Monday, October 29, 2018


But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment. (James 5:12 NAS)
In some ways, Jephthah could not be considered a significant judge of the Old Testament Israelites. He was not called by God to be a judge in the same way as were Deborah, Barak and Gideon, and he only ruled Israel for six years in contrast to other judges who ruled up to twenty, forty, and even eighty years. Neither was Jephthah an extremely positive example for us. There are some things about him that are admirable, but there are other things that are deplorable.

Nevertheless, he is mentioned among those of great faith in the New Testament book of Hebrews (chapter 11). Also, the prophet Samuel mentioned him many years later as he was reviewing the history of the Israelites. Of the total number of fifteen judges[1] that he might have mentioned in his summary of the times, he chose Jephthah as one of the only four judges that he did name (1 Samuel 12:11).

In addition to these references, whereas some of the judges who reigned much longer are sometimes given only a sentence or two to tell of their time as judge, Jephthah is given a chapter and a half of text to tell his biography. His is a complicated story; a mix of good and bad, and of wisdom and foolishness. 

A Difficult Beginning
The first two things that we learn about Jephthah are he was a valiant warrior and that he was the son of a prostitute. Certainly this second fact could not be held against Jephthah, but it was a mark on him nevertheless. Even though he was the son of a prostitute, it seems as though Jephthah lived his childhood in the home of his father, who was named Gilead.

Gilead was also married. We do not know if the child Jephthah was conceived before Gilead and his wife were married, or if it was something that took place because of an unfaithfulness of the husband. But in either case, it must have at times made for uncomfortable family dynamics, especially since there were other sons in the family, sons of Gilead’s true wife.

The family dynamics became especially uncomfortable when the boys grew up. They banded together to throw Jephthah out of the house, saying to him, “You shall not have an inheritance in our father’s house, for you are the son of another woman.”

Perhaps it was partially because of these sorts of family dynamics as he was growing up that had made Jephthah into a valiant warrior. He had grown up having to fight his way through life. Whatever factors may have contributed to Jephthah’s early formation; a warrior is what he became.

Jephthah fled to the land of Tob, which we think was quite some distance to the east. There in Tob, he gathered around him a group of “worthless fellows,” or scoundrels. In modern terms, we could say that Jephthah formed a street gang of sorts. 

The Cycle Continues
In the years before, Israel had enjoyed a very long period of peace for the times—forty-five years. There were two judges who ruled during these peaceful decades, men named Tola and Jair. Tola had reigned for twenty-three years and Jair twenty-two, but although theirs were such long reigns, these are two of the judges about whom very little is written.

It was after the death of Jair that the nation of Israel again descended into evil. We read of these years, “Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord. They served the Baals and the Ashtoreths, and the gods of Aram, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites and the gods of the Philistines” (Judges 10:6a NIV).

Predictably, God responded to this unfaithfulness. 

Because the Israelites forsook the Lord and no longer served him, he became angry with them. He sold them into the hands of the Philistines and the Ammonites, who that year shattered and crushed them. For eighteen years they oppressed all the Israelites on the east side of the Jordan in Gilead, the land of the Amorites. The Ammonites also crossed the Jordan to fight against Judah, Benjamin and Ephraim; Israel was in great distress. (Judges 10:6b-9 NIV). 

And, just as predictably, the people again finally realized the error of their ways. They cried to the Lord, “We have sinned against you, forsaking our God and serving the Baals” (Judges 10:10 NIV).

This time seemed as though the Lord had had enough. He 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!” (Judges 10:14 NIV).

But the Israelites continued to repent and to beg. “We have sinned. Do with us whatever you think best, but please rescue us now” (Judges 10:15 NIV).

The people got rid of the foreign gods and again began to serve the Lord. God could bear Israel’s misery no longer. It appeared as if the Lord was again going to intervene, and what happens next is crucial. It is not clear from the text as if this next action was something initiated by God, or if it was simply a decision of the people. Whichever was the case, the threat became increasingly grave, and a deliverer needed to be chosen. 

The Invasion of the Ammonites and the Calling of Jephthah
The Ammonites had suddenly arrived in arms and camped in Gilead (Gilead was not only the name of Jephthah’s father, but also the name of the territory where he lived). The leaders of the people of Gilead, suddenly faced with the military threat camped in their region, said to one another, “Whoever will take the lead in attacking the Ammonites will be head over all who live in Gilead.”

It was at that point that they remembered the valiant warrior Jephthah. The son of a prostitute must have had a reputation of some notoriety to be remembered after all that time and in a land so far away.

The leaders of Gilead sent an emissary to meet Jephthah in Tob. They said to him, “Come and return with us and be our commander so that we can fight the Ammonites.”

Jephthah felt vindicated over the fact that he had been expelled from their land. He could not help a biting response: “Oh, first you hate me and kick me out from my father’s house, and now when you are in trouble you want me to help!”

The leaders knew that Jephthah had a point. In order to sweeten the deal, they offered him not only the position of commander of the army, but also to be head of the country—to lead them as a nation.

