Judges 11 is the story of Jephthah, a man of great faith according to Hebrews 11:32. The lessons that we can learn from this judge are numerous, but he is most remembered as the giver of a rash promise. We will see from this chapter just how important it is to think about what we are going to say before saying it!
The situation in this chapter is dire for the Israelites. As can be seen from Judges 10:17-18, the sons of Ammon had made a bold move by camping outside of Gilead, while the Israelites paralleled the move by camping in Mizpah. With the enemy at the gates, so to speak, the people of Gilead cry out, seeking a warrior who will be able to deliver them from their enemies. Notice the first of many rash promises that we will study in this lesson, “‘Who is the man who will begin to fight against the sons of Ammon? He shall become head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.’” Such a vow makes very little sense, as most great military leaders lack the skills to be effective peacetime administrators. What would have happened had the deliverer of Gilead been a cruel, malicious, and blasphemous man. Just because a valiant warrior proves his worth on the battle field, that does not automatically make him the right choice after the battle. Besides, God had never commanded that such a leader be chosen in the first place. God did not want the Israelites to have a king because of all the problems associated with that office – did nobody learn a lesson from the horrible reign of Abimelech?
“Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a valiant warrior, but he was the son of a harlot. And Gilead was the father of Jephthah” (11:1). Like all of God’s heroes in the book of Judges, Jephthah had an obvious flaw that made him odious in the sight of his fellow Israelites. The fact that he was the son of a harlot was a mark of great dishonor, and essentially made him the last person, in the mind of Israel at least, to be chosen as a deliverer. This just shows that the Lord can use whatever tools He desires to bring about His just will. Throughout history, the Lord takes advantage of situations and people that are far from ideal by human standards, showing that He does not need an army to defeat His enemies, nor does He need a man of noble birth to lead Israel to victory. God can use a humble harlot’s son just as well as He can use a well-trained and dignified general. It seems also that the fact that Jephthah was the offspring of a harlot had become quite public knowledge. Even trying to distinguish himself as a valiant warrior, Jephthah could never escape his birth.
“And Gilead’s wife bore him sons. And when his wife’s sons grew up, they drove Jephthah out and said to him, ‘You shall not have an inheritance in our father’s house, for you are the sons of another woman’” (11:2). These sons know that Jephthah is the oldest, and therefore had the greatest claim to the birthright. Greedy boys that they are, they drive him away, claiming that such a filthy man had no place at Gilead’s family table. It is unfortunate that the same thing happens still today. Many people do not judge others based on their spiritual worth, or the contributions they have made to the good of the church, but rather on their status or wealth (James 2:1-6).
“So Jephthah fled from his brothers and lived in the land of Tob; and worthless fellows gathered themselves about Jephthah, and they went out with him” (11:3). It is interesting that a man of such high moral character would allow worthless fellows to follow him, but perhaps he believed that these were the only kind of people who would follow him! The question that Jephthah always needed to ask himself, though, was what he was doing with the situation. With all of these worthless fellows, was he being a good influence on them, or was it the other way around? Sometimes we cannot help being surrounded by bad people. Paul even tells us in 1 Corinthians 5:9-12 that we cannot help but associate with the lowly people of the world. Most of us know some pretty worthless people at school, at work, or even right across the street from our homes. What kind of influence are we having, though?
11:4-5 – The times of peacefulness in Israel were few and far between, and the opportunity for the Ammonite strike had come. The Ammonites must have known that the foolish men of Gilead had driven away their greatest warrior, Jephthah, so if they were going to take the city, it would be now!
Jephthah is needed
“And they said to Jephthah, ‘Come and be our chief that we may fight against the sons of Ammon’” (11:6). Of course, it is ridiculous for the people of Gilead to think that Jephthah would come back and help them after all that they had done to him. He was unwanted and despised because he was a threat to their inheritance, but he was beloved when they were most desperate. Does this not sound like our relationship with God, at times? Many people only pray to God when they are at their wits’ end, like Jonah in Jonah 2:7. “Then Jephthah answered 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) The hypocrisy of these people had become very clear, and now Jephthah was calling them on it.
In response, the people offer Jephthah the promise they had made in Judges 10:18 and appoint him ruler over the entire city of Jephthah (11:8). Because of his distrust for them, Jephthah requires them to confirm this promise, which they do before the Lord. Some have seen Jephthah’s actions as somewhat greedy, as if he is only interested in gaining power in Gilead. But notice what is written in 11:11, “And Jephthah spoke all his words before the Lord at Mizpah.” Jephthah consults God about all of these things. He keeps the Lord in mind, which is a very honorable way to live. It does not seem like Jephthah is a power hungry man, just one who saw opportunities and took them when it seemed best in God’s eyes.
