For better or for worse – Jephthah

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Jephthah was the victim of a misguided family and his own equally misguided decision-making process.

For better or for worse – JephthahGilead was Jephthah’s father, but not by his wife. Rather, Jephthah’s mother was a prostitute (Judges 11:1-2a). He lived between approximately 1200-1125 BC.  As Jephthah’s half-brothers “grew up, they drove Jephthah out” (Judges 11:2b) because they considered him an illegitimate child. Moving to the land of Tob, Jephthah gathered around him a band of raiding renegades who helped him gain the reputation of being a great warrior (Jdg 11:1, 3).

Sometime later, the Ammonites made war against Israel. So, Gilead’s elders sent for Jephthah, “come and be our leader, that we may fight against the Ammonites” (Jdg 11:6). To which Jephthah replied, “did you not hate me and drive me out of my father’s house? Why have you come to me now when you are in distress?” (Jdg 11:7). Well said Jephthah! To which they had no sensible answer. Following some negotiation, “Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and leader over them.” Notice also, that “Jephthah spoke all his words before the LORD at Mizpah” (Jdg 11:11). Jephthah had not totally excluded the Lord from his thinking or in his commitment in leading God’s people.

Despite a detailed negotiation attempt with the king of Ammon, “the king of the Ammonites did not listen to the words of Jephthah” (Jdg 11:28). Although he was an accomplished warrior, Jephthah did his best to preserve Israel through negotiation. But, war with Ammon became inevitable. Jephthah, forced to lead Israel into war, and desperately wanting victory, made an outlandish vow to the Lord. Judges 11:30-31 records that vow, “if you will give the Ammonites into my hand, 31 then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the LORD’S, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” Good grief man, what have you done? Was he hoping a pet animal would come out to greet him?

Well, Jephthah warred with Ammon, “and the LORD gave them into his hand. 33 And he struck them… twenty cities, …with a great blow. So the Ammonites were subdued” (Jdg 11:32-33). “Then Jephthah came to his home…. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child” (Jdg 11:34). What would he do? He had vowed to the Lord, and the Lord had answered favourably with a great victory over Ammon.

Jephthah grieved deeply as he explained his vow to his daughter. However, his daughter responded with an amazing attitude towards the Lord and her father. She said to Jephthah, “do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth…” (Jdg 11:36). As requested by his daughter, Jephthah allowed her 2 months with friends to grieve. Then, “she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow” (Jdg 11:39).

“Jephthah judged [lead] Israel six years,” then he died (Jdg 12:7). During that time, he also attempted to negotiate peace with his offended cousins, the Ephraimites. Again, words failed, and he led another victorious battle, killing 42,000 Ephraimites.

Woven into Jephthah’s complex life was faith in God, earning him a place in Hebrews chapter 11. He along with others “through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises… were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war…” (Heb 11:32-34). Despite inconsistencies, Jephthah was a man of his word, who honoured his vows no matter the cost. He preferred negotiation to war but was not afraid of war when words failed. For these qualities, God used Jephthah to fulfill His divine will for the nation of Israel.

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