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12. Jephthah: Words Matter (Judges 10:1-12:15)

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I have a good friend and respected pastor who long ago was teaching through the Book of Romans. When he got to chapter 9 – one of the most difficult chapters for some – he decided to skip it. As I come to our text for today, that thought came to mind. How easy it would be for me to simply pass this difficult text by in our study of Judges, as though it wasn’t there. But it is here in our Bibles, and a high view of Scripture compels me to deal with it, difficult or not.

I must confess that I have struggled a great deal with this text. I am more than willing to point out the weaknesses and failures of other men in the Book of Judges, but find it very difficult to think the worst of Jephthah because I like him, except for what I read about his vow and his daughter. As the father of five lovely daughters, I can hardly believe what I am reading. Nevertheless, I have purposed to take the text as it stands and to seek to learn the lessons God has for us here.

While I have undertaken a monumental task in this lesson – covering three chapters in one message – I feel we must look at Jephthah’s life in its entirety rather than divide these chapters into smaller portions of Scripture. And so, by the grace of God, we shall proceed.

What’s With These Minor Judges?

Judges 10:1-5; 12:8-15

1 After Abimelech’s death, Tola son of Puah, grandson of Dodo, from the tribe of Issachar, rose up to deliver Israel. He lived in Shamir in the Ephraimite hill country. 2 He led Israel for twenty-three years, then died and was buried in Shamir. 3 Jair the Gileadite rose up after him; he led Israel for twenty-two years. 4 He had thirty sons who rode on thirty donkeys and possessed thirty cities. To this day these towns are called Havvoth Jair – they are in the land of Gilead. 5 Jair died and was buried in Kamon (Judges 10:1-5).2

8 After him Ibzan of Bethlehem led Israel. 9 He had thirty sons. He arranged for thirty of his daughters to be married outside his extended family, and he arranged for thirty young women to be brought from outside as wives for his sons. Ibzan led Israel for seven years; 10 then he died and was buried in Bethlehem. 11 After him Elon the Zebulunite led Israel for ten years. 12 Then Elon the Zebulunite died and was buried in Aijalon in the land of Zebulun. 13 After him Abdon son of Hillel the Pirathonite led Israel. 14 He had forty sons and thirty grandsons who rode on seventy donkeys. He led Israel for eight years. 15 Then Abdon son of Hillel the Pirathonite died and was buried in Pirathon in the land of Ephraim, in the hill country of the Amalekites (Judges 12:8-15).

Interspersed among the accounts of the “major judges” are some very brief comments regarding “minor judges.” We must understand “major” and “minor” the way these terms are used with reference to the prophetic books of the Bible. “Major” Prophets are not necessarily prophetic works that are more important than the “Minor” Prophets; they are simply shorter books. So, too, the “minor judges” are those judges about whom we are given very little information. For one reason or another, the author has chosen to focus on a few of the judges, giving much more detail about their lives and their role in God’s deliverance of His people.

At the beginning of our text, we are introduced to Tola and Jair (10:1-5). At the end of our text, we encounter Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon (12:8-15). The reason these men are referred to as “minor judges” is that we are not given any details about the way these men were used to deliver the Israelites. Instead, we are given a few basic facts about them. We are told something about their family. In each instance, we know the tribe of the judge that is mentioned. In the case of Jair and Ibzan, we are told that these judges had 30 sons. Ibzan also had 30 daughters, whom he gave in marriage to those outside his clan.3

In addition to family or genealogical information pertaining to the minor judges, we are also told the length of their rule and the place of their death. Why was it important to know where these folks died? I’m not sure, but perhaps their tombs were to be a memorial, a reminder of the deliverance God had given through these judges.

But why mention these minor judges so briefly without supplying more information? I believe that one of the author’s reasons for including these brief references to minor judges is that he wants us to be well aware of how many judges God raised up. This would serve as an indication of the degree to which sin (and divine discipline) was prevalent in Israel. If there were many judges, then Israel was given over to oppressors many times, and this would be because the Israelites had so frequently given themselves over to heathen gods and practices. The more judges, the greater God’s grace is shown to have been.

There is yet another reason, I believe, for including these minor judges in the Book of Judges. There were many judges who ruled during the period of the judges, and so far as I can tell none of them ruled over all of Israel. In each case, judges were raised up to deliver certain tribes or even smaller groups. When all of the judges are taken into account, most of the tribes are accounted for.

When we come to expressions like “the sons of Israel,” “men of Israel,” or “Israel,” we almost automatically assume that the author is speaking of the nation Israel as a whole, but this is often – perhaps most often – not the case in the Book of Judges. We can see this in Judges 9 where we are told that Abimelech “ruled over Israel for three years” (9:22). Abimelech’s rule was over Shechem and a few cities in the valley near Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. In verse 55, we are told that when the “Israelites saw that Abimelech was dead they went home.” Once again, this is not all Israel, but the Israelites in that limited geographical area.

Thus, when we come to these five “minor judges” at the beginning of chapter 10 and at the end of chapter 12, we should recognize that their rule was limited to a smaller area than all of Israel. This can be seen by our author’s words regarding Jair in Judges 10:3-5. He had 30 sons who rode 30 donkeys, and they ruled over 30 towns in Gilead, not all of Israel. The realm of each judge was a limited kingdom, rather than a national kingdom.

It seems to me that one of the things we see in the Book of Judges is the disintegration of the unity and solidarity of the Israelite tribes. It began with the tribes acting somewhat independently of one another. Granted, there was some cooperation between the tribes, but united effort was limited to a few of the tribes at most. Eventually, the Israelites would become “rugged individualists,” with each Israelite doing what seemed right in his own eyes.

