Jephthah: Man of faith and curious vows (Judges 11-12)
By Bob Mendelsohn
Given in Moscow, Russia
9 June 2014
We skip a couple of the judges today and pick up another famous story in the book of Judges. There is a man you might have read about in the Bible. He is one of the people listed in Hebrews 11, and a judge and a military leader for the Jewish people in our story. His name is Jephthah. His Hebrew name is Yiftach, which means “He opens” and I believe is an acknowledgement of his opening the family line of his father Gilead and also is prophetic in that he will open a door of peace for the Jewish people in his adult life.
Gilead had sex with a prostitute and although this was a dishonorable act for a Jewish man, he brought both the woman and his son into his own house. Jephthah was the first born among his other sons from his own wife. (.2) The younger sons of Gilead drove their brother Jephthah out and he became an outcast. Sounds like the story of Joseph centuries before, doesn’t it?
OK, so from outside the camp of Israel, Jephthah takes up residence and is making a life. All of a sudden when the Amorites come to attack the Jews from the east, the Jewish leadership invites Jephthah to be the leader. He argues with them, saying,
Then Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “Did you not hate me and drive me from my father’s house? So why have you come to me now when you are in trouble?” (11.7)
From this we learn that the brothers of Jephthah were also being coached by the leadership of Israel at the time of his exile. Jephthah reminds them of this wrong action and like Joseph in Genesis, asks them if they are serious about this invitation. They assure him that if he leads them, he can be the ROSH, the head of the Jewish people. (.9-10)
Jephthah prays. I hope you don’t miss this. Before he started his campaign against Ammon he (.11)
and Jephthah spoke all his words before the LORD at Mizpah.
He didn’t just talk about God to the people, he spoke to God about the people. Wow, he asked for help. He told God what was happening. He prayed. Then he went to battle. That’s exactly what we are supposed to do. We will not surprise Him with our information; we are notifying Him that we know He is God and we are not. That’s the essence of prayer.
The future leader then initiates a negotiation with the king of Ammon (.12) sending word that the battle isn’t right, since we are occupying the land. Basically, “what are you doing?”
The king of Ammon writes back in verse 13 saying, “You took our land. Give it back.” Sounds like spoiled children. If only they had a United Nations back then. Or CNN.
Jephthah sends a fairly long history mail back to the king, reminding him of what happened when we escaped Egypt and sought to travel through their land. The kings of the land actually denied entry visas to our people, and in fact, Sihon king of the Amorites fought against us. We had to save our people, so we had to fight him, and thus gained control of this area of geography. It wasn’t our originally idea, but thanks to your king Sihon, we now own the place.
Judg. 11.23 ‘Since now the LORD, the God of Israel, drove out the Amorites from before His people Israel, are you then to possess it?
Jephthah says the problem is not really between us; it’s a matter of your god versus our God. Then he even says, in verse 24, “Why don’t you stay where your god Chemosh gives you land.” He continues saying we were away for 300 years and you could easily have dominated the land in that time. Where were you? Why now? See, you guys are just mad that we own it and are doing something with it, which you left for hay and weeds. By the way, doesn’t that sound familiar today in light of modern Israel and the controversy of certain tribal areas?
What was the king’s response? (.28) He ‘did not listen’ or in our Bible it says he “disregarded” the message of the judge of Israel. Not a good idea when a man of God speaks to you. It’s almost as if the music in the movie changes, and you and I and everyone else knows this is a mistake. Trouble awaits the king. We’ll see how that plays out in a moment.
Remember yesterday we saw how God sent an evil spirit into the camp of the men of Shechem in the story of Abimelech? Today God used his Holy Spirit to come upon Jephthah (.29) and to empower him to know what to do. Look it did happen now and again in the record of the Older Testament that people had that unction, that anointing from above. But it was not available to everyone until Shavuot, after Yeshua rose from the dead, and God poured out His Spirit on the 120 and on anyone and everyone who now seeks it.
