(Judges 11.1 - 12.7)
<< associated chart to be made available shortly >>
Jephthah is one of the lesser known judges, perhaps because of the difference of opinion which exists regarding his rash vow and how he fulfilled it. Nevertheless, he lived in times not unlike those through which we are passing, and we can learn valuable lessons from the account of his life. Note, first, that Jephthah was a member of the tribes which occupied the east bank of the Jordan, and it is likely that his jurisdiction was limited to that region.
Jephthah the dispossessed - 11.1-11
He was initially expelled
If it is accepted that Abimelech should be counted amongst the Judges, Jephthah is the eighth judge. His background told against him as he was son of a harlot, reminding us that family background should not prevent us realising our potential for God, nor should it be used to "push us on" into areas of service for which we are clearly not suited. The other sons of his father, however, expelled him from the home and Jephthah resented this treatment.
He gathered a troop of men around him and became known as a warrior, so that when the Ammonites attacked Israel there was no one to whom the elders of Gilead could turn but this man who was head of an armed group which no doubt made it their business to trouble the Ammonites.
He was recalled because of his prowess
Notice the manner in which Jephthah accepted the call of the elders. He insisted that they confirm him as captain, not just for the time of emergency, perhaps thinking of his previous expulsion. The lesson to be learned is that no matter how we may feel we have been badly treated by some saints in the past, when we are called to take our place in the work of the Lord we must respond to that call. It may be that the agreement reached by Jephthah and the elders has too much of the feel of a bargain entered into, but nevertheless, it had been struck. The call of, "Shall I be your head?", is one that no previous judge had made. He sounds like a man who wished to be persuaded, and that he was.
Jephthah the diplomat - 11.12-28
Reasoning with the world
It appears strange that the first action of the newly appointed captain was to seek a diplomatic answer to the crisis. The two parties entered into negotiations and the history of the dealings between Ammon and the Children of Israel as they came up out of Egypt was debated. Israels reply centred round three points. First, the land occupied by Israel had belonged to the Amorites. Second, the land had been given to Israel by the Lord. Third, it had been in the possession of Israel for about 300 years.
The response from the world
Without entering into the details of this debate (space does not allow) it was certain that Ammon would pay little heed to the reply of Jephthah. The lesson to be learned here is that in spiritual matters there is no value in engaging in a debate with the world. They will not listen to reasoning from Scripture, as they do not regard it as a basis on which to form their opinions and views. Jephthah learned that negotiation would never be successful in delivering his people from the Ammonites.
Jephthah the devoted - 11.29-40
The danger of rash actions
There is little doubt of the genuineness of Jephthah when he made his vow to the Lord. It recognised that if he was to win a victory over the Ammonites it would be the Lord who would gain that victory. Surely we must keep this in mind in our own battles with the Adversary. If a battle is won it is the Lord who has given us the victory and we must not take credit ourselves.
But the vow was uttered rashly, without due consideration being given. How many have fallen into the same trap. We make great promises to the Lord without counting the cost. The words of the Preacher are worth remembering: "When thou vowest a vow unto God defer not to pay it Better it is that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay" (Eccl 5.4-5).
The danger of involving others
By his rash act Jephthah had made it possible that there might be a necessity for others to become involved in the fulfilment of his vow. When the battle was over and the enemy had been defeated, he returned home, having vowed that whatever first came out of his house to meet him on his return would be offered as a burnt offering to the Lord. What grief smote him when his daughter was first to greet him as she celebrated his success! She would have to pay the price for his convictions.
Let us ensure that when we determine a course of action before the Lord we carefully weigh up who will be with us in paying the price, and ensure that they are in agreement with our "vow".
Jephthah the determined - 12.1-7
The challenge from Ephraim
The tribe of Ephraim had a complaint. They dwelt on the other side of the Jordan, but they complained that they were not given the opportunity of helping in the defeat of Ammon. Jephthah argued that he had asked for their assistance and it had not been forthcoming, but that did not satisfy Ephraim and they threatened a revenge attack on Jephthahs house.
The change of approach towards Ephraim
The man who sought an agreement with Ammon before engaging in battle did not seek such an agreement with Ephraim. It is sad to record that it is possible to deal more kindly with an opposing world than with opposing believers.
The character of the battle with Ephraim
After smiting Ephraim the defeated warriors sought to return over the Jordan to their own lands. The Gileadites, however, had control of the crossing points and asked everyone crossing to utter the word, "Shibboleth". Those who said, "Sibboleth", were Ephraimites and were slain. Here was a battle determined by accents. Civil war in Israel was a sign of a low spiritual condition. Today, "warring" in the assembly is a sign of the same problem. May we all heed the exhortation to "be at peace among yourselves" (1 Thess 5.13).
How did Jephthah honour his vow?
Did Jephthah offer up his daughter on the altar as a burnt offering unto the Lord? The offering of human sacrifices was expressly forbidden by Scripture (lev 18.21; lev 20.2-5; deut 12.31; Deut 18.10). It was a practice closely linked with the basest forms of idolatry and Jephthah could not have countenanced such an act when he made his vow. It should also be noted that Jephthah is mentioned in Hebrews 11.32 as one of the heroes of faith, and he scarcely could be reckoned amongst that honourable band if he had offered his daughter as a human sacrifice. Observe also that when the king of Moab offered his son as a sacrifice at the time of his defeat by the Israelites, "there was great indignation against Israel: and they departed from him, and returned to their own land" (2 Kings 3.27). The Israelites were so appalled at what had taken place that they no longer could continue their attack.
But if we accept that Jephthah did not sacrifice his daughter we must ask how the vow was carried out. First, note that Jephthahs daughter asked for two months that she might bewail her virginity. Surely if she was facing death there was even more to bewail than that? Note, second, that she sought the solitude of the mountains to do this. If she were to die would she not wish to spend time with those who were near to her? Third, there is provision in Leviticus 27 for vows which entailed the giving of possessions or persons to the Lord. In the case of a person, an amount of money, assessed by the priest in keeping with the laws in that chapter, had to be given. The conclusion drawn is that Jephthah would fulfil his vow by paying the necessary sum, but as he had vowed that what was offered would be a burnt offering there was one further condition to be fulfilled. A burnt offering was for God alone, and therefore his daughter could not marry, but be dedicated to Jehovah, with a love that was to be shared by none other. She was Jephthahs only child and she could have no children and he could have no grandchildren. As an Israelite, for her and for her father, this was a great sacrifice indeed, one that would cause grief and sorrow.