Politically, it looks to me as though government in Israel has diminished to that of numerous “city states,” not unlike we find practiced by the Canaanites.4 This was not the way it was supposed to work in Israel, but what we find in Judges is that it will take a strong king to unify this nation so that the Israelites in all the tribes stand together against their moral and political enemies. This will happen for a short time under David and Solomon, but soon thereafter Israel becomes a divided kingdom with Israelites fighting amongst themselves.

I believe we see the same kind of individualism today in the West, particularly in the United States. We see individualism in the church as well. Churches act independently of each other, and unfortunately some see themselves as being in competition with other churches (for status, members, and money). And even within a local church, there are many who avoid shepherding groups and or other means of holding them accountable. The only perfect and permanent solution is the coming of the King of Kings, who will unite not only all the tribes of Israel, but also all believers, whether they be Jew or Gentile, rich or poor, slave or free (see Galatians 3:28-29). The church in this age is to foreshadow this full and final unity.

Israel’s “Repentance” and God’s Mercy

Judges 10:6-16

6 The Israelites again did evil in the Lord’s sight. They worshiped the Baals and the Ashtars, as well as the gods of Syria, Sidon, Moab, the Ammonites, and the Philistines. They abandoned the Lord and did not worship him. 7 The Lord was furious with Israel and turned them over to the Philistines and Ammonites. 8 They ruthlessly oppressed the Israelites that eighteenth year – that is, all the Israelites living east of the Jordan in Amorite country in Gilead. 9 The Ammonites crossed the Jordan to fight with Judah, Benjamin, and Ephraim. Israel suffered greatly.

10 The Israelites cried out for help to the Lord: “We have sinned against you. We abandoned our God and worshiped the Baals.” 11 The Lord said to the Israelites, “Did I not deliver you from Egypt, the Amorites, the Ammonites, the Philistines, 12 the Sidonians, Amalek, and Midian when they oppressed you? You cried out for help to me, and I delivered you from their power. 13 But since you abandoned me and worshiped other gods, I will not deliver you again. 14 Go and cry for help to the gods you have chosen! Let them deliver you from trouble!” 15 But the Israelites said to the Lord, “We have sinned. You do to us as you see fit, but deliver us today!” 16 They threw away the foreign gods they owned and worshiped the Lord. Finally the Lord grew tired of seeing Israel suffer so much (Judges 10:6-16).

The first sentence of verse 6 sums it all up: Israel once again did evil in God’s sight. Unfortunately, these are familiar words to the reader.5 Usually the author sums up Israel’s sin in a verse, but in 3:12 it is accomplished by a mere sentence. Likewise, judgment usually comes from one direction and perhaps from only one adversary. Here, we find several things that set this description of Israel’s sin apart from what we have seen earlier.

First, the description of the sins of the Israelites is more extensive than what we have seen earlier in Judges. It is not just one heathen deity that is named;6 it is a whole list of deities, deities of different nations. It is, of course, possible for a person to worship many deities, such as Solomon did at the end,7 but this description seems to refer to Israel as a nation, Israel as a whole (made up of all those little Israelite city states within the nation). The gods listed are those being worshipped by the various tribes throughout Israel at this point in time. The effect is to underscore just how bad things have gotten in Israel, and this explains the severity of Israel’s judgment and God’s reluctance to come rushing to their aid, once again.

Second, we are told that the Israelites are sold or given into the hands of the Philistines and the Ammonites. Now the Philistines are to be found on the western side of Israel, while the Ammonites are on the east, east of the Jordan. Samson will be Israel’s deliverer from the Philistines (chapters 13-16), while Jephthah will be Israel’s deliverer from the Ammonites (chapters 11 and 12). The Ammonites are approaching Israel, and their intentions are far from friendly. What is Israel to do?

For 18 years, the Israelites had suffered at the hands of the Ammonites, and it finally seems to have occurred to them that their Canaanite gods were doing them no good. Likewise, they remembered that their only true Deliverer was God, the God of Israel. And so they cried out to God, confessing that they had sinned against Him, and assuring Him that they had forsaken their worship of the Baals.8 The Lord was not impressed with their “repentance” because He had seen it before, and it didn’t last. He reminded the Israelites of all the nations from which He had delivered them, only to be forgotten and forsaken when their suffering ended. And so God threatens to leave them to their gods in whom they have trusted.

The Israelites know full well that the pagan deities cannot and will not deliver them. In biblical terminology, “Salvation is of the Lord,” from the Lord alone.9 They persist in their appeal for God’s deliverance, and God finally responds, not so much because of their repentance (which was shallow and superficial), but because He could bear their suffering no longer. God’s mercy is the basis for Israel’s salvation.

Jephthah and the Ammonites

Jephthah’s Promotion

Judges 10:17—11:11

10:17 The Ammonites assembled and camped in Gilead; the Israelites gathered together and camped in Mizpah. 18 The leaders of Gilead said to one another,10 “Who is willing to lead the charge against the Ammonites? He will become the leader of all who live in Gilead!”

11:1 Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a brave warrior. His mother was a prostitute, but Gilead was his father. 2 Gilead’s wife also gave him sons. When his wife’s sons grew up, they made Jephthah leave and said to him, “You are not going to inherit any of our father’s wealth, because you are another woman’s son.” 3 So Jephthah left his half-brothers and lived in the land of Tob. Lawless men11 joined Jephthah’s gang and traveled with him.

