A difficult situation
The next major Judge we are introduced to is Jephthah. We encounter him in chapters 11-12 of the Book of the Judges. If ever there was a difficult situation to rise as a leader, it was that of Jephthah.
We have dealt with God’s people’s fall back into idolatry to the point where God said, “No more will I help!” (Judges 10:6-16). God revealed their corrupt hearts to them in that even there calling to God for deliverance was only for their own sake and not because they loved God with all their heart.
The oppression under the Ammonites became unbearable. Consequently, the leaders of Gilead decided that they need to act and appoint someone to deliver them (Judges 10:17-18).
No doubt the situation was not the best. It would take a remarkable character to steer God’s people through this. On the one side there is the real danger of being crushed by the enemy, but far worse, there is the reality of God who stood against them in judgment.
It is at this point where the best CV’s are normally pulled from the filing cabinets. In our worldly minds that is what we will do. But, under the providence of God, the leaders of Gilead turn to the most unlikely candidate.
An unlikely choice
Chapter 11:1 introduces us to Jephthah. Sure, he is called a “mighty warrior”, but the rest of his credentials are worrying. Not only was he son of a prostitute, but we are also told that he was driven out by his brothers (Judges 11:2). Furthermore, he hung out with some worthless lawless guys (Judges 11:3) who seemed to recognize him as some sort of a leader.
This does not make for CEO material, much less General of the Defense Forces. I bet that few major world leaders would be on Jephthah’s Facebook friends list. The photos would probably reflect the company he mixed with! The tweets from that camp would also not be very uplifting, or so it would seem.
Nevertheless, the leaders of Gilead felt convinced that he was to be their deliverer. It was probably his war skills that convinced them on a human level, but God was silently working behind the scenes to accomplish His bigger purposes through this unlikely deliverer.
Even Jephthah questioned them when they approached him (Judges 11:7). Imagine that! Being asked to be the leader and then questioning the motives of those who want to appoint you.
Jephthah is appointed as their leader and what follows is a long negotiation between Jephthah and the king of the Ammonites. It is important to note how Jephthah references the history of the Exodus to establish Israel’s place in the promised land. He certainly knew the history and how God led the people through the wilderness into Canaan (Judges 11:12-28).
Jephthah strongly references God as the reason Israel now owned the land. Yahweh is the one who drove the Amorites from their land. Jephthah even challenges the king’s pride considering the history (Judges 11:25). In the end, Jephthah announces God as the Judge between him and the king of Ammon (Judges 11:27).
We are told in Judges 11:29 the Spirit of Yahweh came over Jephthah and this fired him up to go into battle. What follows in chapters 11 and 12 are 2 wars, one from without and one from within.
This we do not find in any of the other Judges. The other guys had battles with the enemy from without, the pagan nations whose gods they served and by whom they were oppressed. But Jephthah had to fight a double battle. He had to subdue the Ammonites as well as 42000 men from the tribe of Ephraim were killed during his time.
An unwanted legacy
Jephthah would leave a legacy that he probably did not wish for. This legacy was twofold:
- He is known as the Judge who sacrificed his own daughter
- He will forever be known as the Judge who killed 42000 of God’s people.
A tragic vow
While on the way to fight against the Ammonites, Jephthah thought it wise to make a vow before God. That vow would be that the first thing that comes from his house, he would sacrifice as a burnt offering – at least according to how we were taught to read his vow.
God granted him the victory and low and behold, his only daughter came out to congratulate him! (Judges 11:34)
This vow and the consequences raise all sorts of questions. Firstly, was he afraid? Did he doubt? There was no need for doubt. The Spirit of God was upon him. It is understandable that there would be fear, but that should be handled considering the Spirit of God leading him into battle. It was neither fear nor doubt that let him make this vow, but his faith in God.
Making vows is not wrong or sinful. According to the Bible, especially the Old Testament, it was a critical part of the devout believer’s life. This reveals something about Jephthah’s relationship with God. The book of Hebrews counts him as one of the men of Faith (Hebrews 11). You will remember his negotiations with the king of Ammon. He referred to the history and attributed Israel’s victory to Yahweh. Similarly, he was convinced this war was God’s and therefore his vow to God is an expression of his faith in God’s control over history. This was not his attempt to manipulate God.
Secondly, did he really sacrifice his daughter? From the text it is clear he knew the vow was binding (Judges 11:35) and his daughter did not try to convince him otherwise (Judges 11:36).
Historically there developed two contrary viewpoints. One that is convinced that he physically sacrificed her (think of Abraham and Isaac), the other that the sacrifice did not mean physical, but spiritual. Therefore, the emphasis on her virginity (Judges 11:37-39). In this regard think Hannah and Samuel in 1 Samuel 1.
The overwhelming evidence from this text and the context of the whole of Scripture, is that Jephthah, a man of faith, anticipated that either people (“will belong to Yahweh”) or animal (“will sacrifice as a burnt offering”) would come out to him. Therefore the 2-fold content of his vow, and not the single outcome as many would propose. Read the vow again (Judges 11:31).
He knew the Law of Moses regarding human sacrifices. He knew the story of Abraham and Isaac and that God supplied an animal as substitute. He was willing to either consecrate or sacrifice whatever met him. Only, he did not consider that it would be his own – and only – daughter!
The problem with his vow is not in the making of it, nor in its content, but in the fact that he did not think about all the scenarios and the possible consequences for him and his posterity.
Ecclesiastes warns against being too eager to make any sort of vow to God. Let us read chapter 5:
Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. 2 Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. 3 For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words. 4 When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. 5 It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. 6 Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands? 7 For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear.
The Killing of 42000 from the tribe of Ephraim
The second incident for which Jephthah will be remembered is for almost obliterating the tribe of Ephraim. Chapter 12 narrates this incident for us. Ephraim was angry at Jephthah for not inviting them to war. This led to an internal clash and Ephraim suffering this heavy blow. Ephraim accused the Gileadites that they were fugitives who were driven out. Actually, the Gileadites were part of the tribe of Manasseh, and together Ephraim and Manasseh formed the “house of Joseph”.
This incident is nothing to be proud of in the history of Israel. The nation was supposed to stand together, fight together, conquer together. Instead, we see the results of their continued sinning and depravity. We have often in this series pointed to the downward spiral caused by sin. At this point, we are almost rock bottom in this spiral. When God’s people start waging war against each other, the writing is on the wall.
Once again, we are brought to the point where the writer of this books was driven to take us, i.e. to ask the question WHEN will the madness caused by sin stop. More importantly WHO will stop the destruction and turn it around. If nothing else, each of the Judges forces us to ask this. They themselves are a clear indication that no man can redeem himself, much less a nation in need of deliverance. Jephthah could not.