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Lecture 4 (Week 5): Jephthah, the Self-Promoter

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Jephthah, Israel’s fifth major judge, was an early Jerry Jones, a self-promoter. He set out to achieve whatever benefitted himself. He was great with words, and the Bible records more of his conversations than any other judge in the book. Because of God’s grace, Jephthah did deliver Israel from the oppressive Ammonites; however, just like Jerry Jones, he appears to have been motivated more by his own ambitions than benefiting the people of Israel.

The cycle of this time period reoccurs as the story begins. In review, it has four parts: first, apostasy, God’s people turning from the true God to idols; second, oppression, God subjugating them to an enemy; third, cries of pain as the people turn to God for help; and finally, deliverance, when God in grace and compassion raises up a judge to save them. Six judges in the book can be called major judges or cyclical judges because their stories are paired with details of the cycle. Jephthah is the fifth of those judges.

Remember that the cycles actually spiral downward. Apostasy grows worse and the judges themselves become less and less heroic and noble.

Look at Judges 10:6-16:

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. The Lord was furious with Israel and turned them over to the Philistines and Ammonites. They ruthlessly oppressed the Israelites that eighteenth year– that is, all the Israelites living east of the Jordan in Amorite country in Gilead. The Ammonites crossed the Jordan to fight with Judah, Benjamin, and Ephraim. Israel suffered greatly.

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

At this point apostasy was so widespread that God mentioned seven different objects of Israel’s worship. As a result God brought oppression from the Philistines and the Ammonites. Jephthah’s story occurs primarily east of the Jordan River, where the Ammonites ruled. In our next lesson we’ll see Samson deal with the Philistines in the west. Apparently, Jephthah and Samson were contemporaries.

Note that in this cycle God’s response is different. Although Israel cried out for help, God refused, saying their continued return to idols after seven deliverances indicated that they had not repented. He suggested that they cry to their idols for help. At that point, the people actually threw away their idols, but based on God’s reaction it’s unclear if this was genuine repentance. He didn’t even bother answering them. The text says that his reason for delivering them was God’s compassion for their suffering rather than a response to any repentance. Perhaps they were simply trying to manipulate God without truly repentant hearts, paralleling the manipulation Jephthah attempts. Often the sins of the judges reflected the larger community’s.

Notice also that the verses don’t say that God raised up the deliverer. Clearly, he used Jephthah and put his Spirit upon him, but the basis of Jephthah’s rise to leadership appears to be human wisdom. The elders of Gilead chose him without regard to God’s will in the matter, but God graciously used him anyway.

I’m sure you remember Jephthah’s broken background; because of his illegitimacy, he was dismissed as a nobody and exiled. No wonder he desired to be somebody, proving everyone wrong! He sought his significance as a person by success and power; he wanted a name for himself.

So how did this nobody, this illegitimate exile from Gilead become the deliverer from the Ammonites? During his exile, Jephthah proved himself to be a leader and a warrior. Although his experience was questionable, he showed qualities which the elders of Gilead needed. When they were confronted with the Ammonite army, they looked for a citizen of Gilead to lead them into battle, offering to make someone him their ruler. When no one volunteered, they traveled to Tob to find Jephthah and his band of merry men.

Judges 11:6 describes their offer to him: “Come, be our commander, so we can fight with the Ammonites.” Now this was a different offer than the one they gave the men of Gilead in 10:18 when they used the word translated leader or head.

They offered the command of the army to Jephthah, while they offered the rulership of Gilead to the citizens—two different words. But Jephthah was smart and knew how to bargain. He wasn’t motivated to save them but instead wanted to rule and be reinstated as a citizen of the city. When he refused their offer of commander, they upped the offer, and he agreed to become ruler if they won the victory.

Then, he bargained with the king of the Ammonites, arguing well with his message of peace by revealing his knowledge of the history of Israel and an understanding of God’s power. But even in the bargaining process, Jephthah elevated and promoted himself, placing himself on the same level as the king.

Look at Judges 11:12, “Jephthah sent messengers to the Ammonite king, saying, “Why have you come against me to attack my land?”

He suggested that his power and authority were equal to the king’s. Despite Jephthah’s skill at the negotiating table, the king moved toward war. At that point the bargainer Jephthah made a terrible mistake. Believing that he could manipulate God into doing what he wanted him to do, he made a foolish vow:

Look at vv. 30-31 in Judges 11:

Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, saying, “If you really do hand the Ammonites over to me, 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.”

Although God’s Spirit came upon Jephthah and empowered him for battle, God’s Spirit didn’t stop Jephthah from making a foolish vow. And you know, that's how God works with us. He gives us his Spirit, but he doesn’t stop us from committing major sins and making foolish decisions. We’re to be guided by his Word by studying and applying it to our lives.

Psalm 119:105 says, “Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”

Jephthah failed to consult God’s Word or godly people, and the foolishness of that became clear when he returned home from the victory and his only child, a daughter emerged first from the house.

Look at Judges 11:35-36:

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.” 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.”