4 It was some time after this when the Ammonites fought with Israel. 5 When the Ammonites attacked, the leaders of Gilead asked Jephthah to come back from the land of Tob. 6 They said, “Come, be our commander, so we can fight with the Ammonites.” 7 Jephthah said to the leaders of Gilead, “But you hated me and made me leave my father’s house. Why do you come to me now, when you are in trouble?” 8 The leaders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “That may be true, but now we pledge to you our loyalty. Come with us and fight with the Ammonites. Then you will become the leader of all who live in Gilead.” 9 Jephthah said to the leaders of Gilead, “All right! If you take me back to fight with the Ammonites and the Lord gives them to me, I will be your leader.” 10 The leaders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “The Lord will judge any grievance you have against us, if we do not do as you say.” 11 So Jephthah went with the leaders of Gilead. The people made him their leader and commander. Jephthah repeated the terms of the agreement before the Lord in Mizpah (Judges 10:17—11:11).

At this point, Jephthah enters the story as he is the deliverer that God raised up to rescue the Israelites from the cruel oppression of the Ammonites. He was a brave and powerful warrior, but he, like Abimelech before him, had a less than impeccable pedigree. His father was Gilead, but his mother was a prostitute. Unlike Abimelech, who did away with his brothers, Jephthah was driven off by his (more legitimate) brothers. Over time, a group of rather unsavory men gathered about Jephthah, and it seems as though they engaged in some kind of military endeavors. It seems that it was these military ventures that proved Jephthah to be a “mighty man of valor.”12 They did not want to share any of their inheritance with him. But now that the Ammonites were about to wage war against them, the Israelites were very eager to recruit Jephthah as their commander-in-chief (with the emphasis on the word “commander”).

One cannot fault Jephthah for being skeptical about the Israelites’ invitation to return and to lead the nation in battle. Why should he be interested in delivering those who had driven him off earlier? And could these folks be trusted? Would they “use” him as much and as long as they could, and then cast him aside, or would he be free to direct the Israelites without interference? The leaders of Gilead assured Jephthah that they would make him their leader and that he would be remembered as Israel’s deliverer for a long, long time.

And so Jephthah agreed to lead the Israelites in battle. Jephthah promised to be their leader if the Lord granted him victory over the Ammonites. The leaders of Gilead functionally vowed to stand with and under Jephthah. In turn, Jephthah repeated the terms of his agreement with the Israelites “before the Lord in Mizpah.” This was virtually a covenant between God and Jephthah and the nation of Israel, as can be discerned from the author’s statement that Jephthah repeated the specific commitments of this agreement before the Lord (verse 11).

Jephthah’s Diplomatic Effort

Judges 11:12-28

12 Jephthah sent messengers to the Ammonite king, saying, “Why have you come against me to attack my land?” 13 The Ammonite king said to Jephthah’s messengers, “Because Israel stole my land when they came up from Egypt – from the Arnon River in the south to the Jabbok River in the north, and as far west as the Jordan. Now return it peaceably!”

14 Jephthah sent messengers back to the Ammonite king 15 and said to him, “This is what Jephthah says, ‘Israel did not steal the land of Moab and the land of the Ammonites. 16 When they left Egypt, Israel traveled through the desert as far as the Red Sea and then came to Kadesh. 17 Israel sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, “Please allow us to pass through your land.” But the king of Edom rejected the request. Israel sent the same request to the king of Moab, but he was unwilling to cooperate. So Israel stayed at Kadesh. 18 Then Israel went through the desert and bypassed the land of Edom and the land of Moab. They traveled east of the land of Moab and camped on the other side of the Arnon River; they did not go through Moabite territory (the Arnon was Moab’s border). 19 Israel sent messengers to King Sihon, the Amorite king who ruled in Heshbon, and said to him, “Please allow us to pass through your land to our land.” 20 But Sihon did not trust Israel to pass through his territory. He assembled his whole army, camped in Jahaz, and fought with Israel. 21 The Lord God of Israel handed Sihon and his whole army over to Israel and they defeated them. Israel took all the land of the Amorites who lived in that land. 22 They took all the Amorite territory from the Arnon River on the south to the Jabbok River on the north, from the desert in the east to the Jordan in the west. 23 Since the Lord God of Israel has driven out the Amorites before his people Israel, do you think you can just take it from them? 24 You have the right to take what Chemosh your god gives you, but we will take the land of all whom the Lord our God has driven out before us. 25 Are you really better than Balak son of Zippor, king of Moab? Did he dare to quarrel with Israel? Did he dare to fight with them? 26 Israel has been living in Heshbon and its nearby towns, in Aroer and its nearby towns, and in all the cities along the Arnon for three hundred years! Why did you not reclaim them during that time? 27 I have not done you wrong, but you are doing wrong by attacking me. May the Lord, the Judge, judge this day between the Israelites and the Ammonites!’” 28 But the Ammonite king disregarded the message sent by Jephthah (Judges 11:12-28).

To his credit (in my opinion), Jephthah sought to avoid a military confrontation by first attempting a diplomatic solution. He sent emissaries to the Ammonite king (note that he is not named), inquiring why he was in the process of attacking Israel. The king’s response was direct and to the point. Roughly paraphrased he said, “I am coming to take back the land that rightfully belongs to the Ammonites because the Israelites stole it from us when they made their way from Egypt to the Promised Land. Give it back to us, and there will be no need to fight with you.”

It is interesting to observe what happens when Jephthah does battle with the Ephraimites at the end of chapter 12. Every time an Ephraimite attempted to say Shibboleth,” it came out Sibboleth,” knowing that the outcome was the difference between life and death (12:5-6). When we come to chapter 11, there is a very important distinction which the reader must make; it is noting the difference between the Ammonites and the Amorites.