Then Jephthah did something that we see a few times in the Bible, a man making a vow. And this is where I’m going to be controversial. Some of you have heard about this promise, this oath and wondered what happened. I’ll try to clear that up for you in a minute. But that a Bible character makes a vow is normal. It’s sort of a ‘If you do this for me, God, I’ll do that for you.” Jacob did it, Hannah, Elkanah, David…and on and on. So Jephthah makes one (.30-31) and promises that if God gives him the victory, Jephthah will do something in return.
So, that’s exactly what happened. God again gets credit for the victory and Jephthah wins the battle against the Ammonites.
The scene immediately turns to the house of Jephthah. He returns to celebrate his victory. His home is now in Mizpah, the scene of the ‘agreement’ of Laban and Jacob back in Genesis. And he has to live out a vow he made to God. His daughter comes out of the house first. Yipes, he has to do something with his daughter. What was that vow?
We know it involved God giving him victory. But what was his promise to God? In my Bible it says,
“then it shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, it shall be the LORD’S, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.” (Judges 11.31)
But I want you to read the word “or” instead of “and”. Either I will donate it if a person to God, or I will sacrifice it if it’s an animal.
Think about it. If Jephthah were to try to fulfill the vow by killing his daughter, he would be violating the Torah. (Lev. 18.21) He would have had to ask a priest in Shiloh miles away also to break Torah. And there is not a chance that the people would have allowed this either. Also he as a public figure would have not been able to do anything secretly, so this would have been huge news in Israel. And no way would the daughters of Israel have commemorated this 4 times a year. It would have been a shanda! So this commemoration (Heb: TANAH) is a recounting of the story. No wonder he is listed in Hebrews 11. No wonder he is a man of faith. He gave away his own legacy for the good of Israel. By the way he could have gotten out of this vow by paying extra, (see Lev. 27.1ff)
Many other judges had dozens of sons and grandsons, but Jephthah had none. He was able to rule for 6 years, but had no perpetuity. That’s the fulfillment of the vow.
So I read this vow of Jephthah as “I will give whatever or whoever comes out of my door to the Lord,” meaning to virgin and perpetual service to the Lord like the ladies at the bronze laver in the Tabernacle. (Ex. 38.8) If the first thing out of his house had been an animal, which was clean and appropriate, he would have offered it to the Lord as a burnt offering.
He did not kill his daughter. It is not recorded that he killed her. And it’s wrong to make the Bible say that. She lived in perpetual sadness that she was not able to bear children, which was normal for a Jewish family in that day, and dare I say in this day as well.
One final comment on the Ephraimites. Remember them in the story of Gideon last week. (For those online, please review the blogs from last week on this site).
They wanted some land although they had not participated in the fight against the Midianites. Gideon treated them nicely, but apparently Jephthah didn’t. He said they didn’t come along when asked. They did not volunteer. And they had no right to demand anything today. (12.2)
The Ephraimites were threatening the judge and were taking God to the test, so Jephthah decided to invent a test. It’s called in Hebrew and English a ‘shibboleth.” The men of Ephraim had a sort of ‘lisp’, which prevented them from saying SH sounds, they came out as S’s. So instead of ‘shibboleth’ they would say ‘sibboleth’ By the way the word itself means floods.
If you were to ask someone from Odessa to say “Odessa” you would immediately hear their accent or dialect and it was a giveaway of their homeland. As a result of the shibboleth test, the Jephthah army killed 42,000 Ephraimites that day.
The story of Jephthah is sad in that he has no legacy, but it’s rich in faith. Let’s be careful to live by faith and not make hasty vows. Let’s trust the Lord but not negotiate with him. He can and will send His holy spirit to lead us. We have a job, to pray to him, to tell him what’s happening, to trust him with our lives and with the lives of those near us.
Let’s be careful to give him thanks and praise for this story of the man of faith and our lives and the lives of faith of the Bolotovs and Tolik and each other in this campaign. Amen?