SynopsisAfter Jair’s time as a judge is over, the Israelites once again fall away from the LORD, and start serving other gods. So God becomes angry with them, and sells them into the hands of the Philistines and Ammonites, who shatter and crush them (verse 10:8), and oppress them for eighteen years. (Actually, it’s mostly the Israelites on the East side of the Jordan river that are being oppressed, although the Ammonites also cross the Jordan to fight the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Ephraim.)
So the Israelites come to their senses, and ask the LORD to save them. They admit that they’ve forsaken Him, and served other gods.
The LORD replied, “When the Egyptians, the Amorites, the Ammonites, the Philistines, the Sidonians, the Amalekites and the Maonites oppressed you and you cried to me for help, did I not save you from their hands? But you have forsaken me and served other gods, so I will no longer save you. Go and cry out to the gods you have chosen. Let them save you when you are in trouble!”
But the Israelites said to the LORD, “We have sinned. Do with us whatever you think best, but please rescue us now.” Then they got rid of the foreign gods among them and served the LORD. And he could bear Israel’s misery no longer.
So the Israelites assembled, and prepared to do battle with the Ammonites. They decide that they’ll take whoever leads the attack, and make that man their leader of their territory, which is called Gilead, going forward.
At this point, the story pauses to give some back story about Jephthah. Jephthah is the son of Gilead, which means that his father must have settled this area. However, Jephthah is not a legitimate son of Gilead’s, he’s the son of a prostitute. So when all of Gilead’s sons grow up, they drive Jephthah away. He goes off to live in the land of Tob, where “a group of adventurers” (verse 11:3) gathers around him, and he becomes a mighty warrior. So, when the Gileadites (if I may call them that) are oppressed by the Ammonites, they go back to Jephthah, and ask him to be their leader.
Jephthah 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?”
The elders of Gilead said to him, “Nevertheless, we are turning to you now; come with us to fight the Ammonites, and you will be our head over all who live in Gilead.”
Jephthah answered, “Suppose you take me back to fight the Ammonites and the LORD gives them to me—will I really be your head?”
The elders of Gilead replied, “The LORD is our witness; we will certainly do as you say.” So 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.
I’m not sure what it means, when it says that Jephthah “repeated all his words before the LORD”—I assume that it means he went to wherever the Ark was, and “repeated his words” there.
So it’s decided. Jephthah sends a message to the Ammonites, and asks them why they’ve been attacking the Israelites. The response: Because the Israelites took away the Ammonites’ land, when they came out of Egypt.
Jephthah sent back messengers to the Ammonite king, saying:
“This is what Jephthah says: Israel did not take the land of Moab or the land of the Ammonites. But when they came up out of Egypt, Israel went through the desert to the Red Sea and on to Kadesh. Then Israel sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, ‘Give us permission to go through your country,’ but the king of Edom would not listen. They sent also to the king of Moab, and he refused. So Israel stayed at Kadesh.
“Next they traveled through the desert, skirted the lands of Edom and Moab, passed along the eastern side of the country of Moab, and camped on the other side of the Arnon. They did not enter the territory of Moab, for the Arnon was its border.
“Then Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, who ruled in Heshbon, and said to him, ‘Let us pass through your country to our own place.’ Sihon, however, did not trust Israel to pass through his territory. He mustered all his men and encamped at Jahaz and fought with Israel.
“Then the LORD, the God of Israel, gave Sihon and all his men into Israel’s hands, and they defeated them. Israel took over all the land of the Amorites who lived in that country, capturing all of it from the Arnon to the Jabbok and from the desert to the Jordan.
“Now since the LORD, the God of Israel, has driven the Amorites out before his people Israel, what right have you to take it over? Will you not take what your god Chemosh gives you? Likewise, whatever the LORD our God has given us, we will possess. Are you better than Balak son of Zippor, king of Moab? Did he ever quarrel with Israel or fight with them? For 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? I 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.”
However, the king of the Ammonites pays Jephthah no heed. So the Spirit of the LORD came on Jephthah, who takes his men and advances on the Ammonites. And, unfortunately, at this moment Jephthah makes a foolish vow: he tells the LORD that if He gives the Ammonites into Jephthah’s hands, he will make a sacrifice of “whatever” comes out of the door of his house to meet him, when he returns home. (See below for my thoughts on this vow.)
Jephthah and his men battle the Ammonites, and the LORD delivers them into his hands. But when Jephthah returns home, his daughter—his only child—comes out the front door, dancing (I assume to celebrate the victory), to meet him. This devastates Jephthah, because he has made a vow to the LORD, that he cannot break. To me, Jephthah’s daughter’s response is the most amazing thing about this story:
“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. But 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.” (verses 11:36–37)
So Jephthah lets her go, and she and her friends go into the hills and weep, because she will never be able to marry. But in two months, as promised, she returns, still a virgin, and Jephthah sacrifices her.Verses 11:39–40 tell us that this becomes an Israelite custom: Every year, the young Israelite women go out for four days, to commemorate Jephthah’s daughter.
ThoughtsI found the LORD’s initial response to the Israelites very interesting. Initially, He simply tells them that they’ve made their own bed, now they have to lie in it, but when He “could bear [their] misery no longer” (verse 10:16), He relented and saved them. I have a feeling that the author of Judges is “humanizing” God a bit, to make a point, when it talks about Him not being able to bear the Israelites’ misery any longer. But at the same time, if the Bible is true—as I believe it to be—then this description of the events is accurate. It might be oversimplified, but it’s not incorrect.
I find the exchange between Jephthah and the king of the Ammonites to be very interesting. This is a perfect example of two nations having their own, different memories of the history of a piece of land.
Jephthah’s vow wasn’t foolish just because of the way that it turned out; it’s not just that his daughter happened to come out of the house first—it’s that he should have expected that it would be a member of his family who would come out of the door! Who—or what—else would come out of the door? Was Jephthah incredibly stupid? I often wonder if maybe he was trying to get rid of his wife, and thought this would be the way to do it, and it backfired on him. I should be clear that there’s absolutely no proof of this, it’s just something that I’ve wondered about.