.

Traditional Approaches

Traditional commentators ancient and modern have noticed the dissonance between the claim of the Ammonite king that Israel took the land from him and the assumption in Jephthah’s message and the Torah itself that the land was originally Moabite, before Sihon took it. They have offered a number of approaches:

  • First Ammonite then Moabite – The land was originally Ammonite, then Moab conquered it from Ammon, and Sihon conquered it from them (Chaim Paltiel of Falaise, 13th cent., gloss on Num 21:13).[2]

  • Part Ammonite part Moabite – Part of the land was Ammonite, though most of it was Moabite, and the king of Ammon was speaking implicitly on both of their behalves (Ramban, 1194-1270, gloss on Num 21:26).[3]

  • Moab an Ammonite vassal – At the time of the fight with Jephthah, Ammon ruled Moab, so he was speaking about a vassal territory as if it was his own (Malbim, 1809-1879, gloss on Judg 11:13).[3]

  • Allies or united – Ammon and Moab were allies or perhaps even considered themselves one nation at this early stage (Elia Samuele Artom, 1887-1965, Yavneh Tanakh, gloss on Judg 11:13).[4]

These suggestions, none of which is satisfactory, illustrate the severity of the problem; the king of Ammon’s assertion flatly contradicts the assumption implicit in the Torah’s version of the story in Numbers, as well as the quote of this version in Jephthah’s speech that the land was first Moabite.

The Development of a Northern Israelite Tradition

The narrative framework of Judges imagines the territory of the Arnon to the Jabbok as in dispute between Israel and Ammon, whereas the text in Numbers and Jephtah’s message imply that the dispute would have been between Israel and Moab. This discrepancy likely reflects the changing political circumstances in the region.

The area of referred to as “Sihon’s territory” was actively disputed in the 9th century, first conquered by King Omri of Israel and then by King Mesha of Moab.[6] Thus, the story about how Yahatz and the surrounding area from the Arnon to the Jabbok became an Israelite territory would be of particular interest to Northern Israelites in in the 9th century,[7] which is the most likely setting for the composition of the story in Numbers.

The story in Judges about Jephthah, a Manassite hero from the family of Gilead, also derives from the quill of a northern scribe. However, he was writing in the 8th century during which the dispute would have been between Israel and Ammon since, in this period, Ammonites dominated this region; Moab, a much weaker polity at this stage, was limited to the area south of the Arnon stream.[8]

Quoting an Ancient Authoritative Text in Jephthah’s Message

But if Judges assumes that the dispute was between Ammon and Israel, why does Jephthah’s message imply that it was between Israel and Moab? The reason for the mismatch is that the historical overview (vv. 16b-22) in Jephthah’s message was not originally written for this context but is a quote from the same source we find in Numbers 21, namely, the biblical E source.[9] This explains not only the Ammonite versus Moabite tension but also the existence of irrelevant details and tangents: the editor of the Jephthah story simply included a block quote.

Admittedly, the E material is truncated to fit the context of Jephthah’s message,[10] but its origin remains evident when we compare the description of the wandering in the Transjordan with that of the E material now found in Numbers 21 and the retelling of this account in Deuteronomy 2. No version preserves the E account intact,[11] nevertheless, other than slight differences,[12] the E material in Numbers, Deuteronomy 2, and Judges 11 have the same basic outline, ending in war with Sihon, king of the Amorites, in Yahatz, and the conquest of his territory. Thus, the scribe uses the text of the story in the E source which he viewed as authoritative, to defend Israel’s rights for the territory.

The Status of the E Scroll for the Authors of Deuteronomy and Judges

The fact that the author or editor of the Jephthah story took pains to include a quote from E despite the fact that its premises were in some tension with the narrative arc of his story, gives us a window into how ancient scribes thought about this document.

Unlike Deuteronomy, which refers to itself as “the Torah,”[13] E is not self-referential. (Neither is J or P.) We do not know if it was meant to be transmitted as an authoritative document nor do we know how it was regarded in ancient Israel. Nevertheless, the fact that it served as key source material both for the compiler of the Pentateuch and for authors of other works, such as the authors/editors of Deuteronomy and Judges, implies that it held an important place in the worldview of these scribes.

E could be quoted from, summarized, truncated, or supplemented, but not ignored. The fact that the editor of the Jephthah story decided to use a version of E to buttress Jephthah’s argument shows that to him, a claim from the E scroll was irrefutable.

From the Cutting Room Floor: The Lost Arrival in Kadesh

Although E was once an independent work, we only know it from the parts that were included in the Pentateuch or referenced in other places such as the Jephthah story. As the compiler of the Pentateuch did not include the entire scroll, but cut verses here and there, we do not have the complete text.

When the text of two documents is almost identical, the compiler will often not duplicate the identical words. For example, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses can only die once, even though all three sources must have included some version of “and he died” we only have one for each. Noah can only build the ark once, even though both J and P must have recorded his building of it. In such cases, the redactor must choose the text of one of the two accounts and delete the other(s).[14] This appears to be what happened with the opening of Numbers 21.