The Ammonites were “distant cousins” of the Israelites, originating from the son of Lot’s union with his younger daughter (Genesis 19:38). The Moabites were descendants of Lot’s union with his older daughter (Genesis 19:36-37). The Edomites were the descendants of Edom (Esau). The Amorites were not relatives of the Israelites. Indeed, the term Amorites was almost synonymous with Canaanites:

12 When the sun went down, Abram fell sound asleep, and great terror overwhelmed him. 13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a foreign country. They will be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years. 14 But I will execute judgment on the nation that they will serve. Afterward they will come out with many possessions. 15 But as for you, you will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will return here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its limit” (Genesis 15:12-16, emphasis mine).

When the Israelites escaped from Egypt, God directed them to approach Canaan from the eastern side of the Dead Sea and the Jordan River. This required the Israelites to pass through (or close by)13 the land of the Edomites, the Moabites, and the Ammonites. God would not give the Israelites the land which He had already given to their relatives,14 but the Amorites were another matter altogether. When the Israelites approached the Amorite kings, Sihon and Og, they made the same request they had made of their brothers, the Edomites and the Moabites. Sihon and Og chose to attack the Israelites, rather than to allow them to pass through their land. God gave the Israelites the victory, so that Israel possessed their land. This was the territory running north from the Arnon River to the Jabbok River (a distance of about 50 miles), and eastward from the Jordan River for a distance of about 20 miles.15 The Ammonites’ land was to the east of Israel’s new territory (formerly belonging to the Amorites), for a distance of approximately 20 to 30 miles.16

So, when all is said and done, the king of the Ammonites was wrong. The Israelites did not take possession of Ammonite land; they fought with and defeated the Amorites, taking possession of their land. The land east of the Jordan was then divided among the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of the tribe of Manasseh.17

God gave the Amorites into the hand of the Israelites, who defeated them and possessed their land.18 But He did not allow the Israelites to possess the territory of the Ammonites:

“However, you did not approach the land of the Ammonites, the Wadi Jabbok, the cities of the hill country, or any place else forbidden by the Lord our God” (Deuteronomy 2:37).

The king of the Ammonites attempted to “re-write history” so that he would be justified in his efforts to seize Israel’s land east of the Jordan. Jephthah knew his history, and he rather neatly put the Ammonite king in his place.

But Jephthah wasn’t finished. He had several other lines of defense which he conveyed to this ambitious king. In addition to his historical argument, Jephthah added his theological argument. Israel is merely dwelling on the land that God (the only true God, the God of Israel) gave them. The Ammonites should likewise be content with what their god, Chemosh, gives them. If Israel’s God is a greater God than the no-god Chemosh, the Ammonites would be well advised to “back off” or become the adversaries of Israel’s God.

Jephthah now raises a third argument, based upon the actions of Balak, king of Moab. Balak was threatened by Israel’s presence nearby (even if they claimed merely to be passing by). Balak may have tried to deal with Israel’s threat by hiring Balaam to curse Israel (something that didn’t work and that is not mentioned here), but the one thing he didn’t do was to gather his army and seek to prevail over the Israelites in battle. If Balak did not find it advisable to attack Israel, then perhaps the king of Ammon should learn from his example.

There is a fourth and final argument, a chronological argument. It wasn’t as though Israel had just recently come into possession of the territory east of the Jordan. Her military victories and possession of the trans-Jordan territory occurred some 300 years ago, and thus for 300 years, the Israelites had possession of this land. The Ammonites (and anyone else who dared to try) had ample time and opportunities to attempt taking possession of the trans-Jordan territory of the Israelites. If there is a “statute of limitations” for certain actions, surely it would apply to Israel’s possession of this land.

Jephthah now concludes his debate with the king of the Ammonites in verse 27:

“I have not done you wrong, but you are doing wrong by attacking me. May the Lord, the Judge, judge this day between the Israelites and the Ammonites!”

This is the kind of diplomacy I like. It is not the “diplomacy” which has as its goal the avoidance of conflict at any cost. It is the straightforward, plain talk that seeks to discern the intentions and motivations of the adversary, that attempts to correct misinformation, and that makes it clear where you stand and what you intend to do. If the Ammonites wish to engage in war, so be it, but it is really nothing more than raw aggression. They are not seeking to correct some long-neglected wrong. And let them be fully aware that any attack will be dealt with on a higher level of authority. If the Ammonites attack, the Israelites will fight, but they will also rest their case with God, who is Judge over all. And let them recall that those nations which rejected Israel’s peaceful negotiations in the past suffered defeat at the hands of the Israelites and their God.19

Jephthah’s Vow and Israel’s War with the Ammonites

Judges 11:29-33

29 The Lord’s spirit empowered Jephthah. He passed through Gilead and Manasseh and went to Mizpah in Gilead. From there he approached the Ammonites. 30 Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, saying, “If you really do hand the Ammonites over to me, 31 then whoever is the first to come through the doors of my house to meet me when I return safely from fighting the Ammonites – he will belong to the Lord and I will offer him up as a burnt sacrifice.” 32 Jephthah approached the Ammonites to fight with them, and the Lord handed them over to him. 33 He defeated them from Aroer all the way to Minnith – twenty cities in all, even as far as Abel Keramim! He wiped them out! The Israelites humiliated the Ammonites (Judges 11:29-33).

The king of the Ammonites was not going to be deterred, and so he completely disregarded Jephthah’s diplomatic efforts. There was going to be war and this king, like those before him, would learn the price of waging war against the Israelites and their God. It is at this point that the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, energizing him for battle. The puzzling part of our passage is that much more space is devoted to Jephthah’s vow and its consequences than to an account of Israel’s victory over the Ammonites.

