The last essay in the series completed the portion of the Book of Judges on Gideon’s family. Having finished the period of Midianite oppression, in this essay we are taking up the next period, that of Ammonite and Philistine oppression. Although the eighteen-year Ammonite oppression is dealt with first, and then that of the forty-years of Philistine pressures, they actually overlapped considerably. The Ammonite attacks fell on Gilead on the eastern side of the Jordan, with some forays into the territory of the west bank tribes. The pressure from the Philistines on the other hand, came from the west. So the Israelite tribes were being pinched in between.
The two judges who are the focus of attention in this section are Jephthah whom God raised up against the Ammonites, and Sampson who waged a 30-year war against the Philistines. The story of Jephthah and the three minor judges who followed him, Ibzan, Elon and Abdon, is recorded in 10:6-12:15. And that is our study for today.
In 10:6 you will recognize the typical slide into apostasy of the period. Notice that seven false gods are named. Seven is the number of completion or perfection. The point is that the apostasy of Israel was complete.
In verses 7-9 we see the typical reaction by the Lord to the apostasy. And then in verses 10-12 the Lord names seven nations from which had delivered Israel in the past. Once again the number seven is significant. The point is that the past deliverances of God were as complete and perfect as Israel’s present apostasy. In addition, in verses 13-14 the Lord tells Israel to seek help from the foreign gods they had been worshipping.
Then in verses 15 and 16 we see the genuine repentance that was typical of the period. And as in the past, things began to turn around with the call of a judge. This one was named Jephthah.
In 11:1-11 we see the story of Jephthah. He began his career on a rather sour note. His mother was a prostitute; and his brothers, whose mother was a legitimate wife, drove Jephthah from the family home. So he became a kind of outlaw leader who made a reputation as a warrior in the region of Tob (vv. 1-3)
But that became his ticket to leadership, because when the Ammonites set up for a new attack, the elders of Gilead called on Jephthah to lead them in battle (vv. 5-6). But Jephthah was unwilling to be just a military leader. He negotiated a deal whereby, if they won, he would rule over the tribes after the war was over (vv. 7-9). The elders agreed (v. 10), and Jephthah became judge over that portion of Israel (v. 11).
Once Jephthah was in power, he immediately began negotiations with the Ammonites. In 11:12-28, we see that Jephthah began the negotiations by accusing the Ammonites of invading his land (v. 12). The Ammonite king replied that Israel originally had taken the land from his ancestors (v. 13). Then Jephthah sent to the Ammonites a detailed account of the history as recorded in the Pentateuch (Num. 20-21), which indicates that Israel only took the land in question after she was attacked. But that wasn’t the main point. Jepthah’s main point was that Israel got the land from Sihon and the Amorites, not from the Ammonites (vv. 19-22). The Ammonites dwelled southeast from the Amorites.
Thus the bottom line for Jephthah was that the land never belonged to the Ammonites; and the bottom line for the king of the Ammonites was that it did. So the negotiations came to nothing (v. 25).
In the next paragraph, verses 29-33, we find a series of fast-moving events. First, in verse 29 the Holy Spirit came upon Jephthah (v. 29). Of course that is a positive thing; and it made him a true judge. Then in verse 30 we are told that Jephthah raised an army from among the eastern tribes. Now that must have been an additional army, because an army already had been gathered, and some fighting had taken place, even before the elders of Gilead called on Jephthah to be their leader (10:17; 11:4-5).
Then Jephthah, perhaps because of a weakness of faith or character, made a rash vow. He vowed to the Lord, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering” (vv. 30-31). And then Jephthah proceeded to win the war (vv. 32-33).
In verses 34-40 we see the fulfillment of Jephthah’s vow. Scholars have discussed and cussed this vow of Jephthah’s time and time again. What was he thinking when he made the vow? Was he thinking of an animal sacrifice, or a human sacrifice? If it was not an animal sacrifice, was he thinking of a literal human sacrifice, or a symbolic sacrifice of some sort? Obviously it is impossible to know what he was thinking.
A few have argued for an animal sacrifice, but not many. There has been general agreement through the centuries by both Jews and Christians that Jephthah did not mean an animal sacrifice. And it is only since the Middle Ages that scholars have argued for a symbolic, rather than literal, sacrifice. Nevertheless the theory is attractive. This theory argues that the “sacrifice” was to submit to perpetual virginity. The reason the prospect upset Jephthah was because she was Jephthah’s only child; and her perpetual virginity meant that he would have no grandchildren, and his particular family line would come to an end.
The Rabbis and the Christians of the first several centuries assumed that it involved a literal human sacrifice. The two main reasons for a literal interpretation are, first, they say that the two-month period of the daughter’s bewailing her virginity (vv. 37-38) makes no sense unless she was being killed. Otherwise she would have had the rest of his life to bewail her virginity. Second, those arguing this position say that the tradition that arose of an annual four-day lamentation of Jephthah’s daughter makes no sense unless she was sacrificed. And third, they point out that there is no other place in the Old Testament where the language “offer as a burnt offering” is not intended literally.
On the other hand, those who believe the perpetual virginity theory set forth some strong arguments. First, they point out that child sacrifice was forbidden by the Law (Lev. 18:21; Deut. 12:21); and unless this incident is an exception, there is no record of child sacrifice in Israel prior to the godless kings Ahaz and Manassah who came much later. They would answer the argument about the daughter’s lamentation of her virginity with the statement that mourning one’s virginity did not mean to mourn because one has to die a virgin, but because one has to live and remain a virgin. Moreover, they argue, why would the daughter have left the company of her parents for two months, if she were facing death? Presumably, she would have wanted to spend as much time as possible with her family before she died. And finally, if a literal human sacrifice were done, why would the author of the book not have condemned the action? And where would the sacrifice have taken place. It surely would not have been approved at any lawful altar in the land, because the law demanded the punishment of death for child sacrifice.
Well, you will have to make up your own mind about all of that. Whatever the character of the sacrifice, Jephthah seems to have made the vow rashly; and he carried it out to his regret.
Chapter 12 is not of major consequence. In verses 1-7 the Ephraimites came to Jephthah with a false complaint and threatened to burn his house down (v. 1). Jephthah replied with an accusation that he had asked them for help and didn’t receive it (v. 2), which sparked an insult from the Ephraimites. In effect they called Jephthah and his men renegades (v. 4). So Jephthah rounded up his army and defeated Ephraim in battle (v. 4). In verses five and six, we see that Jephthah’s army took the fords of the Jordan River and slaughtered the men of Ephraim as they sought to cross the river. They could identify the Ephrainites, because the Ephraimites couldn’t pronounce the word “Shibboleth.”
The meaning of the word “Shibboleth” is disputed. But it doesn’t really matter what the word meant. The important thing was the pronunciation. The Ephraimites could not pronounce a “sh” sound. When they pronounced the word, it came out Sibboleth instead of Shibboleth. This story led to the entry of the word “shibboleth” into our English language with the meaning of a watchword or catchphrase of a particular group or sect.
Verses 8-13 mention the three judges who followed Jephthah. But we learn nothing significant about them.
Turning to application, we learn once again that service for God requires the power of the Holy Spirit. Jephthah accomplished what he did because the Holy Spirit came upon him (11:29).
Second, we learn that we must watch what we say. Jephthah ruined both his daughter’s life and his own life by making a foolish vow (11:30-31). Those of us who are filled with the Spirit have the ability to control our tongues and thus to refrain from unnecessarily hurting people.