STUDIES IN JUDGES No. 14
October 24, 2004
We noted last time that Jephthah was chosen by the men of Gilead to lead them in battle against the marauding Ammonites because he was a proven fighter. The narrator did not, however, lead us to admire Jephthah for his spiritual qualities. So far he has seemed willing to lead Gilead’s army in battle only for self-interested reasons. In exchange for this service he will become the leader of Gilead. In a similar way, Israel’s repentance was self-serving. She wanted God’s help with the Ammonites and was willing to do what she needed to get it, but she had neither a true sorrow for her sin or an honest intention of forsaking it for the Lord’s sake. At the end of the introduction to the Jephthah narrative the reader is left wondering what his relationship to the Lord is.
v.12 Jephthah got down to business as soon as he was put in charge. It appears that Jephthah may have hoped for some peaceful reconciliation with the Ammonites, however unlikely that would have been.
v.13 The Ammonites had never occupied that land, but diplomacy typically does not produce especially truthful recitals of history.
v.14 Jephthah’s argument, given in surprising detail, is that Israel never claimed any of the land belonging either to Ammon or Moab. Further, the land to which Ammon is laying claim is Israel’s by right and by the action of God.
v.25 What we learn, by the by, is that after Eglon the king of Moab was defeated by Ehud (related in Judges 3), the power vacuum that resulted provided an opportunity for the Ammonites to take control of Moab, the country to its south. Jephthah is accepting that the Ammonites have a legitimate right to the territory of Moab but saying that they have no such right to Israel’s territory. On the other hand, the reference to Chemosh makes us wonder about the purity of Jephthah’s theology. The whole speech to this point has sounded so orthodox. Now this jarring note.
v.29 There was already an army of sorts facing the Ammonites (as we read in 10:17) but morale was low, in large part because of the lack of adequate military leadership (10:18). It is demoralizing to soldiers to know that they are poorly led. This tour that Jephthah took through Gilead and Manasseh was, in all probability, to rally the people and to recruit fresh supplies of troops.
v.30 No other judge thought it necessary, having been empowered by the Holy Spirit, to make a vow to ensure that God would give victory. There is clearly a measure of insecurity at work here. Jephthah had already been moving toward battle in v. 29 because the Spirit had come upon him. What is more, Jephthah’s “If you will give the Ammonites into my hands…” reminds us of his prior self-interest in taking command of Israel’s army. Whereas his public address to the king of Ammon had considered only the interests of Israel, his private interests, both earlier and now, are more personal and less high-minded. In any case, there is no doubt that this making of a vow is an act of manipulation on Jephthah’s part. He wants to secure a victory for himself and so promises the Lord what he thinks will incline the Lord to act on his behalf. His theology does, as it turns out, have overtly Canaanite elements in it. Both the Ammonites and the Moabites were known to have sacrificed children to earn favor with their gods and we have already read in 10:6-7 that Israel had been worshipping these same gods. Jephthah had imbibed the religious viewpoint of his culture. This is the only instance of Jephthah speaking to God and it is an effort to manipulate the Lord. As the elders of Gilead had offered inducements to Jephthah, now Jephthah offers inducements to the Lord. [Webb, 63-64]
v.31 Clearly the language seems to suggest that Jephthah fully understood, even expected that the victim for the burnt offering would be a person, not an animal. There have been efforts, especially by evangelical commentators, to prove that all that Jephthah promised was to devote whomever first greeted him to the Lord’s service, not to kill him. In that case what the daughter lost was her chance to marry, not her life. But that is hardly the natural reading of the text. The vow interrupts the flow of the narrative, which continues in v. 32 which could easily follow v. 29. It is put here obviously to increase the dramatic tension and to anticipate events as they will later unfold.
v.34 The poignancy of the situation is increased by the girls innocence – she doesn’t realize what she is doing; she wants to greet and to congratulate her father – and the fact that she is Jephthah’s only child, a point underlined by the repetition of the thought at the end of v. 34.
v.35 Jephthah’s words seem to be both mourning and reproach. It almost sounds as if he is blaming her. “You have made me miserable…” Even though he has brought catastrophe upon his daughter by his own foolishness, he seems strikingly self-absorbed. He made the vow because he was ambitious and calculating and seems not really to understand that. [Block, 370] He takes some responsibility (“I have made a vow”) but also denies responsibility for what must happen now (“I cannot break my vow”). [Webb, 67]
v.37 The father is made to look all the more stupid, cruel, and self-centered by the sweetness and faithfulness of his daughter.