How is it that the first thing Jephthah does after the Spirit of the Lord comes upon him is to make a vow, a vow that he will later regret? The first thing we should know is that vows like that of Jephthah were not uncommon in Israel.

1 When the Canaanite king of Arad who lived in the Negev heard that Israel was approaching along the road to Atharim, he fought against Israel and took some of them prisoner. 2 So Israel made a vow to the Lord and said, “If you will indeed deliver this people into our hand, then we will utterly destroy their cities” (Numbers 21:1-2).

She made a vow saying, “O Lord of hosts, if you will look with compassion on the suffering of your female servant, remembering me and not forgetting your servant, and give a male child to your servant, then I will dedicate him to the Lord all the days of his life. His hair will never be cut” (1 Samuel 1:11).

      9 But as for me, I promise to offer a sacrifice to you with a public declaration of praise;

      I will surely do what I have promised [literally, “vowed”].

      Salvation belongs to the Lord!” (Jonah 2:9)

It was rather common in Israel for an individual or a group to make a vow, promising that if God gave deliverance (in some manner) that the individual would go to offer a sacrifice and to worship, and there proclaim the work which God had done.20 The psalms supply numerous examples of praise offered to God publicly because of His deliverance. It is important for us to see that it was not wrong for Jephthah to make a vow to God, promising to offer a sacrifice if God would answer his request. Therefore, the only thing wrong with Jephthah’s vow that I can see is that it was carelessly worded.21 As we shall see in just a few verses (as reflected in the title of this message), “words matter.”

Jephthah’s Daughter

Judges 11:34-40

34 When Jephthah came home to Mizpah, there was his daughter hurrying out to meet him, dancing to the rhythm of tambourines. She was his only child; except for her he had no son or daughter. 35 When he saw her, he ripped his clothes and said, “Oh no! My daughter! You have completely ruined me! You have brought me disaster! I made an oath to the Lord, and I cannot break it.” 36 She said to him, “My father, since you made an oath to the Lord, do to me as you promised. After all, the Lord vindicated you before your enemies, the Ammonites.” 37 She then said to her father, “Please grant me this one wish. For two months allow me to walk through the hills with my friends and mourn my virginity.” 38 He said, “You may go.” He permitted her to leave for two months. She went with her friends and mourned her virginity as she walked through the hills. 39 After two months she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. She died a virgin. Her tragic death gave rise to a custom in Israel. 40 Every year Israelite women commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite for four days (Judges 11:34-40).

This is where things really get difficult. The Israelites are victorious, and Jephthah returns to his home. The first person to come from his house to greet him is his daughter, his beloved and only child. If anything is clear, it is that he did not intend for her to be his sacrifice. Jephthah tore his clothes as an expression of his distress. Many have wondered just who he thought would come out of the house. Given the fact that houses often were akin to barns, it is not surprising that he would expect an animal to come from within the house. In my travels, I have sat in the “living room” of humble people, in the company of chickens and goats, which roamed the house freely. Jephthah’s house may likewise have housed some animals. But was he wise to assume that it would be an animal that would first come out to meet him? Indeed, how many animals actually “greet” their master at the door, animals that could be legitimately sacrificed? Jephthah’s vow is indeed troubling, and now it would seem that he was obligated to keep his vow.

Was there any acceptable way out of his vow? Jephthah did not think so, and neither did his daughter. Some students of Scripture think that God would not have expected him to fulfill such a foolish vow, but it is clear that God did not intervene to prevent this “sacrifice” as He had done with Abraham and Isaac.22 There are also those who would seek to salvage Jephthah’s reputation in this terrible account by claiming that the “sacrifice” was not that of his daughter’s life, but of her freedom to marry and to bear children.

I must admit to you that I very much dislike what I read in our text about the “sacrifice” of Jephthah’s daughter. I would love to find some “way out” that would let me interpret this account in a way that did not include the death of Jephthah’s daughter. But having read many (most, I suspect) of the explanations of this passage which lead to a different conclusion, I have not been convinced by any of them, even though I am predisposed to believe them. It seems to me that Jephthah did make such a foolish vow and that he eventually kept his vow by putting his daughter to death.

In discussing this text with some friends who have lived in the Middle East, I found that they were not as shocked at what is said in our text as I was. Human life is not valued as much as it should be, and for little cause, or money, one can hire a person to end the life of another. Further, one’s honor is valued so highly that the one making a vow might fulfill it no matter how distasteful that might be. Even in the West, a daughter might be killed for the “honor” of the family. We in the West have a difficult time comprehending how things are done elsewhere in the world. Suffice it to say that we live in a very violent world.

Having read and agonized over our text, and having heard all of the possible reasons for viewing it differently,23 I still am forced to take the passage literally, and thus conclude that Jephthah literally sacrificed his daughter. I know that many will disagree with me here, and I respect their right to do so. But once I start setting texts aside and seeking an interpretation other than the plain and simple meaning of the text, I am no better than those who set aside clear texts, simply because they don’t like what they say. Remember, my friend, we are in the Book of Judges, a book where a dagger is plunged into the belly of a man, where a tent peg is driven through a man’s head, where a mill stone crushes the skull of a man, and where a man’s concubine is tossed to the perverts of the city to abuse as they see fit, only to be cut into twelve pieces after she has died. Given the context, a father’s sacrifice of his daughter is much less shocking than it would be in our world.

There is one more observation I would like to make before we move on to more pleasant matters. This daughter encouraged Jephthah to keep his vow at her expense. Do we once again have a woman as the true hero? She urged her father to be faithful to God, even if it cost her life to do so.

