Jephthah

The Hebrew Bible’s book of Judges tells the stories of twelve charismatic, military leaders (“judges”), “filled” with the spirit of God, who ruled over Israel during its pre-monarchic time (Deborah, Gideon, and Samson, among others). “Charismatic” indeed, the canon of judges progress from righteous and genuine, to unfocused and somewhat selfish until, at the end of the book, there are no judges at all. Israel is left ungoverned, chaotic.

In my initial read, I was taken with the story of Jephthah, the eighth judge. Though short, I found his story to be one of the more memorable, more endearing. In a class of mine, we recently analyzed the book of Judges. To my surprise, the general consensus was that Jephthah fell on the worse end of the spectrum—that he was one of the more selfish, less righteous judges.

Was Jephthah not all I believed him to be? What was I seeing, that my classmates weren’t? What wasn’t I seeing?

(Judges 11, NIV Bible) [Jephthah’s] father was Gilead; his mother was a prostitute.2Gilead’s wife also bore him sons, and when they were grown up, they drove Jephthah away. “You are not going to get any inheritance in our family,” they said, “because you are the son of another woman.”3So Jephthah fled from his brothers and settled in the land of Tob…4Some time later, when the Ammonites were fighting against Israel,5the elders of Gilead went to get Jephthah…

6“Come,” they said, “be our commander, so we can fight the Ammonites.”7Jephthah said to them, “Didn’t you hate me and drive me from my father’s house? Why do you come to me now, when you’re in trouble?…9…Suppose you take me back to fight the Ammonites and the Lord gives them to me—will I really be your head?”10The elders of Gilead replied,“The Lord is our witness; we will certainly do as you say.”11So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and commander over them. And he repeated all his words before the Lord in Mizpah.

Jephthah wouldn’t take on leadership (judgeship), until the Gileadite elders who sought him out told him that, with the Lord as their witness, they’d bring him home to rule.

12…Jephthah sent messengers to the Ammonite king with the question: “What do you have against me that you have attacked my country?”13The king of the Ammonites answered Jephthah’s messengers, “When Israel came up out of Egypt, they took away my land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, all the way to the Jordan. Now give it back peaceably.”

14Jephthah sent back messengers to the Ammonite king,15saying…26For three hundred years Israel occupied Heshbon, Aroer, the surrounding settlements and all the towns along the Arnon. Why didn’t you retake them during that time?27I have not wronged you, but you are doing me wrong by waging war against me. Let the Lord, the Judge, decide the dispute this day between the Israelites and the Ammonites.”28The king of Ammon, however, paid no attention to the message Jephthah sent him.

29Then the Spirit of the Lord came on Jephthah. He crossed Gilead and Manasseh… he advanced against the Ammonites.30And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands,31whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”32Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the Lord gave them into his hands.

As judge, Jephthah prayed before every undertaking and battle, and he credited God with all of his victories. In negotiations with the Ammonites, Jephthah said, “Let the Lord, the Judge, decide the dispute this day,” and before going into battle with them, he promised God that, if victorious, he’d sacrifice the first living creature that greeted him upon his return home.

34 When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter.35When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break.”36 “My father,” she replied, “you have given your word to the Lord. Do to me just as you promised, now that the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites.37But grant me this one request,” she said. “Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.”38 “You may go,” he said…39 After the two months, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed.

The tragedy that befell Jephthah and his daughter further legitimized his devotion, I thought. The way I read the story, Jephthah faced substantial tests over his entire life. Jephthah’s daughter (interestingly unnamed) showed that steadfast devotion, too, in the way she accepted her fate.

(12) The Ephraimite forces were called out, and they crossed over to Zaphon. They said to Jephthah, “Why did you go to fight the Ammonites without calling us to go with you?”…2Jephthah answered, “I and my people were engaged in a great struggle with the Ammonites, and although I called, you didn’t save me out of their hands.3When I saw that you wouldn’t help, I took my life in my hands and crossed over to fight the Ammonites, and the Lord gave me the victory over them. Now why have you come up today to fight me?”4Jephthah then called together the men of Gilead and fought against Ephraim.

The Gileadites struck them down…6…Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time.7Jephthah led Israel six years. Then Jephthah the Gileadite died and was buried in a town in Gilead.

When it seemed Jephthah couldn’t possibly be troubled any further, the tribe of Ephraim (a group of his fellow Israelites) rose against him. Jephthah asked “Why do you come today to fight me?” and I thought I could sense his weariness. Even so, he trusted in God and carried on. Jephthah gave glory to God in the good times, and remained admirably, unwaveringly faithful in the bad.

The people elected Jephthah to lead. That was the downfall cited in my class. In truth, I’d never heard Jephthah’s name before I read Judges. I didn’t learn about him in my years of childhood Sunday school, I never heard his name mentioned in church. No, unlike some of the previous judges, Jephthah’s call to lead didn’t involve a direct interaction with God. But can’t favor of the people be a message from God in its own right?

I am not trying to suggest that Jephthah is one of the greatest and most admirable heroes of the Bible. If no one had come to that conclusion before me, in all the centuries of Biblical study and commentary-writing, then it surely can’t be true. But I do stand by my sentiment. Jephthah wasn’t selfish—in fact, I think he was less selfish than the average man. I simply believe he deserves more credit than my classmates gave him. The stories of Jephthah and his daughter deserve more than a passing glance.

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