Jephthah’s letter to the sons of Ammon
11:12-22 – Jephthah sends several messages to the leaders of the Ammonites, hoping to find a diplomatic solution before rushing headlong into a fight. “What is it between you and me, that you have come to fight against my land?” (11:12) Jephthah’s bravery is quite admirable. He is not afraid to ask why the Ammonites are acting so aggressively. He does not hesitate to call to question their intentions, which is what we ought to be doing as Christians, as well. When our spiritual enemies attack our integrity, or the habits that we have as righteous individuals, we cannot shrink back from defending the truth (Hebrews 10:35-39). We must be bold, confident, and sure that we are in the right when it comes to believing and practicing the Bible. He asserts further in his letters that the Ammonites have no right to try to reclaim Israelite territory that had once been in their possession. The dispute is specifically over a large area bordered by three rivers, the Arnon, the Jabok, and the Jordan. The Ammonites, of course, respond that the land had been forcibly taken away from their ancestors by the cruel, wicked, land-grabbing Israelites.
Jephthah’s response to these allegations is timely and memorable. He says, “Since now the Lord, the God of Israel, drove out the Amorites from before His people Israel, are you then to possess it?” (11:23) It makes no sense to Jephthah to argue that the land is rightfully the Ammonite’s because it had been captured fair and square and handed over to them by God. Notice that Jephthah gives credit to God, and not to the military genius of early Israelite leaders. We always need to be careful about the same thing, as it becomes tempting to try to bolster our own image with accomplishments. Preachers may believe that they are the ones saving souls, keeping a list of all their baptisms for pride’s sake. Some brethren were like this in Philippi (Philippians 1:15-17). Jephthah continues, “Do you not possess what Chemosh your god gives you to possess? So whatever the Lord our God has driven out before us, we will possess it” (11:24). His response is both logical and unquestionable. If the Ammonites truly believe in their idols, then they ought to only possess the territory that their so-called gods give to them. But these “gods,” of course, are nonexistent and only pale in comparison to the true God (1 Corinthians 8:4-6).
“But the king of the sons of Ammon disregarded the message which Jephthah sent him” (11:28). It is unfortunate that so much bloodshed had to happen in the Bible, but because of the stubbornness of wicked men like this king, it was unavoidable. If only men like the king of Ammon had listened to, and heeded, the warnings of God’s prophets and judges, then so many more people would have been welcomed into the fold of Israel, and not left rotting after horrible battles.
11:29-33 – This section of the text deals with Jephthah’s rash promise, and the eventual victory that was won over the Ammonites. As Jephthah makes his way to the battle field, he vows to the Lord, “If Thou wilt indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace… it shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering” (11:30-31). There are some interesting points that need to be made about this promise. First, it was never commanded by God. If Jephthah had wanted to offer sacrifices to the Lord, he ought to have offered those things that were authorized in the Law, and only at the appropriate time. Just because a promise to God is grandiose and impressive does not make it pleasing to Him. In the same way, today’s denominations often promise great things to God that are not commanded. But all of the sacrifices in the world mean nothing unless they are in accordance with the will of the Lord. Second, Jephthah was certainly getting caught up in the moment, instead of thinking before he spoke. What made him believe that only animals would come to him from his house upon his return? In fact, does it not make sense that the people of his household would be more apt to run from the house than the animals? Third, just because Jephthah made a promise like this does not mean he changed God’s mind. God had determined from the very beginning that He would give the victory to Jephthah – indeed, the spirit came upon the judge before he made his foolish oath. And finally, we should never make promises that we will regret later. Our “yes” is supposed to be a “yes,” and it is absolutely important that we count the cost of our vows before making them quickly and foolishly (James 5:12). “Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God” (Ecclesiastes 5:2).
11:34-40 – With the victory achieved, Jephthah returns to his home only to find his daughter dancing and rejoicing. He tears his clothes and informs the maiden of his promise, to which she bravely answers, “My father, you have given your word to the Lord; do to me as you have said, since the Lord has avenged you of your enemies…” (11:36). Her only request is that she be given some time alone, two months, to mourn for herself and her virginity. After the expiration of this time, she is apparently sacrificed to God. There has been some debate among different scholars about whether or not Jephthah actually committed her as a burnt offering, or simply offered her as a virgin in the temple service. I do not believe that there is any validity to this idea, and it is likely just a way to make some scholars’ conscience feel better. The text makes it clear, however, that the offering was to be a burnt offering, and that “he did to her according to the vow which he had made.” Any attempt to teach that Jephthah went back on his promise to God simply denies the text and makes Jephthah an oath-breaker.
We all have choices in our lives. While Jephthah chose to make his irrational and foolish promise to God, and paid the penalty for it, we have the opportunity to choose righteousness and be saved by the grace of God. “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16).