Jephthah, Israel, and the Ephraimites’ Ego

Judges 12:1-7

1 The Ephraimites assembled and crossed over to Zaphon. They said to Jephthah, “Why did you go and fight with the Ammonites without asking us to go with you? We will burn your house down right over you!” 2 Jephthah said to them, “My people and I were entangled in controversy with the Ammonites. I asked for your help, but you did not deliver me from their power. 3 When I saw that you were not going to help, I risked my life and advanced against the Ammonites, and the Lord handed them over to me. Why have you come up to fight with me today?” 4 Jephthah assembled all the men of Gilead and they fought with Ephraim. The men of Gilead defeated Ephraim, because the Ephraimites insulted them, saying, “You Gileadites are refugees in Ephraim, living within Ephraim’s and Manasseh’s territory.” 5 The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan River opposite Ephraim. Whenever an Ephraimite fugitive said, “Let me cross over,” the men of Gilead asked him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he said, “No,” 6 then they said to him, “Say ‘Shibboleth!’” If he said, “Sibboleth” (and could not pronounce the word correctly), they grabbed him and executed him right there at the fords of the Jordan. On that day forty-two thousand Ephraimites fell dead. 7 Jephthah led Israel for six years; then he died and was buried in his city in Gilead (Judges 12:1-7).

Sadly, this is not the first time that the ego of the Ephraimites has surfaced in the Book of Judges:

1 The Ephraimites said to him, “Why have you done such a thing to us? You did not summon us when you went to fight the Midianites!” They argued vehemently with him. 2 He said to them, “Now what have I accomplished compared to you? Even Ephraim’s leftover grapes are better quality than Abiezer’s harvest! 3 It was to you that God handed over the Midianite generals, Oreb and Zeeb! What did I accomplish to rival that?” When he said this, they calmed down (Judges 8:1-3).

Now, once again we find the Ephraimites talking big after the battle is won, suffering from wounded pride because they wanted greater glory.

I confess, aside from Jephthah’s vow, I like this guy. Unlike the ego flattery employed by Gideon, Jephthah deals with the Ephraimites as he did with the king of Ammon. He is polite, but he speaks the truth in a forthright manner. There is no “mealy mouthing” going on here. His diplomacy employs plain speech, the meaning of which cannot be missed. And it is also clear that he is unwilling to bend the truth in order to avoid conflict. He speaks the truth and is willing to back it up with military might if need be.

Notice two things about the Ephraimites’ words. First, they were untrue. They accused Jephthah of failing to give them the opportunity to join in the battle against the Ammonites (now that the battle had already been won). Jephthah sets the record straight. He did summon the Ephraimites for the battle. The problem wasn’t his failure to call them to battle; it was the Ephraimites’ failure to answer the call and to assist in the battle. These folks talk big, but they do little. They want to be there when the battle is won and the medals are being passed out, but they don’t want to engage in the battle. When Jephthah realized that they weren’t coming, he went to battle without them, facing the dangers that presented. And there was something else these Ephraimites needed to know. The battle was the Lord’s. Had the Ephraimites engaged in this battle, the glory for victory would not have been theirs to claim. It was God who won the battle, and it was God alone who should receive the glory.

The second thing we should note about the words of the Ephraimites is the violence that is threatened. Those who were not courageous enough to engage the Ammonites in battle were now “mighty in word” when it came to their threats against their Israelite brethren. They actually threatened to burn down Jephthah’s house, no doubt with him and his family (a guess that just leaves his wife) inside. The Ephraimites seem prone to anger.24

Jephthah’s words were not well received by the Ephraimites. Like the Ammonites, the Ephraimites had come armed for battle. And so it was necessary for Jephthah to engage in battle with his fellow-Israelites. There was a deeper rift between the Ephraimites and Jephthah and the Gileadites. We know that Jephthah was a Gileadite.25 The land of Gilead was east of the Jordan and was possessed by Ruben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh. The Ephraimites spoke disparagingly of Jephthah’s people, who were of the tribe of Manasseh. The Ephraimites spoke of Jephthah’s people as renegades, people who fall short of the high standard set by the “blue bloods” of Ephraim and Manasseh (verse 4).

That did it; it was war between the Gileadites and the Ephraimites, and the Gileadites won. What irony we see here. You will remember that it was the Ephraimites who captured the fords of the Jordan in chapter 7.26 This enabled them to capture two of the Midianite kings. Now it is the Gileadites under Jephthah who capture the fords of the Jordan, blocking the Ephraimites from crossing the Jordan and fleeing for their lives.

There was a problem, however. Many people crossed the Jordan River. How would the Gileadites be able to distinguish their Ephraimite enemies from the rest of those seeking to cross the Jordan? They devised a very simple, but effective test. The Ephraimites could not pronounce the “sh” sound. The best they could do was to produce a simple “s” sound. This is true today. My Indian brothers have difficulty producing the “v” sound; it comes out more like a “w” sound. Other races have their own unique pronunciation problems. There are sounds in Spanish that I cannot even begin to approximate.

So, when a person came to one of the fords of the Jordan River, they were asked if they were an Ephraimite. Naturally, an Ephraimite would deny their origins because they knew that they would be killed if they admitted to being one of the enemy. And so those who denied being Ephraimites were given a simple test, “Say ‘Shibboleth.’” A non-Ephraimite could easily do so, but no matter how hard an Ephraimite might try, the best they could do was to say “Sibboleth” (without the “sh” sound). And when they did so, they were executed. In all, 42,000 Ephraimites died in this conflict.

Jephthah’s period of service as a judge in Israel was short – a mere six years. When he died, he was buried in one of the towns of Gilead.


Our text contains many lessons, directly and by way of inference. Let me conclude by suggesting a few areas of application.