Jephthah and his daughter were apparently unaware of God’s prohibition against human sacrifice; instead, they were influenced by the culture of the Canaanites and their perspective of gods who needed to be manipulated and enjoyed watching people hurt. Our God delivered the men of Gilead out of his love, compassion, and grace, not to get sacrifices, and especially not human ones.

Both Pr. 14:12 and 16:25 say this: “There is a way that seems right to a person but its end is the way that leads to death.”

Jepththah did what was right in his own eyes, as the theme of Judges says, because he didn’t know the Scripture. Even sadder is the fact that God set out principles for redeeming people who are dedicated to him in Leviticus 27:1-8. It appears that Jephthah could have paid a ransom for his daughter if he had not been biblically illiterate.

Another way out would have been for Jephthah to refuse to kill his daughter and let God’s curse fall on him, but Jephthah’s selfishly clung to his own life. His actions contrasted with those of Jesus who let the curse for our sins fall on him so that we could have life. Jephthah killed his innocent daughter so that he wouldn’t risk God’s curse. He was out to win at all costs and his daughter was in the way. In fact, when you read this conversation with his daughter carefully, you see him blame her for the problem. Look back at his words to her in v. 35:

“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.”

He said she had ruined him. She had brought him disaster. That’s pretty typical of an abuser, to blame the child or wife for the abuse. And this was the ultimate abuse—to kill his daughter for his own success. Jephthah was more concerned about his own loss than about her loss. His self-promotion and self-protection were in contrast to his daughter’s self-sacrifice. When she heard her father’s vow, she declared that he must fulfill it. She was willing to die so that he would be blameless before God.

So the age-old question is this—did Jephthah’s daughter die at the hand of her own father because he bargained with God for his own benefit? I agree with many scholars and the rabbis through the centuries who felt that he did. The word for burnt offering, which he used in his vow, always means a sacrifice that is totally burned up as an offering to God. The argument often used that the people of Israel would have known better and stopped him assumes that the rest of the Israelites knew the scriptures, which is a leap when you read the book of Judges. Sadly, it seems that she lost her life because of her father’s ambitions.

My son, who listens to a lot of strange music, recently came across an album written by a young Jewish woman. Both her group and her album are called “Girls in Trouble,” a fitting title for songs about Old Testament women. Here are the lyrics to “Mountain/When my Father Came Back”:

When my father came back from the war
I knew he would want to see me first
So I ran out to greet him
But he fell to his knees in the dirt
He told me daughter
I have promised G-d to offer
The first creature that I saw
Father the vow you have made
Is one you cannot escape
But first let me go with my sisters
Down to the shores of the lake
I lived two months with them
My sisters in the forest
And then I returned back home
The night he took me to the mountain
Neither of us spoke
We reached the peak together
Just as sunrise broke
Could have run from him
I almost thought he wished it
But I could not run from G-d
It was the last day of my life
The sun had never shone so bright
My father held the knife
I kept my eyes open wide
Then angels came to me
With faces of my sisters
And they filled my eyes with tears

It’s a sad story of a young woman who was victim to her own father’s self-promotion. He was so concerned with winning that he tried to manipulate God into giving him victory over the Ammonites.

In Jephthah’s self-promotion and search for significance, he bargained, blamed, and also bullied others. After his victory, the tribe of Ephraim threatened to burn him alive inside his house because he didn’t enlist them for the battle. (This was the same tribe that accused Gideon of the same thing, but Gideon convinced them to get over it.) After Jephthah tried bargaining with them unsuccessfully, he attacked them and won. But instead of recognizing them as brothers and allowing them to retreat in defeat, he massacred 42,000 of his own countrymen. Jephthah—bargainer, blamer, bully—all for self-promotion.

What do we learn from this story? Is there anything positive? Once again in Judges, the greatest positive is the faithfulness of God to his people despite their unfaithfulness. The positive is that God uses very flawed and sinful people. The positive is that God gives love and grace when we deserve his wrath. The positive is that he has given us his Word to guide us if we will use it. God is the hero of this story and of our stories. We are sinners with our own issues, just like Jepththah, but God graciously forgives us, saves us and even uses us.

This is a great time to recognize our tendencies to be a Jephthah or a Jerry Jones. Maybe we promote ourselves rather than dying to self and living for Jesus. Perhaps we seek our significance in our success and our name instead of in God’s love and acceptance. We may even do God’s work for the wrong reasons—concern about pleasing people, which is a form of self-promotion. We do what’s right in our own eyes instead of seeking God’s will in his Word. We have to be careful not to be wrong about God’s character, mistakenly believing that we must bargain with him to get his help because he’s reluctant and uncaring. Our beliefs fuel our actions, and our lives end up legalistic and manipulative.

We aren’t significant because we have great children, because we look good, or because we achieve a level of public recognition or meet our financial or business goals. We’re significant because God loves us and has made us his children. Unless we base our significance on the love of God, we’ll be forced to promote ourselves and try to win, no matter the cost.

Vince Lombardi, the coach of the championship Green Bay Packers said, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” May we never be guilty of seeking to win rather than seeking the glory of our God!

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