v.38 The bitterest thing in all of this for her was not that she would die. Everyone dies. But that she would die young, unmarried, childless, unfulfilled. Not only her father, but the daughter was rendered childless by Jephthah’s foolish vow. He had hoped for glory but, in fact, had sentenced his lineage to death. [Block, 368]
v.39 Many have wondered about the connection between this account and that of Abraham, commanded by the Lord to sacrifice his firstborn, Isaac, but then, at the last minute, prevented from doing so. But, of course, the Lord was testing Abraham’s faith, in the first instance, and had no intention of his killing his son. This vow was Jephthah’s own doing and an act of folly, unbelief, and cowardice. It was a futile, faithless effort to manipulate God when God had already given him assurance of victory. The narrator doesn’t describe the girl’s death because he can’t bear to. He simply says that Jephthah did what he had vowed.
As you may know, there has been a great deal of reflection through the Christian ages as to whether, having made his vow, Jephthah was obliged to keep it, even though it meant the murder of his daughter. A few have taken the view that a vow must be kept no matter what, for the Bible says, “When a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said” (Num. 30:2). Taking that view, we can abhor Jephthah’s making of the vow in the first place, but admire him for keeping it at the last. Others have argued that he should have broken the vow as the lesser of two sins. Others have held that he had no obligation to keep a sinful vow. Surely the last is the correct view. He had no right to make that vow. A vow cannot oblige to sin, as our Westminster Confession of Faith says (22:4). The Mosaic law specifically allowed for the annulment of certain vows (Lev. 27:1-8 and vows that were of less consequence than this one). A vow makes an action a religious duty, but it cannot be a religious duty to sin and no vow can make it so. No vow can make it right to sin. It was no more right for Jephthah to sacrifice his daughter than for Herod, having sworn a foolish oath, to deliver the head of John the Baptist on a platter to Herodias’ daughter. Jephthah should have repudiated the vow and sought forgiveness for having made it. [Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics, 141-142]
v.40 The girl is nameless in the narrative. But she was known and remembered in Israel. As one scholar notes, “This postscript shifts the focus from the vow to the victim and in so doing draws our sympathy even more firmly away from the father and towards the daughter.” [Webb, 68-69] No memorials are created for Jephthah but they are for his daughter. No doubt this custom was observed only in Gilead. It is not otherwise known.
12:1 Remember, the men of Ephraim had a similar complaint against Gideon (8:1-3). Uncaring of the deliverance God had provided, they were jealous and their pride and sense of self-importance was wounded. Jephthah had already lost his household; now he was threatened with the loss of his house as well. Jephthah now tries to talk himself out of trouble but is hardly conciliatory.
12:3 Now Jephthah’s victory over Ammon is further tarnished. If you remember, when Gideon was faced with a similar problem he was self-deprecating and humble. Jephthah draws attention to his accomplishments (with no mention of the Lord) and Ephraim’s failure. There is no sense of any concern on Jephthah’s part about the unity of the people of God or the honor of the Lord’s name.
v.4 As was the case with Gideon, his victory over a foreign power emboldened him to fight against his own countrymen. No doubt he was the means of God judging sinful Ephraim, but nothing commends Jephthah in this matter.
v.6 The battle went so badly for the Ephraimites that they scattered and ran for home, which required them to cross the Jordan. They tried to hide their identity as Ephraimites but had a distinctive way of pronouncing the “s” and gave themselves away. American soldiers in the Second World War would distinguish Japanese soldiers who tried to pass themselves off as Japanese Americans by requiring them to say “lollapalooza.” It was a catastrophe for Israel. Many Israelites dead at Israelite hands. Israel, once again, was her own worst enemy. And nothing but silence from God.
v.7 We would expect to hear that Israel enjoyed peace for so many years. But Jephthah’s victory apparently had not even entirely removed the Ammonite menace.