After receiving assurances, Jephthah consented and returned to Gilead with the men, where he was sworn in as the head of the nation. The text tells us that Jephthah spoke all his words before the Lord at the capital city of Mizpah. 

The Diplomat
Jephthah did not immediately go to battle with the Ammonites. Now suddenly finding himself a statesman, he instead sent messengers to the Ammonite king with a question. “What do you have against me that you have attacked my country?”

The king of the Ammonites in turn sent an answer with the messengers back to Jephthah. “When Israel came up out of Egypt, they took away my land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, all the way to the Jordan.”

Then came the demand, “Now give it back peacefully.”

Jephthah disagreed with the historical record. He corrected the Ammonite king on his faulty history, saying that the Ammonites had no claim to the land that the king referred to. Besides all of that, the time which the king of the Ammonites spoke of was three hundred years earlier. If there was indeed a wrong done, the question of Jephthah was why no claims been made in all that time?

Jephthah concluded, “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.”

The king of Ammon ignored the message. No response was sent. 

Vows Hastily Made
When Jephthah received no reply, the text tells us that “the Spirit of the Lord” came upon him, and he and his troops advanced toward where the Ammonites were camped. As he was approaching the camp however, he did something that was definitely not prompted by the Spirit of the Lord.

Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering” (Judges 11:30-31 NAS).

Jephthah is not the only individual in history that has made a rash vow, although others surely have not made a vow with consequences so rash as this one. Perhaps you yourself, when facing some difficult and frightening situation in your life, have made some sort of vow.

“If you get me through this God, I will go to church every Sunday for the rest of my life!”

Most of these sort of vows are made in haste, on impulse at the spur of the moment. Vows should not be made in this way, and this is especially true concerning vows to the Lord.

Moses knew the solemnity of making vows to the Lord. Many decades before Jephthah, he spoke to the heads of the tribes of the people of Israel, telling them this: “This is what the Lord has commanded. If a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth (Numbers 30:1-2 ESV).

At another time he said, “If you make a vow to the Lord your God, you shall not delay fulfilling it, for the Lord your God will surely require it of you, and you will be guilty of sin. But if you refrain from vowing, you will not be guilty of sin. You shall be careful to do what has passed your lips, for you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God what you have promised with your mouth” (Deuteronomy 23:21-23 ESV). 

The Vow of Jephthah
Jephthah definitely did not think deeply about these words of warning from Moses seriously when he made his vow: “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering”

I do not know what he expected would come out of his house upon his return from war—perhaps an ox he could burn on the altar, or a pair of turtle doves?

It was none of these of course. The first one to come out of his house was his own daughter, his one and only child and I am sure the joy of his life. She came out of the house with tambourines and with dancing to welcome her daddy home. She apparently was not a little girl, but a daughter who was growing into a young lady.

When Jephthah saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.” 

The Daughter’s Response
The response of the daughter would be shocking in today’s culture, as were the actions of the father. In fact, his actions would not be tolerated. His image would appear on the evening news every day and reporters would do extended stories on the background of this horrible father.

Nevertheless, the daughter replied, “My father, you have opened your mouth to the Lord; do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has avenged you on your enemies, on the Ammonites. Only let this thing be done for me: leave me alone two months, that I may go up and down on the mountains and weep for my virginity, I and my companions” (Judges 11:36-37).

Upon her return at the end of the two months, we are told that she submitted herself to the hasty vow of her father and suffered the consequences of Jephthah’s foolishness.

It is horrible to think of it, and actually unthinkable to us. 

Use Great Care in Making Vows
The words of the Preacher in the book of Ecclesiastes speak specifically to the solemnity of the making and the keeping of vows: 

It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. 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? (Ecclesiastes 5:5-6 ESV) 

Like the words of Moses that we read moments ago, this Preacher also tells us the importance of keeping vows: “When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow” (Ecclesiastes 5:4 ESV).

It should make us think.

The words of Jesus are also helpful in this: 

Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.” But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply “Yes” or “No”; anything more than this comes from evil. (Matthew 5:33-37 ESV)
The Lesson of Jephthah
Jephthah, even though he is mentioned in the book of Hebrews as one of those of great faith, is not a major character of the Bible. Perhaps this is even the first time that you have heard this name. But even if you have heard of Jephthah before, it is likely that what you know of him is not that he was a son of a prostitute. It may have been a big thing that the time but no one remembers that now.

Certainly you would not remember that he lived in the land of Tob and that he had a street gang there, or that he fought the Ammonites.

Sadly for Jephthah, the single fact about his life that anyone remembers is his hastily made and fatal vow. Unfortunately, this has become his legacy.

His story is told for this reason. It is told to underscore the words of Jesus: “Let your words simply be ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”
The one who guards his mouth preserves his life;
The one who opens wide his lips comes to ruin. (Proverbs 13:3 NAS)

Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth;Keep watch over the door of my lips. (Psalm 141:3 NAS)

[1] There are various totals for the number of judges, depending upon whom is counted or not counted as a judge.  

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.