First, our text teaches us the importance of history. It is interesting and significant to me that in both instances in our text, when Israel went to war it was due, in part, to a distortion of the facts of history. The king of the Ammonites sought to wage war with Jephthah and Israel because he believed (or at least claimed to believe) that centuries earlier the Israelites had forcibly taken possession of Ammonite territory. Jephthah’s diplomatic efforts were based largely on a corrected view of history. Israel had not taken Ammonite territory; Balak chose not to fight with Israel, and 300 years had passed without a challenge to Israel’s possession of this land. History also warned the king of the Ammonites regarding his rejection of Israel’s reasonable diplomacy. He would be well advised not to reject Jephthah’s words and not to engage the people of God in battle. History should have taught him that this was folly.

So, too, the Ephraimites should have learned to recall history correctly and not attempt to revise it to suit their desires and ambitions. They should have learned a lesson from their confrontation with Gideon years before. Likewise, they should have rightly recalled how things actually happened in the present conflict. Jephthah did summon them and ask for their help, but they did not join in the battle. Now, they wanted to share in the glory that belonged only to God. An accurate understanding of history would have saved the Ephraimites from losing face, and 42,000 men.

We are now living in times when many feel a great freedom to adapt and modify history to suit their own ideologies and practices. Some have been so brazen as to attempt to deny the historicity of the holocaust. Others have twisted the truth regarding the terrorist attack on 9/11. We may not bend and distort history to suit our own ends. It is a correct view of history that sets us straight. No wonder the Bible is filled with history. Let us embrace God’s Word as the basis for our understanding of history, as well as being the source of the only message by which men may experience the forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life.

Second, our text teaches us that words really do matter. The title of this message is “Words Matter.” The words of Scripture which record the history of God’s dealings with Israel matter. The words of Jephthah’s vow mattered. Had he chosen his words more carefully, it would not have cost him his daughter. Words mattered to those Ephraimites who attempted to cross the Jordan River, and who tried to say the word “Shibboleth.”

The Scriptures have much to say about the importance of our words:

      Death and life are in the power of the tongue,

      and those who love its use will eat its fruit (Proverbs 18:21).

“Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no.’ More than this is from the evil one” (Matthew 5:37).

“I tell you that on the day of judgment, people will give an account for every worthless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36).

Our words, like those of Jephthah, can have unintended consequences. I am convinced that Jephthah never intended that his words would cost him his daughter, but that is what happened. I know that my words have many unintended consequences. This past week the House of Representatives narrowly passed a nearly 2,000-page health care reform bill. It is frightening to me to think of all the intentional consequences of such a bill, but can you imagine the immensity of unintentional consequences this monstrous bill will have? No wonder Proverbs contains a warning concerning many words:

      When words abound, transgression is inevitable,

      but the one who restrains his words is wise (Proverbs 10:19).

Now think about the Bible, with all of its pages and many words. If it were merely a fallible book written by men and containing human error, how would we ever be able to stake our present and eternal well being on such a book? Words do matter, and no words matter more than the words of Scripture:

But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4).

“You study the scriptures thoroughly because you think in them you possess eternal life, and it is these same scriptures that testify about me” (John 5:39).

God’s Word is inspired, inerrant, relevant, and reliable. His words are without error, so that we can trust them (and the God they present) without hesitation:

“Look, today I am about to die. You know with all your heart and being that not even one of all the faithful promises the Lord your God made to you is left unfulfilled; every one was realized – not one promise is unfulfilled! (Joshua 23:14; see also 1 Kings 8:56).

      The Lord’s words are absolutely reliable.

      They are as untainted as silver purified in a furnace on the ground,

      where it is thoroughly refined (Psalm 12:6).

      5 Every word of God is purified;

      he is like a shield for those who take refuge in him (Proverbs 30:5).

1 After God spoke long ago in various portions and in various ways to our ancestors through the prophets, 2 in these last days he has spoken to us in a son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he created the world. 3 The Son is the radiance of his glory and the representation of his essence, and he sustains all things by his powerful word, and so when he had accomplished cleansing for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (Hebrews 1:1-3).

1 Therefore we must pay closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. 2 For if the message spoken through angels proved to be so firm that every violation or disobedience received its just penalty, 3 how will we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was first communicated through the Lord and was confirmed to us by those who heard him, 4 while God confirmed their witness with signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will (Hebrews 2:1-4).

Third, a society which is in decay has a declining respect for women. This observation came to me from my friend, Don Curtis. As we were discussing this text, Don informed me that his son, Aaron, had recently taught the Book of Judges. Don said that Aaron had observed a declining respect for women in Judges. As I think about it, this makes a lot of sense. We begin with a prize winner like Deborah, a woman all could respect. But then we come to Jephthah’s daughter, who is sacrificed because of her father’s foolish vow. But if this is not bad enough, the book will end with a Levite casting his concubine out of doors to satisfy the perverted desires of the townsmen. And then he will heartlessly summon the woman to get up from the threshold where she lies dead, only to cut her into pieces and send them throughout Israel.

In our society, some women feel that they are just now beginning to come into their own. They are enjoying things that women a few years ago would not have imagined obtaining. And yet I cannot avoid the strong sense that as much as it appears that women are gaining greater status in our country, just the opposite is taking place. I fear that women are actually valued less, that they are receiving a declining respect in our world, particularly by men. If so, this is yet another evidence of the decline of our nation.