In the first part of our reading tonight, 11:12-28, Jephthah the self-interested bandit becomes Jephthah the Israelite statesman. He is interested in and familiar with Israel’s history, with the Lord’s intervention on Israel’s behalf in her times of need, and is willing to lay the outcome of this contest between Israel and Ammon at the Lord’s feet. He is savvy enough to know that Ammon is not likely going to be dissuaded from her program of expansion by the diplomatic arguments of an enfeebled nation. The Lord must come to Israel’s aid. In fact, Jephthah’s long argument to the king of Ammon is primarily a recital of the victories the Lord gave Israel over nations that would not allow them passage toward the Promised Land. It reads more as an argument likely to persuade the Lord to preserve the land he had given Israel than as an argument likely to persuade the king of Ammon to acknowledge Israel’s claim to the land. The climactic appeal to the Lord as judge in v. 27 confirms that impression.
In other words, there is more to Jephthah than we would have grasped from reading the account in the first part of chapter 11. There seems now to be some faith in the man. And that fact is confirmed immediately in v. 29 when we read that the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah. However, subsequent events take what bloom there may have been off Jephthah’s rose. Not only does he make a wicked vow for pagan reasons that leads to the tragic and utterly unnecessary death of his only child, he then is caught up in a civil war that does more damage to Israel than the Ammonites had done. Israel’s deliverer ends up being also her destroyer.
“Jephthah is a capable man – capable with words, capable in battle, a strong decisive personality, and a leader of men. He has potential for true greatness. But he has a background, a personal history, which helps us to understand his limitations even if we cannot condone them. He is insecure, and he is self-centered. He can never fully engage with anyone’s interests but his own. This is the hardness of the man and the reason why he can never be great.” [Webb, 75] He is a man of his culture as well. Though he knows of the Lord’s salvation he does not decisively follow the way of grace but embraces at the same time the religious viewpoint of Canaan. He thinks of his relationship with the Lord, at least in part, in terms of manipulation, just like any pagan Canaanite. He is much less than he should have been because he did not thoroughly separate himself from the viewpoint of his time and place.
But these facts about Jephthah pose for us a great question and force us to think seriously about the nature of believing life in this world. For the fact is: Jephthah is a believer. He was, as we would say today, a Christian. A real Christian. I’m not sure that we would think he was if all we had to go by was this narrative. But the Bible leaves us in no doubt on this point and so it forces this question upon us in the most direct and important way.
In Hebrews 11 we find Jephthah’s name on the wall of the hall of the heroes of faith. He is named among those who “through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised…” He is among those who were commended by God for their faith, among those who will be made perfect together with us on the last day. He is found in a list that includes Noah, Abraham, Moses, Samuel, David, and the prophets.
He is a fool, we know that. He is self-centered. We know that. He did not lead Israel as a godly man should have done and the consequences of his failures were grave. He as much as murders his daughter and he is the instrument by which thousands of Ephraimite men are killed. We know that. But he was a believing man.
What are we to do with this? How are we to think about it? Well there are a number of things that might be said, taking the teaching of the Bible as a whole into consideration.
1. First, it is fair to say that the times in which men live have something to do with the quality of their spiritual lives. That is a fact of biblical history and of Christian history since biblical times. We may often forget this, may even wish to deny it, but it is true. The times of the Judges were a particularly low point in Israel’s spiritual history and, consequently, the believers left among the Israelites lived their believing life at a characteristically lower level than believers did at times when the nation, the church was more spiritually healthy. Surely that should not be hard to understand. There are many influences that bear on our spiritual lives, our commitment to holiness, even our understanding of what holiness is. Some of the most powerful of those influences come from the church and the Christians around us. If they are living for Christ at a low level then we will not be pushed as far or as high as otherwise we might have been. And what more profoundly influences the church than the weight of the culture that is bearing down on her all the while. Think of our own times. Years ago there were comparatively few divorces in the culture and there were still fewer in the church, hardly any at all. Now, however, divorce is openly tolerated in the culture and widely practiced and has become much more common in the church. The situation is better in the church than in the world, but it is much worse in the church today than it was in the church of years ago. Here is a part of Christian obedience, then, that is not as likely to be found in believers as once it was. And we could say the same thing about sexual promiscuity before marriage, or pornography, or debt that is the result of worldliness, or any number of other sins. It is always hard to live a holy life, but it is harder at some times than it is at others. This principle is demonstrated in an extreme form in the case of revivals. One Scottish pastor spoke of how, during a revival in the mid-19th century, they became as men “walking on ice.” They were so anxious to please God in everything they said and did that they were exceedingly careful lest they take a stumble in any way. Well, if a revival is one extreme, the time of the Judges was another. We can say that about Jephthah, so disappointing in many ways but nevertheless a believing man, a man of faith. This is not an excuse. No one who takes it for an excuse has read our text. It is misery that Jephthah’s sins produce. Misery for him and for many others and, especially, for the one closest to him. If we live in a time that makes holiness more difficult, then the only possible response on our part is to be the more determined to live holy lives, the more faithful in prayer to God, the more scrupulous in obedience. And, remember, everyone wasn’t as bad as Jephthah. Ruth and Boaz lived at this time. He could have and should have been a better man.