Arrival in Kadesh in E and P

Both the E strand and the P strand in Numbers 21 take place in Kadesh (i.e., Petra). Thus, both documents must have contained an arrival notice. Unsurprisingly, Numbers 21 has only one arrival notice, that of P,[15] with the E text beginning abruptly with the death of Miriam (P=blue, E=Green):

במדבר כ:א וַיָּבֹאוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כָּל הָעֵדָה מִדְבַּר צִן בַּחֹדֶשׁ הָרִאשׁוֹן וַיֵּשֶׁב הָעָם בְּקָדֵשׁ
Num 20:1 The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh.
וַתָּמָת שָׁם מִרְיָם וַתִּקָּבֵר שָׁם.
Miriam died there and was buried there.[16]

The compiler, using some sleight of hand, attaches Miriam’s dangling death notice to the arrival notice in P, which identifies Kadesh as being in the Wilderness of Zin, as it is want to do.[17] The cut arrival notice in the E text must have said something like, “and Israel arrived at Kadesh.”[18] In most cases of reconstructing cut notices, such a tentative reconstruction relying on inference is the most we can do, but in this case, I believe we can determine the exact wording, because we have it in Jephthah’s message.

Finding the Original Text

As noted above, the historical overview in Jephthah’s speech was truncated from the once independent E text. In this case, the opening of the E text that the compiler cut is actually quoted verbatim by the author/editor of the Jephthah account:

יא:טז …וַיֵּלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל בַּמִּדְבָּר עַד יַם סוּף וַיָּבֹא קָדֵשָׁה.[19]
11:16 …Israel traveled through the wilderness to Yam Suf and went on to Kadesh.

Here is the original opening to E’s account of Israel’s travels in the Transjodan. (For other pieces of the original E account that may be found in Jephthah’s historical overview, see appendix.)

Ancient Sources – Ancient Torahs?

Why does this matter? Do we learn anything more important from the exercise of reconstructing E’s lost opening than just a small academic point? In my, “Using Deuteronomy to Fill in the Lacunae of Numbers’ Spy Story,” I offered a similar exercise in filling in lost parts of the J document by comparing the accounts in Numbers and Deuteronomy. These exercises teach us something important about ancient scribes and their relationship to the Torah’s sources, as posited by the Documentary Hypothesis.

The fact that we can see missing parts of lost sources is material evidence that these sources once existed, and that their status as independent documents predates their incorporation into the Pentateuch.[20] There must have been an E and a J if we can find traces of them that complement each other and do not overlap in different documents. Moreover, the fact that multiple scribes made use of these independent stories as bases for their own works shows that even before the Torah as a whole was compiled, certain texts were already treated as authoritative.


Elements Original to E in Jephthah’s Historical Overview

A. The Second Reference to Kadesh

Kadesh is mentioned explicitly again in verse (17) of the Judges account, where it serves as a resumptive repetition (Wiederaufnahme),[21] returning the reader to Kadesh after the Israelites are snubbed by both Edom (and Moab).[22] This phrase is also likely original to E, since E’s long description of the back and forth with Edom (eight verses) was in much greater need of a resumptive repetition than the truncated account in Judges (one verse). I suggest that its original place in the E document was after the failed negotiations with Edom, and was cut from what is now Num 20:21:

וַיְמָאֵן אֱדוֹם נְתֹן אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל עֲבֹר בִּגְבֻלוֹ [וַיֵּשֶׁב יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּקָדֵשׁ].
So Edom would not let Israel cross their territory, and Israel dwelt in Kadesh.

In Numbers, the cut phrase was replace by a gloss from the compiler, “and Israel turned away from them (וַיֵּט יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵעָלָיו)” in order to connect the Edom story better to the P account, which begins in the next verse (22): “and they set out from Kadesh [23](וַיִּסְעוּ מִקָּדֵשׁ).”

B. Mount Hor vs. Wilderness

I have argued elsewhere that E and P have two contradictory versions of the death of Aaron, P places his death at Mount Hor and E at Moserah. The E account was cut from its natural place in Numbers by the compiler of the Torah in favor of P’s account, but was tucked away in Deuteronomy (10:6-7).[24]

This large editorial decision brought about a much smaller one, the need to splice the E itinerary into the Mount Hor account. This was done by cutting the words “and they travelled on through the wilderness (וילך במדבר) and attaching the phrase (original to E but missing in Judges) “by way of Yam Suf (דרך ים סוף)” directly to the P phrase, “and they set out from Mount Hor (ויסעו מהר ההר).” It also brought about a change in verb from “and they skirted (ויסב)” to “in order to skirt [25](לסבב).”

Original E (lost)

וַיֵּלֶךְ בַּמִּדְבָּר דֶּרֶךְ יַם סוּף וַיָּסָב אֶת אֶרֶץ אֱדוֹם
And they travelled in the wilderness by way of Yam Suf, and they skirted the land of Edom.

Spliced version (Num 21:4)

וַיִּסְעוּ מֵהֹר הָהָר דֶּרֶךְ יַם סוּף לִסְבֹב אֶת אֶרֶץ אֱדוֹם
They set out from Mount Hor by way of Yam Suf to skirt the land of Edom.

C. The Paragogic Nun

Another likely original element is more a matter of text criticism than source criticism. Jephthah’s historical overview contains an early grammatical form: “and they encamped [ויחנון] on the other side of the Arnon” (Judg 11:18aβ). The verb חנ”ה (to encamp) appears with a paragogic nun.[26] The verb form in Numbers for this same phrase is simply ויחנו, without the nun. This grammatical form, preserved only in Jephthah’s speech, supports the possibility that the language and perhaps details of Jephthah’s historical overview are closer to the original text – E, than the other versions of the account.


June 29, 2017


Last Updated

June 2, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. David Ben-Gad HaCohen (Dudu Cohen) has a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from the Hebrew University. His dissertation is titled, Kadesh in the Pentateuchal Narratives, and deals with issues of biblical criticism and historical geography. Dudu has been a licensed Israeli guide since 1972. He conducts tours in Israel as well as Jordan.