Fourth, the degree to which we are shocked by how far Jephthah would go to honor his vow is a measure of how lightly we take vows today. Think about that for a moment. We wonder why Jephthah did not find some way to break his vow, and yet even his daughter encouraged him to keep his vow. Our vows today mean very little, because we are nothing like Jephthah in our commitment to keep our vows. The divorce rate in our country (even among Christians) is a reflection of our lack of commitment to keep our promises.

13 You also do this: You cover the altar of the Lord with tears as you weep and groan, because he no longer pays any attention to the offering nor accepts it favorably from you. 14 Yet you ask, “Why?” The Lord is testifying against you on behalf of the wife you married when you were young, to whom you have become unfaithful even though she is your companion and wife by law. 15 No one who has even a small portion of the Spirit in him does this. What did our ancestor do when seeking a child from God? Be attentive, then, to your own spirit, for one should not be disloyal to the wife he took in his youth. 16 “I hate divorce,” says the Lord God of Israel, “and the one who is guilty of violence,” says the Lord who rules over all. “Pay attention to your conscience, and do not be unfaithful” (Malachi 2:13-16).

Fifth, our text cautions us regarding making heroes of men. There is only one True Deliverer, only One who is worthy of our worship and our praise. If we are looking for heroes in the Book of Judges, we are destined for disappointment. The more closely we look at Israel’s judges, the more obvious their flaws become. Put candidly, almost all of Israel’s judges (who are described in any detail) are jerks. They have weaknesses and besetting sins. We should learn from these leaders that all leaders – every one of them – have flaws. If we look long and hard enough, we will see them. Some are so obvious we don’t even have to look hard to see them.

We dare not idolize men, for we will surely be disappointed. But we can be encouraged as we see the kind of instruments God uses to achieve His purposes. He uses homemade swords wielded by left-handed men, tent pegs, ox goads, and mill stones. He uses plain and ordinary people like Jael and the woman with the mill stone. When God uses the simple and even foolish things to achieve His purposes, then it is only He who should receive the glory. Let us be encouraged by the kinds of people God uses to achieve His purposes.

God saves those who are unworthy of salvation, not because of men’s works but solely because of God’s mercy and grace. Are you not amazed to find men like Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah, and women like Rahab in the “hall of faith” (Hebrews 11)? It is not the greatness of our deeds, but the gracious work of God in the person of Jesus Christ, that saves unworthy sinners. Jesus bore the penalty for our sins on the cross of Calvary. He offers the forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life to all who place their trust in Christ Jesus and His work on their behalf. He is the Hero! He is the only Deliverer who can deliver condemned sinners from the penalty of death. Have you acknowledged your sin and placed your trust in Him alone for your salvation? If not, I plead with you to do so, for your eternal well being.

1 Copyright © 2009 by Robert L. Deffinbaugh. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 12 in the series, The Dark Days of Israel’s Judges, prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on November 1, 2009. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit.

2 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at:

3 The consensus of those commentaries that I have consulted is that these “outside” marriages were outside the clan or tribe, but not outside of Israel. Personally, I’m not so certain that the language limits “outsiders” to merely those outside the clan or tribe. The author felt it worth mentioning.

4 I see this as early as Genesis 14 in the alliances that exist among the Canaanite “kings.” These kings do not rule over large areas or great populations, but over city states.

5 See Judges 2:11; 3:12; 4:1; 10:6; 13:1.

6 As when the Israelites who were ruled by Abimelech served Baal-Berith or El-Berith.

7 See 1 Kings 11:1-6.

8 Baals is plural here because the surrounding nations (and the Canaanites within) served different variations of Baal. For example, we have just seen Baal-Berith, Baal of the Covenant in chapter 9.

9 See Psalm 3:8; Jonah 2:9.

10 Compare this with the Israelites’ question in 1:1. There they inquired of the Lord as to who should lead the attack. Here, they speak to one another about it. Israel’s repentance is not what it should be for they are not asking for God’s guidance, but are seeking to handle this matter among themselves.

11 This expression is also used of those who were the hirelings of Abimelech in Judges 9:4.

12 Only Gideon (6:12) and Jephthah (11:1) are designated as such in Judges.

13 As Jephthah indicates, neither the Edomites nor the Moabites gave the Israelites permission to pass through their land – even though Israel offered to pay for anything they consumed in their country. Rather than engaging their relatives in battle, the Israelites took a less direct route around them to avoid conflict.

14 See Deuteronomy 2:1-23.

15 Dale Ralph Davis has a very helpful footnote on the geography of the lands involved here. See Dale Ralph Davis, Such a Great Salvation: Expositions of the Book of Judges (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1990), p. 143, fn. 6.

16 The map section at the back of many Bibles will show the relationship of Ammon to the land of the Amorites, Moabites, and Edomites.

17 See Deuteronomy 3:12-17.

18 See Deuteronomy 2:24-36.

19 K. Lawson Younger has an interesting observation here. He points out that Jephthah’s whole defense serves as a warning to this Ammonite king. As Jephthah has sent messengers to seek a peaceful solution to this matter, so Moses sent messengers to the Amorite kings. And when these kings refused to be reasonable and chose rather to attack, God gave Israel the victory. See K. Lawson Younger Jr., Judges and Ruth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2002), p. 256.

20 Making vows was common enough that Absalom’s request to fulfill his vow in 2 Samuel 15:7-8 was not doubted.

21 There are those who think that Jephthah may have purposely worded his vow broadly enough to include human sacrifice. I’m not convinced of this.

22 See Genesis 22:10-14.

23 I have considered the fact that Jephthah’s daughter mourned her virginity and the fact that she could never marry and bear children, but such would be the case if her ability to bear children was terminated when she was sacrificed.

24 See 2 Chronicles 25:10.

25 See Judges 11:1.

26 Verses 24-25.

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