2. Second, some believers have a harder time of it than others. Why this is I cannot begin to explain but that it is is a fact of biblical revelation and of the observation of life. “To whom much is given, much is required” is a principle of God’s evaluation of a believer’s life that is taught us in Holy Scripture precisely because everyone isn’t given the same things in the same measure. Jephthah had a prostitute for a mother. He had half-brothers who hated him. He had been driven from home. He seems to have lived a good bit of his life in bitterness as a result of these things. None of this excuses him, but it does explain things we see in Jephthah and often explains the struggles we see in people’s lives today. It is one thing to grow up in a happy home, a faithful church, to enjoy the privileges of a fine education, to travel in circles that are populated by many fine Christian people. That is not everyone’s situation. In the infinite wisdom of God he has not given to everyone of his people the same advantages. Life can be harder or easier for people as a result of a great many things over which they had no control. There are people who struggle mightily with sins that are, in a very large part, the result of sins that were committed against them when they were young. Again, this does not excuse, but it explains. David Berkowitz, the infamous Son of Sam who terrorized New York City in the mid-1970s, and who for some years has been a professing and practicing Christian in the penitentiary, makes no excuse for his terrible sins: six murdered, others wounded, one man blinded. But, when we learn that he had been abandoned by his real mother as an infant and then again by his adopted parents, left to fend for himself in New York when he was just fourteen years of age, we don’t presume to say that his upbringing made no difference and didn’t place him at a very great disadvantage. It was harder for him to be good than it is for others. And so it was for Jephthah. And all of this is known to God and all of it is taken into account in his judgment of a human life.
3. Third, lives can be marred by discrete failures. Fact is, we don’t know that much about Jephthah’s life as a believing man. Perhaps there was a good deal that we would have admired in the man. Perhaps at other times and in other places he was a humbler man, more a man of prayer, a kinder man. Perhaps he was a man who loved God’s house and was faithful in his worship. Indeed, perhaps he was a man who learned his lessons from what he had so sinfully done. We meet Jephthah only in the crisis and, though he gained a great victory for Israel in battle by the Spirit of God, the crisis unmanned him in various ways. But we could say the same thing about David. If all we knew about David was the affair with Bathsheba, his behavior toward Absalom, and his numbering the people at the end of his reign, we would have a very different estimation of David than we do. At some points in David’s life he behaves just like any other oriental despot, just as at some points Jephthah behaves like any other Canaanite ruler. It is not necessarily the whole story even though, alas, it is an important part of the story.
4. Fourth, and finally, however we must take our rest here. There is in every believing life, every Christian life, a great deal that is very bad, ugly, harmful, utterly unworthy of the grace that we have received. In this respect Jephthah is every Christian. His life is our life also in its failure. If we have not murdered, we have hated. If we have not sought our own in precisely the way that Jephthah sought his own, we have been selfish and self-centered in more ways than we can possibly know. And God sees all of this. Other people see enough of it, for goodness sakes, but God sees it all. We have sinned against our children enough to damn them a hundred times over. It is only by God’s grace that we, of all people, can nurture them in the love and discipline of the Lord. Everyone of us in this room who is of any age knows very well how much of our true selves we hide from others and how much, by God’s grace, he has allowed us to hide from others. If others only knew… Why we would be happy to trade places with Jephthah. At least he led Israel in a great victory. What have we done? Times without number the Bible reminds us that we are saved by grace and not by our works; that it is Christ’s righteousness and not our own that will take us to heaven. But that is a hard truth to take to heart and harder still always to remember and never to forget. So the Bible shows us a lot of people who are saved by God’s grace and shows us their faults as well so that we can see in flesh and blood how it is with us and our salvation. Nobody, reading these chapters of Judges, is going to think that Jephthah deserved to go to heaven. And nobody should think, least of all we ourselves, that we deserve to go there either.